Edmonds commemorates Apollo 11 moon landing — now and then

The Apollo 11 memorial sculpture, designed by Edmonds sculptor Howard Duell, has been part of the Edmonds Public Art Collection since its installation and dedication on July 4, 1976. It is located in the north end of the Maxwell-McGinness Public Safety Complex, adjacent to the police station. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s pioneering Moon walk, there will be a ceremony at 9 a.m. July 20 at an Edmonds location some residents aren’t even aware of — Neil Armstrong Plaza, located at the north end of the Edmonds Police Station.

Feliks Banel, noted Northwest historian and KIRO FM radio personality, will be on hand to emcee the event. Guests will include Mayor Dave Earling and the color guard of VFW Post 8870. Banel will talk about the historical significance of the anniversary and invite people in attendance to share their memories of the Apollo 11 landing.

But the story goes back half a century to the summer of 1969, when the world stood still for eight days, transfixed on the three intrepid U.S. astronauts — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. The world watched with anticipation as they climbed into the cramped Columbia space capsule perched atop the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket crammed with highly explosive rocket fuel. If all went as President Kennedy had promised and NASA scientists had planned, the rocket would propel them to the Moon — a journey to a place no one had gone before.

The three Apollo 11 astronauts, from left: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. (Photo courtesy NASA)

At 9:32 a.m. local time on the morning of July 16, the engines ignited with a deafening roar, lifting the massive rocket off the Kennedy Space Center launch pad and hurtling the three humans perched at its tip into the history books.

After achieving lunar orbit three days later, Armstrong and Aldrin left the capsule in the Eagle lunar lander. Collins remained behind, in control of the Columbia that would return them to Earth safe and sound.

Those watching saw the Eagle descend and lightly touch down on the Moon’s surface, and heard Armstrong’s announcement “the Eagle has landed” broadcast back to earth. A short time later a space-suited Armstrong gingerly stepped down the ladder.  Placing his foot on the Moon’s surface, the first human ever to do so, he uttered the famous words, “That’s one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind.”

He was soon followed down the ladder by Aldrin, and the two spent a little more than 21 hours on the Moon’s surface, exploring, collecting samples, entering and leaving the lander, taking measurements, planting the U.S. flag, and finally leaving behind a plaque with these words: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Their footprints remain on the moon to this day.

Dennis Clark, who came up with the original idea for the monument and Neil Armstrong Plaza, stands with a model of the space capsule structure, circa 1975.

As we all know today, the mission was a success. The three astronauts returned alive and well, splashing down in the central Pacific Ocean on July 24.

After holding its breath for nine days, the world finally exhaled and went wild. Edmonds was no exception.

The astronauts were the heroes of the day. When asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, children everywhere answered “Astronaut!” One of these was teenager Dennis Clark of Edmonds.

As the NASA Moon program continued into the 1970s, Dennis began to form an idea. With the U.S. Bicentennial approaching in 1976, wouldn’t it be perfect to commemorate and honor Neil Armstrong’s Moon walk with a monument placed in what was then called the Edmonds Civic Center, and name the area surrounding it Neil Armstrong Plaza? After speaking with civic leaders and gaining initial support for his idea, Clark personally wrote to Armstrong asking for permission to use his name for the plaza.

The sculpture was funded through individual contributions, many of which came from local students. Within the monument is a capsule with the names of these students.

Armstrong responded that it would be fine with him, and the project moved ahead — with July 4, 1976 set for the dedication.  The project was funded by the community, but was particularly popular with young people, and much of the money raised came from individual donations from numerous Edmonds High School students.

The front of the sculpture shows a space-suited Neil Armstrong with the flag planted on the Moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

That spring, local sculptor and Edmonds Community College art teacher Howard Duell was commissioned to design the monument. His design resembled a space capsule. Armstrong’s Moon walk, along with an American flag planted in the lunar surface, graces the monument’s face. On the back side is the Saturn V rocket perched on its launch pad, with the moon rising behind. Made of concrete and brass, it stands more than 11 feet high and weighs approximately 3,800 pounds. (Duell, along with fellow artist Ed Ballew, also designed original free-form copper fountain at 5th and Main, installed in 1974.)

On Sunday, July 4, 1976 all was in place. Then Washington Gov. Dan Evans issued a declaration naming it Neil Armstrong Plaza Day, the crowd gathered, the ribbon was cut, and the monument dedicated just in time for the start of the Fourth of July parade.

The back of the monument shows the Saturn V rocket on its Kennedy Space Center launch pad, with the Moon rising behind. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

Years passed, and in June 1998 ground was broken on the site for what would be the new Maxwell-McGinness Public Safety Complex. During construction, the Armstrong monument was moved and temporarily stored in an open area adjacent to former Fire Station No. 2 at Five Corners. With completion of construction, the monument was returned and reinstalled adjacent to the parking lot at the north end of the police station, at 250 5th Ave. N., just in time for the April 2001 public safety complex open house and art dedication.

And although many may not be aware, that section of the complex remains to this day officially the Neil Armstrong plaza. It’s a fitting memorial to the NASA space program, the spirit of the Edmonds community to preserve and celebrate this accomplishment, and efforts of one Edmonds young person to see it done.

— By Larry Vogel

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