John O’Neal was 15 and living in a small town in Ohio when Americans landed on the moon in July 1969.
His interest in science, sparked in the fourth grade, prepared him to follow NASA’s progress leading up to the moon landing.
“In 1962 when John Kennedy said, ‘Within the decade, we are going to go to the moon,’ that just set my little head on fire,” he said.
“When you’re a little kid growing up in a place like that in a very small school you start thinking to yourself, ‘I can’t ever be like them (astronauts),’” he said.
O’Neal learned that Neil Armstrong was also from a small town in Ohio. “That really started to give me hope,” he smiled. “It was very encouraging to me, because it gave me the idea that I could be something in life.”
Now, 50 years later, O’Neal is an amateur astronomer and lives in Statesville. He is a NASA Solar System Ambassador and a member of and contributor to the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, the American Association of Variable Star Observers and several amateur astronomy associations around his home in Statesville.
O’Neal also travels around the nation, leading workshops on astrophotography. He has led numerous workshops at the Catawba Science Center in Hickory and is the co-founder of the Facebook group, SOLARACTIVITY.
“I’m an amateur, but I’m an advanced amateur,” he explained. “I’ve always said astronomy and photography is not a goal — it’s an adventure where you keep evolving as you go.”
During his lifetime, he has witnessed technology evolve into what it is today. “I could have never imagined doing the imaging I do today,” he said.
O’Neal bought his first camera around the time of the moon landing. “It had a hole where you’d put your eye up to it and push a button to take a photo. Then you’d have to send the film to New York and get it processed. You’d find out like a month later if the picture actually turned out or not,” he chuckled.
Through the countless changes in technology and trial-and-error, O’Neal taught himself to photograph celestial objects.
O’Neal says he was excited to see astronauts on the moon. He also recalled the way the nation rallied around the mission.
“Everyone was united and combined and happy for the United States. The whole world was. It was a totally different time in history. I think we’re going to get back there soon, maybe in a couple of years,” O’Neal said. “Hopefully when we do get back. Maybe it will bring some of that pride back to America.”