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Moonshots, Milestones and Memories

2 years ago /

Apollo 11 and astronaut
(Credit: NASA / Apollo Flight Journal, Apollo 11 Collection.)

The older I get, the more acutely aware I become of the fact that one’s greatest strength in life can often double as one’s greatest weakness. I feel much the same way about email. On any given day, it’s like a box of chocolates. Doubly if not triply so for the opening work days after a long holiday weekend.

Yesterday, the cyber gods not only were smiling, they also were downright giddy. As was I when I opened my first email of the day – an exchange between two Texas A&M University distinguished professors, forwarded my way by one of them at the rather ungodly hour of 12:30 a.m.

Mom always said nothing good happens after midnight, but in this case, she was wrong. Two lines in and even through sleepy eyes, I knew I’d hit upon one of those insta-classics that continue to validate my rationale in starting this blog six years ago this past month in dedication to an altruistic and oftentimes artistic cause: to properly document such milestone occasions for the broader benefit of science, history, education and, heck, mankind. One small step, indeed.

Happy anniversary, Texas A&M Science blog! And while we’re at it, you too, Apollo 11. #Apollo50

I’ll let those two aforementioned distinguished professors – astronomer Nick Suntzeff, who helped discover the evidence for dark energy and three-quarters of the universe in the process, and aerospace engineer John Junkins, who was honored this past May with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ 2019 Robert H. Goddard Astronautics Award – take it from here.

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Nicholas B. Suntzeff

Nicholas B. Suntzeff (Credit: Sam Craft / Bryan-College Station Eagle.)

From: Nicholas Suntzeff
Sent: Monday, July 8, 2019 5:58 PM
To: Junkins, John L
Subject: video

Hey John,

Thanks for the video about your well-deserved award! That is an impressive number of students you have had. …

Here is a video back to you. It is a very well-produced video of the complete Apollo 11 touchdown on the Moon, including the four main communications channels. They include subtitles and explanations for the acronyms. They will also cut away to Gene Kranz at times and sync the audio to the video they have of the control room. It is the first time I felt what went on during the descent, and how Armstrong took control of the lander to find a place where there were no boulders. It is worth watching. All the computer error codes ignored. Less than one minute of fuel. Problems with the satellite link. Damn, those guys were good. Riveting.

cheers nick

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John L. Junkins

John L. Junkins (Credit: Hagler Institute for Advanced Study.)

From: “Junkins, John L
Subject: RE: video
Date: July 8, 2019 at 6:20:57 PM CDT
To: Nicholas Suntzeff


I lived that landing in real time, and it was an amazing culmination of less than a decade of a swash-buckling NASA that only the decaying remnants of which now exist (to use a super nova analogy).  The risk tolerance of that era of space exploration and the intensity of all of the engineers, astronauts and management was so amazing.  I was in a group working intensely for 70 hours many weeks for peanuts and with technically competent and passionate leadership like [Wernher] von Braun, who literally lived in an apartment adjacent to his office for about six weeks prior to each Apollo launch.  I started work at NASA Marshall at age 19, and I still get emotional when I think about the Apollo program and the accomplishments during the eight years and change following Kennedy’s “Apollo quest” speech.  I was acquainted with von Braun, worked in the same building … you could feel the intensity at all levels of management. Incredibly goal-focused and coin of the realm was problem-solving.  Folks who did not share the passion enjoyed a social status somewhat below furniture.  The result was an organization that could move technical mountains in a hurry.  It was breathtaking then, and in hindsight, it still is.  I was blessed to be born early enough to have a bit part and gain an appreciation of how blessed I was to have a front-row seat, but not quite early enough to be a major player.


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Learn more about Junkins, the inspiration behind his award-winning career and his NASA ties that include supporting roles in the final three Apollo missions in this May 2019 Bryan-College Station Eagle profile.

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