Peninsula connections to man's first lunar landing more than memories

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, the Peninsula Daily News presents the second part of a two-part package commemorating the event. The first article appeared Sunday.

The images are painted across our collective memory, in bright detail, of a summer Sunday 40 years ago.

And these flashbacks still feel good: The Apollo 11 moon landing, coming as it did on July 20, 1969, near the end of a tumultuous decade, gave us a chance to rejoice together, together with people the world over.

Readers responded, with great enthusiasm, to the Peninsula Daily News' invitation to share perspectives on the lunar mission of July 1969.

Dozens of e-mails poured in from people all over the North Olympic Peninsula: from a science teacher who was a toddler gazing at the television to a man who gleaned the news from a notebook in Siberia to a woman who helped translate data from the moon's surface into photographs seen by millions.

The messages reflect many emotions, but joy jumps out farthest. Americans living far from home marveled at the feat, along with their neighbors in places as diverse as South Africa, Australia and Siberia.

View from Micronesia

"I was 21 and in Peace Corps training on the island of Ponape, Micronesia," recalled Marlene Newman of Port Townsend.

"I remember all the volunteers and trainers gathered around a shortwave radio that evening, looking up at the moon and listening to the lunar landing.

"I thought, 'I am bathing in a stream, living in a thatched hut, and there is an American stepping onto the moon.'

"It was an amazing, life-changing adventure for both of us in very different ways," added Newman, who went on to teach English on the Micronesian isle of Kosrae for two years.

View from South Africa

Allen Ruble of Port Angeles was working in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1969, and in July he took a vacation near the tiny town of Matubatuba.

Sitting on his hotel-room porch near a lagoon, watching monkeys swing through the trees, he could hear the hotel's sound system broadcast news of the Apollo 11 astronauts' descent.

Then, he remembered:

"Out of the reeds across the narrow lagoon, a huge, orange, harvest moon slowly rose. A large heron was silhouetted against it," and suddenly he heard Neil Armstrong speaking from the moon's surface.

Hearing this, "people all around us cheered. Many lined up to shake our hands and, when we sat for dinner, people asked us to sign their menus," Ruble said.

"It was as if we were responsible for the landing. It seemed impossible that our guys were walking around on that giant, orange ball."

Helping 'our guys'

A few who were part of the enormous crew that helped put "our guys" up there wrote to the Peninsula Daily News about their own feelings of astonishment during the summer of '69.

Natalie Spiegel of Port Angeles was a former secretary who, at 43, had learned the new art of computer programming.

Hired by a NASA contractor, she was sent to Palo Alto., Calif., months before the Apollo 11 mission to write a specialized code.

The code was used, she said, to translate data gathered on the moon into still photographs.

Spiegel lived in a motel while working on the project, and as soon as she finished, was sent back home to New Jersey, so she didn't see the results of her work until the mission was accomplished.

"It was fantastic" seeing those pictures on television in July, Spiegel said. Her thought was simply: "It really worked!"

Steven Worden of Sequim worked on NASA's Timing and Countdown team at the Kennedy Space Center.

So "the gut-wrenching moment," he said, was when the Apollo 11 rocket blasted off on July 16, 1969.

"I was one of the worker ants," said Worden, 27 at the time.

"I was plastered against the chain link fence in front of the VIP grandstand, like most of the staff whose lives revolved around this moment in time."

And though he was a considerable distance from the Saturn V rocket, he fully experienced "the incredible feeling of the air crackling and the earth vibrating."

In the lab group

Max Gersenson of Blyn also was part of the massive Apollo 11 effort, as a technician at RCA in Camden, N.J.

He was part of the laboratory group developing the gear -- modified radio equipment -- to measure the distance between the lunar landing module and the "mother ship" circling above the moon.

The members of Gersenson's team received a simple certificate, bearing the RCA logo and honoring each for "contributing to the success of the United States' goal of landing Man on the Moon."

But Armstrong didn't call his moon landing a "giant step" for the United States; it was rather for all "mankind."

And in various formats and remote locations, Americans were showered with congratulations.

Watching from Houston

James Langhoff of Sequim was watching the events unfold from the Houston control base.

An electrician who helped maintain the equipment in the building, he remembers the relief and joy that spread through the room after the men made it safely back to Earth.

"I still remember when splashdown came," he said.

"They handed out cigars and flags, and everyone walked around waving flags.

"It turned into this huge party.

"Outside the center was this four-lane highway, and people were doing conga lines with 100 to 200 people back and forth across the highway."

Prior to the launch, he remembered the hundreds of simulations and run-throughs the teams would make.

Then on the day of the landing 40 years ago, the work came to completion.

"It was incredible," he said.

"Everyone was there -- all the VIPs, all the big reporters and all of my crew, even the ones who weren't scheduled to work," he said.

A note in Siberia

David Christian, freshly graduated from Hong Kong International School, was on a ship headed for Nakhodka in what was then the Soviet Union.

He planned to travel across the country on the Trans-Siberian Railroad before returning home to the United States.

On board the ship, another traveler had spread news of Apollo 11's approach toward the moon.

But the lunar landing wasn't scheduled until later in July, when he would be on the train in the middle of Siberia, where Christian would have no access to news.

But on July 20, a Russian dining-car waitress heard of Armstrong's steps, and -- despite the language barrier between her and her American passenger -- found a way to share the latest.

The waitress took out her order pad, Christian remembered, and drew a crescent moon, surrounded it with stars and "gave us a big thumbs-up."

Christian later went to New York City, where a ticker- ­tape parade hailed the astronauts, and added his waves to those of countless spectators.

"As I look back on that time," he said, "the memory of the Russian waitress reminded me that the accomplishment was enjoyed not only by Americans but also by many others from around the world.

"In the midst of the Cold War, the lunar landing helped us be common citizens of a proud planet."

View from Peninsula

In Port Angeles on that day, the moon landing allowed a teenager to connect with an elderly man.

Mary Jo Johnston was working at Angeles Healthcare, where many of the patients had been taken to the recreation room to watch and listen to the news of Apollo 11.

"There was a very kind patient who was intently listening to the broadcast," she said.

"He was very emotional," and Johnston decided to take her lunch break and visit with the man, who was blind.

"He asked if I could describe what was being seen on the television . . . I described in detail as best I could the colors I was seeing and what the spacecraft looked like."

Then the man told her how he'd lived on the East Coast as a boy and had seen the Wright brothers' Kitty Hawk plane fly.

"I have thought of that day many times and how fast things in our lives change," Johnston said.

"That lovely old gentleman . . . gave me a memory I will not forget."


Staff writer Paige Dickerson contributed to this report.

Sequim-Dungeness Valley senior writer Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at

Last modified: July 19. 2009 9:52PM
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