At 3:17 p.m. on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, the Eagle, landed safely on the moon. The world watched it, live, mostly on black-and-white television sets. The module had only a bit of fuel left as it nestled on the moon’s surface.

“Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon close to 11 p.m. local time,” Dean John Kiss recalls.

He was nine years old, at his home in New Jersey. “The pictures were in black-and-white and were very grainy and ghost-like ‒ but it was exciting and momentous! Plus, it was pretty cool for a nine-year-old to stay up late.” He’s been interested in space ever since.

As a space biologist, Dr. Kiss has had eight plant experiments on space missions and has served as president of the American Society of Gravitational and Space Biology. He has earned NASA’s prestigious Outstanding Public Leadership Medal “for exceptional contributions in spaceflight research in the fundamental biology of plants in support of NASA’s exploration mission.”

His research will help astronauts survive in future journeys to Mars or beyond. He has talked with a number of astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon that evening with Neil Armstrong.

man walking on moon with craft in background

Astronaut and Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin on the moon’s surface

“Apollo showed that the U.S.A. can do anything, if it has the will,” says Kiss, who had emigrated from Hungary as a preschooler. “I believe that all of us can achieve great things, if we put all of our efforts into it.”

Professor emeritus of astronomy Steve Danford also has a vivid memory of the historic event.

“I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon’s surface from the day room of an army barracks where I was stationed,” he says. “The entire effort seemed so difficult, so technically challenging, that it was hard to imagine traveling that incredible distance to the moon, slowing down, landing, and safely returning.  Once it had been done ‒ especially when Apollo 8 completed the simplest part of the trip and returned ‒ everything changed and the distance seemed so much less. I don’t think students today even think of the vast distance to the moon as the extreme barrier it seemed to be in the early 1960s.”

Earth as seen from the Moon

A view of Earth rising over the moon’s horizon taken from the Apollo 11 spacecraft.

He laments that after a decade of commitment and six lunar landings by 12 humans in the two years of Apollo landings, the focus turned to other things. “I would never have guessed that a half-century later not one single human would have returned to the moon.”

“Apollo showed that the U.S.A. can do anything, if it has the will. I believe that all of us can achieve great things, if we put all of our efforts into it.” – Dr. John Kiss

UNCG Department Head of Physics and Astronomy Edward Hellen was at a family reunion, that day. “A bunch of us were in the living room watching it on TV,” he recalls.

When asked about the broader context of the moon landing, he explained, “I’m sure most of the adults had some understanding of the significance of the space race to the Cold War and global politics.” But he enjoyed what he was seeing.

“I assumed it was normal to be constantly sending astronauts on space missions. Ten manned Gemini missions from 1964 to 1966, then the Apollo program gets to the moon in the summer of 1969. It was very cool to me as a kid watching all those missions on TV.”

He has a physics professor’s perspective. “The idea of replacing the nuclear warhead on top of an ICBM with a capsule containing one or two people sounds a bit crazy still. But it worked.”

Apollo 11 spacecraft lifting off

At 9:32 a.m. EDT, July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launched from Florida on a mission to the moon.

See Dean John Kiss’ recent TedX Greensboro talk, in which he shares his NASA experiences.

See UNCG Research Magazine feature on Kiss’ space-related research.

See article about a “hidden figure” alumna and UNCG’s very early connection to space travel.

Story by Mike Harris, University Communications
Photography of Apollo 11 mission courtesy NASA