Purdue brings Apollo program alums to campus for 50th anniversary celebration of moon walk

Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon in 1969—but he wasn’t the only Purdue University alumnus who worked to make the Apollo 11 mission a success.

Fifty years later, the moon landing remains unforgettable to Ron Larsen, a Purdue alum who was a programmer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland during the Apollo era.

 “It would be hard to forget the Apollo 11 mission, the excitement of when the spacecraft, the lunar lander actually set down and Armstrong stepping out,” Larsen told IBJ.

Some 860 miles away, Chet Janes—another Purdue grad—was working for IBM at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida, where Apollo 11 took off. For Janes, at the time, the launch was much like many others—although over the years, he has come to appreciate the gravity of the events.

Larsen and Janes will be part of Purdue’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 landing, which will take place July 18-20.

The events kick off at 3 p.m. on July 18 with Gene Kranz, the Apollo 11 flight director, who will present “Go or No-Go: The Untold Story of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing.”

A July 19 open house will showcase key Apollo 11 mission documents and artifacts from Armstrong.

On July 20, Larsen and Janes will be on a panel featuring Purdue alumni who worked behind the scenes to make the mission possible. And at 4:17 p.m., the exact time of the lunar landing, there will be a moment of remembrance.

The events are just a few of about a dozen that will take place throughout the remembrance.

Back in 1968, when he graduated from Purdue, Larsen wasn’t looking to work for NASA. He intended to attend graduate school at Purdue.

But graduate school, he said, would not have kept from getting drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Working at NASA would. So he accepted a job there and began programming and designing software for Apollo missions.

Larsen was at the Goddard Space Flight Center for Apollo 8, the first manned mission that orbited the moon and returned back to Earth. And he had been working at the center for about one year—and was 23 years old—when Apollo 11 launched.

His job during the flight—and the job of about a dozen others—was to manage a system of about 30 tracking stations across the globe that computed trajectories for the spacecraft.

While Apollo 11 was in flight, Larsen and his team broke into teams of three or four people. Each team would take an eight-hour shift to continuously monitor the system.

He remembers the cheerful celebration when the space craft landed on the moon.

“As soon as the landing occurred, of course, there was a joyous eruption of applause in the control center,” said Larsen, who is now the dean of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. “It was a pretty fantastic moment.

“For somebody who was on the younger end of that, just beginning their career, it was certainly an exciting moment to be considered a part of that activity.”

Larsen recalls everyone in the control center watching a projection TV while Armstrong took his first steps. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the TV.

Janes, on the other hand, was working at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida, helping put together the launch of the Apollo 11 spacecraft.

Janes was hired by IBM in November of 1965 to be an engineer, and 1-1/2 years later, he was promoted to mechanical systems manager.

The intense environment of the space center and the repetition of mission launches prevented Janes from realizing—in the moment—how important the Apollo 11 mission was.

Back then, a launch would occur every three to four months. To him, the Apollo 11 mission felt like another day at work. While there are some variations for each mission, Janes said, process was virtually the same every time.

 “I’m not sure I realized the significance of it all, even though I knew it was the Apollo 11 mission,” Janes told IBJ. “Nevertheless, it turned out to be very significant.”

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