Memories of the moon landing

Vancouver man worked alongside Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter




• Apollo 9 launched on March 3, 1969, to test the lunar module in Earth orbit; it returned to Earth on March 13, 1969.

• Apollo 10 launched on May 18, 1969, as a dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing; after orbiting the moon, it returned to Earth on May 26, 1969.

• Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969; it made the first moon landing on July 20, 1969, and returned to Earth on July 24.

The last people inside the Apollo 11 lunar module were Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Vancouver resident Jack Atkinson.

Armstrong and Aldrin rode the module down to the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. The 45th anniversary of the first lunar landing was celebrated a couple of weeks ago.

As a quality-control engineer, Atkinson made sure the lunar module could handle the trip, and he was the last person in it who wasn't an astronaut.

When archive film of Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon was shown recently, Atkinson didn't just recognize a milestone in American history. He saw a couple of moon-suited guys he knew.

"Armstrong was kind of a practical joker, in a way. With Buzz, you had short conversations, because the second verse was over your head," he said.

After one pre-launch trouble-shooting session, Atkinson admitted, he tried to walk away with Armstrong's watch.

Almost five decades ago, Atkinson was part of the Apollo 9, Apollo 10 and Apollo 11 missions. Atkinson worked for Grumman, the aerospace company that built components for NASA. He also worked on Apollo 12, but was laid off in August 1969, before it was launched.

"It was a fun program; exciting and challenging," Atkinson said.

And 45 years later, "There is a feeling of pride," he said.

As different aspects of the lunar mission have been recalled over the last couple of weeks, Atkinson has been saying, "I remember that … and I remember that."

There can't be too many people left with first-and memories of that era, the 69-year-old Atkinson said.

"All the people I worked with, most are probably dead. I was in my mid-20s, and some were in their 50s."

Atkinson, who moved to Vancouver about 15 years ago, still has plenty of reminders in the upstairs office of his east Vancouver home: plaques, photographs, even a small square of material used for lunar module skin. It's part of a piece of titanium, four-thousandths of an inch thick, that had been removed from a module during a repair job.

His name is among hundreds of autographs on a photograph of a commemorative poster, representing a trip into space.

"They took the original and passed it around, and we all signed it," Atkinson said. A negative of the autographed image went aboard Apollo 9 when it went into space for a test of the lunar module in Earth orbit; it was used to print photographs for the people who took part in the mission.

Atkinson said he got into the space program after his hitch in the Air Force, when he worked on the B-58 Hustler — the world's first operational supersonic bomber. An engineering company hired him, which led to space-sector jobs at Bendix and then Grumman in 1966.

"Grumman assigned me to the MSOB: the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building," Atkinson said.

He was part of the lunar module's quality-control team.

"We took the whole lunar module apart and put it back together again," he said. "It was so complex. It would take three people to put in a screw."

After the first one put in a screw and a washer, Atkinson would verify that the screw had been installed. And then the third person would verify that Atkinson had done his job.

The checkout process for each vehicle took about three months, he said. They also had to make sure the module's systems operated as designed. After Armstrong stepped down the ladder onto the moon's surface, the plan called for him to fold down the lid of an equipment bay so a camera could be used.

"In the checkout, Neil couldn't get the camera open. I put on the actual lunar gloves. They were so tight that I had to take my watch off," which was what Armstrong also had done.

After they fixed the problem, Atkinson put one of the watches back on his wrist and walked away. It was not his own Timex: It was Armstrong's Rolex.

"He yelled, 'Atkinson, you miserable SOB: Give me my watch!' "

One of the quality-control tasks was the result of an astronaut's mistake. Tom Stafford, the Apollo 10 commander, blew Tang all over the dashboard.

"We were in an atmospheric chamber that we could pressurize and depressurize," Atkinson said.

It was dry place to work, and Stafford asked the team members if they were thirsty.

"He pulled out a packet of Tang, grabbed a hose and sprayed in what he thought was water. It was compressed air," Atkinson said.

He blew the orange beverage powder all over the place. "We took the dashboard apart," he said.

Although it was his team's job to make sure everything worked, Atkinson said he couldn't resist reminding Armstrong of one of the economic realities of the Apollo project. It was a riff on one of the jokes of the day — an observation that each launch was an assembly of 6 million parts, each made by the lowest bidder.

"I used to kid Neil: 'How does it feel to fly the low bid?' " Atkinson said. "He'd call me something you can't say."