Over 400,000 Apollo workers helped the US land on the moon. Here are some of their stories
By CHABELI HERRERA | Orlando Sentinel | Published: July 13, 2019
ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — It took more than 400,000 scientists, engineers and technicians across the United States, an army of workers that together tackled what seemed like an invincible foe: Getting a spacecraft to break free of the iron grasp of Earth's atmosphere into lunar orbit and then, with pinpoint precision, onto that powdery surface we now know makes up the moon.
The three men who took the journey became the faces of the achievement – arguably humanity's greatest. But it was the men and women who worked in factories and offices across the nation over the better part of a decade – people like Frances "Poppy" Northcutt, the first woman in NASA's Mission Control, and Bill Moon, a Chinese American flight controller who was the first minority to work in Mission Control – that took the moon landing from presidential challenge to tangible reality.
At the end of the Apollo 11 mission, on July 23, 1969 – 50 years ago this summer – moonwalker Neil Armstrong concluded his final television broadcast before he, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were scheduled to return to Earth with a message to the thousands of people who had worked on the Apollo project.
"We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft; who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft," Armstrong said. "To those people tonight, we give a special thank you, and to all the other people that are listening and watching tonight, God bless you. Goodnight from Apollo 11."
These days, the majority if not all of the workers who built one of the millions of pieces of equipment that flew to space have long retired. Many went on to have lengthy careers in aerospace working on the subsequent Space Shuttle program or the International Space Station.
But they cut their teeth on Apollo.
With the pressure of a deadline set for the end of the decade by President John F. Kennedy, America's aerospace community set to the seemingly insurmountable task of developing a massive rocket and corresponding spacecraft that could safely carry humans away from our world to a new one. Much of it had never been done before.
Armstrong recalls the pressure and workload of those days in his oral history for NASA.
"When I was working here at the Johnson Space Center, then the Manned Spacecraft Center, you could stand across the street and you could not tell when quitting time was, because people didn't leave at quitting time in those days," he said. "People just worked, and they worked until whatever their job was done, and if they had to be there until five o'clock or seven o'clock or nine-thirty or whatever it was, they were just there. They did it, and then they went home."
At the height of the Apollo program, NASA consumed more than 4% of the federal budget, opening the way for the kind of work and testing that had to be done to achieve the moon landing. It fostered major partnerships with prime contractors including Boeing, North American Aviation (later Rockwell Standard Corp.), McDonnell Douglas, the Grumman Corporation and Rocketdyne.
And it attracted recent engineering graduates to tackle the world's most complex problems. They were so young, in fact, that the average age of the engineers inside Mission Control when the Apollo 11 capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969 was 28.
"This was a project in which everybody involved was, one, interested, two, dedicated, and, three, fascinated by the job they were doing," Armstrong said in his oral history. "And whenever you have those ingredients, whether it be government or private industry or a retail store, you're going to win."
Here are some of the people that led the U.S. to achieve that glory:
Jerry Siemers: Building Apollo
The morning of July 16, 1969, Jerry Siemers was alone in his apartment across from NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in Clear Lake, about 20 miles southeast of Houston. On the grainy TV screen before him, the Saturn V rocket he had worked on was taking off from Kennedy Space Center on a mission to the moon.
He was tense.
He watched the rocket on pad 39A and started to shuffle in his mind through every piece he had worked on. Every piece he had signed off on. The faces of the men he knew would be lost if he had made any misstep.
Then ignition, lift off – and euphoria. "There is goes," he thought, joyfully, before his thoughts quickly turned to the next milestone.
"Oh my God, we have to have stage separation, and those engines have to last so many minutes," he thought.
When the astronauts were on the moon: "Oh my gosh, I hope they don't trip over something."
When they had to lift off the moon: "Oh my gosh, is that going to work? And the rendezvous in lunar orbit?"
For someone who had worked on so many components of the mission, from the design of the 39A launch complex, to the rocket itself, to the lunar rover, to the Apollo spacecraft, watching the Apollo 11 mission was a equal parts ecstasy and existential dread.
"You are all tensed up waiting for something and then it all works fine and that goes on for the whole mission," Siemers, now 79, recalled. "It was really amazing (that it succeeded.) It's such a relief when they splashed down."
Siemers' work as a young mechanical engineer at Boeing spanned the Saturn V program in Huntsville, Ala., beginning in 1964 to the Apollo (and later Apollo/Soyuz) program out of Houston through 1975. He was part of the first wave of Boeing engineers out of Huntsville to move into a converted office space at a Ramada Inn across the Manned Spacecraft Center working on systems engineering and design requirements.
At the end of his career, after a stint working on programs outside of space for Boeing, Siemers worked on the International Space Station for the company, ultimately becoming Boeing's chief ISS engineer. He retired in 2007.
But his claim to fame, he argues, was something that happened on Apollo 12.
Two weeks before that launch in November 1969, Siemers' NASA branch chief approached him with a request to get an experiment on board, but the command module was sealed and ready to go, and nothing could be added last minute.
"He said, 'You don't understand, it's got to get on,'" Siemers said.
But under NASA rules, for a piece to get on a craft it needed a corresponding detailed drawing that had to be approved and assigned a part number before it could fly. So the young engineer rushed over to NASA's drawing center in Houston, sketched the small rectangular metal piece with all of its dimensions, got it approved for a part number and hand wrote the number on the experiment, "No. 501 dash something." He convinced a NASA astronaut to fly it to the Cape on a T-38 Talon supersonic jet – just in time.
"So my claim to fame is my handwriting went to the moon," Siemers said. "Kind of fun."
Bob Zagrodnick: Building the Apollo Guidance Computer
At a manufacturing facility in Waltham, Massachusetts, Bob Zagrodnick was only 25 years old when he started working on the computer that would one day pilot the Apollo command and lunar modules.
The electrical engineer started out preparing the instructions to teach other engineers how the computer worked from an electrical design standpoint, before he got involved in testing the computer and doing work on prototype versions. The final version of the Apollo Guidance Computer weighed about 70 pounds and calculated position, velocity and trajectory for every Apollo mission. It was one of the first integrated circuit-based computers and a marvel at a time when technology was quickly evolving.
So quickly, in fact, that "toward the end of the program, Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard came out with hand-held computers that were more powerful than the (Apollo) computer," said Zagrodnick, now 80.
But the computer and its development were instrumental in the safety and success of the lunar missions. It helped NASA circumvent the 1.5-second time delay in signal transmissions from Earth to the moon and back, allowing it to troubleshoot issues in real time, instead of relying on responses from the ground-based systems.
The Apollo Guidance Computer's development spanned about a decade of Zagrodnick's career. He went on to work as the engineering manager and then the program manager on Apollo for Raytheon through the end of the Apollo program and retired after 50 years at Raytheon in 2013.
"We tested all of the computers, every one that was built for flight," Zagrodnick said. "We had a pretty tight schedule, and we had very stringent quality requirements to meet. We were working 24/7 throughout most of the program on the production floor, testing wise."
During his time working on Apollo, Zagrodnick made it out to the Cape for several launches, but the memory that still sticks in his mind isn't Apollo 11 or even a launch itself.
It was his trip to a restaurant before a launch with his family.
It was then when, sitting by the entrance to the establishment, he cracked a joke about German rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun.
"Just as a I said that, there he was walking by the table," Zagrodnick recalled, laughing. "I don't know if he heard me or not – but I recognized him!"
Frank DeMattia: Building the Saturn V
Just two weeks after graduating with an electrical engineering degree from the University of Miami, Frank DeMattia found himself living on Cocoa Beach working on the Saturn V rocket.
It was 1969 and that summer, NASA planned to put human footprints on the moon. Not yet quite 22, DeMattia was one of the youngest engineers working at Kennedy Space Center. His first job: working for Rockwell on the rocket's instrumentation systems, measuring performance parameters on the second stage of the Saturn V.
"You're a young person, 21 at the time, (and) historically you just don't have the mature perspective of what this means to the history of the planet," DeMattia said. "(But) everybody there was committed to making this thing work. It was a national effort. President Kennedy had said, 'Go do this,' and the nation took him seriously."
The pressure was intense, DeMattia said. There were seven-day work weeks. Some work shifts spanned 48 hours. And the engineers were acutely aware that the lives of the astronauts they passed in the hallways and ran into at a night club or in a restaurant were in their hands.
"You didn't want anybody to get killed on one of these things," he said.
At launch time, DeMattia also was responsible for monitoring some of the measurements coming into the launch control center – and calling an abort if something didn't look right. Now 72, he still keenly remembers sitting and watching a piece of paper scrolling before him with a red line across the sheet, hoping the needle measuring the data wouldn't pass the red line indicating something was wrong and the mission had to be called off.
That's where he was for the Apollo 11 launch, watching the red line measuring hydrogen and oxygen tank pressures on the rocket's second stage.
"As a young guy you didn't want to do that, you get extremely nervous," DeMattia said. "You have thousands of people waiting to launch this giant rocket, and you are watching this little needle. Thankfully I never had to call an abort."
About two years after arriving at KSC, DeMattia went on to work with the Apollo program on the communications radios that connected the spacecraft with the team back on Earth. He stayed at the Cape until 1974, when he moved to California to design the avionics for the Space Shuttle program.
He would go on to hold numerous prominent positions at Rockwell and Boeing (the two merged in 1996), including as the senior program director and southern California site leader for the multibillion-dollar Future Combat Systems program to modernize the Army's vehicles. He retired in 2006 and has since worked as a space consultant.
With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission near, DeMattia is still astounded by the will that propelled the nation to accomplish the feat, one that hasn't been repeated since the final moon landing in 1972.
"Looking back at it, we had extremely simple technology. The phone you carry around with you has hundreds of times more processing power than the machines we used to go to the moon with," he said. "Yet with that simple technology and much lower levels of redundancy in the systems, we still managed to get there and get back, which is pretty astounding."
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