Friday, August 31, 2012

The Apollo Project

When I was graduated from both high school and secretarial school, I was still unmarried and living in Boston, Massachusetts. I found a job with the "The Apollo Project" at the MIT Instrumentation Lab (It was renamed in 1970 the Charles Stark Draper Labs after its founder.) in Cambridge, overlooking the Charles River. I was a technical secretary assigned to work with project manager George Cherry's team and so I learned to type all kinds of equations which were part of reports and documentation for the Lunar Excursion Model (LEM) for the Apollo 11 launch. (Obituary for George Cherry here.)

One of the fellows working on the same project was Allan R. Klumpp, an engineer who regularly trained for many marathons, but his dream was to run The Boston Marathon, a 23-mile challenge that is staged on Patriot's Day on the outskirts of the city. It was not uncommon for Allan to run into work from his home, and since this was before showers were considered part of the work benefits, on warmer mornings he was pretty damp by the time he arrived. But that is not the reason he was a memorable part of the team, at least not for me. He was a kind man, tolerant of my inability to be as precise as an engineer and ready and willing to review my equations to be sure they were correct. (The document shown here was something I remember typing for him.) I expect that without his attention to detail the LEM would not have landed on the moon. But it was at his expense this joke got passed around the inner circle: "What sound will the LEM make when it lands on the moon?" Answer: "Klumpp!"

All my memories of working for the Apollo Project came rushing forward today after reading about the passing last week of Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11 and the LEM. I remembered meeting him one afternoon when he, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins came to the lab to go over documentation on the LEM. Back in the mid-60's an astronaut was on the 'star' list (pun intended) and NASA took full advantage of those draws. So did some of the secretaries at the Lab, using every feminine wile possible to be in the presence of these soon-to-be-famous entities. I was still too new to my job to risk leaving my desk, but thanks to Allan Klumpp it wasn't necessary. He brought all three of them to me, and introduced us, telling them that I was just as important as he was to the whole project and they needed to respect everyone who was working to get them up to the moon and back, "because," he said, "we cannot afford the luxury of one little error. One degree in calculations could throw everything off and you'd miss the moon, one mis-fire could ruin the return, one sloppy mechanical installation could mean failure." I worked harder to be accurate after that, and when I left the program to move to California with my husband and daughter, I received a commendation in the mail from NASA for my work.

Buzz Aldrin is photographed walking near the lunar module during the Apollo 11extravehicular activity on July 20, 1969.
Photo: Associated Press

But the greater part of the memory was on July 20, 1969 when Armstrong walked on the moon, after the LEM delivered them to it. I don't think there was any recording of the sound it made when it landed, but because my daughter was sitting beside me as we all watched on TV and she and her cousins were chattering in their toddler tones, I would have missed it anyhow. I can say that I was proud then and still am today for the very small part I played in that event, so that these three men had a successful mission and long lives thereafter.

For those who are interested, Don Eyles wrote an interesting hindsight report here about the screwups and how close the whole mission came to failure. Frankly, I am still amazed when jet aircraft fly, when my car starts and when my phone connects me to someone... my oldest and dearest BFF recently asked me, "How did we manage to do all we did without cell phones?"


  1. dear sandy,

    what an incredible story, and what fantastic memories you must have revisited. gosh, i got a little teary reading about how mr. klumpp brought all three astronauts to meet you, and was so kind and generous to say that you were definitely part of the team. and you were! i think of all the people in this world who do things everyday that keep our planet moving forward, and who must at times feel invisible. that lovely man most assuredly realized the importance of good work, and that devoted and committed people who did the work needed and deserved to be recognized as part of the team. you must surely treasure the memories of working on the apollo project and your time with mr. klumpp, and be so proud of the commendation you received from NASA. such a fascinating post, and as one who adores the moon and all the stories behind how the astronauts made their historic landing there, i really enjoyed this peek into your work and personal experiences behind the scenes. since neil armstrong passed away, i've often wondered if after it was free, his spirit sang a little refrain from a song of another era; "fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars..."

    warm hugs, and sweet memories,

    karen (sutherland)

    1. Karen -- I just realized that I posted this on the night of the Blue Moon, too... co-inky dink? I liked your thought about the song, too. Hugs back to you!

  2. What a great post! It is funny but what I take away from this post is not that you met the three most famous astronauts ever but you had someone who valued you so much. It seems these days workers are undervalued and grow weary of their job when they never receive positive feedback. Thanks again for sharing your part in history!

    1. You are so right, Birdie! As the years progressed I took that action and parlayed it into my own management style. It is a reminder that we often don't know what little kindnesses we offer may ripple out into the world and what affect they might have...

  3. dear sandy and birdie,

    let me jump in and say i so agree, expecially as it can relate to all of the exchanges between cancer patients, and their care teams. from the very beginning of our diagnosises, we found that being inclusive to the entire team - the schedulers,the security personel in the parking garages, receptionists, the volunteers, even the pharmacist at our local drug store and their techs, the lab people and their front desk personel were all an integral part of making sure we got what we needed to move forward with treatment. but more than that, they were always so kind, so supportive and generous with their time. and when we thanked them they often smiled and said they were just doing their jobs. however, we noticed how remembering their names, taking time to ask how their day was going, and making the effort to thank them for helping making our runs from medical pillars and posts a bit easier, they responded with humble and genuine gratitude. we saw, in short order, that they would follow through to help us in any way they were able - because they felt respected and appreciated. awareness, thoughtfulness, getting outside of ourselves to recognize that we might not be the only ones going through a difficult time is thereputic for us and for them. and it always leaves us feeling so fortunate, and so grateful. deeply profound bonds can be formed from one heart saying to another, "i need you to help me, please", and the answer, "i am here for you" being received. those exchanges take us to the core of basic humanity, and a place to examine more deeply, "why are we here?".