Sonoma County residents share tales, souvenirs from Apollo 11 moon landing

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For 22 hours 50 years ago the entire planet shared a singular moment of triumph. National borders temporarily fell and divisions faded when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed at Tranquility Base, becoming the first Earthlings to visit the moon. It was 4:17 p.m. EDT on July 20, 1969.

When Armstrong emerged 6 hours and 39 minutes later from the Lunar Landing Module and placed the first human footprint into moon dust, he united not just the nation but the species with the unforgettable words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

“We came in peace for all mankind,” Armstrong and Aldrin read from a plaque they left behind, along with a 1½-inch silicon disk containing miniaturized goodwill messages from 73 countries.

More than 500 million people around the world watched — 14% of the Earth’s population at the time.

Soviet Eastern bloc countries were shut out, as well as places too remote to pick up broadcast signals and who didn’t have fledgling cable service.

Many tuned in by scratchy radio. In the days before live streaming, DVRs and social media, and with household VCRs more than a decade into the future, you had to meet your appointment with the TV or miss it. Radio became a fallback.

Nancy Rogers of Petaluma remembers her family was camping that day, far from any television. So they all piled into their Chevy station wagon while her father fiddled with the car radio dial praying to pick up a signal.

“Then by some miracle of the airwaves in remote Glacier National Park, we listened to a staticky live broadcast of the descent and then the landing with only our imaginations to create the visuals as the astronauts landed, and then stepped from the lunar module onto the surface of the Moon,” the Petaluma woman recalled.

It would be years before she was able to see the momentous moon walk on video.

For all but those with a personal role in the historic event, the moon landing was watched in front of an early TV screen filled with tubes and likely dependent on rabbit ears or antennas.

Poor reception and screen “snow” was a common curse and, for most people, images were only black and white. Only a third of American homes had color TV in 1969.

And yet, however dark and flickering the image or scratchy the sound, the moon landing, in the same way as cataclysmic events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the bombing of the World Trade Towers in 2001, is burned into the memories of anyone old enough to sit there and witness it.

The difference with the moon landing is that it was not shock and horror but wonder and elation.

CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, reporting live, was rendered almost speechless, as was astronaut Wally Schirra sitting beside him contributing commentary. People were overcome.

Looked to the sky

Jane Thomas of Santa Rosa said she her friends were playing Tag the Lightpost when her mother called for them to come inside quickly. “You have to see this,” she said.

“We grudgingly came into the living room. Our parents were huddled in front of our olive green black and white TV,” said Thomas, who was a 9-year-old in Orange County at the time. “There on the screen was a grainy figure in white about to step on the moon. Everyone clapped and cheered when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words. The gravity of this accomplishment was not lost on us ...We went back outside eager to get back to our game, but before we did we looked to the sky. The moon would never look the same to us again.”

Thomas was one of dozens of Sonoma County residents who shared with The Press Democrat their memories of that day. Many were just kids sitting in front of small screens — a “big screen” in 1969 was 23 inches. It was most likely their living room, where most TVs occupied an honored spot.

Some people found themselves sharing the moment with strangers in public places or while traveling overseas. And a few had a close personal brush with the event and some actually watched the liftoff in person.

Victoria Thorn gathered with friends, family and neighbors at the end of their street on Merritt Island across the river from what was then called Cape Kennedy (the renamed Cape Canaveral, done by President Lyndon Johnson at the request of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy) to watch the preparations and liftoff.

As one of the “Space Coast Kids” whose parents worked at “The Cape,” she gathered with friends, family and neighbors in an empty lot at the end of their street to watch the moon launch on July 16.

“I remember seeing the red glare from the rocket thrusters and hearing the doors and windows of the houses on Davis Drive rattling, as we had so many times before,” said Thorn, who now lives in Sebastopol.

“As we watched, different stages of the spacecraft dropped off, one by one, and fell into the Atlantic.

At some point the rumbling diminished, perhaps when the Saturn launch rocket had fallen away, and the Apollo 11 capsule had finally broken through the atmosphere into the mysterious void called space.”

She said her father worked in the Saturn rocket division from 1964 to 1969, during the Mercury and Apollo missions, and he was hard at work that day. He had wanted to attend the 50th anniversary celebration at the Kennedy Space Center but didn’t live for the day. Her sister, instead, will attend in his honor.

