Hancock County

Only 24 people have flown to the moon. One grew up in Biloxi.

Only 24 people have flown to the moon. One of them grew up in Biloxi.

This weekend is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left the first human footprints on the moon. The world watched together on television, and many people stepped outside that night to look up at the moon in a new light.

Another 50th anniversary — for Apollo 12 — comes in October.

April 11, 2020, will mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 13 with Biloxi’s own Fred Haise Jr., then 36, on board. An explosion in an oxygen tank 200,000 miles from Earth prevented him from becoming the sixth man to walk on the moon.

He and fellow astronauts John Swigert Jr. and commander James Lovell Jr. came within 137 nautical miles of the moon as they circled around the far side to slingshot back to Earth. The world again watched, fearing the astronauts wouldn’t make it home.

Haise brought the wonder of space back to South Mississippi and keeps the Apollo legacy alive at Infinity Science Center in Hancock County. There, the 50th anniversary of the moonwalk will be celebrated from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday with special activities and a ceremony dedicating the commemorative Apollo 11 stamp that can be purchased that day at Infinity.

Haise and other Apollo astronauts are traveling the country for the 50th anniversary of the moon walk. Haise, who was a back-up for the Apollo 11 flight, spoke this month at commemorative events in New York City and Kerrville, Texas.

Between July 12 and 21, he will attend three of the seven NASA events, recalling the missions and the NASA team that put America on the moon on July 20, 1969.

“It was a world-stopping event,” said John Wilson, executive director of Infinity Science Center. “A triumph of mankind.”

Infinity connection

Those who stayed up to see history always will remember the fuzzy first pictures from the moon and Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Since 1969, the population of the United States has grown by 124.5 million people. Infinity Science Center preserves Apollo for those who witnessed the space launches, moon walks and splashdowns and for those who can only imagine what that era was like.

It came with a new language, new products and hardware. Many of these innovations are on display at Infinity:

Saturn V rocket — It’s still the most powerful rocket ever flown, and the shear size detours traffic when drivers see it along I-10 in Hancock County. The rocket on display was built to power Haise toward the moon on Apollo 19, but Apollo 18 and 19 were canceled for budgetary reasons. The rocket sat outside Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans for decades until it was moved to Stennis Space Center through a canal system that connects the two NASA facilities. The huge rocket then was trucked to Infinity in June 2016.

Other Apollo rockets — F1 engines from the first stage of the Saturn rocket and a 3rd stage engine also are on display.

Apollo 4 capsule — Scorch marks from the capsule coming through the earth’s atmosphere are visible on this rocket that was the first to launch into space atop the full Saturn V. “It proved the concept,” Wilson said, and also successfully tested the heat shield.

Apollo Lunar Lander — Displayed outside Infinity near the Saturn V is a test version of the one that landed on the moon. Haise and the other astronauts practiced climbing in and out of it wearing their life packs.

Haise’s pressurized flight suit that he wore at take-off and landing on Apollo 13.

“We also have one of Neil Armstrong’s training suits,” Wilson said, “all tattered and torn,” from his Apollo 11 training.

Moon rock collected on one of the missions and given to Stennis Space Center.

Test stands — Every rocket that ever launched Americans in space was tested at Stennis Space Center. Admission to Infinity comes with a bus tour of these mighty webs of steel just a few miles away, which now are testing rockets that will take America back to the moon.

“We probably have more things about Apollo than we do about the space shuttle,” Wilson said. “It was such a memorable time.”

Space souvenirs

Haise trained right along with the Apollo 11 astronauts as a back-up, but his turn to fly to the moon came 9 months later on Apollo 13.

It was up to each astronaut to decide what to carry into space in his PPK, or Personal Preference Kit, Haise said. They were limited by size and a weight of one-half pound.

Before he became an astronaut, Haise delivered newspapers in East Biloxi for the Daily Herald, the predecessor of the Sun Herald. He later was a cub reporter for the Herald and envisioned a career as a journalist before he joined the military during the Korean War and become a pilot.

His Daily Herald editor Cosman Eisendrath sent a letter in 1969 addressed to Haise at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Eisendrath added his request to the many others he said Haise was receiving to take small items to the moon.

“The Daily Herald has one we think is quite unique,” the editor wrote, and he sent a reduced size front page of the Herald the day the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon.

