OTTAWA — For eight years before man first stepped on the moon, Jesco Von Puttkamer took no holidays and worked around the clock.
As a NASA flight engineer and key player in the Apollo program, he was part of an incredible human milestone in the making — and he didn’t want to miss a minute.
“It was constant excitement. We were doing something that, up until then, was just science fiction,” he said in an interview from NASA’s Washington headquarters.
“It was totally heaven, totally indescribable. A lot of us would have worked without pay.”
About 400,000 people on the planet were involved in Apollo, supporting this inner circle that was critical to the first landing on the moon July 20, 1969. There had already been two manned missions, but none had yet touched down on the lunar surface.
The lift-off went smoothly on July 16. Four days later, Commander Neil Armstrong put his boot on the moon and famously declared: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Von Puttkamer recalls the high stress level before the landing, when computer controls signalled distress and Armstrong manually veered the lander, using precious fuel for the impromptu manoeuvre.
“He finally touched down on a smoother portion and we later found out he had only 20 seconds of propellant left in his tanks,” Von Puttkamer said.
“We were all terrified, full of adrenalin and staring at our screens Communications at times became garbled and we couldn’t hear them but we hoped they could hear us. Those last 15 minutes of the landing was a very, very high stress time for everyone. When they touched down, we started breathing again.”
As the world prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of that historic lunar moment, NASA and its partner space agencies are busy planning a return trip in the next decade, followed by a maiden manned voyage to Mars.
Von Puttkamer said U.S. President Barack Obama is now reviewing the space strategy and is expected to put his own stamp on the high-profile and costly plan first laid out by his predecessor George W. Bush. Canada is also expected to be a key player in future space exploration programs.
Canadian Space Agency President Steve MacLean, a former astronaut, called the moon landing a “turning point of the century.”
He was 14 years old during Apollo 11, grappling with awe and inspiration, as well as grief. His grandfather died on the day of the launch and was buried the day of the landing.
While the spectacular space event captured the imagination of children around the world, MacLean recalls that at the time he didn’t think he would ever have a crack at flying in space because he wasn’t American.
“I remember thinking it would be a lot of fun being part of a team that did that kind of thing, but deep down I didn’t think a Canadian kid would ever have a chance so I didn’t even dream about it,” he said.
MacLean now has big dreams for Canada’s space agency, including a leading role in exploring the moon and Mars. Canada can make significant technological contributions and might even form part of the crew.
MacLean believes return trips to the moon will serve as trial runs for Mars, where there is much more to be learned scientifically.
“The kind of vision I see is you get a human presence on the surface of the moon and practise so you can go to Mars,” he said.
Kevin Shortt, president of the Canadian Space Society, said there are practical reasons for space exploration as the earth faces dwindling natural resources.
“We are on a planet of fixed size and fixed volume,” he said.