“I imagine he will be there too, in spirit, a spirit that echoes the sense of exploration and hope instilled in us by the Apollo mission. In that same spirit, 50 years ago, I watched the Apollo launch and three days later, a telecast of the moon landing, and wondered at the possibility of worlds beyond our world.”

Worked with astronauts

Dick Giberti of Sebastopol, who worked for Grumman Aerospace in the 1960s, was an analyst for the test team responsible for the engines and thrusters on the lunar module of Apollo 11. The engines, he said, were kept in a chamber in blockhouses at the White Sands Test Facility near Las Cruces, New Mexico, where they were able to reach zero atmosphere for testing the engines, valves and critical helium among other phases before the Florida launch.

“One of my other jobs was to work with the astronauts who flew by jet from Houston to Holloman Air Force Base where I would join up with them for some critical testing. My job was to drive to Pearl Site in the desert (where the radar systems were kept) to fire up the landing and rendezvous radars, open the dome and activate the radar system so it pointed skyward.”

He would also take the transponder, packed in dry ice, to two astronauts at Holloman, where they would conduct more testing via a helicopter.

Six months before the launch Giberti was assigned to Cape Kennedy to monitor the LM5 (Lunar Module 5), which would take Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s surface. He put in long hours “working out all the bugs and procedures.”

During the mission launch Giberti, now 82 and a grape grower in Sebastopol, said he watched the launch from a spectator area, wearing systems monitors.

One of his fondest memories of the experience came the next day when he picked up the newspaper and spotted a picture of his daughter, Melanie, standing on the beach.

“She was 4 years old with my Navy hat on with the name Giberti on it. She was watching the launch in front of her taking off. That was a kick. There was a chill I will always remember.”

Robert Fletcher was a computer system programmer who had a small hand in getting the computers that would track Apollo 11, up and running. Fletcher was working for IBM ,which was under contract at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

In 1969 he was the system programmer for the s/360 computers, which were tasked with handling atmospheric and space telemetry gathered from tracking stations around the world. And in July 1969 that would include tracking Apollo 11 on its trip to the moon.

“In real time, these computers would receive the tracking data, process it, and drive visual display and read-outs at Mission Control and other locations,” the Santa Rosa man said. “The computers and operating systems were new and the challenge was exciting.”

Fletcher, now 75, said for a young man in the wide open frontier of computer science in the 1960s, he could think of no more interesting way to apply his skills than to the space program.

“Just trying to accomplish something like that was the sexiest thing going as far as I was concerned,” he said.

History and honeymoon

As fortune would have it, Fletcher could not be at work to watch the historic moment with colleagues at Goddard. He had just married wife Susan in January 1969.

They put off a planned trip to Europe so they could be home for the moon landing. But because of a schedule change, the mission fell during their long postponed honeymoon. They found themselves determinedly combing Amsterdam for a place that would have a TV set tuned to the lunar landing.

“We were able to watch the landing in an amazing setting in the packed lobby of an Amsterdam hotel in the middle of the night cheering with the Dutch as we experienced this truly remarkable world-spanning event,” he said.

The wonder of the feat didn’t sink in until he watched it live on that black and white TV, marveling at what it took “to make all those pieces work.”

“I had a very interesting life, with lots of things that are really important to me. This definitely was one of them,” said Fletcher, who went on to a second career as owner of the Sonoma County Crushers minor league baseball team. “You can’t help but appreciate the fact that you are given the opportunity to make a contribution to something as momentous as this.”

The Space Race of the 1960s fired the imaginations of children, who gobbled up science fiction, dreamed of interplanetary travel and watched shows like “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space.”

Patty Brown of Petaluma said she was 11 that year, and her teacher, Mr. Van Meter at Fitch Mountain Elementary School in Healdsburg, got the whole class following NASA and reading news stories throughout that spring. He had all the kids write letters to themselves leading up to the moon landing, sending them with first-day-of-issue moon stamps.

“Our family talked about it around the dinner table for days before the landing,” she said. “We had a TV console with a walnut cabinet, which was our first color television set. The landing appeared to us in almost a gray color, mostly black and white, but dad said something about the filming from space probably being difficult to show in color.”

Her family followed the mission from takeoff on July 16.

“When those first steps off the ladder hit that fine dusty power of moon soil,” she said, “we all cheered ... After all these years, it still feels like an event for my lifetime. As a teacher I still mention that I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing on that old TV set with my family.”

