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Countdown begins for 50th anniversary of first moon landing

SpaceX on SUnday launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a satellite for its customer Telstar. The photo is a time exposure.
SpaceX on SUnday launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a satellite for its customer Telstar. The photo is a time exposure.(Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via Associated Press)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin was noticeably absent from the Apollo Celebration Gala on Saturday to kick off a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing — even though his nonprofit foundation is a sponsor and he typically is the star attraction.

No explanation was given for Aldrin’s absence. But the former astronaut is locked in a legal battle with family members who say he is suffering from mental decline.

The black-tie event at the Kennedy Space Center featured a panel discussion by astronauts, awards, and an auction of space memorabilia.

Hundreds attended the sold-out event, including British physicist Brian Cox, who presented Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson with the ShareSpace Foundation’s Innovation award.

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Branson, whose company is developing commercial spacecraft, said in a video that the Apollo missions influenced his generation.

‘‘Space is still hard, really hard. It still really matters,’’ Branson said. ‘‘There would be no Virgin Galactic, no Virgin Orbit, and no spaceship company had it not been for Apollo astronauts and the thousands of talented people who made their mission possible.’’

On Sunday, the private company SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a satellite for customer Telstar. The Florida launch was the 13th launch of the year for the company, led by Elon Musk.

Dr. Carolyn Williams of the nonprofit From One Hand to Another received the foundation’s education award Saturday, and former Johnson Space Center director Gerry Griffin, a flight director for all of the crewed Apollo missions, was honored with the Pioneer award.

‘‘It’s very humbling, it kind of came out of the blue,’’ Griffin said. ‘‘It is so neat to know that we’ve passed the torch that will let this next generation take us to this next step.’’

That next step, Griffin said, is a return of Americans to the moon and, eventually, Mars.

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Aldrin’s ShareSpace Foundation is one of the sponsors of the annual gala, which raises money for Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics — or STEAM education — and Astronaut Scholarship Foundation scholarships.

Aldrin’s absence comes just a month after he sued two of his adult children and a former business manager, accusing them of misusing his credit cards, transferring money from an account, and slandering him by saying he has dementia.

Only weeks before the lawsuit, Andrew and Jan Aldrin had filed a petition claiming their 88-year-old father was suffering from memory loss, delusions, paranoia, and confusion.

Andrew and Jan Aldrin, as well as business manager Christina Korp, are on the foundation’s board and attended the gala. Aldrin’s oldest son, James, isn’t involved in the legal fight.