[published: July 30, 2009]
Remembering our incomprehensible dream of going to the moon.
When I asked to interview my father about his work on the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission for our Exploration issue, he resisted. “It happened 40 long years ago,” he said. “It’s all a blur.” At his request, I emailed him some questions. Several days later he emailed me back. “Try as I may, I can’t seem to retrieve enough information to write something meaningful.” My father worked at NASA for 32 years, beginning in 1966 when he was 30 years old. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon he was 33, the same age I am today. What follows is his story; an oral history based on memory, as told to me during a late-night hour-and-a-half long phone conversation. —Paul Menchaca, co-editor, Last Exit.
We were in the midst of it, in the thick of it, all of us. They had done Mercury and Gemini and when I arrived in ’66 we were just beginning with Apollo, which is the one that was supposed to take man to the moon and back. We sat around talking recently and we’re still overwhelmed by the thought of what we did and the fact that there was never any doubt in anybody’s mind what we were doing. There was never any doubt about the goal. They say there were about 400,000 people all over the world working on the lunar landing mission. The earth is rotating, the moon is rotating and we needed to be able to have communication with the astronauts as much as possible. So we had tracking stations all over the world.
We had 400,000 people with one goal in mind: We are going to the moon and back. Nobody doubted that. Everybody knew that, every hour of the day. Today, that’s a problem. Everybody has an idea as to what the goal for NASA ought to be and it’s not the same. That was the difference of the lunar landing mission. That was why it was done so efficiently, so quickly. It was done from ’61 to ’69. In 1962 when President Kennedy gave his speech in Houston about the space program and the lunar mission, there was nothing but cattle where the Johnson Space Center is now. Seven years later, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. The reason that happened is because one, we had the money, and two, everyone was pointing in the same direction.
I was involved in a very big program called the Apollo Reference Mission Program, which was highly recognized within NASA. It could simulate the entire lunar landing mission. Towards the end I was the only one working on that program. I had in my garage at one point seven gigantic binders that contained all the formulation in that program. And I knew all of it backwards and forwards.
I was actually interviewed the year before I took the job but it didn’t sound like it was right for me at the time so I went back to California. I was working at Edwards Air Force Base and was part of a team testing planes. I was the assistant programmer. It was interesting work but I really wanted to be a pilot. So I went to Randolph Air Force base near San Antonio and underwent every single test imaginable. I got a job in Washington, D.C. in the meantime. This was the early ‘60s. And in the meantime, I also met (my future wife). It was the proverbial love at first sight.
So I began working in Maryland for the Corp of Engineers in the field of geodesy, or studying the shape of the earth. And all of a sudden we started making a lot of maps of Vietnam—all these different places in Vietnam. There was a lot of talk about Vietnam, although nothing real. But we knew something was amiss. I knew they were bringing in a lot of people because of Vietnam. I got accepted to flight school, but at that time I was very serious about getting married so I turned them down. I interviewed again with NASA—I had been reading up on it and realized this is what I really wanted to do—and took the job. It was called Manned Spacecraft Center at the time and not NASA. I went into the mission planning and analysis program. Kennedy had already committed us to the moon when I arrived so I knew that was the goal.
Tom Wolfe wrote in The New York Times that the moment Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon that was the death knell for NASA. And the reason for that is because we never thought about anything else except landing a man on the moon and bringing him back. That was it. There was nothing beyond that. We were so obsessed with it. And the goal was so monumental, so incomprehensible. Imagine that. We had never been there; we had never stepped into another heavenly body, but we knew that we were going to do it. And there was a lot of silly talk about the moon—that there was about six feet of dust and that when we stuck the lunar module on it, it would sink into the moon. The unanswered questions were there all the time.
But it was so damn exciting because it was something new, it was something never done before in the history of mankind. It was very significant and we sort of felt that, but we were so busy. We knew it was something big, we really did, but everybody was so busy day and night. That’s why my friends and I are so bonded together. We are so connected by that experience. That thing. It’s incredible.
Neil Armstrong was asked why we went to the moon. And Neil Armstrong is a brilliant man; he’s an engineer and a man of few words. And he did not mince words: He said it was because we wanted to beat the Russians. And that’s true. At NASA we didn’t see it that way even though that was the motivation behind it. The country was brought together by the idea that we were defending ourselves against Russia and if they dominated space we would be in trouble. But we never thought about it. It was just exciting to do what we were doing. It was just a fantastic time. It was really a situation where I guess luck also came into the picture that I ended up doing that.
