Looking back at APOLLO 11


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Astronaut Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot of the first lunar landing mission, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during an Apollo 11 extra-vehicular activity (EVA) on the Moon’s surface.

Senior Life Courtesy of NASA

It’s been 50 years since Neil Armstrong called mission control from the lunar surface: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” as Apollo 11 lunar module touched down.

That first manned lunar landing captured the attention of the world and now is drawing memories of a feat that left millions of people spellbound.

Spectators from around the world packed into Kennedy Space Center, lined causeways, roadsides and beaches along the Space Coast to get a glimpse of the launch of Apollo 11 atop a Saturn V rocket.

Millions more watched on black and white television sets or listened on radios as the lunar module, with just 30 seconds of fuel left, touched down on the lunar surface on an area that was named the Sea of Tranquility.

It was July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the lunar surface while Michael Collins orbited the Moon. Launched July 16, the three astronauts returned safely to earth July 24.

That first of six landings on the Moon came just eight years after President John F. Kennedy issued the challenge of putting humans on the Moon and returning them safely before the decade was over. That challenge came only 20 days after the first American, Alan Shepard, was launched into space May 5, 1961.

Hundreds of thousands of aerospace workers were part of meeting Kennedy’s challenge, designing and building Saturn V, the 6-million-pound, 363-foot long rocket. Today, it remains the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, at 7.5 million pounds of thrust.

Marty Winkel watched the liftoff from atop a 12-foot structure that once stood outside the Vehicle Assembly Building. He was an electronic technician on the lunar module launched with Apollo 11.

“I watched the launch from a unique position,” Winkel said. “It’s kind of hard to describe. It was so monumental. You knew it was history being made. We’re going to the Moon.”

Winkel worked for the Grumman company at the time. He started working in the space program before the first Saturn V launch until the last Space Shuttle launch in July 2011, completing 42 years in the space industry.

It was shortly after returning from Vietnam, where he served with the U.S. Marine Corps between 1964 and 1965, that he went to work in aerospace.

“I got hired on,” he said. “I didn’t even know what a lunar module was. I went home and told my wife, ‘I’m working on something that’s going to the Moon.’ ”

Through a series of training and certifications, Winkel soon became a lead electronic technician on the lunar module, which is the part that landed on the Moon with Armstrong and Aldrin. It was dubbed the Eagle.

Other aerospace workers, like Winkel, still take great pride in the work they did and in having part of history being made.

“I don’t think at the time we realized the importance of what we were doing,” said Jack Hoffman, who then was working as a pad leader.

At the time of the Apollo 11 launch, Hoffman, of Merritt Island, was working for Chrysler but was on loan to Grumman, working on tests in the altitude chamber. He worked on the processing of Apollo 10, 11, and 12.

“We were a bunch of ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” he said.

Hoffman said there were so many that had a role in the Apollo program. Every part was very important to the success, regardless of what job they held.

“We couldn’t get complacent,” he said. “Good enough never is.”

Hoffman, 83, who retired in 1996, said that as he reflects, he feels proud about his role. He now volunteers one day a week as a docent at KSC’s Apollo Saturn V Center, answering questions and telling visitors about the Apollo program and the rocket.

“I’m not sure we realized how significant it was both historically and technically,’’ he said.

Just being a part of the workforce at Kennedy Space Center, even if not directly on the Apollo program at the time, was enough to feel that sense of accomplishment as part of one big NASA team.

“You just feel that you are a part of it,” said Paul Quandt, a chemical engineer who was working for Chrysler at KSC. Quandt, who lives in Cocoa, worked at KSC from 1964 until 1996, part of the time on ground hydraulics and the swing arm on the launch pad.

“It was like going to work every day, but it was not like work because there were interesting things to do every day,” he said. “You felt that you were a part of it.”

Quandt said that being a part of the space program was very satisfying for a young man from Central Illinois, who attended a one-room school in the eighth grade.

“I went from farming with horses to launching rockets,” he said.

Those Apollo program engineers and technicians said it was indeed a unique experience preparing and launching rockets.

Winkel, 74, said his part in the Apollo program was special because he worked on the lunar module.

“It was literally the first space vehicle,” he said.

He said he would be driving to work and could hear reports on the radio about what his team had done the day before and what they would be working on that day or coming days. Because so many were following the program, there also would be newspaper reports on the progress.

“That to me was so unique,” Winkel said. “On how many jobs can you see a multi-million-dollar craft being launched?”