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This NASA engineer to talk about moon landing, plans to return with a female astronaut
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Sabrina Thompson, a NASA aerospace engineer, will speak about the historic Apollo 11 mission during the University of North Georgia’s 50th anniversary lunar landing celebration on Saturday, July 20. (Courtesy DEJAH GREENE/NASA)

Saturday marks 50 years since man first set foot on the moon.

The University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus invites the public to celebrate this “giant leap for mankind” at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 20, in the Health and Natural Sciences Building at 159 Sunset Drive. 

Hosted by the Dahlonega Science Council and the university’s physics and astronomy department, people will have the opportunity to hear about the historic Apollo 11 mission at 7:30 p.m. from Sabrina Thompson, a NASA aerospace engineer who works at Goddard Space Flight Center. 

“We want people to walk away with a sense of wonder at how we accomplished this feat of landing on the moon 240,000 miles away from Earth,” Lesley Simanton-Coogan, director of the university’s planetarium said. 

Allison Smith, one of the faculty members who organized the celebration, said the university submitted a request through NASA with the hopes of landing an “inspiring speaker with a fresh perspective to excite the upcoming generation.” 

“I was ecstatic to end up with someone who is as knowledgeable about space flight and passionate about inspiring young people as Ms. Thompson,” Smith said. 

For four-and-a-half years, Thompson has served on the navigation and mission design branch for NASA. Her current role entails working on proposals for CubeSats, which are tiny satellites used for space research. 

Thompson said her talk aims to help the audience “gain more of an intuition of what it means that we’ve gone to the moon and why we are going back.”

She will touch on what NASA has learned since the first lunar landing and the agency’s upcoming Artemis mission, which aims to land the first woman on the moon. 

People can also expect a brief portion about NASA’s plans for Mars exploration. 

Thompson said she hopes people will take the time to reflect on the progress of space technology, and the world as a whole, since the Apollo 11 mission. 

“Yes, they were in a space race, and yes, it was a matter of national pride to get to the moon, but it was bigger than that,” Thompson said. “... In my opinion, it’s imperative that we celebrate this feat because it shows us what we’re capable of doing, especially when we have the public behind us.”

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On July 16, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch to the Moon, Apollo 11 and Artemis 1 launch team members mingle in Launch Control Center Firing Room 1 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Artemis 1 Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, left, talks to Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins. In the background is Kennedy Director Bob Cabana. - photo by Photo courtesy of NASA
Return to the moon

For the next “giant leap for mankind,” at least some of the small steps will be made by a woman.

For decades women have played important roles in NASA’s space program. But with the planned 2024 Artemis mission, Thompson said women will place an even bigger mark on history, putting the first woman on the moon.

But just like with Apollo, before that happens there will be tests — lots of tests. The first Artemis mission will be unmanned, but it, too, will start with a woman, Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson.

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Frances “Poppy” Northcutt became the first female engineer to work in Mission Control for Apollo 8, which was the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon. - photo by Photo courtesy of NASA
Frances “Poppy” Northcutt is known for setting the course for women in NASA, when she took a high-profile job in a male-dominated field. She became the first female engineer to work in Mission Control for Apollo 8, which was the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon.

Other women played key roles.

MIT scientist Margaret Hamilton directed the team that developed computer software for the Apollo spacecraft. And Christine Darden was one of NASA’s “human computers” who performed mathematical calculations and one of the inspirations for the book “Hidden Figures” that tells the story of the  African-American women who played a critical role in the space race. 

In 1972, Darden mustered the courage to ask her supervisor why only men were allowed to be NASA engineers. Two weeks later she was transferred and promoted to engineer status. 

Finally, in 1983 Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, and the third overall after USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya.

“There’s a lot to be celebrated in how far we’ve come,” Thompson said. 

In addition to Thompson’s presentation, the 50th anniversary moon landing celebration will have planetarium shows at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Simanton-Coogan said this portion involves a 24-minute video that focuses on the formation of the Earth and moon, and a 30-minute presentation of the night sky. 

“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Simanton-Coogan said. “They can learn a lot about the moon, not just the Apollo event.”

Hands-on kids activities will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m. If the weather remains clear, the event will draw to a close at 9:30 p.m. with night sky watching at the North Georgia Astronomical Observatory, just 4 miles off campus at 3000 Dawsonville Highway. 

Tribune News Service contributed to this article. 

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Christine Darden was one of NASA’s “human computers” who performed mathematical calculations and one of the inspirations for the book “Hidden Figures.” - photo by Photo courtesy of NASA
50th anniversary celebration of moon landing 

When: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 20

Where: University of North Georgia’s Health and Natural Sciences Building — 159 Sunset Drive, Dahlonega

More info: jennifer.devine@ung.edu

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MIT scientist Margaret Hamilton directed the team that developed computer software for the Apollo spacecraft. - photo by Photo courtesy of NASA
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