I wrote an email recently that said our generation would be known as the “audacious generation.” We dared to do something that had never been done before. Not necessarily just everybody who was working at NASA, but all the people who supported us including the government and Kennedy. All of them had the vision and determination to help us do what we did.
I think the most important question now is whether we should continue space exploration. I saw an interview with Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin and their response to that question was very fuzzy. They couldn’t really say why we should continue doing space exploration. And I asked my friends and everybody came back with a different answer to it. One of them said that you would never get a unified response because everybody has their own ideas as to whether we should or should not.
Wernher von Braun (the famed German rocket scientist who lead the development of the Saturn V booster rocket used in the Apollo 11 lunar mission-Ed.) said we are the only intelligent species in the universe and therefore we have a responsibility to preserve our species. And he was proposing to develop what he called a multi-planet species. He said we need to explore space because we have to establish our species on another planet. And there are a lot of people who agree with that because their thinking is that if we are going to do in this earth we are going to do ourselves in with it. Therefore we should start thinking about colonizing the moon or Mars so that we can preserve our species. We are supposedly rapidly doing damage to the earth in so many different ways, specifically pollution.
But some people have said that the only way we can continue exploring space is if there is a good return on investment. Meaning that there would be sufficient spin-offs where technology can be transferred to practical uses. The problem with that is it doesn’t hold water with the taxpayers anymore because they’ve heard that too much. They’ve heard that the computer and the chips and the networking and all of that stuff come out of the space program. But somehow, that doesn’t inspire people anymore.
Tom Wolfe wrote that what NASA needs now is a philosopher or philosophers like von Braun who can think big and can express broad ideas as to why we should continue the process of space exploration. The question of whether we should continue exploring space is a very heavy, profound question. My short answer would be yes. Why? Because. Somebody said a long time ago that whoever controls space controls the planet and I believe that. It is the nature of our species to venture out and to take chances. But it’s very difficult to transfer that to practical words. And yet there’s a great feeling that you get being involved in this effort because you’re moving in a direction that no one has ever gone before. And that goes for everything we do in space, even from mission to mission.
Just today the astronauts were working outside the space station doing repairs. To me that is so exciting. Nothing that we can do on earth gives me a high as much as that because—as someone else has said—I see the inevitability of us being in space. The earth is too small for us. But I don’t think there is a way of convincing people about the necessity of continuing space exploration.
Years after the lunar landing we were working on something called LDEF, which was a simple mechanism that was collecting hydrogen and heavy atoms that were bombarding the earth. We were collecting them by the millions—they are showering the earth, but you can’t see them and you can’t feel them. But we had a mechanism by which you could catch them and then we measured the density of those atoms. And one day I was in my boss’ office and he asked me whether I knew what this project was all about. I told him I knew that we were collecting impacts of millions of atoms that are showering the earth. He said, “That has nothing to do with anything. We are trying to find out more about the Big Bang and verify that it happened.” But we couldn’t get funded for that. It’s too esoteric for Congress to fund. So we used vague words and covered it up. It’s pitiful, but a lot of that is happening in NASA—they give you words that don’t say exactly what the experiment is so no one knows what you’re doing.
When Wernher von Braun said that we should build a bridge to the stars so that we can preserve our species because our species is very special, this is the broader kind of idea that I can sympathize with, and that my friends can sympathize with. But people want utilitarianism. The space station is just going around and around, but it’s collecting unbelievable information about the earth. We have tools in the space station that can identify crops all over the planet. It is very important. We need to learn more about the environment we live in. This is our home. The galaxy is our home.
We met recently for a reunion to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing and we were talking very excitedly about our experiences as if things had just happened last week or yesterday. We talked about the fact that some of us worked through the night during the mission, sleeping there in the building and how nobody ever complained about it. We were totally dedicated. And then I looked around and I thought, “Here we are, old with white hair.” And so many who worked on that mission have died by now. It was a bittersweet moment.
When I wasn’t thinking about it, it almost felt like it was then. But then reality hit me to know this is it. This is the end of the line, like our last call together. We realize the time has gone by but I think we all understand that we were involved in something very special, very unique. There is always just the first time.
Paul Menchaca is the co-editor of Last Exit.
Copyright Last Exit 2009
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