As Apollo 11 sped to the moon, the Earth turned behind it, and Mission Control in Houston would lose the ability to communicate directly with the spacecraft.
NASA needed tracking stations — 14 in total, dotted around the planet — to keep in contact. As the signal to the United States was lost, it was picked up by engineers on a small pile of rock in the middle of the Atlantic: my home for two years, Ascension Island.
The Air Force provided my first electronics school in Biloxi, Miss., and by 1966 I was servicing Honeywell computers in Baltimore. Life was sort of boring. One Saturday morning in the local paper was a want ad for engineers to work on Apollo.
I rushed to the interview expecting to find a line down the block. I was the only one there. Offered a job in Madrid, I accepted on the spot. The guy asked if I wanted to know what the pay would be. I don’t remember my exact words but they amounted to “whatever, I’ll take the job.” Best interview I ever had.
When I first arrived in Spain the attitude was relaxed. We kept our equipment running well and did not have any problems tracking the early unmanned tests. There was no sense of urgency.
That changed when we were called to an all-hands meeting and told that Apollo 8 would orbit the moon. We went back to our work with a real sense of dedication.
For most people the moon landing of Apollo 11 is the most iconic moment of the space program. For me and I think more than a few of my fellow workers, Apollo 8 was far more emotional. We listened as the crew read from Genesis as they circled the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. We knew then that the Apollo program would accomplish John Kennedy’s challenge of landing on the moon and returning to earth.
After that mission, I asked to be transferred to Ascension. An island of only about 36 square miles, it’s 10 degrees below the equator, and halfway between South America and Africa — a perfect spot to track an orbiting spacecraft.
It was discovered in 1501 by a Portuguese sailor, and named by another Portuguese explorer, Alfonso de Albuquerque, when he visited the island on Ascension Day in 1503. I arrived about four and a half centuries after Alfonso.
The island is owned by the British, who occupied it to prevent it from being used as base to rescue Napoleon, who was exiled to St. Helena, 700 miles south, in 1815. The British used it extensively during the Falklands war. The British call it HMS Ascension to give the governor of the island the same powers as the captain of a ship. His word is law.
The 100 or so Americans stationed on the island, working for NASA and some other corporations, were all men. There were just six single women, all British nurses.
People from St. Helena worked on the island as bartenders. We called them saints.
All the engineers lived in what would be called barracks, two men to a room. You ate in a surprisingly good chow hall and the camaraderie was for the most part quite high. There was hard and fast rule: no fighting. You get 100 guys together, working, eating, drinking — somebody is going to get on somebody else’s nerves. Take a swing at someone and you were on the next plane out.
Our job was to provide Houston constant information on the speed, direction, reliability of the onboard equipment, engines, electronic devices, scientific instruments and of course the health and well being of the astronauts.
The main computers were two off-the-shelf Univacs. One was considered the command computer and the other telemetry. They did exactly what the names suggest. The command computer received commands from Houston to uplink to the spacecraft and the telemetry computer received data from the spacecraft and shipped it back to mission control.
Looking back it seems amazing what the engineers at NASA accomplished. One Univac had 32K of memory. That is not a typo — 32,000 bytes. Later they were upgraded to 64K. Your cellphone today has gigabytes of memory.
They worked well but were extremely hard to repair. All internal commands were hardwired. When the computer failed it would just start doing its own thing without any indication of what failed.
Life was good. The base salary was average for the time; food was free, living was free, the highest drink price in our only bar, the Volcano Club, was 25 cents. And if you stayed there for more than 18 months, you didn’t have to pay income taxes in the US. Many of the married men were there for the express purpose of saving for a down payment on a house.
We played softball and soccer, went fishing and diving. One weekend night while camping on one of the many beaches I fell asleep on a blanket on the sand about 20 yards from the waters edge. I woke up when I felt movement underneath me. I pulled the blanket back and found I had incubated a bale of sea turtles.
There was a rumor among people I worked with that NASA’s real first choice to be the first man on the moon was Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 12. After the deadly fire on Apollo 1, no one thought every flight would go as planned. Everything had to be perfect from Apollo 6 through Apollo 10 for Apollo 11 to land on the moon.
But it did go perfectly.
The days leading up to Apollo 11 were nerve-racking just in the anticipation. Many of the simulations we participated in were trying to get the chatter on the radio network down to a minimum so an important message was not lost.
Despite being so invested in what was going to happen, there was no television on the island, no newspapers, only short-wave radio. It was one of the few places in the world that couldn’t see what happened. I didn’t watch Neil Armstrong step on the moon, at least not until years later.
But I remember listening as the lunar liftoff was announced. The astronauts were on their way back home and the network silently observed. A party ensued. The impossible had happened.
We were part of a great adventure. We didn’t know our best and most important work was still ahead of us during Apollo 13. I am proud and happy to have worked on the Apollo tracking network.