Jim Sponnick, an accomplished space engineer, was 9 years old and living in the Woodland neighborhood when he watched the Apollo 11 send the first people to the moon.

It was formative moment for a boy who would grow up to work on 184 space missions.

"The Apollo 11 memory is really just huge for me. ... It's really one of my most vivid memories at a young age," Sponnick told an audience in his hometown Thursday for the 70th anniversary of the Marshall H. and Nellie Alworth Memorial Fund.

The event, held at the Kitchi Gammi Club, honored Sponnick and three other long-ago recipients of the Alworth scholarship. Sponnick gave the keynote speech.

He was a senior at Duluth East High School in 1978 when he found out he was a recipient of the Alworth scholarship, which has afforded more than 5,000 high school students across the Northland their college education.

Each year, the scholarship awards at least 60 students $20,000 to be distributed between eight semesters. The trust, which stands at $34 million, was founded by Marshall W. Alworth as a memorial to his parents. His family's wealth came from the region's lumber and mining industries.

Patty Salo Downs, executive director of the Alworth Memorial Fund, said the scholarships don't just benefit the recipients. Instead, they create a ripple effect as those students go on to do good in their communities.

"We give thanks today to Mr. Alworth for his foresight in creating this scholarship," she said.

For Sponnick, the scholarship allowed him to study electrical engineering at the University of North Dakota without the burden of finances.

"Mom and dad could not afford to pay my way through college and this was a huge relief to have that benefit of the Alworth scholarship," he said.

After graduating from UND, he accepted his first job working on rockets for General Dynamics in San Diego, where he learned the art of resiliency and overcoming failure in professional life.

Sponnick worked on electronics for a Centaur rocket that was scheduled to launch after the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. To the dismay of the space community and beyond, that shuttle exploded shortly after its launch and killed all seven astronauts on board.

Six weeks later, the program Sponnick was working on was canceled.

"We had major layoffs and lots of people leaving because they weren't sure what their future was in space business," he said.

Sponnick would go on to have a hand in many rocket launch successes throughout his career, including what he considers the most memorable: launching the New Horizons spacecraft that reached Pluto in 2015.

The rocket launched in 2006 and took 9 1/2 years to reach Pluto, as it is roughly 3 billion miles away from Earth. It was the first mission to Pluto.

"One of the reasons this Pluto New Horizon's mission was so memorable was because it was very difficult to get there," Sponnick said, as the rocket required several design modifications.

Near the end of his keynote speech, which received a standing ovation, Sponnick asked people to reflect on what they like about their work and how it makes a difference in somebody else's life.

"Enjoy those moments, relish them," he said. "There will be many and don't ever forget to stop and smell the roses."

The other Alworth scholarship recipients honored Thursday included 1956 Duluth Central graduate, Bill Jacott, Hibbing High School graduate, June Hendrickson and 1947 Chisholm High School graduate, Alve Erickson.