SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Thousands of people contributed to the effort to get Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins to the moon, which happened 50 years ago today. The only part of the actual spacecraft to make it to the moon and back was the tiny, gumdrop-shaped capsule perched right at the tip. It carried the astronauts with all of their life support and scientific resources crammed inside. It's called the Columbia Command Module. KPCC's Jacob Margolis spoke with two people who dedicated a decade to working on the capsule.
JACOB MARGOLIS, BYLINE: The module was born at North American Aviation in Downey, Calif., what used to be farmland just south of Los Angeles. John F. Kennedy's 1961 decree that we'd reach the moon by the end of the decade meant that an awful lot of people uprooted their lives and flooded in from across the country.
CHUCK LOWRY: When I first arrived in California and reported for work, there was a lot of chaos.
MARGOLIS: Chuck Lowry was an engineer whose job was in part to make sure the parachutes worked. He moved his pregnant wife and two young kids away from a good life with family and friends in Ohio to a motel in Downey so he could get started right away.
LOWRY: Many people came in, and there was just no room for them. We had people in the halls. We had people that needed a drafting table, and we ran out of them. And I know people that took doors off the offices and put them on sawhorses, and that became their drafting table. But after a while, we began to get things put together.
MARGOLIS: The command module had to have everything, from life support systems to seating to navigation to those parachutes to keep it from slamming into the ocean and killing the astronauts. While some designs would come from NASA, it was the folks on the ground in Downey who were working out the details.
Gerald Blackburn was from nearby. He was 19 when he started on the project as a lab technician.
GERALD BLACKBURN: Think of the Volkswagen Beetle. That's about the size of the command module interior with the seats out and everything, OK?
MARGOLIS: He says he was crawling in and out of it, testing things and installing nuts and bolts and tubing that had to be put in exactly the right place, sometimes with five other people doing their jobs in there, too. The capsule had to be as fine-tuned as a Swiss watch but as robust as a tank. And if a bolt needed to be moved half an inch, Jerry says, there'd be endless meetings about it, and production could be delayed.
BLACKBURN: You got to the point where you began to realize that this thing was so complex, it was so big that there was no way that you could fathom the whole program. So you had to rely on that everybody is doing their job and taking care of what they need to take care of.
MARGOLIS: Apollo was their lives, working 10 to 15 hour days, never seeing their families. In the beginning, there seemed to be this almost naive optimism, this gung-ho we're going to the moon, this is our mission sort of stuff. And then, on January 27, 1967, everything changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE WALLACE: America's first three Apollo astronauts were trapped and killed by a flash fire that swept their moon ship early tonight during a launch pad test at Cape Kennedy in Florida.
MARGOLIS: A spark set off a huge fire the 100% oxygen environment in the capsule. The door couldn't be opened fast enough. The astronauts didn't have any sort of fireproofing on their suits. Jerry says it was terrible.
BLACKBURN: Everybody that was working here are asking themselves the same question - did I do something wrong?
MARGOLIS: There was an investigation.
BLACKBURN: The whole tone had changed.
MARGOLIS: Division president Harrison Storms was removed. They redesigned the capsule. New safety procedures were put into place. After a break, Chuck says, the ruthless pace of the program picked back up.
LOWRY: As John F. Kennedy said, we're going to land and return men safely in the 1960s, in that decade. And we held that goal very sacred, and it was important because you've got Congress, you've got people, you've got the world watching. And we'd just have to meet our goal on that.
MARGOLIS: Chuck says that another turning point - this a majorly positive one - was in 1968, when Apollo 7, the first crewed mission, made its way to space. Then Apollo 8 circled the moon. Nine, 10 - all good. The whole time, they're building more capsules, refining their designs, until, finally, 11.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NEIL ARMSTRONG: Houston, the Eagle has landed.
MARGOLIS: Michael Collins flew the capsule around the moon while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong did their thing. Chuck recalls the joy and the fear.
LOWRY: On my shift, we would sit there in that control room and listen to the voice between the astronaut and ground control. And you always listened, like, is there anything in the conversation going on that might indicate something is wrong in anywhere or in your system? So it's kind of intense.
MARGOLIS: On their way back, the astronauts sent one final transmission from space. Collins had this to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MICHAEL COLLINS: This operation is somewhat like the periscope of a submarine. All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others. And to all those, I would like to say, thank you very much.
MARGOLIS: Upon re-entry Chuck Lowry's parachutes deployed and inflated. All of Gerald Blackburn's quality testing paid off. The capsule floated down, and the astronauts returned to Earth safely. By the end of it, more than 400,000 people had worked on the Apollo program.
LOWRY: John F. Kennedy had said we're going to the moon not because it's easy but because it's hard. And he was right on that. It took a lot of years, and we worked a lot of weekends and holidays. And we worked hard. Our families suffered. There were a lot of heart attacks and broken homes and strokes. And Apollo took a toll.
MARGOLIS: Chuck basically didn't see his family for a decade. Jerry, who ended up as management eventually, actually lost an eye in an accident. Still, he says...
BLACKBURN: I refer to what I call this place and that time as our cosmic Camelot - a time when people in a country came together with a commitment to do something and to achieve a goal that was incredible.
MARGOLIS: For NPR News, I'm Jacob Margolis.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.