Wed January 30, 2013

StoryCorps: Apollo 11 engineer recalls the thrill of the first lunar landing

Take a moment to imagine how the night sky will look a few hours from now. The lights of the Bay Area may shine around you, making the darkness a little lighter. And of course there’s likely to be some fog. Still you’ll probably see a few stars, glowing dimly against an endlessly dark backdrop.

But drive further away from the city, perhaps up to Mt. Tamalpais, and the night sky dazzles.

No matter where you are, there’s one celestial being that always reflects upon us – sometimes even during the day. It’s the moon. And the moon holds special significance for Bay Area resident Diane Daniels, who shares her story with us as part of San Francisco’s StoryCorps.

In 1969, Daniels was part of a relatively new company called International Business Machines – more commonly known now as IBM. IBM caught a lucky break when it was asked to handle communications for NASA’s Apollo 11 mission. You know the one. Astronaut Neil Armstrong gently lands on the moon's rocky surface, declaring…

NEIL ARMSTRONG: That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.

It was a giant leap for womankind as well. Daniels was one of the few female engineers on the ground assisting Apollo 11. She sat down with her friend Pat Fodor in the Storycorps booth to share memories of the moon walk.

DIANE DANIELS: I was only 22 at the time, pretty fresh out of college, so I was working on the test module for the telemetry system. The telemetry system – just for everyone's knowledge – is the communications between the ground control computers and the computers that are in the orbiting spacecraft. And that was really difficult to do when we first started putting stuff up in the sky.

With the moon landing, all of the sudden we have a lunar landing module. So we have the spacecraft orbiting above the moon, we've got a rover that's going down to the moon, and then, my God, we've got two guys who want to get out of it! I think as a programmer, I would have said, “Well can’t we kind of limit the functionality here? Because this is really getting complex. This is hard.” We just had this two-way conversation between ground control and the spacecraft. Now we're going to have a third one on the moon and then – when you think of each person who got out and walked on the moon – each of them wore a separate communication module. So we had five modules that we had to make sure didn't drop any bits. I mean, if we drop a bit, maybe we lose track of them –  like they can't get off the moon.

Fast forward a year to the actual moon shuttle.

GROUND CONTROL [archive audio]: Buzz, this is Houston…

DANIELS: And I was in tears, Pat. Part of me was terrified something wasn't going to work. That all of the sudden he was going to step out of the module and something in the communications would break down. And... "Neil? Neil? Where are you Neil? We can't find you Neil." And I would think, "Oh my God, I was responsible for testing this." It was me and 800 other young programmers.

PAT FODOR: But you felt that personal sense of responsibility, even after your job was done.

NEIL ARMSTRONG [archive audio]: I’m going to step off to the land now...

DANIELS: And when he got back in, and finally later the lunar lander got back up in the spacecraft, I was in tears.

ARMSTRONG [archive audio]: That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.

DANIELS: Fast forward another six or eight months and I'm back in Washington, D.C. and we had a little reunion of us who had worked on Apollo 11. Not one of the men owned up to any type of emotional feeling when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I cried. And so the rest of them, "Oh yeah sure. We wrote it. Of course it's going to work."

It came out beautifully, and so you have to give credit to the management structure that was all male who made it work. You could also say, as a female programmer, I was one of the few female scientists working on the system. And I think it was really the first time I really started to understand some of the cultural biases that result in so few women going into math, which was my major in school, or sciences. I was lonely and it made me raise my consciousness to see how can we help other women get more engaged in engineering so they can experience the thrill of being a part of something as exciting as putting a man on the moon.

ARMSTONG [archive audio]: The surface is fine and powdery. I can kick it up loosely with my toe. It does adhere in fine layers, like powered charcoal, to the sole and sides of my boot. I only go in a small fraction of an inch, but I can see the footprints of my boots and the treads in the fine, sandy particles.

GROUND CONTROL: Neil, this is Houston. We're copying.

StoryCorps San Francisco is celebrating its 4th anniversary on January 31, 2013. Enjoy an evening featuring StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, never-before-heard interviews, classic NPR broadcasts, and so much more. Click here for tickets.


Related program: