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News / Clark County News

Vancouver woman recalls father’s role in building Apollo 11

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian Managing Editor for Content
Published: July 20, 2019, 6:02am
10 Photos
Libby Montoya-Bunkley of Salmon Creek looks over a photo of her late father, Herb Montoya, as he is pictured with the Apollo 11 capsule he helped create, on Monday at her home in Vancouver. Her father was an engineer with Rockwell International.
Libby Montoya-Bunkley of Salmon Creek looks over a photo of her late father, Herb Montoya, as he is pictured with the Apollo 11 capsule he helped create, on Monday at her home in Vancouver. Her father was an engineer with Rockwell International. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Fifty years ago today, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

It took about 410,000 people to put them there. One of them was Vancouver resident Libby Montoya-Bunkley’s late father, whom she proudly described as “one of the top Hispanics who worked on the capsule.”

Heriberto Fernandez Montoya — H.F. on his business correspondence and Herb to everyone else — worked as an engineer for North American Rockwell. He helped build the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia, which carried Aldrin, Armstrong and Michael Collins for the first manned lunar landing mission.

The command module was one of three parts of the Apollo spacecraft that launched from Cape Kennedy atop a Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The other two parts were the service module and the lunar module, Eagle, the two-person craft that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon. (On July 20, 1969, before Armstrong said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” he uttered these momentous words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”)

The command module is the only one of Apollo spacecraft’s three sections to return to Earth. It’s part of the Smithsonian’s collection but is on display through Sept. 2 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Intense work

Montoya-Bunkley, a real-estate broker, remembers how intensely her father worked on the project that landed two men on the moon when she was just 13.

As Charles Fishman, author of the new book “One Giant Leap” points out, an iPhone has more processing power than all of NASA’s computers in the 1960s combined. Engineers used slide rules and worked out figures by hand.

“You could tell when he was struggling with a problem or a glitch,” Montoya-Bunkley said of her father. When insight struck, he would scribble figures right on the walls of their house in La Puente, Calif., and then cut squares out of the wallboard so he could refer to his notes later. Or he’d come home from Rockwell’s Downey, Calif., plant only to shower and then head right back to work.

Montoya once noticed his wife using a pair of tweezers on her eyebrows. “He asked her, ‘What’s that? Where did you get it? That’s what we need,'” Montoya-Bunkley said. The space program had to invent new tools. Montoya needed something small and precise for work on the capsule.

“We heard so much about it that we tuned it out,” she said. “You don’t appreciate what you’re living through.”

Montoya-Bunkley said her grandmother, who was from Mexico, expressed doubt when her son told her he was taking a job with a company that was working to put a man on the moon. She asked him: “Is that a legitimate company?”

Proud roots

Montoya was raised in Ascenion, Chihuahua, Mexico, but he was born in Arizona. He was proud of his U.S. citizenship and his service in the Army.

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“Dad always had an accent,” Montoya-Bunkley said. Although the family spoke Spanish at home, her father encouraged his children to clearly enunciate when they spoke English. Her mother, Flora Gonzalez Montoya, worked as a translator for nearby schools.

Montoya underwent extensive security checks for his job at Rockwell. Montoya-Bunkley remembers her neighbors reporting that they had been questioned about her father.

Montoya-Bunkley recalls visiting the Rockwell plant when the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives took a tour there. Her father let her climb atop a ladder to get a better view.

According to family lore, one of the astronaut’s wives asked, “Is my husband going to come home?”

“My dad looked at her and said, ‘Absolutely,'” Montoya-Bunkley recounted. “There were people who died on the launch pad. We knew there was some level of danger.”

In 1967, the three Apollo I astronauts — Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee – died in a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal. There’s good reason President Richard Nixon was prepared with a somber speech in case the Apollo 11 mission failed. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” it began.

But Apollo 11 was successful, and the space program’s technology spawned our digital age.

Montoya-Bunkley also credits the mission with the rise of science, math and technology education, the very emphasis her son, Jackson, studied at Skyview High School. Montoya worked on a program in Southern California called Youth Incentive Through Motivation, which took a “systems engineering approach,” according to paperwork his daughter kept with other memorabilia.

When she and her husband, Jack, watched their son graduate last month, Montoya-Bunkley’s eyes teared with pride for her son, but also for his kinship with her father, who died at 84 in 2011.

Tonight, she and her family will get out their telescope for a moon party complete with MoonPies.