‘It’s a thrill, really, just to have been a part of it’

Thousands of men and women made man’s first mission to the moon a success. On this 50th anniversary, these long-ago workers reflect on their roles in Neil Armstrong’s giant leap.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.  -- He’d already told the world that the Eagle had landed. Had famously dedicated a giant leap for mankind.

A few days later, on Apollo 11’s long trip home from the Sea of Tranquility, Neil Armstrong spoke directly to the thousands of people who sent him to the moon.

From a command module pointed toward the Pacific Ocean, Armstrong first acknowledged the “giants of science who have preceded this effort.” 

Then, the first man on the moon, who’d watched the monumental effort unfold among the palms and mangroves of East Central Florida, thanked the workers — from ditch diggers to engineers, from plumbers to rocket scientists, more than 400,000 in all.

“We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft; who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those crafts. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you.”

The 50th anniversary celebration of man’s first landing on the moon — considered the most astounding accomplishment in the history of aviation, if not all of recorded history — has given those long-ago workers a chance to reflect on their roles in Neil Armstrong’s giant leap.

“It’s a thrill, really, just to have been a part of it,” says Marvin Wonder, one of hundreds who represented Daytona Beach’s Local 295 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union at the Space Center and the Cape.

The Saturn V is bathed in light in the early morning hours of July 16, 1969. [DAYTONA NEWS-JOURNAL FILE PHOTOS]

In retrospect, the term “space race” seems quaint, perhaps exciting. But post-World War II relations between the United States and Soviet Union carried a more ominous descriptive: Cold War. The space race was thought by some to be a matter of life and death.

The ability to control the heavens was considered the way to control your national fate in the new age of atomic weaponry and spy satellites. The U.S. was playing catch-up, and in the days of trial-and-error, the sun often set on error. 

“They had a list on a board where you came in to work, so you’d know if any launches were going up that day,” says Dow Graham, a retired electrician who began work at Cape Canaveral in 1957, at age 18.

Graham says he and co-workers would always find a good vantage point to watch a launch, but not for the reason we do today.

“You did it back then so you knew which way to run,” he says with just a slight laugh.

After each misstep, messes were cleaned up. Corrections were made. The mission continued. 

It’s hard to fathom today, but things moved rapidly after President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 directive to put a man on the moon, and return him safely to Earth, by decade’s end.

The United States, Kennedy insisted, must catch up with the Soviets and pull ahead in the space race, and the moon would become the next finish line.

Many of the country’s major industrial giants were tasked with all facets of the job. The headquarters for GE’s Apollo Systems Department needed to be close to NASA, and Daytona Beach became GE’s Apollo-era home with nearly 3,000 workers by 1966. It started in a building that’s now a shopping center anchored by a Carrabba’s Italian Grill and grew to a seven-building campus.

Among the first wave of GE workers to arrive in 1962 was a future mayor of Daytona Beach, Larry Kelly, who was 27 with a young family. 

“I worked my ass off,” says Kelly, who was among the local GE engineers building testing equipment for the ACE system. “They wanted it done quickly, and it had to be perfect. NASA not only put quality in what they were sending up to space, but quality in what we had on the ground. It was long, long hours ... 12-hour days.”

More than 50 years later, Kelly reflects on the accomplishment achieved.

“President Kennedy, he said we’re going to put a man on the moon. And boy, people were going to make it happen,” says Kelly, who was mayor from 1974 to 1993. “It motivated America. It was something similar to World War II; it was a motivation. You were devoted to making it happen.”

Larry Kelly, second from right, with his fellow GE engineers in Daytona Beach, all assigned to the 1960s Apollo project. [Photo provided]

Jim Kotas joined GE and arrived in ’68, in time for Apollo 8 and the first manned launch of Apollo’s “chauffeur” — Saturn V, the mammoth Earth-rattling rocket that stood 36 stories tall and weighed 6.5 million pounds.

“I think, down at the Cape especially, you had a sense you were part of something much bigger than normal,” he says. “There’s so much going on. There are astronauts flying in, astronauts flying out. Walter Cronkite would set up his remote newscast out of the Hilton. You had this sense you’re into something bigger.”

As the launch date for Apollo 11 approached, Kotas had little anxiety. His engineer’s philosophy won out.

“By Apollo 11, you think it’s all going to happen as planned,” he says. “Apollo 8 had gone around the moon, Apollo 9 had tested the lunar module. Apollo 10, they went to the moon, got into the LM, got close to the surface but didn’t land, just tested all the sequences.

“So by the time you get to Apollo 11, you’re convinced everything is going to work because it’s been working fine.”

Larry Kelly, at GE’s Daytona Beach plant, was a bit more nervous.

“You’re thinking, ‘You’ve done a lot of space shots, but this is it, baby. This is it,’ ” Kelly says. “You have a child due to be born. You’re waiting on him to be born. And then he’s born. It’s part of you … part of you. You feel good about it.”

On the three-day return trip to Earth, Armstrong spoke again to a worldwide audience, using network audio capabilities that were revolutionary for the time. He thanked everyone — everyone — who “put their hearts and abilities” into the success of that mission, and his words were clear and precise.

So were the words of command module pilot Michael Collins, who might have summed up the effort just as well, if not better, than his historic cohort.

“We have always had confidence that this equipment will work properly,” Collins said. “All this is possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of a number of people ... All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say thank you very much.”

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