PAOLA — Many children dream of becoming astronauts when they grow up.
A kid who grew up on a farm near Parker had a hand in making the dream of landing on the moon come true for NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins on July 20, 1969.
Gene Rogers, now 84, was in his mid-30s when he was assigned to work on the fuel system that would propel Apollo 11 to the moon.
Though the landing took place in the summer of 1969, Rogers’ role in the space adventure began in 1966 with his feet firmly planted on the ground.
The expert welder completed finite work on aluminum pipe casts, part of the hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells that provided the Apollo’s energy source, according to www.airandspace.si.edu.
“You couldn’t believe the exact specifications I had to follow,” said Rogers, who now lives in Paola. “It was X-ray welds, and there were only three guys at the time that could make that weld — I was one of them.”
Astronaut is ranked No. 11 among the top 15 kids’ dream jobs, according to www.balancecareers.com. But as a teenager, Rogers knew his future was in welding.
“I took to welding right away,” Rogers said. “I was really good at it. I was never without a job.”
Rogers admitted he was skeptical about the space program when he was assigned to work on the project while at Natkin Company in Kansas City, Mo.
He sipped a cup of coffee as he recalled the project as the country prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing Saturday.
“I had my doubts. I didn’t see how they were going to get to the moon. And if they did, I didn’t see how they were going to get it back down,” Rogers said. “I had (government) engineers standing over me the whole time I was working on it. Those guys had their doubts, too.”
But Rogers said he was determined to do his best work.
Companies across the country had to do some of their best work in putting the Apollo program into space. Taylor Forge in Paola produced 124 gas storage vessels for NASA’s Apollo program, according to the company’s history.
Rogers, who also worked on projects for everything from Minuteman missile sites during the Cold War to power generating plants, has no regrets about leaving the farm to pursue his gift as a welder.
Rogers said he was told not to say anything about his work for the Apollo program.
“It was all kept hush, hush. I didn’t say a whisper,” said Rogers, smiling. “I know it’s been 50 years, but I’m not sure I should be talking about it now.”