Inside the Apollo Lunar Module 50 years ago today, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were 40 feet from the surface of the moon when Aldrin uttered words that Gerald D. “Gerry” Griffin, then a 34-year-old NASA flight director for the Apollo missions, can remember like Aldrin said them yesterday.
“Picking up some dust.”
“I realized then that we had two guys in a spacecraft, and the rocket engine that was letting them down was blowing dust off the surface of the moon, where nobody had ever been,” said Griffin, a 1956 Texas A&M graduate, in an interview with The Eagle on Friday. “That’s when I said to myself, ‘We’re gonna make it. He’s gonna land, and we’re there.’ ”
Griffin, now 84, worked as an Apollo flight director beginning in 1968. In 1982, he became director of Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Griffin was in the Mission Control room as Apollo 11 descended to the moon, taking shifts on and off of working in concert with the trio of astronauts.
“The level of excitement in that room and the tension started to come up, and then it got more relaxed as they touched down — for a little while,” Griffin recalled of the mood at Mission Control on July 20, 1969.
“But the goal wasn’t over — we had to get them safely back to Earth,” he said. “We had a long way to go, so none of us felt too giddy when they landed on the surface. We weren’t jumping around too much — we were still focused on what we had to do.”
Griffin later served as lead flight director on Apollo 12, 15 and 17; he was scheduled to serve as Apollo 13’s lunar landing control lead, but instead led one of the flight control teams working to bring the astronauts back to Earth safely following the famous oxygen tank explosion in April 1970.
Griffin was born in Athens, Texas, and grew up in Fort Worth before graduating from Texas A&M University.
“What led me to A&M is that I was about 14 or 15 when I decided I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer,” Griffin said Friday. “I wanted to be in aviation, I wanted to go into the military and I wanted to fly, and I was able to do all those things by going to A&M. It all started with my time at A&M.”
Upon graduating, Griffin was commissioned as an officer in the Air Force. He spent about four years on active duty, he said, and then worked a number of jobs in the early 1960s — all with the goal, he said, of becoming part of the manned space program. He joined NASA in 1964.
“I can’t believe, in many ways, that it was 50 years ago, but on the other hand, it seems like a lifetime ago,” Griffin said. “I think what it showed at the time was that when the country really committed to something and stuck with it, it could do just about anything it wanted to.”
Griffin praised what he described as the political will for the Apollo missions. “We kept on the path and got it done with technology that, by today’s standards — except for the rockets — would be pretty primitive,” he said.
Griffin said with a laugh that the computers on both the command module and lunar module for Apollo 11 had “less capacity by far than your cellphone does.”
Griffin noted the relative youth of the personnel on the various NASA teams.
“We enjoyed the challenge,” Griffin said. “We were young and kind of wired to see the challenge as the driving factor, plus the fact that it had never been done before made it extremely exciting. Overall, I can tell you it was a lot of fun. It was a hoot.
“Our training was so good that we were ready for it, and by the time we got to Apollo 11, we had already been out to the moon a couple of times.”
He also commented on the “overwhelmingly male” makeup of NASA flight personnel in 1969 and how that has changed in the decades since.
“It’s great. Now we’re using all the human resources that we’ve got,” Griffin said of the increased diversity both at NASA and in STEM fields and careers.
Griffin now lives with his wife, Sandy, in Hunt, which is west of Kerrville.
A recipient of the Texas A&M Distinguished Alumnus Award, Griffin said he and Sandy frequently travel back to College Station for football games and other functions.
“A&M has gotten bigger, but it still has those same core values, though we didn’t line them out like they are now,” he said. “It’s a place that feels like home.”
Griffin said that it took about a decade for the historic weight of the Apollo 11 landing to truly set in for him, because he said he and his colleagues were so focused on the missions themselves at the time. In recent months, he said he has traveled across the country and all over the world to talk about his NASA experiences.
“The interest level has been phenomenal,” he said of the anniversary. “The intensity of the remembrances — you can just tell people are excited about it.”