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The Apollo 11 story told through the eyes of the Florida men and women who made it happen

Thousands of newsmen and photographers line the banks of a lagoon at the Cape Kennedy Press Site on July 16, 1969 as the Saturn 5 Rocket with Apollo 11 astronauts aboard thunders from its launch pad three and a half miles away.
Published Jul. 24

TITUSVILLE — They came in camper vans and RVs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks, pitching tents along the Indian River to stake out precious viewing spots.

When there was no more room, they parked along the shoulder and median of U.S. 1 and other local roads. People sat atop their cars, eyes straining east toward Merritt Island and the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

The 363-foot Saturn V rocket lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, 1969, its 7.6 million pounds of thrust punching a hole through the Earth's atmosphere.

Apollo 11's launch was Florida's moment in mankind's greatest adventure. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.

Five decades later, it remains a defining event for those who played a part in the mission or witnessed history unfold.

An estimated 1 million people flocked to see the launch. Clearwater resident Nancy Foster remembers how her mother packed her, her sister and three brothers into an Oldsmobile Cutlass for the 15-hour drive to Titusville from their home in Portsmouth, Va.

ALSO READ: How to celebrate the Apollo 11 moon landing in Tampa Bay and on TV

A mix-up with their hotel reservation meant they had nowhere to stay so they parked outside Penneys in a lot that jutted into the Indian River.

There was already a carnival atmosphere. Men shaved in deck chairs. Mothers washed tin plates and cups in the river. NASA had brought a large telescope mounted on the flatbed of a truck for the crowd to take turns looking at the rocket, which was illuminated at night. Stalls hawked Apollo 11 patches, T-shirts and bumper stickers.

Foster's mother and her youngest brother slept in their car that night. But the 9-year-old Foster, her imagination already filled with new worlds from comic books like Fantastic Four and Strange Tales, was too excited to sleep.

Their make-shift accommodation ended up being a blessing. Overnight, the parking lot filled. By morning, the crowd was shoulder to shoulder along the sea wall, Foster said.

The official NASA countdown filtered through car radios and handheld transistor radios. As liftoff approached, hands were raised to shield eyes from the sun.

When the five enormous engines of Saturn V's first stage finally fired, the rocket rose slowly at first, then accelerated to more than 6,000 mph before disappearing from sight.

"People were cheering," Foster said. "We all knew we were watching history."

RELATED: Florida remembers Apollo 11: 'How brave the astronauts were, how bold our country was, how small our world became'

• • •

Ike Rigell saw the crowds before dawn as he drove to work that day.

A former Marine who saw combat at the battles of Iwo Jima and Midway, Rigell was NASA's chief engineer and deputy director for launch vehicle operations for Apollo 11. Like everyone at NASA, he felt the enormous pressure of trying to meet President John F. Kennedy's famous deadline to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Beating the Soviet Union there was even more pressing, Rigell said.

Long days and overtime were the norm. Rigell was one of a lucky few who had access to a small hideaway room with a sofa chair and a shower.

Now 95, Rigell can still recall the intensity of launch day. He sat in Row A of the Launch Control Center with senior management listening to different communication channels. He was responsible for the engineers watching for fluctuations in fuel pressure or internal power.

When the countdown reached zero, the center's windows rattled mightily. Rigell turned to watch the rocket he and others labored to build and test.

"It's amazing we got all the green lights (to launch) at the same time," Rigell said. "It boggles my mind to realize how fortunate we were, all those moving parts."

Rigell still lives close to Cape Canaveral, sharing a home with his wife, Kathryn, in Titusville.

An upstairs room is packed floor to ceiling with rocket manuals, security passes, photographs and other mementos of his time with NASA and the Marines. There's a miniature flag that was carried to the moon on the Apollo 17 mission and a transistor mother board ripped from an old launch console.

"A strong feeling you have is you've done something positive for the country," Rigell said of his role on Apollo 11. "If the Russians had made the moon first, the world would be tremendously different."

• • •

The Apollo 11 command module known as Columbia was already orbiting the moon every two hours when Don Parsons woke early on July 20, four days after the launch. He kissed his wife, Gale, goodbye and left for work, telling her, "I'll see you, but I'm not sure when."

