Apollo Program: Era of Optimism | A Personal Tale
Year 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first manned moon mission. I grew up in the “space” community of NASA Houston during Apollo 11. For the sake of history and to honor my father, David Ten Eyck Appleton, an engineer with the former TRW Systems (now Northrop Grumman), who worked on the project, I wanted to share my experiences.
A trait of mine that if anything has made my nonprofit fundraising successful is a “can do” attitude. As the Cambridge Dictionary describes, “If you have a can-do character or way of dealing with a problem, you are very positive about your ability to achieve success.”
The Planetary Society has featured the Apollo Program on its website. Did you know,
“The entire lunar effort cost roughly $288 billion in 2019 dollars, and employed 400,000 Americans at its peak. In total, Apollo astronauts returned 382 kilograms of lunar rocks, core samples, and regolith from the lunar surface. The samples showed the Moon is a lifeless world that formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago, experienced catastrophic change 3.8 billion years ago, and has been relatively (though not completely) inactive since. Its rocks are chemically related to Earth, supporting the theory that the Moon was created when another large world impacted early Earth.”
Back in 2012 while the nation’s economy was still struggling, I posted on Tumblr a brief tribute to the late astronaut Neil Armstrong. My father still today has the highest regard for Armstrong and his fellow astronauts. But until the article you are now reading, I have not shared my experiences growing up in Nassau Bay and Clear Lake, Texas, now considered part of Greater Houston.
Our family was living in San Bernardino, California in the 1960s. Our father was working with TRW Inc., which was handled a number of military contracts. Dad was working on the Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program, principally at the now-closed Norton Air Force Base.
In 1967, our father was given the opportunity to work with the Apollo Program. We left California for the bayous of Texas. I attended junior high school in Webster, Texas and then high school in League City, Texas. Back then, that swampy region of Texas was covered with rice fields and grasslands, and our neighborhood was located close to a bayou and also across from Space Center Houston. Today, the area is densely developed and I hardly recognize it.
We lived not far from the families of astronauts like Aldrin, McDermott, Brand and Bean, and my sister and I attended school with their children. The energy and enthusiasm of our parents rubbed off on us. We believed anything was possible. A marvelous sense of camaraderie and “can do” attitude infused our community. We were on the cutting edge of great discoveries, we knew it, and we loved it.
Our father, an engineer by training, could build televisions from scratch, he could repair our cars, he was a Ham radio expert, and he could fix anything in the house that was broken. We never saw an outside contractor at home. Almost every new technological device created for home and office back then was acquired by him, from calculators to the earliest home computers. We grew up knowing there was probably a better way to do everything. And that positive, “let’s fix this and make it better” attitude was how my sister and I grew up.
As Shuri says in the movie, Black Panther, “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” That is the way I think today as I work with my nonprofit organizations, and it is probably why my primary professional organization today is NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network. Having grown up around my father and his engineer friends, adopting new technologies has always come naturally.
During the banner years of the Apollo Program, Presidents Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon came to give speeches to the community at Space Center Houston. In my young mind, I thought all this was normal and “every day,” but in hindsight of course, it was not. I remember President Johnson being a huge, imposing figure and an inspiring speaker. When Richard Nixon’s speech concluded, I decided to cut across an open field to escape the cars and the crowds. Low and behold, this turned out to be the “escape route” for President Nixon. I stood at attention as his limo sped past; he shot me a “V” with his hands for victory. Andre Previn and the Houston Symphony performed for “space families” like ours, and I got to sit close up to watch Previn conduct, which remains a treasured memory. Bob Hope listened to me and my high school choir perform. Russian was taught as a language in our high school, and Russian cosmonauts visited. I remember being in gym class when they arrived. The cosmonauts seemed so tall and impressive as they walked past our class. I remember we wore “standard” blue gym uniforms back then.
Back home in the neighborhood, our mothers developed a kind of telephone brigade when strange things would happen, like when displaced alligators from the local bayou started roaming the streets after storms. There were other important alerts as well, like when hundreds of journalists from across the world would descend on the Aldrin home nearby, blocking all exits. The journalists would sometimes climb over neighborhood fences, which was scary (we were ordered to stay indoors for this and other reasons). Some of our school classmates who were unafraid of the commotion would occasionally “entertain” the journalists, and I will let the details slide for this post, but consider the “banana bike” was popular back then. Amazing feats were performed!
During the school day as the Apollo Program’s milestone activities progressed, large televisions on carts were rolled into our our classrooms so we could watch important happenings as they occurred. I also remember being awoken by my father before dawn to watch various space manoeuvers on television, and when the Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth and home to Houston, we got up early to see them loaded into their protective silver Airstream trailer at Ellington Field, and we trailed them back to headquarters.
Our father’s work during the Apollo Program involved two main functions. For the Apollo Lunar Landing Program, he managed NASA Support Engineering Tasks, which designed the series of Apollo missions and developed/published the first 20-year manned space program plan. He was also responsible for preparing the onboard data for the first Apollo flight around the moon, and he managed production of the Skylab Mission Design Data Book.
As noted, we were young and my remembrances are truly those of a young teenager. Several of my classmates had older brothers who were drafted and sent to fight in the Vietnam War. Those soldiers often returned as shells of their former selves, some on drugs to dull the psychological and physical pains they suffered. Families grieved deeply around us. Hence, my generation was not generally supportive of the Vietnam War, nor of President Nixon. The excitement of Apollo 11 was admittedly dimmed a bit by those concerns, but still, the achievements of Apollo were not lost on us.
As I mentioned earlier, our space community had an unshakable, “can do” attitude. We believed anything was possible. That positive mental attitude became part of our psyches.
With so many challenges facing our nation and the world, I worry that young people do not share that same positive approach today. But we need that attitude now more than ever. Creativity and ingenuity are what will allow humanity to solve the problems we now face.
If you consider the technology used in the Apollo Program is eclipsed by today’s modern smartphones, and that teams of people came together to work seamlessly toward a shared goal like one “brain” for the Apollo missions, then we need to encourage more of this kind of activity. Less fighting and competition, more collaboration may be key to saving our planet.
My father’s papers from Apollo Program are now in the collections of The Planetary Society. I urge you to support the Society. You can learn more by following this link.
Sharing a letter from me to my father dating from 1971, which does show how young I was!