Remembering Apollo 11: thoughts from GMTO Project Manager James Fanson

NASA Apollo 11

Credit: NASA

The Apollo program is why I became an engineer. The late 1960s was a time when the world seemed to be falling apart. My parents feared nuclear war with the Soviet Union and stored a year’s supply of freeze-dried food in the basement. Every night at the dinner table we heard the casualty figures from Vietnam. Riots were erupting in cities across the country. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. But for me, this was a time of great optimism. Step by step, what President Kennedy called “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure” was preparing to send astronauts on a voyage from the earth to the moon. Four hundred thousand people were engaged in the Apollo program. One of them, an electrical engineer, was a friend of the family. His visits made the adventure seem very real.

I was ten years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The image was fuzzy on our black and white TV, but the moment was unforgettable. The following summer my parents packed us up for a road trip to Houston, Texas to visit friends. When they learned of my interest in the space program, they arranged for a tour of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, which had opened to the public for the first time on the one-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Remarkably, I found myself sitting in Apollo Mission Control as they replayed the audio and screen displays to reenact that historic landing. These experiences set me firmly on course for a professional career in engineering, working to build the machines involved in exploring our universe.

Apollo has retained a grip on my imagination. Forty years after the Apollo 11 landing I attended the ceremony in Los Angeles where Buzz Aldrin accepted an Emmy Award on behalf of NASA for the first live television transmission from the lunar surface. Apollo brought together all of humanity in achieving a dream as old as humanity itself. To me, Apollo wasn’t about racing the Russians — though we felt patriotic. It was about transcending the conflict and strife of our world. It was about looking back from the moon at our beautiful, fragile planet. It was about seeing if we could make the journey. Because if we could do that, then there is hope for all of us.

– James Fanson

James Fanson, 1973

Pictured: James Fanson in 1973.