Parsons, now a retiree living in Spring Hill, was an engineer and designer with the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. The firm had won the NASA contract to build the lunar module, leading Parsons to relocate his family from his native New York to Houston in 1967.

As Grumman's lead electronics engineer, Parsons was virtually hard-wired to the lunar module. Code-named Eagle, the vessel was docked to the nose of Columbia for the journey to the moon but transmitted a constant stream of data to Earth, including environmental readings from outside, the vital statistics of the astronauts, the status of their spacesuits and battery and fuel levels.

Every readout was checked and rechecked.

The descent to the moon began at 3:08 p.m. EDT. Landing Eagle on its four graphite and metal legs was like trying to land a kitchen table on the moon, Parsons said.

Seeing that the intended landing site was covered with large rocks, Armstrong, who was piloting the craft, guided it to the crater known as the Sea of Tranquility.

"God forbid if the vehicle went in at the wrong pitch and tumbled over. That was the end of the mission, the end of the astronauts," Parsons said. "It was a lot of what-ifs."

Perhaps the biggest unknown Grumman engineers faced was the surface of the moon. Was it hard or soft?

They expected the module's legs to compress a little on landing and to embed into the surface. But Armstrong's soft landing had left him and Aldrin with a roughly 3-foot drop from the bottom rung of the ladder.

"So it was really one giant leap for mankind to go from last rung onto the surface," Parsons said.

NASA was worried that Armstrong and Aldrin could end up stranded on the moon.

To get back to the command module, their lunar vehicle had to separate from its base by exploding four steel nuts and triggering a guillotine to sever a harness.

There was no backup plan. If the module failed, the pair would have perished from asphyxiation.

White House speech writer William Safire had composed a somber alternate message for President Richard Nixon.

"Fate has ordained that the two men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace," it began. It was never delivered.

"It was always on your mind," Parsons said of the danger the astronauts faced. "You're always aware that there's a lot of things that are (happening) on the moon that you couldn't touch on Earth."

• • •

Clearwater resident Milton Levine planned to watch the moon landing at home after work. Then he got the phone call that his wife was going into labor.

He was a buyer for the D. M. Read Company in Bridgeport, Conn., and hurried home from work to drive his wife, Judy Ann Levine, to St. Vincent's Hospital.

It was an era where dads were kept out of the delivery room, so Levine was confined to a waiting room during labor. Both rooms had televisions.

"The tension kept building for mom and dad but also for the doctors and nurses," Levine recalled. "They had one eye on the TV and one eye on her."

Jody Levine was finally born at 6:19 p.m., barely two hours after Armstrong's famous "The Eagle has landed" transmission signaled that he and Aldrin had touched down on the moon.

Doctors, nurses and, a little later, a proud father left the sleeping mother and infant to go watch the moonwalk.

The next day the local Connecticut Post hailed his newborn as the area's first "moon-age baby." Milton Levine still has the frayed and yellowed newspaper clipping.

Fifty years on, that moon child now works as a financial adviser with Raymond James and lives in St. Petersburg. Her still-proud father plans to throw her a space-themed 50th birthday party.

• • •

Armstrong and Aldrin opened the door of Eagle four hours and 20 minutes after landing on the moon. The grainy, black-and-white images of Armstrong descending its ladder were beamed to televisions around the world.

Watching anxiously in a hotel on Longboat Key was NASA engineer Jo Ann Morgan.

As a prodigious math and science student in high school in Titusville, Morgan was fascinated by rockets that lifted off from nearby Cape Canaveral and how space exploration had discovered the Van Allen radiation belt.

She was still 17 when she learned of a student position as an engineer's aide with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. It was posted at the post office on the back of the bulletin board displaying the FBI's most-wanted criminals.

The position carved her path into NASA. By the time of Apollo 11, she had risen to instrumentation controller, keeping tabs on telemetry and data systems.

It would be her first time working a launch from the firing room, where only senior engineers were allowed. She was the only woman there, her navy blue Lacoste dress and shoulder-length hair a sharp contrast to the buzz cuts and starched white shirts of her colleagues.

Her progress into a male-dominated industry had met some resistance.

