Remembering Apollo 11

The 1960s were heady days in more senses than kids today might suppose. It wasn’t all Haight-Ashbury and pot and hippies with flowers in their hair. I spent a couple of years in the military in the early 1960s down at the Cape launching early versions of Polaris missiles into the Atlantic missile range, or sometimes into the Banana River if the range safety officer saw fit to push the destruct button. (As a side benefit I got to participate in the Cuban blockade in 1962 aboard a U.S. Navy ship.) Those were the Project Mercury years of the manned space program, and one would occasionally see one or another of the original seven astronauts around the Cape or in Cocoa Beach (anyone remember the Cape Colony Inn?), and we’d marvel at how they’d stuff themselves into a tiny Mercury capsule atop an Atlas rocket and blast away into near-earth space. Watching those launches in 1962 and 1963 I never thought then that I’d work on their successor systems and watch the fruits of that work take men to the moon.

As most readers of science blogs already know, the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter has just returned photos of five of the six Apollo landing sites on the moon, including one (Apollo 14) where the foot trails made by astronauts are visible! And those are preliminary images. The LRO team promises 2x or 3x better resolution when the orbiter is in its final orbit.

One of those sites is special to me. In the mid and late 1960s I was a member of a group in Honeywell’s Development and Evaluation Laboratory (later in the Systems & Research Center) that was charged with stress testing components of the Apollo Command Module control system. We tortured reaction jet controllers, abused thrust vector servo assemblies, and kicked around translation and rotation hand controls for months. We soaked them in vacuum chambers, cycling the temperature up and down on a 12-hours on, 12 hours off schedule, subjected them to over-voltages and under-voltages, shook them on vibration tables, and generally tried to see how bad we could treat them before they failed. Out of all that testing came the final versions that were installed in Apollo Command Modules and flew in them, including the version that flew in Apollo 11.

On the day that the Eagle – the Lunar Excursion Module associated with the Apollo 11 flight – landed at Tranquility Base, my wife and I had gone to the Minneapolis Humane Society to adopt our first dog, Beau. We got home in time to watch the television broadcast and see the blurry video of Neil Armstrong stepping off the LEM ladder. (R.I.P. Walter Cronkite, who broadcast the landing that day in 1969 and who died yesterday.) It was an amazing feeling – a combination of elation and relief – to know that the landing had been successful. All the people who worked on the manned space flight projects over the years after John F. Kennedy committed us to going to the moon within a decade were proud to have contributed to the mission. I sure was that day, and I still am. I left the Apollo program after our part of Apollo 11’s development was finished to work on other prototype spacecraft and aircraft systems, but knowing stuff I worked on took humans to the moon is something I’ll be proud of until I die.