More than 400,000 Americans helped put a man on the moon. It will always be at the top of my list of America’s greatest achievements. Even as I looked up at the moon on Saturday evening, the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to step foot on the lunar surface, the feat seems impossible.
Armstrong’s words are as memorable today as the day he spoke them on July 20, 1969 — “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
President John F. Kennedy challenged the country to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
“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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win,” Kennedy said before a huge crowd at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas on Sept. 12, 1962.
Among the 400,000 was JoAnn Morgan, the first female launch controller. She was at Kennedy Space Center when Apollo 11 rocketed toward the moon carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins.
Leading the team of engineers and scientists at Mission Control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, was Eugene “White Flight” Kranz.
Kranz was flight director during the Gemini and Apollo space programs. Kranz was known for his “mission vests” which were sewn by his wife and his flattop hairstyle.
Kranz, a graduate of St. Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology in 1954, led a $5 million fundraising effort to restore Mission Control in time for the 50th anniversary.
Mission Control was more than a room filled with historical items, it was a place where mankind came together to do some amazing things, Kranz said.
He was the flight director for Apollo 11, when the world watched as man landed on the moon, and Apollo 13 as the world prayed for the safe return of astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise. The three were 200,000 miles from Earth on April 13, 1970, when Swigert was told to flip a switch to “stir the tanks” causing a spark from an exposed wire in the oxygen tank to ignite a fire and rip apart an oxygen tank and destroy another.
“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” Swigert said.
The movie Apollo 13 documents the around-the-clock work done at Mission Control to bring the men home.
Another woman behind the scenes was Christine Darden, a mathematical genius, featured in the movie “Hidden Figures.” In 1972 she asked why only white men were allowed to become NASA engineers and was later promoted.
Darden was a mathematician, data analyst and aeronautical engineer who worked with NASA for 40 years.
She had to deal with a lot of prejudice as a black woman working for NASA during the Civil Rights movement, but Darden would not be deterred. She was one of the many who helped put man on the moon. She was one of NAS’s human computers in 1967.
Reaching the moon took the best and brightest from across the country.
Even a man who grew up on a farm near Parker, right here in Miami County, had a role to play.
Gene Rogers, now 84, was in his 30s when he was assigned to work on the fuel system that would propel Apollo 11 to the moon.
Rogers started working on the project in 1966. Rogers, an expert welder, completed finite work on aluminum pipe casts, part of the hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells that provided the Apollo 11 energy source.
Watching footage of those early days as NASA tested rockets; I am amazed at the bravery of the astronauts.
Even when the rockets were launching into space, the astronauts knew there was a chance they might never come home.
Some died in our quest to reach the moon. Astronauts Roger Chaffe, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Edward White were killed at Cape Kennedy during a training exercise for the Apollo 1 mission Jan. 27, 1967, when the cabin caught fire and the crew was unable to get out of the spaceship.
Astronaut test pilots who died were Theodore Freean (Oct. 31, 1964), Charles Bassett and Elliott See (Feb. 28, 1966), Clifton Williams (Oct. 5, 1967), Michael J. Adams (November 15, 1967) and Robert H. Lawrence Jr. (Dec. 8, 1967).
Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Francis Scobee and Michael Smith died when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in flight Jan. 28, 1986.
President Ronald Reagan said all those who died in space flight were American heroes.
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives,” Reagan said the day of the horrific explosion. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
When the movie Apollo 13 came out, I was fascinated with NASA, the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle missions and began to write some of the men I had read about and saw on the big screen.
It was always a thrill to hear back from one of them.
I have a framed piece with pictures of the Earth rising, taking during the Apollo missions with index cards singed by Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon; John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth; Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13; James McDivitt, who flew in Gemini and Apollo missions and was commander of Gemini 4; and Eugene “White Flight” Kranz, flight director at NASA during the Gemini and Apollo missions.
Landing on the moon is the greatest achievement in the history of America.