In honor of the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing–and in support of Buzz Aldrin’s #Apollo45 initiative–we took a little time to talk with XCOR founders, pilots, board members and principals to hear their personal recollections of Sunday July 20th, 1969, and the days leading up to one small step.
Where were you when Apollo 11 landed on the moon?
Rick Searfoss (XCOR Chief Test Pilot and former NASA Shuttle Commander): I was a 13 year old at Boy Scout camp.
Aleta Jackson (Founder, Chief Technician and Office Manager): On the morning of 16 July 1969 I dragged a sleeping bag into the family room. I also set up a card table, opened and started building a Revell 1/24 model of the Apollo module: capsule, lunar lander etc. After the Saturn V took off, I ate, slept, worked and watched without stop from lift-off to recovery on board the Hornet.
Dan DeLong (Founder and Chief Engineer): I was a junior in high school, working in a radio station (WGSA/WIOV), and the program manager was collecting all the songs we could find that had a moon reference. Lots of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon”
Yes, I was a Federal Communications Commission “engineer” licensed to operate any radio or TV station in the country at age 17.
It beat cutting the grass.
Lee Valentine (Board Member): I was glued to a small portable black and white TV in Virginia Beach, about 300 yards from where Blackbeard met his deserved end. Just an unbelievable thing to see the first footsteps on another world.
Stephen Fleming (Board Member): 45 years ago on July 17th, I was 7 years old. We were watching the Apollo 11 launch on the “big” TV in my parents bedroom: 19″ black and white wooden console, that also included a radio and a record player.
Andrew Nelson (President): I was in front of the television at my home in Durham, North Carolina.
Randy Baker (Senior Vice President): I was at school in Melbourne, Australia. It was a dreary and dull winter day, and as a 13 year old, I was more interested in Jenny, Grace and Heather–the older girls.
What was it like? Who was with you and what were you doing?
Rick Searfoss: They brought the whole camp into the dining hall, we all crowded around a tiny black and white TV, and saw it live. [It was the] culmination of an amazing, almost unbelievable project. Yet I, like I think most young people, never really had any doubt we would pull it off.
Aleta Jackson: We were all there, grouped around the TV, when Neil decided not to take a nap and take a little walk instead. I finished the model a couple of hours before splashdown.
When Neil first exited the lander I think I and my parents held our collective breaths.
Dan DeLong: One of my buddies had a bigger TV set so a few of us went to his house to see the landing live. Back then it all seemed normal and natural that we were doing this, as I had grown up watching the live coverage of the Mercury and Gemini launches. I still remember the TV commercials for ‘liquid pentaborane’ as if it were gasoline.
Doug Jones: I was just nine years old, the youngest of four still at home (my eldest sisters, out of the nest, were in the US). Dad let the others sleep, but knowing what a space nut I was he woke me up at 2 AM to watch the moonwalk, with audio on the Armed Forces Radio and video on the local Belgian television station. I was sleepy but incredibly excited.
Stephen Fleming: Ten minutes before launch, there was a knock on the door: the US Census lady. My
parents insisted that she come in and watch with us. She felt very flustered being invited into their bedroom!
The landing on the 20th? Same spot. Mom and Dad in bed, my sister and I lying on the ugly green shag carpeting below them, watching Huntley and Brinkley. My dad disliked Walter Cronkite, so I missed my chance to see Robert Heinlein.
Andrew Nelson: It was a really hot day, humid, typical for that time of year. I was outside playing with my best friend, Ricky Baber. I was almost six years old, Ricky had already turned six. We had watched the launch a few days earlier, we knew all about the Saturn V, the LEM, the capsule and Buzz, Neil and Michael. We were running around playing outside when my mom called us in to watch the landing. I am fairly certain we had on Walter Cronkite. My mom was really nervous. We were excited. We really did not understand the risk of the mission at the time, it was just pure excitement.
Randy Baker: Sitting on the gymnasium floor trying to watch a small black and white tv, waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen. It was long. We assembled around 9am and took our places on the hard
floor (no chairs to sit on). Several hundred students gathered together in a swirling, chattering, mass of teenagers wondering when this event was actually going to happen. The floor got harder as we waited. The only break to the boredom was watching the girls. At around 12.45pm a hush ascended on the gathered crowd.
Fidgeting lessened and hushed voices became even more hushed. A sense of anticipation of something great about to happen permeated the gymnasium. Thoughts of Jenny, Grace and Heather were soon relegated to the far reaches of my mind as I saw a grainy foot descend. The TV was hard to see, the voices crackly. I heard a tinny voice from the TV say “One small step…..”
The cheering of several hundred people in the gymnasium prevented any possibility of us hearing the rest of
what Armstrong said.
What did it mean to you at the time?
