We went to the moon 50 years ago.
When I say "we," that doesn't mean you or I ever set foot on its dusty soil. We as a species harnessed the powers of our minds and our might and spurned gravity's ever-oppressive grip to leave footprints on the second-brightest object in our sky.
We did this not because it was easy, but because it was hard.
Just 35 years before President John F. Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh titled his autobiographical account of his flight across the Atlantic Ocean "We." The title was meant to surprise readers. It had been a solo flight.
Lindbergh recognized the work of the many people who financed, designed and built it for that purpose.
Quest beyond technology's reach
The quest to land a man on the moon started with an ambition beyond the reach of the technology at the time. We took the impossible and made it possible. It was an accomplishment that required more than 400,000 Americans — men and women, black and white, immigrants and refugees — to design and build a machine that could take mankind to the moon and return them safely to Earth. It required the sweat and imagination of a nation to reach that goal.
My father — John Hunt — was part of that army of peace and exploration.
I grew up with the echo of that accomplishment ringing in my ears, optimistic at what people can do when they come together focused on a single goal.
My father first met Wernher von Braun while tending bar at the officers club in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Army Missile Command and the Marshall Space Flight Center are located.
Hunt, a whiz kid from south New Jersey just out of college, had already been working for the Army testing the Sergeant missile system when he got drafted under the looming threat of war with the Soviet Union.
"The Cuban Missile Crisis ended occupational deferments," Hunt said. "I had a draft notice in my mailbox by the end of the week."
Yet, after basic training, Hunt found himself called right back down to Huntsville to finish the project he'd been working on. This time in an Army uniform and getting paid "a lot less."
So he picked up a side job tending bar at the officer's club, where he recalls Von Braun charming the congressmen and VIPs sent down to investigate his program.
"It was cigar smoking and hard drinking," Hunt recalls. "He had them eating out of his hand."
It was partly Von Braun's charm, ambition and his cadre of German rocket scientists that helped turn Huntsville into the of the major centers of the space race.
When Navy Vanguard rockets repeatedly failed on the test stand, Von Braun said he could put a man in space with the Army's Atlas rocket, Hunt explained. When Atlas succeeded, Von Braun proposed a bigger rocket: the Saturn 1B.
"The test stand he built for it was massive," Hunt remembers. "You couldn't even see the 1B in it and we'd wondered why he built it so big. He was thinking ahead. He'd built it for the Saturn V." This was the rocket that would eventually take men to the moon.
"You know when Kennedy said that we were going to the moon, nobody had a clue as to how we were going to do it," Hunt says. "The guys at NASA were dumbstruck."
Hunt was just about to get out of the Army when Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
"I knew it wasn't the end, NASA was already ramping up," Hunt said. "It was a beehive of activity and they were grabbing anybody with any talent or knowledge they could use."
Designing equipment for astronauts
Hunt found himself as one of hundreds of thousands of contractors working for NASA based on his work at Marshall.
This time Hunt was tasked with figuring out safe and effective equipment designs for the astronauts to use when they had to work outside the spacecraft — Extra Vehicular Activity — including the lunar module as well as designs for the Apollo Telescope Mount and Skylab.
Hunt spent a lot of time monitoring the astronauts in the giant swimming pools used to simulate weightlessness — testing critical equipment like boots and gloves, handholds and tools that needed to work in reduced gravity environments. They would also take astronauts up in a KC-135 plane on rollercoaster-like parabolic flights that provided a handful of seconds of weightlessness at the top and bottom of the arc.
"We were kind of figuring things out as we went along because no one had ever attempted what we were trying to do," Hunt said. "It was the greatest job in the world."
Still in his 20s, Hunt remembers working side by side with astronauts Michael Collins, Deke Slayton, Gordon Cooper and Jim Lovell, as well as Skylab pioneer Owen Garriott. Hunt also became friends with future shuttle commander Joe Engle.
"We were working with these guys, the astronauts, traveling together, eating with them, we weren't awestruck, they were regular people," Hunt said. "They were fun-loving but very serious. It was life or death and the attitude was, 'we've got to get it right.'"
It is hard looking back to remember how much pressure there was to get it right — this was a life or death situation for those astronauts. It is even harder to recall that half a million contractors from every part of the country had a hand in putting those footprints on the moon with the primitive technology of the day.
Seamstresses skilled at sewing girdles and bras were stitching space suits. The computers — which became overloaded in the last seconds before landing on the moon — were hard-wired, their connections woven by hand.
"Your phone has thousands of times more computing power than they had on the flight," Hunt said. "It was an amazing feat and nobody ... everyone was holding their breath because we knew there were a million things that could have gone wrong. People today, I don't think they realize what we accomplished."
The effort to put a man on the moon wasn't without controversy. There were protests at the Kennedy Space Center the day before the launch. There were other demands for the money being spent on this ambitious goal. Reaching for the moon drove innovation and created a wealth of knowledge far beyond what on the surface appeared to be a narrow competition between Cold War nations.
Yet, the race provided dividends in knowledge and technology still paying off 50 years later.
"It was the chance of a lifetime, a dream job," Hunt said. "But once they landed on the moon, you could feel that the public and political support was going to die.
"I hope we go back, we've started to talk about that again," he added. "We are starting to say hey, we did that."
The lesson of Apollo is that we are bound only by our flagging ambitions and petty squabbles.
Look up tonight and know, on the surface of the moon there is a plaque that says, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."
Ed Hunt is a writer and registered nurse as well as the author of "The Huckleberry Hajj," a collection of essays available on Amazon.com. He lives in Grays River.