IT WAS July 20, 1969. The Apollo 11 spacecraft and the lunar landing module named Eagle circled the moon making last-minute preparations for the first historic landing of man on the moon. I sat in the mission support room at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, with dozens of thoughts rebounding in my mind: Will the landing be a safe one? Will the system for which I was responsible operate properly and carry out its necessary functions?
I, as well as many others who had worked diligently many years for this moment, waited and listened intently. Suddenly, a voice from 240,000 miles in space said: “Houston, the Eagle has landed.” How excited and thrilled I was at hearing those words!
And, yet, although I had helped to design, build and test the spacecraft that brought man to the moon’s surface, I soon realized that I had not found success—real success—and happiness in life. But before I tell you more about that, let me first explain how I got involved in the space program and the effect it had on my life.
I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma where hard physical work was a way of life. Even though we had sufficient food, clothing and shelter, there were times when we did not have enough money to purchase a postage stamp, which at that time cost only three cents (U.S.).
My father had been reared in a very poor family and had received only a second-grade education. So he instilled in his children the need to get a good college education in order to succeed.
This is what I determined to do. I worked long hours during summer months and worked part-time jobs during school months. I attended class all day and studied each night until the wee hours of the morning. In 1961 I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering.
During the four years that I was in college the aerospace program had begun to build momentum, and many companies were clamoring for engineering graduates. This certainly appealed to me as it seemed like a huge step up from life on the farm. Since I had made good grades in college, I received numerous offers of employment from all over the United States. I accepted one at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the launch site for all manned space flights.
Striving for Success
It took little time for me to get caught up in the atmosphere of the space program. Just three weeks after I started on the job, the first United States manned orbital spacecraft was launched. Even though I had not worked on that specific mission, I nevertheless felt a part of it.
The spirit of nationalism was very high at that time, since the president of the United States had publicly committed the country to landing a man on the moon and safely returning him to earth in that decade (the 1960’s). The Soviet Union seemed to have embarked upon a similar course, so it was, in fact, viewed as a “space race.” I was eager to do my patriotic duty and help to win this race.
I desired very much to succeed in my profession. To that end I was careful to take advantage of every opportunity to get ahead. Regularly I worked long hours (not being paid overtime) and willingly accepted out-of-town business trips that others refused because of not wanting to be away from their families.
I enrolled in night courses and worked out a Master’s Degree, as my supervisor encouraged this as a means for advancement. Since my immediate supervisor enjoyed playing poker, I joined in, viewing this also as an opportunity to promote my success.
Within two years I was promoted to supervise a group of five to seven engineers and, although the group was small, a large responsibility was involved. By this time I had got to know some of the astronauts, and part of my job was to keep them informed as to the flight readiness of the spacecraft’s inertial guidance system. I enjoyed not only my work but also the prestige that came with knowing and associating with the astronauts.
Before long I was promoted to supervise the activities of 10 to 12 engineers during tests of the spacecraft while it was on the launching pad. Since our responsibility entailed one of the major spacecraft systems and I was the spokesman for the group, this certainly made me feel very important. To my way of thinking at the time, I had achieved success.
At the conclusion of the Gemini Program (two-man spacecraft), I was offered an opportunity to move from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, to work on the three-man Apollo Lunar Landing Program. Since this looked like a good means to make further advancement, I wasted no time in accepting the offer.
The next few years were spent working hard on the first moon landing flight, developing computer software for the guidance and navigation systems, planning mission techniques and simulating the flight on a ground computer. I remember being told by one of my superiors: “Nothing is more important than making a success of this flight.”
As a result, I became a workaholic. My whole life revolved around contributing to a successful moon landing mission and also in making a name for myself with my superiors. My family received very little attention. Pride certainly was evident in me, when on July 20, 1969, for the first time in history, an individual whom I had known and worked with stepped onto the surface of the moon from a spacecraft that I had helped to design and build.