Rick Searfoss: I had followed it all with the focus and interest of totally enthralled kid. Read everything I could on the Space Program, built and flew model rockets….
Somewhere along the way it also had clicked that all those astronauts were originally military pilots like my dad.
Aleta Jackson: Mom and Dad had quiet tears of wonder, joy and awe. I could only pound my fist on the carpet, inarticulate with an exhilarated combination of emotions impossible to describe.
Doug Jones: I just *knew* I would do this some day, but never dreamed it would take
so long… I was already looking forward to the future, thinking “What will my older self remember of this day?” (I started that habit the year prior, on June 1, 1968, looking across the dinner table to the sunset light in the
front yard, “I will be older and wiser some day, looking back on this memory.”)
Yes, I was an odd child.
Andrew Nelson: It was just amazing. We played like we were on the moon for
weeks. It really stuck with us, we continued to watch the follow on missions, and keep track of all the details. I had books and articles and models and posters about space and the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury programs.
Randy Baker: We were all standing up cheering, clapping, jumping…even though I am sure we didn’t fully understand the ramifications of what we saw on the small screen that day. But to a person, we knew that what we had seen had changed the world we knew forever. Of that we were certain.
How has it impacted your life, or your work?
Rick Searfoss: It inspired me to think that maybe, just maybe I could follow in their footsteps. Coupling that with some superb high school teachers who not just taught me, but showed me how to love math and science, and a soccer coach and track coach who taught me what it is to really bust your gut working, and I determined that I would go for it and do everything I could to try to eventually become an astronaut.
Aleta Jackson: I cannot possibly quantify the feelings I had 30 years later when Buzz and I shared a quiet dinner together on the anniversary of that day. Inside me was that young girl, wide-eyed, breathless and almost dizzy with joy.
Doug Jones: I reluctantly went into Electrical Engineering in college, a mercenary
decision for good employment, but my heart was never fully in it. I founded Hummingbird Launch Systems, then in 1997 I finally jumped ship to Aerospace and never looked back.
Stephen Fleming: We lived in Atlanta so we talked about driving to one of the Apollo launches, but we figured they’d be happening forever, so there was no hurry.
Andrew Nelson: I always wanted to be an astronaut, pilot, and build things. It led me to my first real job at Ohio University in the avionics engineering program when I worked on early differential GPS concepts in 1982, why I went to work at Cape Canaveral right out of college, worked in aerospace in Boston and Europe, and why eventually that love for space led me back to XCOR.
Randy Baker: It would be so untrue for me to claim that the moon landing was instrumental in my having an interest in space. It was like, now I have seen the impossible done, it is time to move on. My interest in the following moon landings were overshadowed by my interest in beaches, surfing, and, of course girls. My teenage years were a blur of action, with little room for contemplation.
It was many years later when I walked out of the door of my house in Lancaster, California, and looked to the sky–and saw a couple of B2 bombers flying overhead–that my thoughts went back to aerospace, the moon landings, the quest for the next adventure.
Now at XCOR I am playing a small part in keeping that journey going. I feel I have come full circle, back to where it all started for me 45 years ago.
Where would you like to see space exploration take us in the next 45 years?
Rick Searfoss: The next 45 years I would love to see us truly accelerate commercial human space flight, making some of what seemed impossible in the ’60s routine. In concert I’d also like to see the world bite off some new, seemingly impossible technical challenges and not quit until they’re accomplished.
For me personally I’m less a proponent of one particular path in human space exploration–back to the moon, on to Mars, asteroid mission–than I am dead set that we need to get off our rear ends and marshall the leadership and effort to do something to move forward in a revolutionary way.
Aleta Jackson: The next 45 years? I’d like to see thriving communities on Luna, Mars and elsewhere. We need to get humanity off this rock and into the rest of the Universe.
Doug Jones: Exploration is already reaching to the edge of the solar system. Exploitation and economic activity, the big three of mining, manufacturing, and settlement should and eventually must spread as far.
By #Apollo90 the main belt and some bodies farther out should have large populations and huge profits to be made, along with broadening the human experience. We have yet to raise a generation where orbital dynamics is as intuitive as riding a skateboard.
Andrew Nelson: To a permanent station on Mars.
Randy Baker: If the dream of space exploration over the next 45 years can impact the way youngsters see themselves, as it did me 45 years ago, then I care not where we go, only that we go. I care not what the next generation of young people do with their lives, only that they do.
Space travel and exploration is far more than just going places or mining asteroids. It is proof that the impossible may become possible, that life is there for the taking and that each individual can make their own journey, if they want it enough.
So go to Mars and beyond, journey where man has never been before, bringing back stories of wondrous things. Excite the imaginations and beliefs of the next generation.
They will inherit what we leave them. It is our responsibility to leave them with a reason to believe in themselves, and space exploration is one way we can do exactly that.