June 19, 2019
The 1960s–what a time to be a geek!
In one decade you could follow the golden arc of the U.S. space program, from its struggles to leave the launch pad through the triumph of walking on the moon.
Every year there was a magical achievement. The first manned flight. The first orbit. Spacewalks. Rendezvous. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. Then the tragedy of the fire, Christmas Eve wishes from the moon, and finally that “one small step.”
Like many kids, I traced all the steps. I watched every launch, listened to every word from Walter Cronkite. I ran my own simulations with Wally Schirra, using a plastic cottage cheese container as my Gemini module, with two army men as astronauts, splashing down in a 5-gallon bucket of water. It was as close as I could ever hope to go into space.
But now, 50 years later, we can talk with real astronauts–and NASA engineers and flight directors–at the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Program, offered free to the public on July 11 by the Dynamic Learning Institute in Kerrville.
Tom Moser and Jeff Anderson have put together a roster of space veterans that will tell their stories of actually being there. In addition to Moser, the lineup is filled with names even casual fans of the space program will recognize: Norm Chaffee, Engineer; Gerry Griffin, Flight Director; Fred Haise, astronaut (Apollo 13); Tommy Holloway, Flight Director; and Jack Lousma, Astronaut.
Moser–who now serves as a Kerr County Commissioner–started out as a “grunt engineer,” going on to become Director of Engineering, Head of Structural Design, and Deputy Associate Administrator for Spaceflight. He worked on the shuttle program from concept to operational flight, or as he put it, “from sketch pad to launch pad.”
But the theme for this event is Apollo 11.
“We’re going to talk about what did it take to get there, beginning with Mercury and Gemini,” Moser said. “We’re going to talk about what we each did, from the perspectives of two engineers, two flight directors, and two astronauts. We’ll all tell our stories, and hopefully some the public has never heard.”
Outside of NASA, the 1960s were changing in other ways. The world was dealing with civil rights, campus unrest, reordering of social roles, and the rise of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But the people working on the space program were in different world. Moser describes Clear Lake in 1963 as being “literally a cow pasture.”
“We didn’t get involved in all that,” he said of the political winds. “We were a group of young engineers just working on getting to the moon. We were focused on what our mission was.”
The average age of those pioneers was 28.
“The key was that we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Moser said. “Being that young, we really didn’t know what we couldn’t do.”
Having the support of a nation helped. It was echoed in the words President John F. Kennedy spoke in 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
“We had the support of everyone, from the president to the congress to the public,” Moser said. “You could have the best program in the world, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have political support. I’m not sure that will ever exist again.”
After the Apollo program ended, the space station was such a hard sell that funding only got out of committee by one vote, twice. Moser, who was named its first Program Director, needed to remind congress of the benefits.
“When we started back in 1957, we didn’t know what the benefits of being in space would be then,” he said. “And they were huge–weather satellites, GPS mapping. I told congress to put it in space as a micro-gravity laboratory. If it doesn’t pan out, put it in the Pacific Ocean. So far, the investment has been worth it.”
As the NASA veterans shepherded the space program beyond the moon landings, they also gained PR savvy.
“The shuttle program was almost canceled,” Moser said. “It was not until we put one on the back of a 747 and flew it across the country so people could see it did congress say, yea, verily.”
Moser and his colleagues will pull back the curtain on the workings inside the Johnson Space Center.
“We would argue and cuss, slam our hands, sitting around a huge table. Everybody had the opportunity to present their case. Then, after long debates, we’d say, go for it. Somebody made the decision. It was our good fortune that we had really great managers.”
The panel will also share their thoughts on where space exploration is headed, including a return to the moon, Mars exploration, and the rise of private sector investment. But it will mostly be a time to hear and honor these pioneers who just took care of the job at hand.
“Those men had a will and a commitment to do what they were asked to do. It’s simply what it was,” Moser said. “On that night, we’re going to be looking at all of this, and what has been accomplished, and the benefits. The question remains: should we continue the journey? That’s for the public to answer. That’s how we’re going to end it.”
This geek will be there.
The Dynamic Learning Institute will host Apollo 11: 50th Anniversary Tribute
Thursday July 11, 2019, 6-8 pm
Cailloux Theater, Kerrville TX
The event is free, but advance registration is required at www.clubed.net or by calling 830.792.4044.