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Race to Moon Was a Giant Leap for Engineers Too

Apollo: Workers tested limits of sacrifice and ingenuity 30 years ago. Southland was at the vanguard of the historic feat.

July 18, 1999|BARRY STAVRO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bud Benner, 74, had worked on tough jobs before the Apollo moon project, helping to design the X-15 rocket plane that flew at six times the speed of sound. But the race to the moon was at another level of human endeavor.

Assistant chief engineer at North American Aviation in Downey, Benner was grappling with one of the smallest pieces of the Apollo project and perhaps the most complex: the command module.

The little bucket with an interior somewhat bigger than a minivan's would carry three astronauts to the moon and back. With 2 million working parts and 15 miles of wires, it took seven years and 12,000 engineers--about half in Downey--to create. Behind schedule and over budget, they were working with an intensity that made an indelible mark on their lives.

"I didn't see a lot of my family," Benner remembers. "I'd get home at night. Kids all put to bed. My wife left a glass of gin in the refrigerator." On weekends Benner sat in his office wondering, "How the heck do we get there? . . . Sometimes I'd sit down at my desk and cry."

Benner was working on the deadline set in May 1961 by President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, the most audacious challenge in the Cold War rivalry with the Soviets.

Tuesday is the 30th anniversary of astronauts Neil Armstrong's and Buzz Aldrin's moonwalk, televised to a world dumbstruck and humbled by the accomplishment; 528 million people watched.

The Apollo program cost some $25 billion (about $150 billion in today's dollars) and employed 400,000 workers at 20,000 companies. At risk was the supremacy of capitalism versus communism in the eyes of the world, not to mention the lives of astronauts who had been elevated to heroes.

There was no blueprint for a moon ship. The Apollo project called for a dizzying feat of engineering at a time when computers were of relatively modest use and engineers relied on slide rules, calculators and carbon paper.

They borrowed technology from secret fighter planes and from drive-in movie theaters, but mostly they invented things from scratch. It took mastery of a dangerous new fuel, liquid hydrogen, and construction of the giant Saturn 5 rocket--which made more noise than anything ever built by man except a nuclear weapon--to propel men to the moon.

Southern California, which was solidifying itself in the 1960s as a mecca of offbeat culture, was at the vanguard of this monstrous technological feat.

North American in Seal Beach built the second stage of the Saturn rocket, Douglas Aircraft in Huntington Beach built the third, North American's Rocketdyne division in Canoga Park made the rocket engines, while North American's Downey plant designed the Apollo spacecraft.

In all, 12 astronauts walked on the moon, the last in 1972. They drove lunar range rovers, carried back 1,000 pounds of moon rocks and met the dead president's deadline. And Alan Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon.

As the nation's interest in space faded, NASA's budget shrank and the aerospace industry changed. McDonnell merged with Douglas; Rockwell bought North American. Later, Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas and took over Rockwell's aerospace business.

Hundreds of Apollo veterans are still in aerospace jobs in Southern California, but for many this will be their last major moon landing anniversary in their field, given their age and the shrinking industry.

Today, Boeing's plant in Downey has 3,000 workers, down from 25,000 during Apollo. Four-foot-tall weeds grow in some vacant parking lots. By year's end most of the Downey staff will be scattered to four different offices. At Boeing's Rocketdyne plant in Canoga Park, the staff is about 5,000, compared to 22,000 during Apollo's go-go years.

One of the many unsung figures is Jerry Blackburn, 54, who tested parts for the Apollo spacecraft in Downey and is now a project manager there for Boeing. "Any time that I see the full moon it gives me this strange sense of accomplishment to know there is hardware up there that I touched and worked on," he said.

About half our nation's 272 million residents are too young to remember the moon landing, but George Jeffs doesn't need a history book. Jeffs, 74, lives in Pacific Palisades and was chief program engineer in Downey for the Apollo spacecraft.

"Apollo had daring as its motivator. People were captivated by going to the moon. It's a little startling, the cultural devotion that transcended individuals. I had a number of guys who died in the process. And they wouldn't have mourned me too long if I had. We kept going," Jeffs said.

Jeffs remembers working 11-hour days, sometimes seven days a week. "That doesn't leave a lot of time at home. And your mind is still cranked up about problems you didn't solve. Other things suffered. Time spent with my children and with my wife suffered." His late wife had polio. "It's hard to catch up with that later."

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