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We Put a Man on the Moon . . . : Apollo Ceremony Goes On, Even With Armstrong Grounded in D.C.

July 22, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We got him to the moon, but could not get him to the Marriott at LAX.

Neil Armstrong was to hop on a plane for Los Angeles on Wednesday night after a 25th anniversary ceremony at the White House. But the first man to walk on the moon found himself stuck in Washington when his United Airlines flight was grounded because of mechanical problems.

That left the 500 guests at the Marriott event honoring Apollo contractors a bit disappointed. But organizers found a stand-in: comedian Bill Dana, famed for his portrayal of Jose Jimenez.

"I know you're all delighted to have me instead of Neil," quipped Dana, whose comedy character chased several careers, including astronaut.

At the event, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Southern California contractors and engineers who worked on the Apollo program each got certificates signed by the three Apollo 11 astronauts. The crowd included retired aerospace executives, rocket scientists, secretaries and actress Nichelle Nichols, a former NASA recruiter who played Lt. Uhura on TV's "Star Trek."

The audience--old enough to identify with the days of three-martini lunches and Sinatra's Rat Pack--laughed loudly at Dana's routine, especially the nightclub jokes that once were considered risque.

"I came in from my table in Redondo Beach," Dana joked when he reached the podium from a distant table. "One small schlep for man."

Seriously, though. "I have all of you to thank for my career," Dana told the gathering.

Dana's portrayal of Jimenez as a reluctant astronaut became a favorite of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo crews, and the comedian hosted parties for the space explorers at his home.

"I became accepted into probably the most exclusive fraternity in the history of the whole planet," he said before going on. "It wasn't casual. We are all a close family."

In fact, Dana recounted his favorite story from those days, when NASA official Deke Slayton uttered the first words from Earth to an American astronaut in space.

"OK, Jose, you're on your way," Slayton told Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard in 1961.

After a Jimenez bit, Dana turned the program back over to the engineers. A former NASA administrator paid tribute to about a dozen agency and aerospace officials for shepherding the Apollo program. And a former top Rockwell executive read off the names of Apollo's builders, recognizing them by the spacecraft parts they contributed.

"Litton Industries Inc., for the Saturn S-IVB transducers," he said. "Parker Bertea Aerospace, for Saturn S-IVB semiconductors. . . ."

In all, the event--recounting a decade of engineering innovation--lasted less than four hours. And many felt that the tribute was long overdue given Southern California's contribution to the space race--local workers built the Apollo and much of the Saturn rocket, which dwarfed any other that had been launched at the time.

"There has been too little attention paid to the Apollo team," said keynote speaker George Mueller, a NASA administrator during the Apollo days. "One would think that at least the (executives of aerospace companies) would go down in history."

Organizers of the event say that is why Armstrong wanted to come: to recognize the rank-and-file workers who routinely logged six-day weeks and 16-hour days to get to the moon by the end of the 1960s. Armstrong didn't make it, but Apollo veterans used the time as a chance to catch up with each other.

"If nothing else, it was a chance to see the people, once more, that you worked around the clock with, fought with and achieved success," said Albin D. Kazanowski, a retired aerospace engineer who chaired the dinner. "The end result of the effort is what counted."

And when the evening was over, the well-dressed crowd slowly filtered out of the hotel ballroom. The ones who put Armstrong on the moon.

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