Scoring good TV reception is a recurring theme among moon landing memories and was an indelible part of the experience.

In motel room

Mike Nicholls of Rohnert Park remembers watching the moon walk on a black and white set with rabbit ears in a motel room in South Lake Tahoe where his family was on vacation. He was 9 and his dad forced him to watch.

“That was live coverage and you could hear scratchy communication between Cape Canaveral and the astronauts It was very calculated and in slow motion. Every once in a while my dad would try moving the rabbit ears to try to get a better picture.

“He also tried adjusting the fine tuning knob and the contrast, but the picture that we were seeing in real time never became any better, but was still clear enough to see that history was being made.”

Rosemary Garzelli of Petaluma was so inspired by the event, which she watched at home in Petaluma with her family, that she created a commemorative collage, cutting pictures and words out of magazines. She was 14. She marvels now how there were no pictures of women in the piece.

“I must have been excited,” she said, “because something made me keep it for 50 years.”

David Ballo said he was vacationing with his family in Washington’s San Juan Islands and watched from a tiny portable black and white TV on their boat. It inspired him to become an engineer.

“The telescoping rabbit ears had to be set just right to get any picture at all,” said Ballo. He was 11 at the time and fascinated with the space program because his father was a Boeing engineer who had worked on the first stage of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the astronauts to the moon.

“I remember poring over the Saturn Familiarization Manual my dad brought home, a document given to engineers newly assigned to the project. I still have the manual as a souvenir of a time when the space program inspired many young people like me to pursue careers as engineers,” said Ballo, who has worked at what is now Keysight Technologies through its various incarnations for 40 years. He remains a “space geek” who closely follows developments in governmental and commercial spaceflight.

Misty memories

David Willat was a 15-year-old living in Marin during the historic moon landing.

He has only misty memories of watching it on TV. But he inherited a treasure trove of memorabilia from his Uncle Thoreau, a photographer assigned to cover the Apollo mission for the Voice of America.

Willat has barely explored the contents of a box that was passed down to him from Uncle Thoreau, but it contains photographs of the astronauts after their splashdown, a hard hat from the USS Hornet, which recovered the crew after splashdown and an Apollo 11 baseball cap.

Thoreau accompanied the astronauts on a world tour and there are many photos from that in the collection, along with menus and other ephemera including signed Christmas cards from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

He was also a newsreel photographer and Willat, who lives in Santa Rosa, inherited 16 mm film of major world events his uncle filmed.

“Many of the reels of film are not labeled. I took a chance and had one of the reels converted to DVD only to find it was a film of the Apollo 12 mission rather than 11,” he said.

Marianne Whitfield of Petaluma saved the journal she wrote during the summer of 1969, when she was 12 and recalls how excited she was that day.

“Having a family of 9 in the ’60s, we never ate any meals that were not cooked in our kitchen, but our family was so excited that day we got to order out Chinese food and watch TV while eating.

Stuck at work

Many people found themselves stuck at work that day. Ed Kinney of Windsor was a draftsman for Boeing Aircraft in Everett, Washington. He said he listened to the moon landing broadcast over the Boeing internal system, along with 100 other draftsmen who stopped work to listen.

Roseanna Woods of Santa Rosa watched the moon walk on a tiny black and white TV in the manager’s office of a drive-in theater in Riverside, where she was working that summer when she was 17.

Barbara Mackenzie of Rohnert Park was a long distance telephone operator in Costa Mesa, working an old-fashioned wall switchboard.

“The day of the landing I remember hearing a radio in the background on the Supervisor’s desk with the updated reporting as we tried to keep going with our plugging and switching duties,” she said.

“I love thinking about the contrasting technology at the time ... so relatively primitive and so incredibly sophisticated.”

Candi Burns said she was a waitress on the graveyard shift in a cafe at San Francisco International Airport. Her manager brought in a 14-inch portable TV and set it up on a makeshift plank and kept it there until the astronauts returned safely.

“The picture was fuzzy and we kept having to move the rabbit ears around to keep it in focus. Every night we got a plane with soldiers returning from Vietnam and they would gather around close to the TV eating their pancakes and bacon and standing up. I kept hearing over and over, “Unbelievable.’

“One night one of the bus boys called me over to the big picture window that looked out to the open sky. ‘Look, they’re there.’

“It was too foggy to really see anything but I got chills just looking up there thinking about them being there and praying they would return home safe.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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