"You don't ask an engineer to make coffee," her supervisor had to tell her colleagues in a meeting she wasn't asked to attend.

There was no female toilet in Morgan's office so she had to walk to another building. Oftentimes, a security guard would bar entry to the men's room so she could use it.

"The other engineers would pretend not to notice," Morgan said.

Her stay at Longboat Key was part of a much-needed vacation with her husband after Apollo 11's successful launch. She and her husband were sailing a small cabin cruiser down the west coast of Florida toward Captiva Island.

He had bought her a bottle of champagne to celebrate the moon landing. Together they watched as Armstrong said "one giant leap for mankind."

"My husband looked at me and said, 'Hey, you're going to be in the history books,' " Morgan said. "That was the first time that word history hit me."

Morgan's NASA career spanned more than 45 years. Now retired in New Smyrna Beach, she uses her free time speaking at universities and endowing scholarships that help women follow her path into engineering.

"I don't want to see any more situations where there's just one woman in the room," she said.

• • •

The compartment aboard the USS Hornet was hot and stuffy when Navy Seal John Wolfram awoke at 2 a.m. four days after the moon landing.

He was a member of Swim 2, one of three crews assigned as rescue teams for Apollo 11's splashdown. Storms and turbulence had led NASA to change the splashdown site.

As the crews ate breakfast, the Hornet steamed along at 33 knots on its new course. Wolfram knew they would now be dealing with high winds and rough swells.

Just 20 years old, Wolfram had already served in Vietnam. But the Wisconsin native was far from the standard issue Navy type. He had dabbled with LSD and mescaline and identified with the hippie movement. The navy swimsuit he wore that day was adorned with flower-power symbols.

The three crews left on Sea King SH-4 helicopters at around 5 a.m. They all knew only one crew would get to make the rescue.

Columbia broke through the Earth's atmosphere close to the Solomon Islands and splashed down about 13 miles from the Hornet. Wolfram's chopper got the green light and raced to the site.

As the best swimmer on the team, Wolfram was the first to jump into the ocean. He stood at the open door, waves rising and falling some 15 feet below him.

"I knew history was being made and I knew I was a part of it," he said. "So I wanted to make NASA happy and the Navy happy and my mother happy."

Once in the water, Wolfram swam to the module and saw the astronauts make a thumbs-up sign through a hatch window. He attached a sea anchor, a small parachute that opened underwater, to stop the capsule drifting. He then signaled the rest of his team to join him to attach an inflatable flotation collar.

Two rafts were dropped and attached to the spacecraft. The astronauts donned contamination suits because of fears they might be bringing back lunar bacteria. Then they were airlifted into the chopper and flown to the Hornet.

While Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins were met by a cheering crowd and transferred into a quarantine trailer, Wolfram and his team waited on the command module to be picked up.

A photo of Wolfram shows him lying back on the historic spacecraft, arms folded, job done. It doesn't show him and his colleagues peeling off gold-colored aluminum from the craft that had blistered and peeled in the heat of re-entry. They stuffed the illicit souvenirs inside their wetsuits.

Now 70, Wolfram speaks at churches all over the country, including recently in Tampa. Audiences hear his story of religious redemption and his part in the first moon landing.

At each appearance, he sells signed copies of his autobiography and framed tiny squares of foil ripped off the vessel that journeyed to the moon and back.

"It draws people that maybe have not come out to church before," Wolfram said. "And then when I share my testimony, they'll hear how God reached into my life and perhaps they'll sense that God can do that in their life."

• • •

Apollo 11 was followed by five more successful missions to the moon. Budget cuts ultimately ended the Apollo program. The last manned space flight to Earth's cold gray neighbor was Apollo 17 in 1972.

"We got to the point in the Apollo program that it was not new and exciting, and people lost interest," said NASA astronaut and former Navy Seal William "Shep" Shepherd. "I don't think anyone involved in the work thought that was the right decision."

Shepherd, who served with U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, spent 141 days on the International Space Station and served as a mission specialist on four Space Shuttle flights. His time in spacecraft far more advanced than Apollo 11 gave him a new appreciation of the risks his predecessors faced.

Landing two men on the moon with 1960s technology, he said, is an accomplishment that seems more astonishing with each passing year.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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