“As yet, there is no record on the moon of how man first arrived there,” the letter said. He suggested Haise take the reproduction to the moon and leave it there as that record, or take it to the moon and bring it back as the first lunar newspaper.

“It would be especially meaningful to those of us who watched you grow up and bring honor to the city of Biloxi,” he said. “And your many friends here at the newspaper would be delighted.”

Haise did take the mini-newspaper to the moon and he did return it, mounted on a plaque and since then displayed at the Sun Herald.

The power

Haise, now 85, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom after Apollo 13.

He didn’t get to achieve his dream of landing on the moon, but he went on to become the first pilot to fly the Space Shuttle. Enterprise was released from atop a Boeing 747 jet and Haise glided it safely to earth in 1977.

He showed kids they can grow up in a small place like Biloxi and soar into space. He helped Infinity Science Center get financed and built and continues to keep money flowing in as he donates his fees for personal appearances directly to Infinity.

“It has come together as a great place for people to visit ... have some fun ... and hopefully learn something.” Haise said.

On June 15, he joined volunteers who painted the undercarriage of the Saturn V rocket at Infinity with more than 100 gallons of paint donated by PPG paint through its Colorful Communities project. He then spent hours signing autographs to benefit Infinity. He gets a $50 donation for an autograph — or 3 autographs for $100 — and he signed tables full of photos, astronaut dolls, even baseballs.

“Your donation is an investment in Infinity Science Center, and will be used to help us carry out our nonprofit mission of inspiring, amazing and engaging the next generation of explorers,” he explains on the center’s website.

Adversity brings — Infinity

Just like Apollo 13, Infinity Science Center demonstrates what can be done in challenging times, Wilson said.

It was long a dream to create a science center along I-10 that would let the public know about the work going on at nearby Stennis Space Center and inspire kids to consider careers in science and technology.

“Infinity only really moved forward when 9/11 came,” Wilson said. That was in 2001, when NASA agreed that the Stenisphere visitor center at Stennis should be replaced with an off-site location for security.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Wilson said, and the thought was that there wouldn’t be funding available from the state. But he said all the materials people needed to buy bumped up sales tax revenue.

The board still hadn’t raised enough money when the national recession hit in 2008-09. Wilson said they decided to go out for bids to build Infinity anyway, and the $21 million estimated cost came in a $15.6 million thanks to lower costs due to the recession.

They still didn’t have enough money to pay for exhibits and borrowed displays from NASA to open. Then the BP oil spill hit and Infinity was awarded a $9.8 million grant from Mississippi through BP early restoration funds to pay for interactive exhibits.

“I think the story of Infinity is always finding the silver lining,” Wilson said.

“Infinity is on way more solid footing than it was when it first opened,” he said, and getting stronger. Between 75,000 to 80,000 people a year visit the center, about 25,000 to 30,000 of them with school groups who he said are inspired by Apollo and also learn about wetlands, hurricanes, weather and the seas.

Excitement fires again

It took 8 years, 420,000 workers, $24 billion and 21 manned space flights to get those first footsteps on the moon, Associated Press reported in 1994, plus the lives of three astronauts.

Now NASA is challenged to put an American astronaut back on the moon by 2024.

“This is a very ambitious and bold goal the White House has set for us,” said Richard Gilbrech, director of Stennis. His father kept him up when he was 7 to watch the first moon walk, and he said that is basically why he joined NASA.

It won’t be just NASA this time. Stennis is testing rockets for Space X, Blue Origins and soon for Relativity, which will 3D print most of the components for rockets at a new facility at Stennis.

“We were doing commercial space before it was cool,” he said.

Stennis Space Center is ahead of the curve as most of the testing of engines for the SLS, or Space Launch System, is already done, Wilson said.

Infinity also is getting the public ready for this new adventure through its Orion Immersive Theater that provides a look at what’s next for America. Generations of Americans will get to experience some of the thrills and danger that their parents and grandparents knew with Apollo on the way to the moon. It now will be aboard Orion as astronauts travel to the moon and farther than any astronaut has ever gone before.

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald

Mary Perez is the business and casino reporter for the Sun Herald and also writes about Biloxi, jobs and the new restaurants and development coming to the Coast. She is a fourth-generation journalist.