'Fly me to the moon'

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Navy vet worked on RCM system for LM

By Jeff Bryan

“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong, commander, Apollo 11 crew. Those famous words were spoken almost 45 years ago as the eyes of not just the nation but the world, were focused on the crew of the Apollo 11. More important, their attention was upon the Eagle, the Lunar Module (LM) descending to the surface of the moon. The Eagle made its official landing shortly after 10 p.m. in which Astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered perhaps the second most famous line during the night’s event, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Dunnellon resident Bob Anderson recalls all too well where he was, what he was doing and how he, along with the nation, held their breath as they anxiously awaited to see how the ensuing events would unfold. But Anderson wasn’t like most Americans, watching from the confines of his cozy home. He had a front row seat at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. And it wasn’t the first time he and many others involved in the Apollo Program held their breath, but he admitted, this moment was in the worldwide spotlight. “(The moment) was indescribable, just iindescribable,” Anderson said about the moon landing. Anderson was an engineer on the project, having worked for Grumman which helped develop the Reaction Control System (RCM) for the LM. The RCM, Anderson explained, was one of many critical parts of the historic event. Prior to that, Anderson worked for Reaction Motors on the Surveyor program. “The engine systems were practically the same,” Anderson explained about the respective programs. While most of the world let out a sigh of relief upon the Eagle’s landing, crews at both Cape Canaveral and Houston still had their share of concerns. The Eagle missed its intended landing mark by 3 miles, and the fuel level was a concern. “It was definitely exhilarating, a real high, but the next thing is you’re keeping your fingers crossed that they get off,” said Anderson, who was the lead engineer for Apollo 12. “You’ve got to remember, (Michael) Collins is running a taxi, in essence, in this case. He’s got to stay up, keep on track. He’s got his own mission requirements, which included rendezvous with (the LM). He’s in lunar orbit, and then they had to mate.” His journeys throughout the 1960s as America sought to be the first nation to put a man on the moon took him to a number of places. “It was days of wine and roses,” Anderson said laughing. “We had to beat the Russians there, that was the No. 1 goal.” His first duty station, so to speak Anderson said, was in Alamo Gordo, which means fat cotton woods. “I didn’t see any,” he said of his time in God’s “last half acre.” “I was out there for six months.” During their time there, Anderson said he and numerous others initially tested rockets time and time again. They all knew the importance of what they were working toward, because NASA was in the midst of its Gemini and Mercury program. “We knew what we were doing in that aspect,” Anderson said. “Our theme was, ‘Stop the World, I Want to Get Off,’ or ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’” The work days were long, Anderson admitted, but worth it. He said most workweeks consisted of 12-hour days, seven days a week. “I met myself coming home and going to work,” Anderson said. “It was exhilarating to me. It probably is an attribute to some of my survival in that day. There were a lot of guys we called space jumpers who went from company to company. Sometimes, you didn’t get a job somewhere and you waited and waited.” Anderson met many astronauts, who were a part of the Apollo program, including Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Anderson said his first encounter with Armstrong wasn’t through their NASA association, but their work with Reaction Motors. Armstrong was a test pilot for the X-15. Anderson recalled one of Armstrong’s flights which nearly ended before his first step on the moon. “He was having such a good time. He had gone to his 50-mile mark was out over Catalina Island,” Anderson said, explaining the experimental craft had no fuel remaining and was like flying a brick. “He just made it back to base. He was something else.” Anderson credited Armstrong’s rural upbringing for keeping him “grounded.” “He was a sleeper, he knew his stuff,” Anderson said, explaining Armstrong wasn’t among the first group to be chosen for the Apollo program. “He was good, but others were equally as good.” Anderson said post-mission briefings, it was amazing to hear the stories from the astronauts themselves. ‘They’d come back and tell you the highlights,” he said, noting at reunions throughout the years for those involved with Apollo 11, he was fortunate to talk one-on-one with Armstrong, where the famed mission commander remembered Anderson from Reaction Motors. “He remembered me from Reaction Motors,” Anderson said, noting the conversation was brief. Being the lead engineer for the RCM engineering team on Apollo 12 was equally impressive, Anderson said. He recalled pre-briefing meetings with Pete Conrad, the mission commander. One of Conrad’s tasks was to retrieve a camera from Surveyor 3, a rocket Anderson worked on prior to Apollo 11. “During the missing debriefing, he looked at me and said, ‘Bob, I got your camera back,’” Anderson remembered. “It was amazing. The nice thing about it is he remembered it was me and talking to me about the Surveyor program.” Anderson was around during the near tragedy involving Apollo 13. “It taught us how to work around a severe problem,” Anderson said. “It’s amazing what you can cardboard and duct tape and get astronauts back from space. “They were a step away from death, so it speaks loudly about the ability for engineering of the LM, which was not a re-entry vehicle. It was never intended to be so, and it was not very aerodynamic.” There were plenty of concerns, Anderson said. “But we were just believing everything was going to work correctly,” he remembered. Through it all, his years working in the Apollo program to closing out his career working with the F-14 Tomcat, Anderson said it has been an amazing journey. “I grew up as a farm boy then I enlisted in the Navy,” said Anderson, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1952 to 1956. “I just remember once asking myself, “how the hell did I get here in this program?’ The timing was everything. One minute you’re a farm kid, a short-time plumber, next thing, you’re married and have a family, working on rocket engines. It’s amazing. I was truly blessed.”