Fifty years ago Saturday, Earline Reid gazed up at the moon.

She was camping on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains with her husband and two children. The family was in the middle of moving from Chicago to rural California when they stopped for the night to witness history.

From where Reid lay in the forest, with the moon perfectly framed between two trees, it didn't look any different on the evening of July 20, 1969. But she knew that on its surface 238,000 miles away, two Americans were preparing to take humanity's first steps on the surface of another part of the solar system.

"I think I said a prayer for the astronauts up there, or maybe I just wished them good luck," remembered Reid, who now lives at Lincoln Court Retirement Community in Idaho Falls.

Almost everyone who was alive in 1969 remembers where they were when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin exited the Eagle landing craft and first set foot on the moon, while Michael Collins orbited in the command module above them. For some, the impact of Apollo 11 and the later NASA missions to the moon shaped the course of their lives.

'Above and Beyond' at Idaho National Laboratory

Steve Johnson was 7 years old when he saw the Apollo 11 landing on television. As a boy, his proudest possessions included a model of the Saturn V rocket that was used for all of the Apollo missions, along with a lunar lander and a 14-volume encyclopedia of flight called "Above and Beyond."

That passion for space travel followed Johnson through his school years and into his career, leading to his current job as the director of space nuclear power at Idaho National Laboratory. After helping move the lab from Ohio to Idaho in 2002, Johnson has overseen work on several projects at the lab that helped launch rovers and satellites into space and met with a number of astronauts and NASA crew members.

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson, director of space nuclear power at Idaho National Labratory, talks about his lifelong fascination with space. The photograph shows Apollo 12 astronaut Alan L. Bean removing the SNAP-27 fuel-cask assembly from the Lunar Module.

"It's so interesting to get down there by the command center and be a part of the launch. You get to see how many people it takes to launch something into space," Johnson said.

INL supplied the fuel units for the Opportunity rover that began exploring Mars in 2013 and the New Horizons probe that exited the solar system earlier this year. Currently, the lab is working on the power for the next rover NASA is sending to Mars, which is scheduled to launch in mid-2020, and the Dragonfly probe that will explore Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

He doesn't have the same collection of models at home anymore, but he has a different piece of Apollo 11 memorabilia in the lab's public museum: a full-size version of the plutonium-powered radioisotope heater unit that powered the seismometer used by the astronauts on the moon's surface.

Heat units

These models show the scale of the Apollo Lunar Radioisotope Heater Units that were used on Apollo 11’s Scientific Experiments Package to supply heat. These units are part of a space display at INL.

"This was the very first one of these ever made," Johnson said as he displayed the small metallic tube. "The ones we have now are much smaller and only need about one watt of power."

The lab has created similar nuclear heating units for several unmanned missions since moving to Idaho. Elsewhere in the museum is a replica of the space nuclear auxiliary power that was used on the six missions following Apollo 11.

Johnson already is looking forward to the next giant leap for NASA: landing humans on Mars. He thinks it's possible that there can be a manned mission to Mars within the next 15 years and if there is, the nuclear research at Idaho National Laboratory could play a key role.

"The only way we're ever going to make it to Mars is with a reactor. You need something much larger than a chemical rocket to power it, you need something like a nuclear reactor," Johnson said.

Exploring the Craters of the Moon

In August 1969, not long after the moon landing, a group of future astronauts passed through Idaho. To prepare their visit to the moon's craters, the group was coming through Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.

Astronauts at CRMO---NASA  0006

Astronauts Alan Shepard, left, Joe Engle, third from left, Gene Cernan, fourth from left, and Edgar Mitchell, third from right, visited Craters of the Moon in August 1969 to learn about geology. Shepard was the first American in space in 1961 and he, Cernan and Mitchell were three of the 12 people who’ve walked on the moon.

The visitors included future Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, backup pilot Joe Engle and Gene Cernan. Cernan, Mitchell and Shepard were three of 12 men to walk on the moon, with Cernan becoming the final man to walk on the moon when he boarded the Apollo 17 lander.

Shepard was the first American in space when the Freedom 7 spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 5, 1961, according to space.com. In 1971, he became the fifth man to walk on the moon and famously hit some golf shots from the lunar surface. 

"There was still a tremendous amount of excitement about the moon landing and a lot of excitement about having astronauts come out here," chief ranger Ted Stout said.

The four astronauts, along with a crew of other NASA officials, had come to Idaho to practice dealing with the moon's geology by working on the igneous rocks at Craters of the Moon. Stout explained that while there were billions of years between the creation of the moon and the monument, the final product was similar enough to serve as helpful training.

Craters of the Moon celebrated the 30th anniversary of that visit in 1999, when the three surviving astronauts came back through Idaho. Jim Morris was the park superintendent who organized the tour, calling all four astronauts directly to sell them on the idea and later leading Mitchell, Engle and Cernan across the state for two days. Shepard died July 21, 1998, before the anniversary took place.

Part of that anniversary trip was an appearance on the first episode of "Dialogue on Idaho Public Television" that was aimed at children. Although none of the kids had been alive for the Apollo missions, Morris said there was plenty of excitement when they had the chance to meet an astronaut.

"I give credit to the teachers, they prepared their students with a lot of background information and got them excited about space," Morris said.

Fifty years after astronauts first visited there, Craters of the Moon continues to be a site for ongoing NASA research, including with its Basic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (BASALT) program.

The park is leaning into its name Saturday with Moonfest, a celebration of the Apollo 11 anniversary. The main speaker for the event is John Phillips, an astronaut who's made multiple trips to the International Space Station and lives in Sandpoint for part of the year. At night, the monument will offer visitors a bank of telescopes they can use to look up at the moon's surface.

Contact Brennen with news tips at 208-542-6711.

Kauffman reports on health care and city events for the Post Register.