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'Fly me to the moon'

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Vice mayor helped with service arms

By Jeff Bryan

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” — President John F. Kennedy It’s been almost 40 years since Dennis Evans closed one chapter in his life and moved on to the next stage of his career in the ever developing, and changing, field of engineering. But for at least 12 years, Evans saw the world change as quickly as a rocket hurtling toward space. After all, it made plenty of sense, since he had a front row seat for many of the Saturn 5 launches as part of the Apollo program at Kennedy Space Center. Beginning in 1963, Evans began his career with Brown Engineering Company, a Huntsville, Ala.-based company, which designed the service arms for the Saturn 5. He was offered a job on the spot after his initial interview with Walt J. Stampley. “I had taken courses in mechanical grafting,” Evans recalled, explain Stampley sat him down at his desk and explained what he was doing. “I picked it up and he carried me with him. He rose through the ranks. We ended up doing contract management; we served as in-house NASA contractors. Our boss was NASA, but we were the liaisons to our parent company.” The service arms served as the launch mechanisms for NASA. The service arms were constructed at Haze International, then shipped to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in West Virginia for testing. Once the items passed through a series of rigorous tests, they were shipped to Kennedy Space Center in Port Canaveral. There, Evans and other employees with Brown Engineering would set up the service arms and rockets for launches. “Once the rocket lifted a half inch off the ground, it triggered the kick-off valves and everything took care of itself,” Evans said of the company’s contribution to the great space race of the 1960s. “We must have had 150,000 people involved in the program. All we did was assist in launching the rockets, once it cleared the tower, everything reverted to Houston (Mission Control).” And Evans was there for perhaps the most significant launch on July 16, 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 sought to complete a goal established by President Kennedy in his epic 1961 address to a joint house of Congress. “(The launch) wasn’t any different than the rest of them; it lit up and made a lot of noise,” he said, noting he was stationed at Cape Canaveral for a lengthy portion of his career with Brown. “When (Apollo 11) launched, at that time, I was on the 31st floor of the (Vehicle Assembly Building). We had already begun preparations for the next launch.” After the Saturn V lifted off carrying the Apollo 11 crew, Evans did what he typically did after a launch. He returned to his apartment. However, four days later he was glued to the television like most people across the world were, watching the Eagle make its way toward the moon’s surface. “I think it was a summation of all of that was our final goal, our ultimate goal, to put a man on the moon.” He explained. “It was important to do the landing on the moon, but we didn’t consider it an accomplished mission because we hadn’t gotten them home yet. Until they’re home safely, it wasn’t a done deal.” Because in the back of Evans’ mind was the tragic events surrounding Apollo I in which three crew members — Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — burned to death in a test. “It was the saddest I ever was during that time, I probably had tears in my eyes,” he said, explaining he was in West Virginia during the tragedy. “I was with Ray Davis, a buddy I worked with, and we were getting off early, maybe 5:30 or 6. It was really unusual for us to end work that early, but it happened.” So the pair drove to a nearby Holiday Inn, which had a bar inside. “We were sitting there having a drink and the band was going to start playing in a little bit,” he recalled. “Then they announced on the news that there was a fire in the Apollo capsule, and Grissom, White and Chaffee had died. “The place was fairly noisy when the news came across, but everyone was just shocked. You could have heard a pin drop in the place. We just got up and went home after that.” Evans remembers when the news spread about the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded shortly after its launch in January 1986. He was working for TVA at the time when a co-worker told him the news. “It didn’t home like the Apollo I tragedy,” he said. “It was sad but it just didn’t hit home.” During the Apollo 13 incident, Evans was in Spokane, Wash., working as a contractor with Boeing for a six-month stint. It, and Apollo 1, were the lone launches he missed during his career with Brown Engineering Company. Through it all, the time spent working with his colleagues at Brown, those from NASA and the many numerous other companies involved in the space race, Evans hasn’t forgotten it. It still looms largely in his mind. “The camaraderie of the thing, the people working together, it was a different time. It was great,” Evans said. “It felt like one big team working together, no matter what your job, they felt it was essential to the mission. I’ve never experienced anything like that before and after. That was kind of the way whole thing was.” Evans joked if he’d been able to afford it, he would have paid for the privilege of being a part of the program and integral part of American history. “It was the highlight of my working career for those 13 years,” he said. “It brings back a lot of memories.” But one thing is for certain, Evans cannot believe it’s been 45 years since the historic l anding. “It’s cool that anybody remembers it,” he explained. “I hadn’t thought about it much, but maybe they’ll do something really big for the 50th anniversary.”