Excerpt from Safely to Earth: The Men and Women Who Brought the Astronauts Home, by Jack Clemons.
This book is available at a discount price through July 31, 2019. Order here and use code APOLLO.
On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we are celebrating the tenacity and adventurous spirit of the people who participated in the race to reach the moon and explore the mysteries of space. Jack Clemons, a former lead engineer in support of NASA, played a pivotal role in designing the reentry and landing procedures for Apollo astronauts and providing live support as part of the Mission Control Center’s backroom team. In this excerpt from his memoir, Clemons describes how he and a generation of young, imaginative scientists were electrified by the challenge to “put human footprints on the Moon.”
Prep for Launch
On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave his now famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas. On that sweltering day he asked his audience a question: “But why, some say, the Moon?” I’ve been asked a version of this question many times over the years. I’ve heard enthusiasts and apologists alike respond by citing the thrill of exploration, the Cold War, a quest for scientific understanding, the commercialization of Teflon, and the invention of integrated circuits. (Neither of the latter two is right, though one study found that every dollar spent by NASA on research and development ultimately returns seven dollars of value to the gross national product.)
But that day President Kennedy answered his question with what for me is the most compelling argument: “Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” So it did. By accepting that challenge, NASA and the nation energized the imagination and spirit of a younger generation of Americans who embraced the study of engineering and the sciences, and many of whom took part in the president’s grand enterprise. I was one of those. So when I’m asked what benefit came from the Apollo Program, I now respond, “Me and hundreds of others like me, who answered the President’s call.”
Apollo was the great adventure of our age. Though numerous books and films have celebrated the achievement, when people discover I had a part in it, their first question is often “What was it like?” Even after all this time, interest in Project Apollo seems undiminished. My answer is a personal one. I describe how I experienced the program as a newly minted “rocket scientist” and offer a glimpse through the narrow window my role provided into an unprecedented human undertaking. I find that when I talk about the tasks assigned to me on Apollo, and the world of technology available in the 1960s, people get a sense of the rest of it. And an appreciation for the staggering responsibility shouldered by the men and women of NASA and the private contractors who brought those parts together and put human footprints on the Moon.
Because, of course, I was only one of many. The efforts of the teams I worked with were integrated with those of scores of professionals, all applying their specialized skills to the construction of these systems. Hundreds of thousands of men and women, working in offices and factories and research centers and launch sites and tracking stations and military bases and on Navy ships around the world, added their talents to make Apollo a success. They were largely unfamiliar with our work; they had to trust us to take the same care as they did to ensure that all components worked together when called upon. When at last human footprints were imprinted on the Moon, many of those people who had pioneered mankind’s first ventures into space went on to apply their hard-won experiences to developing the Space Shuttle, a way for humans to work and live in space and study the wondrous universe from a vantage point once only dreamed of.
I’m proud of the programs on which I worked, of the people whom I met and learned from and became friends with, and of what we accomplished for human spaceflight. I’ll describe some of that work here; sketch a few portraits of those unknown pioneers; put on exhibit the tools they used—many now considered primitive—and explain the risks they took and the mistakes they made in producing these brilliant creations. These are little told tales of the people who fashioned the computer programs that accompanied the human crews on these spacecraft, and of the astronauts who relied on them for the directions to their destination, for the guidance on how to get there, and for control of their fate during the journey—and, when the space travelers completed their often perilous tasks, to return them safely to the Earth.
In the opening of his 1947 novel Tales of the South Pacific James Michener wrote:
They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear, like Shiloh and Valley Forge.
So, I fear, could be the fate of the men and women who committed their energies and passions to provide humankind the promise of journeying beyond the narrows of Earth. As the years pass into decades and the technology we used seems increasingly akin to Stone Age hammer-stones and flint flakes, let these people not become strangers.
Jack Clemons, author of Safely to Earth: The Men and Women Who Brought the Astronauts Home, is a former lead engineer supporting NASA’s Apollo Program. He was also senior engineering software manager on the Space Shuttle Program. He was part of the mission control backroom team that supported the NASA flight controllers on both the return of the Apollo 11 crew from the first Moon landing and the rescue of the Apollo 13 crew. A former senior vice president of engineering for Lockheed Martin, he is a writer, consultant, and speaker about NASA’s space programs.