Thomasboro, Rantoul residents help build lunar lander float

Jim Wehmer places a painting of the first landing on the moon on the float being constructed at his home in Champaign on Tuesday. The float will be part of the Champaign County Freedom Parade in Champaign on Thursday.

CHAMPAIGN — A historic lunar lander float was so important to Joe Powell, 11, that he’ll be sitting on it at the Champaign County Freedom Parade — after leaving the hospital with a kidney transplant Monday.

The Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society’s lunar lander marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, which landed the first two people on the Moon, Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, on July 20, 1969.

The CUAS won overall best float last year and first in another category the year before.

The float is about 5 feet tall.

“The float is titled CUAS Defends Its Title,” Senior Vice President James Wehmer joked. Actually, it’s “Small Steps, Big Leap,” a reference to Armstrong’s historic words.

Doug Rokke of rural Thomasboro built the lunar lander components with his grandkids, and a team assembled it in unshaded 90-degree weather in four “waste-no-time” hours at Wehmer’s Champaign home.

The float also features a hefty styrofoam painting that took 100 hours for Leanne and Scott Glick of Rantoul to create from a composite.

“It was a lot of work because they combined the only four photos existing that show the astronaut and the Earth in the same shot,” Wehmer said.

Another CUAS triumph: retiring Staerkel Planetarium Director David Leake, a CUAS member, is also this year’s grand marshal. His last day at Staerkel was Monday.

His successor, Erik Johnson, said there will be an audio component, playing astronauts talking, the ground crew, “Eagle has landed” and verses from the Bible.

The society hopes to inspire ordinary people in the wonders of astronomy.

The club has built a private observatory south of Champaign’s airport. The isolated Prairie Winds Observatory is at 926 County Road 700E Tolono, and has monthly events. See cuas.org for details.

This Saturday is the next Family Skywatch open house there, starting at dusk to look at the lunar landing site and other astronomical sites of interest.

“Everyone can enjoy this kind of science, and it often leads young people to develop wonder and scientific curiosity that they can carry with them in their lives,” CUAS member Joyce Powell said while setting up the float on a trailer.

“You don’t have to have a career in science to enjoy nature and to enjoy asking questions.”

As for the special guest, her son Joe is already a major space enthusiast.

“Someone in my class pointed out this anniversary and really fascinated me,” Joe said.

Could he end up becoming an astronaut?

“I don’t know about that,” he said.

Dad Thomas Powell said Joe’s kidney problem runs in family. Joe’s older brother Michael also had a transplant.

The Freedom Parade starts at 11:05 a.m., beginning at the State Farm Center, 1800 S. First St.

You can also look up in the skies at approximately 9:15 p.m. Thursday for fireworks by Melrose Pyrotechnics. The launch location will be lot E-14 west of the State Farm Center.

pwood@news-gazette.com