I’ve been reading up on space exploration recently, and obviously I can’t just study about this topic without touching on the Apollo programs — the program that brought humans to the moon. For most people, knowing Neil Armstrong is enough. For others slightly more curious, they might even know all the Apollo astronauts.
Astronauts/Cosmonauts are amazing so I understand why they get so much attention. They actually risk their lives (especially the early astronauts) in order to go to space, and that’s after years of intense training to even be qualified to do so. Yet, there are literally hundreds of people involved in making these missions possible. There are designers, manufacturers, testers, engineers, programmers, scientists, people who prepared food, even other astronauts on land that support those who go to space, and so many other staff and personnel.
I want to talk about four of the people who worked behind-the-scenes for the Apollo moon missions. Keep in mind that while I focus on their work in the Apollo program below, these people have done so much more (whether it’s on other space programs, or even different fields). Honestly, I just needed a space to fangirl like the nerd I am over these people who caught my attention while I read about space exploration in the 1960’s – 1970’s. (Yes, of course, there are other amazing people; some I don’t even know yet.)
I learned about Margaret Hamilton way before I got interested in the Apollo program, or space exploration in general. Back in college, as a female in the Computer Science department, it was impossible not to hear about her. The famous picture of her beside the stack of written code as tall as she was is permanently burned into my memory. She has, since then, been such a inspiration for me.
Margaret was a computer scientist and software/systems engineer. She lead the team that developed the on-board flight software for the Apollo missions. She is known for the error detection and real-time recovery code she wrote, which is credited with having saved the Apollo 11 mission after a radar switch was left on during the moon landing.
Glynn Lunney was a NASA engineer who served as flight director on seven Apollo missions. I first took notice of him when I learned that he took his work shift in the middle of the crisis following Apollo 13’s accident. What further piqued my interest was reading Ken Mattingly (Apollo 16 astronaut) say “…the most magnificent display of personal leadership that I’ve ever seen” with regards to the way Glynn handled the confusion that the accident created.
I admit, I’d never heard of Glynn Lunney before I dived into space exploration research. I didn’t even know what on earth flight directors were. But I soon found he is everywhere. Some astronauts that participated in the JSC Oral History project (which he himself participated in) mention him in their interviews. And as a flight director, his name appears frequently on the Apollo Flight Journal entries.
I stumbled upon Günter Wendt while reading up on Apollo 7. He was responsible for pad procedures prior to launch and was often the last face astronauts saw before the hatch closed. I particularly enjoy reading about his friendly interactions with the astronauts, and the seriousness with which he takes responsibility for his work.
He was a mechanical engineer who worked as pad leader for the previous space programs as an employee of McDonnell, until the contractor for the Apollo program was changed to North American. He was so good at his job that Apollo 7 commander Wally Schirra insisted on having Günter as the pad leader for their mission and convinced North American to hire him. He thereafter served as pad leader for the rest of the Apollo missions as well.
To be honest, I learned about Katherine Johnson not directly from my Apollo program research, but only by chance because NASA featured articles about her after her recent death. It led me to discovering some of the most interesting stories of intelligence and brilliance.
Katherine was a mathematician. Her work in navigation that helped in orbiting and mapping the moon, along with her computations to sync the Command module and Lunar module contributed to the success of the Apollo missions. Her skills were such that she was asked to manually recheck the complex calculations made by electronic computers when they were first used because people were wary of fully trusting the machines.
The following references should cover everything I mentioned above. But these were by no means the only sources I looked at.
- The First Lunar Landing (Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal)
- Margaret Hamilton (Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal)
- Apollo Flight Directors
- Thomas K. Mattingly II (NASA JSC Oral History Project)
- Guenter Wendt (Apollo Lunar Surface Journal)
- Katherine Johnson Biography
- Katherine Johnson: The Girl Who Loved to Count