The Apollo Era, 1968-1972
Then things started happening very rapidly, because we were approaching the Apollo era of sending men to the Moon. I was on the lunar operations working group for Apollo 8, 10, and 11. Apollo 11 was the one that landed. We briefed the astronauts on what targets they should image from orbit—they had very good cameras in orbit—and where to take pictures that would be of high scientific interest. All of that is up in the Space Imagery Center here.
Apollo, in my estimation, is the best thing that humanity has ever done. It was thrilling, because we thought the space program was going somewhere. We were reaching the Moon. Gene Shoemaker had told his students that you’ll be doing your PhD thesis on the Moon. That’s what we believed. It was what we all wanted—some of us wanted to go to the Moon, but we all wanted to study the Moon and the planets. The whole world was listening. Even though the Commies, the Russians, were beaten badly, they were thrilled. The only country that I believe did not tell its people was Communist China. The rest of the world was totally engaged in Apollo.
To see Armstrong and then Aldrin get out, and of course you’ve seen probably the ghostly kind of images—the first TVs weren’t all that hot. Your heart was skipping. God, we’re down! Get the rocks, get the thing done, get back in and make sure you get back. It was so new and it seemed so dangerous that your heart was just in your mouth, so to speak, because you wanted it to succeed. I have all these fantastic memories of Apollo and the men on the Moon, and I envied them so much because I wanted to go. And I still want to go.
Everybody who was alive at that time, except for the jaded, know where they were when Apollo 11 landed, and I was at the Desert Inn Motel at Miami Beach, Florida, which is where my mom used to take us on summer vacation. Very cheap motel, but it was by the beach. We were there and I remember watching the TV and getting the news about the landing. It was evening there in Florida and then the excitement of being allowed to stay up late to watch the moonwalk, but we didn’t have to stay up late because the astronauts were actually able to get out earlier than expected. We watched these pictures and it was really, really exciting. It seemed to me as a ten-year old that it was the start of a new era.
I saw the Apollo 11 landing. I was actually up in Flagstaff. My wife Gayle, who I was going with at the time, was working up at the Museum in Northern Arizona. We were invited across the street from the Museum of Northern Arizona. There’s a big, beautiful, white-framed farmhouse-looking thing which was a building that belonged to the Museum. The staff had all gathered there.
We were all sitting around in this nice quaint old house watching this television set. There’re coming around the Moon and now they’re coming around the back of the Moon and yes, we’ve got radio contact again, and now they’re coming around the front side and they’re going to go down and land. [Chet] Huntley and [David] Brinkley were saying this thing about, “Okay, this is such an amazing moment in the history of humanity, we’re just going to stop talking and let you listen to the chatter between Houston and the astronauts,” and that was all coming through. The landing maneuver was just about to start. They’re doing their engine-burn and they’re going to go down, this is going to start in the next few minutes, this is all going to happen, and this little five-year-old kid shouts “Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom!” and Daddy has to take him out just at the moment when we’re landing on the Moon.
We were halfway between Italy and Corsica, just a summer vacation. It was midnight, and all the Italians on board were being very happy about it all. Just at the moment of landing they were all looking at the TV, and they were whooping it up. It was a very intense time for people working in space. Spent a lot of time in the lab—I remember 60, 80 hour weeks. If you’re getting ready for a flight, you know, you don’t have time to sit around, you have to work day and night. Crazy schedules.
One of the big surprises for everybody was they actually did go to the Moon, but it was the government that did it. Everybody had always thought that it would be some sort of pioneering industrialist that would finance this thing and they’d build it in their backyard. Then it actually happened and, my God, it was a 25 billion dollar project run by the federal government, and bureaucracy as far as the eye could see, because if you didn’t have bureaucracy you wouldn’t get anything done.
There’s nothing like observing new things. I think most scientists feel that way, no matter what their field is. I can remember in 1969 I spent two weeks in Budapest. This was when the Iron Curtain was still strong.
People would just walk up to us in the streets and say, “Congratulations, Americans!” I still remember that. That was very riveting to them. I think part of it was a reaction to the Russians, because they were under the foot of the Russians at the time. But also it was partly that it was a very exciting time.
I actually got to see Apollo 14 launched, which was very impressive. The big physical sensation is just that the low-frequency sound. You can actually feel it sort of hitting in and vibrating your stomach. That’s the sound the microphones can’t catch.