Standing along the Dorchester waterfront, Matt Porter aimed his phone’s camera across the water, trying to get a good angle at the towering form of the Saturn V rocket looming overhead.
“There it is, right there,” Porter said on Saturday morning. “Countdown clock and all.”
Satisfied, he pressed a button on his phone, firing up the rocket’s five massive main engines and sending plumes of smoke skyward, past the roofline of the nearby John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, where Porter works as a spokesman for the library foundation.
The rocket wasn’t real, of course, but rather a computer simulation that is part of the library’s new JFK Moonshot app, whose release kicks off nearly a month of events at the library celebrating the first walk on the moon.
The app combines archival videos, images, and audio recordings from Apollo 11, the mission that on July 20, 1969, led astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to become the first humans to walk on the moon.
The free app also highlights the role President Kennedy played, years earlier, in securing federal funding for the space program and inspiring the public to support missions to the moon.
Steven Rothstein, the library foundation’s executive director, said everyone should learn more about that historic moonshot — and strive to dream just as big.
“We want to play a role to remind people about what President Kennedy did, [and] to use that to inspire the next generation,” Rothstein said.
The app contains recordings of several speeches that Kennedy made about space, including a 1962 appearance at Rice University in Houston.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” Kennedy told crowds during the speech.
The library worked for more than a year to develop JFK Moonshot, which uses augmented reality technology: The app displays computer-generated imagery that is superimposed over what a smartphone camera sees. The app was designed and built by Digitas.
The app is available now, but library officials look forward to July 16, the anniversary of the mission’s launch.
App users can display a diagram of Apollo 11’s five-day trip from the Earth to the Moon, and from July 16 to July 20, they can check in to learn what astronauts were doing at that exact moment a half-century earlier, including listening to recordings of astronauts’ radio transmissions with ground control.
And on July 20, museum visitors can attend space-focused activities, including presentations on spacesuit engineering and rocketry.
The library will also host a symposium Wednesday with the president’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, the former ambassador to Japan, that will focus on science and technological initiatives, and the future of space exploration.
The library foundation is also working with Raytheon on programs for middle and high school students to perform experiments similar to those conducted on the International Space Station.
“I want young people today to be inspired that they can do so much, that they can solve big problems, in whatever their field is,” Rothstein said.
Back in the 1960s, the moonshot was criticized for the tremendous resources spent on that effort, instead of priorities like combating poverty.
The walk on the moon came at the height of the civil rights movement, while the nation reeled from the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy’s brother, Robert, as well as the bloodshed of the Vietnam War.
And Kennedy himself never saw the nation reach the moon; he was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
He understood there would be tradeoffs, but he believed that investing in the moonshot would lead to a scientific revolution, Rothstein said, which offers a lesson for today’s politics.
“We’re in a polarized time now, and we hope that people can come together, and set a common goal,” he said.
And those goals don’t have to be limited to science.
Rothstein pointed to David Hogg, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018, when a former student killed 17 people and wounded 15 others. Hogg has become nationally known for his work on gun control, and last year, posted a link to Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice.
“Whenever I feel hopeless, this speech always brings me back,” Hogg wrote. “You know getting to the moon was impossible at one time too but through hard work and hope [they] got there and we will too.”
Rothstein said that by looking back on the moon landing, he hopes that achievement will inspire everyone to do the small things, like cleaning up a public park.
“If we can do that, even a small way,” Rothstein said, “that’s what we’re about.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.