Captain Willard “Sam” Houston was part of a team of thousands that made the Apollo missions possible. Picture: Freda Chiu/ABC RN

That time my granddad saved Neil Armstrong’s life

My grandfather had a lot of stories, but there was one that transfixed me: about how he worked with NASA and saved the crew of Apollo 11.

By Katie Mack for This is About

Corona

On 20 July, 1969 the world held its breath as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon for the very first time. While Armstrong received the praise for this world-first achievement, there was of course a team of experts dedicated to getting the pair to and from the moon safely.

As a meteorologist, my grandfather’s job for Apollo 11 was to check for weather problems around the capsule’s splashdown site at the conclusion of the return trip.

He had taken command of Fleet Weather Central, Pearl Harbour just 48 hours before the moon mission was to launch and when the time came to check the conditions at the splashdown site, he consulted all the data NASA had available and it looked okay. But he wanted to be sure.

On a previous assignment, my grandfather had been given access to data from secret spy satellites from the Corona Air Force spy satellite program, a product of the Cold War and a project no-one at NASA had clearance to know about.

It was just by chance that the only person in the Navy who even knew these satellites existed happened to be in charge of monitoring the weather for Apollo 11’s re-entry.

With 72 hours to splashdown, and knowing that Corona’s orbit would take it over the splashdown site, he went to a nearby read-out station just to double check

As soon as my grandfather arrived Air Force Major Hank Brandli, the commander of the station, dragged him into his office and told him that the classified images showed all the signs of a major tropical storm over the splashdown site.

He’d seen “screaming eagle” thunderclouds forming in the satellite images. Brandli knew about NASA’s intended splashdown site, but because of the top secret nature of the program was forbidden to let on that the satellites even existed, much less share any information with other agencies.

Now my grandfather was in the same position. The capsule had to be rerouted or Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins would die, but no one could be told the reason for the change.

Secret Corona spy satellites showed “screaming eagle” clouds at the splashdown site. Picture: Freda Chiu/ABC RN

Screaming eagle

It was then up to my grandfather alone to convince NASA that there was a storm building at the splashdown site without providing any proof or corroborating data. The satellite program’s existence had to be kept secret so he couldn’t share the data that showed a potential catastrophe.

He had to rely only on his reputation as a trusted Navy man and a respected scientist. He went immediately to Rear Admiral Donald C Davis, who was in command of the recovery fleet and, without disclosing how he knew, convinced him that the entire fleet needed to be re-routed and the splashdown site changed.

Thankfully, my grandfather’s commanding officer agreed to take him at his word. With no time to wait for official orders, Davis re-routed the entire fleet and told my grandfather to convince NASA.

They both knew that if he was wrong, it would end both of their careers. Though reluctant at first, as last-minute changes to a spacecraft’s program can introduce errors, Mission Control agreed to change the atmospheric re-entry point to alter the splashdown site. My grandfather was warned: he’d better be right.

On the day of Apollo 11’s re-entry, my grandfather watched from home as the capsule carrying Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins landed in perfect weather in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We had put men on the moon and safely brought them home.

On the same day, the military commanded a plane to fly out to the original splashdown site, just to check that the storm really was there. The reconnaissance plane flew into weather so rough the capsule’s parachutes would certainly have been ripped to shreds.

The capsule would have hurtled towards the ocean and hit with such a force that Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins would have been killed in an instant. The astronauts were safe and so was my grandfather’s career.

He kept this secret, along with the Navy Commendation Medal he was awarded, until the Corona satellite program was declassified in the 1990s.

“From that momentous day in 1969, we were no longer confined to the Earth; we could venture out and walk upon other worlds.” Picture: Freda Chiu/ABC RN

One small step

The more I learn about the Apollo program, the more I appreciate how much of it was a seat-of the-pants effort, built on untested technology, driven by human ingenuity and tinged with more than a little hubris. As Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell said, “We just decided to go”.

The Moon landings weren’t miraculous or fated. They weren’t convenient. They were incredibly dangerous and by no means guaranteed to end in success. But we did it. We went there.

And I say “we” because that journey, perhaps more than any other in history, was a journey of humanity as a whole. From that momentous day in 1969, we were no longer confined to the Earth; we could venture out and walk upon other worlds.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big believer in robotic space exploration. As a scientist, I understand that it can, and does, offer us incredible insights into the formation of the Solar System, the history of life on Earth, and the environmental conditions of other planets and moons.

I understand that robotic exploration is cheaper and safer than human spaceflight, and I understand that there are places robots can explore that no human being could ever survive.

But the Apollo program wasn’t about science. It wasn’t about doing anything cheaply or safely. It wasn’t about what we would learn by bringing samples back from the Moon, or even about all the technological advances that came out of it.

It was, fundamentally, about wonder. It was about expanding our horizons as a species and setting foot on a new world. It was about reaching out into the cosmos, being viscerally connected to it, and bringing that experience back to share with all who have looked up to the stars with a sense of awe and anticipation.

It was about the recognition that we are all part of one human race, all living together on a tiny blue marble in the great black void. It was about heroes like Neil Armstrong. And like my grandfather too.

I hope that we don’t give up on human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. The Moon is so close. Mars is just next door. Orbiters and rovers will continue to bring us tremendously valuable images and information, but I hope we remember the value of actually going there, the way it can change our perspective and make us, fundamentally, greater.

Neil Armstrong knew what it felt like to walk on another world. That experience will soon pass out of living memory entirely. But the footprints on the moon will remain.

I hope others will follow them, soon, and walk farther.

Subscribe to This is About on iTunes, the ABC Radio app or your favourite podcasting app to hear the full story. A version of this article first appeared on FXQi Blogs under the title Losing Neil Armstrong.

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