Moonshot: Once Upon a Time, a Quarter Million Miles From Earth

Voice and art by Anna Lefkowitz.

On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin solidified their places in history when NASA’s Apollo 11 mission landed them on the moon, the men becoming the first humans to ever walk the lunar surface only seven years after President John F. Kennedy declared that America would. (Hi hello Michael Collins, A-11’s third astronaut who piloted himself around the far side of the moon for 21.5 hours during the moonwalk.)

After touchdown, Armstrong, the first man to walk the moon, would utter perhaps the most famous line of the 20th century when he told an audience of half a billion 237,000 miles away on Earth:

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Days later the men returned home safely, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean 900 miles off the coast of Hawaii. After 21 days in quarantine they set off on another trip, newfound celebrity taking them to 24 countries in 39 days that placed them in the company of Pope Paul VI, the Queen of England, and Richard Nixon.

They deserved the fame. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins attempted the most daring trip in human history and lived to tell about it.

But they weren’t the only heroes of their time.

Because it was also a half a century ago when a young MIT student named Margaret Hamilton wrote the code that helped put the men on the moon, her algorithm saving Apollo 11’s lunar module from aborting the mission (or worse) in the precious moments before touchdown. And it was also five decades ago when Katherine Johnson, an African-African engineer at NASA, helped calculate the correct trajectory of Apollo 11’s flight pattern.

In time, the women have been celebrated. Both were given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama — Johnson in 2015, Hamilton in 2016. Hamilton is remembered for coining the phrase “software engineering” and later become founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies in Boston. Johnson worked at NASA until the ’80s and in ’16 was portrayed in the movie “Hidden Figures,” a 2016 film that grossed over $230 million at the box office. At age 100, she’s helping figure out how humans might one day reach Mars.

Still, the names Margaret Hamilton and Katherine Johnson aren’t household. They weren’t chosen to represent Disney characters that flew to Infinity and Beyond, nor is their likeness immortalized in statues around the country. They aren’t given hometown hero welcomes on various anniversaries of that famous July day.

Yet their contributions to space exploration and science remain large, two of thousands of women and men who made history by breaking down the barriers of gender and race. They’re heroes all the same.

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