for Montclair Local

When Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the second man to walk on the moon 50 years ago, the Montclair native stepped into history and then came home to a hero’s parade. 

Lois Donegan missed the moon landing because her family was living in India at the time and without a television. She wasn’t going to miss Montclair’s celebration of the anniversary of the infamous moment. As Rahway Boy Scout Troop 40 parked their Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Luna Module float, "To infinity and Beyond" outside the Montclair Public Library, Donegan joined dozens of Montclair residents and space fans who celebrated their hometown hero and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in a commemorative event on July 20 at the Montclair Public Library. 

Speakers included Jonathan Alter and Katie Rubacky Severance. An author, journalist, documentary filmmaker and television producer, Mr. Alter discussed Aldrin’s life and accomplishments. Severance founded and headed the Montclair Man on the Moon committee that led the efforts to rename Mount Hebron Middle School in the former astronaut’s honor.

Young students find seats on the floor in the SRO crowd in the library auditorium. ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Young students find seats on the floor in the SRO crowd in the library auditorium. ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

“We’re here to celebrate a life of courage, one of our own in Montclair’s milestone moment,” said Mayor Robert Jackson.

Ralph Villecca, the director of the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum of New Jersey, once recalled his moon landing story to Aldrin.  Villecca was 15 when he watched the televised moon landing on a sofa with his father, “a gruff, Italian guy from Newark” who said “Kid, they’re never getting off the moon.”

PHOTOS: Montclair celebrates moon landing

Montclairites' memories of the moon landing

Buzz told Villecca the astronauts had their doubts too. 

“Even with training and technological advances, there was uncertainty. You have more memory on your cell phones than there was on that lunar module,”  Villecca said, acknowledging the astronauts’ courage.

The quest for the greatest scientific achievement included the failed Apollo 1 mission that claimed the lives of three astronauts, Villecca noted. 

“Yet the American spirit to advance in science in technology is the culmination of the event we celebrate today,” Villecca said. “Colonel Aldrin embodies the American spirit.”

Montclair resident Fred Chichester worked with a subcontractor to develop the Apollo 11 lunar module rocket engine controls to help the module gently and comfortably land on the moon and take the astronauts back to the mothership. 

“The project group’s analysis had to match the experimental group’s results. We said we knew a method that would work and we can do it for you or coach you. The moral is, it’s impossible to be prepared in advance for something like this. The best preparation in general is to go through the mathematics and engineering of it,” Chichester said.

Aldrin reflected on the landing in an interview linked to his Twitter account.

Dr. Frederick Chichester of Montclair, one of the team that developed the Apollo 11 Lunar Module rocket engine control system speaks to the crowd. ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Dr. Frederick Chichester of Montclair, one of the team that developed the Apollo 11 Lunar Module rocket engine control system speaks to the crowd. ADAM ANIK/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

“As we were coming down, all the commanders had decided they did not want the computer to make the touchdown, so there was a control system where you can take over at 500 feet and begin to see how it responded and then begin to direct it where you wanted it to go. Fifty years ago, the Saturn 5 took the command module, the lunar module, three of us to the moon. We landed, explored, got back up again, rendezvoused, came back. That’s 50 years of non-progress. I think we all ought to be a little ashamed that we can’t do better than that,” he wrote.

“The son of Montclair” leaves a legacy that Alter discussed, noting that 600 million people watched the moon landing. Born in 1930 at Mountainside Hospital, Aldrin was raised in Montclair. His mom’s maiden name was Moon. His sister pronounced ‘brother’ as ‘buzzer’ leading to his nickname that stuck. Aldrin played football, attended West Point and flew 66 combat missions to Korea with the U.S. Air Force. His nickname at MIT as the first Ph.D. astronaut was Dr. Rendezvous, Alter noted. 

“When Aldrin stepped out on the moon, he joked [to Armstrong] that they better not lock themselves out [of the lunar module]. He commented on the ‘beautiful view,’ and ‘magnificent desolation.’ They could see the curvature of the moon, the horizon 1.5 miles away,” Alter said. 

To acknowledge Aldrin’s academic accomplishments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he earned his doctorate in 1963, Yin Chang, co-founder of L3 Academy—a Montclair learning center offering STEM programs for children, had team members from the academy’s robotics club provide demonstrations.

The only marker of Aldrin’s life in Montclair several years ago was a plaque, Severance said. As the founder of the Man on the Moon Committee, Severance wanted to rename the Mount Hebron school that Aldrin attended. 

“It took 400,000 people to get us to the moon. One individual can do so little, but together we can do so much. The only physical evidence Buzz Aldrin was here was a plaque. People thought we owe him more. Parents, students, police officers, the mayor and council, board of education all worked together. It took 18 months,” Severence said.

Major Jennings, Assistant Principal of Buzz Aldrin Middle School, said the school is a pipeline for the next generation into  the STEM fields. “It’s a collaborating learning environment, where students think critically, learn respect, connect to people and ideas, with exposure to inquiry-based technological learning tools, fiber optics, and rich resources like CAD, robotics, automation, and 3-D printing,” Jennings said. “Buzz ate in our school, walked down our halls and sat in the same classrooms. That’s a huge inspiration and a reminder of all his accomplishments. He could study and play sports here, attend West Point, land and walk on the moon, return to Earth and live to talk about it. There’s no boundaries on what we can do.”

The event included giveaways of the “Reaching for the Moon” book and a drawing for “To the Moon and Back: My Apollo 11 Adventure.”