Lehigh Valley's very own astronaut, Lt. Col. Terry Hart, was on hand at the Da Vinci Center in Allentown Sunday afternoon to help celebrate the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Hart, a Lehigh University engineering professor and alumnus, recalled having just entered basic training to become an Air Force pilot on the historic day Neil Armstrong took "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

"The drill sergeant looked the other way and allowed us to watch some of the footage."

Hart treated the standing-room only Da Vinci Center crowd to highlights of a century of modern flight and space exploration that led to the first lunar landing by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Hart's own participation as a mission specialist in the Space Shuttle program.

Hart said he was about 11 years old when the United States entered the space age, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created NASA and the race to space was on with the Soviet Union.

Due to concerns about potential adverse effects of space travel on the human body, NASA first launched a 4-year-old chimpanzee named Ham, Hart told the audience — accompanied by a slide of Ham flashing a toothy grin.

Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became a national hero as the first human launched into space, said Hart, followed closely by U.S. Astronaut Alan Shepard.

The trial and error of space travel has not been without tragedies, said Hart, recalling the Apollo 1 fire that took the lives of three crew members before the mission ever launched, as well as the Columbia and Challenger space shuttle tragedies that killed each crew.

Fielding a question concerning the most significant development to come out of space exploration to date, Hart referenced a slide he'd shown during his presentation of the first image of Earth taken from space on Christmas Eve 1968.

"It changed the way we think about the planet," he said, adding that the iconic image made an immediate and lasting impact on both global politics and environmental consciousness.

"You can see we're just this little blue ball floating through space … We all have to live on it, and we all have to get along. One of the important challenges for young people today is to learn how to take care of the planet."

Dave Bilger, 71, of Allentown, said he wonders to this day if the lunar landing wasn't some kind of elaborate Hollywood hoax. "I had just started at Mack Trucks, and they announced over the loudspeaker that they landed. For me, it's still hard to believe. We can do things like that, but yet we can't do things here on Earth like curing cancer?"

Brian Wisniewski, 24, an engineering graduate student at Lehigh University, predicted the future of space travel is privatization. "NASA and the government do not have a ton of money," he said. "If you can make private industry develop the technology, it actually becomes more cost effective."

"I would like to become one of those people who works with the space shuttles themselves and maybe have a job at NASA," said 11-year-old Thomas Theiner of Upper Macungie Township just before Guion Bluford, the first African American in space, joined the presentation from a community library outside Cleveland, Ohio, via Skype.

Bluford, who grew up in Philadelphia during the Cold War era, said he was one of about 8,000 applicants for the shuttle program and was eventually selected in 1978 as one of 35 astronauts recruited to the program. He attributed that success to combined experience as an Air Force pilot and a PhD in aerospace engineering.

Bluford shared his own recollection of the first moon landing.

"I was an instructor pilot at Shepherd Air Force Base [in Texas]. We were watching on a black and white TV … I was excited like everybody else when I saw Neil Armstrong step out onto the moon and realized he had just fulfilled the dream of JFK."

Dan Sullivan is a freelance writer.