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Fifty years later, Apollo participants tell their Moon-landing stories

‘What we, the people of Earth, did’

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Apollo 16 Astronaut Charlie Duke, speaking, with, seated from left, Flight Director Milt Windler, Apollo 9 Astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 13 Astronaut Fred Haise, Apollo 17 Astronaut Harrison Schmitt, Flight Director Gerry Griffin and Apollo 7 Astronaut Walter Cunningham at the Cradle of Aviation museum on June 6.
Apollo 16 Astronaut Charlie Duke, speaking, with, seated from left, Flight Director Milt Windler, Apollo 9 Astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 13 Astronaut Fred Haise, Apollo 17 Astronaut Harrison Schmitt, Flight Director Gerry Griffin and Apollo 7 Astronaut Walter Cunningham at the Cradle of Aviation museum on June 6.
Courtesy Cradle of Aviation museum

As far as challenges go, Apollo 17 Astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt likened the U.S. effort to put a man on the Moon as roughly the engineering equivalent of building the Panama Canal or Transcontinental Railroad.

“You have to look at them in the context of the times,” said Schmitt, 83, one of the final two people to walk on Earth’s lone natural satellite as part of the last Apollo mission in 1972. “What technology was available? … What are the challenges that face you? Certainly there were challenges for Apollo. We didn’t quite know how to do it, at least not when we started.”

Schmitt, one of only a dozen people to walk on the moon, spoke at Nassau County’s Cradle of Aviation Museum on June 6, as one of seven members of the Apollo program invited to share their stories in honor of the 50th anniversary of humankind’s first foray to a celestial body other than our own.

The previous decades had brought advantages that made it possible, Schmitt said, with World War II and the opening years of the Cold War introducing a series of technology leaps. And with some forethought, in January 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower commissioned the construction of a “super booster” rocket that would evolve into the legendary Saturn V, which remains the most powerful space rocket ever constructed.

Schmitt described takeoff in the black-and-white, 363-foot-tall behemoth and its 7.6 million pounds of thrust as a “low-frequency vibration,” with movement of the spaceship barely perceptible until it attained higher speeds in the atmosphere’s upper layers.

Unlike his peers, who mostly began their astronaut careers as test pilots, Schmitt is a professional geologist, who until being selected as the first and only full-fledged scientist to become an Apollo astronaut, served as a consultant, training the crews of previous missions in the experiments they would perform on the lunar surface.

That was until he got a call from Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton, his boss and the director of flight crew operations at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, asking him if he wanted to take the trip.

“Sure,” he chuckled, “why not?”

Schmitt spent the three days in transit from Earth to the Moon brushing up on his amateur meteorology skills, staring at weather patterns on the big blue sphere. He even identified a typhoon, he noted.

“The whole adventure was an emotional high,” he said, but “landing on the moon and actually getting out of the space craft was clearly the high point.”

Once there, he said, “As a geologist, then I had three days to really practice my profession, if you will, on the surface of the Moon.”

The Moon rock samples that he and others collected, including a 3-meter-deep core sample, Schmitt said, were like “the gift that keeps on giving,” allowing humankind to peer into the earliest moments of Earth’s geological history, and the planetary matter shared between the two celestial objects, relatively untouched on the Moon’s pristine surface. To this day, Schmitt still works with other geologists studying the soil samples that he helped collect to synthesize their findings into workable theories and research papers.

As he recounted his experience, he sat in front of a replica Apollo command module, and above it hung the original parachute — one of three — that deployed to land his capsule safely in the Pacific Ocean.

“Yeah,” he smiled when asked what piece of cloth meant to him, “it’s nice to get home.”

‘Go or no go’

In 1969 alone, the United States made four Apollo launches, including its first landing with Apollo 11 in July. Flight Director Gerry Griffin, who oversaw all nine manned Apollo missions from mission control, described the period as a “blur.” In all, there were six Moon landings.

While the astronauts who took part could rest after their missions, Griffin, now 84, and his team had to prepare for the next launch. “We never had a chance to take a break,” he said.

He had dozens of experts, both inside and outside of mission control, feeding him information, including the engineers from Grumman, McDonnell Douglas and Boeing who had helped construct the rocket, as well as the command and lunar modules used on the missions.

He described the configuration as a “pyramid,” in which he, along with the three other Apollo flight directors whom he worked with in shifts, had the final say. He likened his position to a composer leading a vast orchestra of scientists and engineers.

“Flight director was the guy in mission control with the final responsibility there to say go or no go,” he said, explaining his role.

The buildup to Apollo 11 came in incremental steps, with the technologies and techniques tested in previous missions. It was the right way to go about such an ambitious project, Griffin said.

“They were great confidence builders,” he said of the test flights, including Apollo 8, which was the second manned Apollo mission, and the first time that humans had left low-Earth orbit. (Apollo 8 orbited the Moon in 1968, but did not land on it.)

“At that point, we didn’t know it, but I think with Apollo 8, the Soviet Union knew we had beat them” to the Moon, he said. “I think the space race kind of ended at that point.”

Griffin wasn’t on duty during the final stretch of the Apollo 11 landing, but remained in mission control for the historic moment. He recalled the room becoming silent as the flight director on duty, Eugene Francis “Gene” Kranz, ordered that all incoming calls be silenced except for the one relaying how much fuel was left.

“We’re picking up some dust,” reported Buzz Aldrin at about 30 feet above the surface. For Griffin, it was the highlight of those tense few minutes as the delicate lunar module made its slow descent. For him, more than any other line uttered during that mission, it illustrated how close he and Neil Armstrong were to the Moon’s surface.

Griffin would again be at the forefront of history when he helped guide the Apollo 13 astronauts home after a catastrophic failure of an oxygen tank forced NASA to abort the mission.

He and three other teams worked around the clock to improvise a checklist of what needed to be done, which dwindled over time as resources ran short, and the ground team and crew ran out of options, but he said, “We never once talked about not getting them back.”

‘Higher and faster’

Russell Louis “Rusty” Schweickart was an astronaut aboard Apollo 9, which served as a crucial test of the program’s lunar module in March 1969.

Schweickart, 83, had until that point worked closely on the LEM, or lunar excursion module, with the Grumman engineers on Long Island to bring the complex feat of engineering up to the place it needed to be to land astronauts on the Moon.

It was a difficult task, he said, that involved multiple redesigns of the lander, until he and the engineers were confident it would work as designed.

“On any complicated vehicle, you’re going to find many, many, many, many problems,” he said, “And we found many, many, many, many problems.”

Despite never walking on the Moon, Schweickart said he had no regrets. “I don’t care what I did … or Neil Armstrong did for that matter, or Buzz Aldrin,” he said. “What I care about is what we, the people of Earth did 50 years ago.”