Fifty years ago, the nation watched in enraptured fascination as Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the moon. Those few steps would etch him into the pages of history and into the imagination of those that peer up at the stars.

Jim Opelia and his son Joey are those stargazers. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Opelia set out to reenact the iconic moment in world history during the annual Pickle Fest celebration in Hewitt, Saturday, July 20.

Opelia, a science teacher and astronomical aficionado, set out on an exciting mission to bring Armstrong and his famous landing to the epicenter of Hewitt. Over the course of two weeks, he planned, designed, cut, molded, and built the 13-foot lunar lander, codenamed the Eagle by mission control.

Jim Opelia worked on the lunar lander and spent around $300 on the construction.
Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal
Jim Opelia worked on the lunar lander and spent around $300 on the construction. Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal

“I love science and space,” said Opelia while he gazed at the fruits of his labor. The lander was nestled nearby the city office as the festivities of Pickle Fest roared all around. Curiosity gripped the passing crowds. Glances came from all directions as people waited for 3 p.m. The event was designed to be a realistic reenactment of the first moon landing complete with radio communication from mission control, a speech by President Kennedy, and a historical breakdown of what exactly happened on that day, narrated by Opelia himself. The mission was far from perfect. During the course of landing preparation, they lost radio communication with the lander. Also, they over shot their original landing zone within the Sea of Tranquility. Their improvised landing spot was littered with boulders and was simply unsuitable for landing. According to Opelia, the landing of the Eagle was a success largely in part to the piloting skills of Armstrong.

The clock ticked and radio chatter became more and more suspenseful. The event succeeded in creating an atmosphere of anticipation similar to what must have been experienced half a century ago. The clock struck 3:17 p.m. and the Eagle landed. Eyes were glued to the outside of the lander, cameras were fixated on the improvised hatch. White boots popped out followed by an oversized backpack emblazoned with the American flag. Opelia’s son, Joey, played the part of Armstrong. He took his time dismounting the giant lander. His descended the ladder as he looked out on the crowd. Then finally his boot touched down.

The lander touched down at 3:17 p.m. on July 20, 1969.
Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal
The lander touched down at 3:17 p.m. on July 20, 1969. Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal

The astronaut conducted his moonwalk. He took his steps in true Amstrong fashion, only looking up to match the gaze of the audience. He looked through a golden tinted visor, holding a pose just long enough for pictures.

After successfully completing his walk, he took the flag in hand and planted it near the lander. Those in attendance observed the national anthem with the young astronaut. Once the program ceased, groups came rushing in for a selfie. After a few photos he took off the helmet and quickly threw off the hot costume, drawing a close to the moon landing celebration.

“I was a little nervous, but I knew I was going to have fun,” said Joey Opelia after his moonwalk.

Opelia praised moon landing as a major event in history.
Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal
Opelia praised moon landing as a major event in history. Michael Denny/Wadena Pioneer Journal