DALLAS — Art Roberts, a 30-year-old electrical engineer, huddled around the TV in a Richardson, Texas, apartment with his wife and two other couples on July 20, 1969. Like millions around the world, they had stayed up late to watch Neil Armstrong's one small step — his one giant leap.
The grainy, dreamlike images of the moon landing are forever seared in Americans' memories, and the broadcast of the lunar landing meant success for the United States and for NASA.
And it was a success for Roberts. As an engineer for Collins Radio, a communications technology company contracted by NASA to establish outer space communications systems, he was one of an army of people behind the scenes who pushed the United States to the lead in the space race.
The system he and his team developed at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California made the lunar landing possible. And it is part of the reason people experienced Armstrong walking and talking in real time.
Now retired, Roberts, 73, recalls the excitement of that moment. "We were holding our breath," he said, "for the people as well as the project."
Roberts didn't set out for a career in outer space communications. He grew up in Lefors, a tiny town near Amarillo, and was the first in his family to attend college. At Texas Tech, he studied electrical engineering simply because he'd been told it was the most difficult major. It was a bonus that he enjoyed it.
In the 1960s, microwave networks were expanding throughout the world, used by telephone companies and for government communications.
Graduating in 1962, Roberts worked his way up with Collins Radio (now Rockwell Collins), climbing towers and aligning antennas for microwave communications systems around the world. At Collins, he met his wife, Bobbie, and she quit her job as secretary and traveled the world with him.
A few months before the Apollo 10 manned spaceflight, a test-run for the Apollo 11 landing, NASA discovered it needed a larger antenna to differentiate between the lunar module's radio signals and the background signals reflected by the moon.
NASA set up a 210-foot deep space antenna at Goldstone in California's Mojave Desert, but to be effective, it had to communicate with an 85-foot antenna at NASA's Apollo Station several miles away. Not only that, a mountain stood between the two.
Collins, which had previously contracted with NASA for space communications, was put on the job, and Roberts led the team of engineers at Goldstone.
"It was pressure, but it's what you do," Roberts said. He and his team established a system of two smaller antennas atop the mountain. These two communicated with two similar antennas, one connected to the massive antenna, and one to the smaller Apollo Station antenna in an arrangement that Roberts says was "notoriously hard to line up."
"The Earth is moving and turning," he said. "The ability to track an object in space from a moving point on Earth is pretty astounding."
Roberts adjusted the two antennas on the mountain, loosening bolts, swinging the dishes back and forth, tightening bolts. He talked by radio with people at receivers on the ground. After months of planning, designing and building, they made the connection in one intense afternoon.
The technology "seems like magic," said Eric Rothenbuhler, dean and professor in the School of Communications at Webster University in St. Louis. "On the one hand, it's a very straightforward technological problem. . . . On the other hand, (the connection) enables a social and cultural moment that people remember their whole lives."
NASA historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal estimates 40 million U.S. households tuned in for the first steps on the moon. "Just think about what our thoughts or ideas about landing on the moon would have been without TV or radio," she said. "I don't think it would have been as meaningful to Americans or as sensational as it was."