MACON, Ga. — As we remember the launch of the first successful moon landing mission 50 years ago, we're also exploring some of the surprising ties between Central Georgia and the space program.
It turns out 1989 and 1990 were a great time for space buffs living around the region.
On May 15, 1989, the space shuttle Atlantis touched down at Robins Air Force Base. Crews had just a little more than an hour's notice to prepare for the landing.
While the shuttle's heat tiles could stand more than 3,000 degrees at re-entry, rain water could damage them.
It turns out Robins was perfect for weather stopovers as the shuttles were piggybacked on 747 jets from their landing spot in California, back over to their headquarters in Florida.
Almost exactly one year later, it happened again. In May 1990, the space shuttle Discovery touched down. It had just returned from delivering the Hubble Space Telescope, which would revolutionize our understanding and view of deep space.
A base commander at the time explained, "It's very convenient for them to come in here, as opposed to staying out in Texas or somewhere else. What they want is a long runway with a good place to park, ready fuel, and any maintenance they could get, and we have that here, so it's very convenient to use Robins."
It was also convenient for fans of the space program and people eager to get a glimpse of a space shuttle in person. People lined Highway 247 to look through the fences each time a shuttle landed.
Just five months before it's 1990 stop in Macon, Discovery had taken one of Macon's own into space. Astronaut Sonny Carter was part of STS-33 from November 22-28, 1989.
Bibb County's Sonny Carter Elementary is named in his honor, and the mission patch is the school's logo. The mission included a payload for the Department of Defense, so lot of information isn't known about it.
We do know that it helped create another local space tie. As 13WMAZ's Chris Holcomb reported, Carter took a taste of home to orbit with him in the form of Fincher's Bar-B-Q.
Holcomb explained, "Fincher's made the barbecue just like they would for any other customer. They sent something like (this slab of ribs) to NASA, complete with sauce, however when Sonny eats this in space, it won't look like that."
As one of the owners added, "I assume they'll take what we had sent and make it into a freeze dried situation".
Carter had gone to Macon's Lanier High School with Doug Fincher of Fincher's Bar-B-Q. He remembered him as a solid student and outstanding athlete. He said he was the kind of person who could do anything, although he added with a laugh, "I never thought he'd be an astronaut".
While Carter's legacy lives on today at the school that bears his his name, the astronaut never flew another mission. He was killed along with Senator John Tower in a plane crash on April 5, 1991 in Brunswick. At the time, he was already scheduled to fly on another shuttle mission in January 1992.
In a life shortened to 43 years, the graduate of Lanier High School became a professional soccer player, a surgeon, a top gun pilot, and finally an astronaut.
If you'd like to learn more about Georgia ties to the space program and the Apollo 11 moon mission, the Robins Museum of Aviation is having a free National Moon Day Celebration on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.