This week we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, and its unique connection to Northern Arizona. Every astronaut who walked on the moon first came to Flagstaff to train. That’s partly because it was home to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Branch of Astrogeology, founded by geologist Gene Shoemaker. Shoemaker’s secretary, Jody Swann, remembers what it was like to work there during the heyday of Apollo…and mapmaker Ray Jordan recalls the Surveyor missions, unmanned spacecraft that went to the moon just before Apollo. They’re today’s voices in our weeklong series.
My name is Jody Swann, I moved in August of 1963 and started to work for the USGS in December in 1963. The office was just abuzz, and it was after dark in December. Everybody was still working like that’s what they always did, which surprised me. Finally, I saw this man coming down the hall in pretty rumpled Levis and an old flannel shirt, and I thought we’d better get out of here, the janitor’s here. It turned out that was Gene Shoemaker. That’s when we started the interview…. And I applied and got the job and it was the luckiest time in my life.
I went down to, what they called the Kennedy Space Center then, for two of the Apollo launches in Florida. One thing I noticed, I guess it’s the percussion or pressure from lift off, you feel a pressure in your chest and you forget to breathe. And all of a sudden you realize, I guess I better take a breath! It is an amazing event, and then when you know the people in the rocket, especially 17 when Jack Schmitt was one of our good friends, it’s pretty intense.
The flights took place between 1969-1972. That’s not a very long time in your life. But at the time it was all consuming for those of us working in it. Interpreting the results, writing papers on the last mission, getting ready for the current mission, and preparing for future missions was just—that’s what we did.
My name is Ray Jordan, I’m retired from the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Branch now for about 25 years. Quite an interesting job! ... When I was at a mapping convention, I saw this strange looking colored geologic map of the Moon, and I went over and looked at the legend of it, and it was made by the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology Branch in Flagstaff, and I thought, well, that’s what I want to do!
When I came here there was one spacecraft sitting on the surface of the Moon. So my job was to provide topographic information from that one camera sitting on the Moon. So I was at JPL during the missions in the control room to provide real-time topographic support. One of the missions was compared to screaming down your driveway at 60 miles an hour and stopping just in time to miss the backside of your garage. It was exciting.
I think the whole world was excited, at least initially. I was drafted into the Army in the early 60s and there was the Vietnam War was going on and all kinds of other very unpopular stuff. …. But when Apollo landed on the moon, I mean, everybody around the world can see the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin weren’t just Americans. They were human beings on the planet Earth that had left Earth and were walking on another body. That felt really good. It felt good to be working on that project and it felt darn good to be an American.
Tomorrow in our weeklong series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, we hear Karen Malis-Clark share her family’s special connection to Apollo. Today’s audio postcard was produced by KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny.