Richard Labreque was 21 years old when he was selected as one of four interns from his college to assist NASA in exploring sites on the moon where a manned rocket could land. After a stint in graduate school, he returned to NASA to join a team managing the calculations needed to guide the Apollo 11 craft into earth’s orbit; transfer to a lunar orbit; land and ascent from the moon; and return home safely. This is his story, as told to his daughter, Tamara Stacey.
On October 4, 1957, at 7:28 p.m., my life was irreversibly altered.
It started as an average Friday in rural Red Bank, New Jersey, a small town on the East Coast merely one mile in diameter — population 1,000. I was home from school and foregoing Leave it to Beaver to sit on our front porch steps to enjoy the crisp golds and reds of trees saying goodbye to summer. The sun had completed its journey, and it was just dark enough to make out the stars in the cool, clear October sky.
This time, however, I wasn’t looking for stars. For the first time since the dawn of humanity, we had put something in the night sky. It was called Sputnik.
When you think about the U.S. in 1957, it’s not hard to understand why this captured the hearts and minds of an entire planet.
It had been only 12 years since the end of World War II. This was the age of Main Street America, the first Frisbee, and the Chevrolet Bel Air with double fins down the back. We watched a black-and-white TV with three channels.
It was an age of slide rules for solving mathematical equations (the calculator won’t be introduced until 1972). 1957 was the year Elvis Presley bought Graceland, the year the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to L.A., and two years before Alaska and Hawaii became states.
It was the first time we could conceive of humans putting anything other than a commercial airplane high above our heads. Sputnik opened our imaginations to see that we could pass beyond our limited earthly horizons and journey into the far reaches of the universe.. If we could do that, maybe we could put a human into space. Maybe we could go to the moon. Or Mars. Or beyond.
By November 3, one month after I sat on the porch watching Sputnik cross the night sky, the Russians put the dog Laika into orbit, circling Earth in a capsule with air, water, food, and a padded bed. Nearly one year later, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, bringing NASA into being.
I was hooked. I wanted to be part of the race to explore this new frontier.
Becoming a rocket scientist
After hearing Sputnik beep, my appetite for rockets was insatiable.
Unfortunately, my parents didn’t know how to meet my growing hunger. I tried talking my mother into buying books published by universities such as M.I.T., Purdue, Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa, and Texas — some of the first institutions experimenting with rocket science and space travel.
There were no books on rockets in my local library, no access to published papers or research. Even after the Sputniks, rocket science wasn’t a readily accessed topic in your average American community or even in a big city. It was the domain of scientists and top-secret military researchers.
So I would carefully write out my Christmas list each year, hoping I might get something other than a hula hoop under the tree. I wasn’t very successful. My mother didn’t know how to get the books or articles I wanted. She was stymied, and so was I.
With no access to information, step two of my plan, then, was to focus on learning at a university. So I doubled my efforts in high school to get into one where I could learn about rockets. Notre Dame took me up on my offer, and in the fall of 1961, I enrolled as an Air Force ROTC cadet ready to learn all about rockets and space travel.
Lucky for me, the dean of Notre Dame’s new aerospace department had come from NASA. So with my Air Force background and encouragement from the department, I was one of four accepted as a NASA intern for the summer of 1965.
The U.S. had put men into orbit five times by this point, but we still didn’t know enough to get to the moon and back. So that was my summer job — to explore landing sites to put a man on the moon.
How could we successfully calculate a landing window and maneuver a spacecraft onto a moving object while avoiding craters, mountains, and bringing it to rest in a location devoid of the prolific boulder-like moon rocks that could destroy it? And how could we determine all of this with only the aid of slide rules, hand calculations, and distant pictures of the moon?
We didn’t solve the riddle that summer. So after the internship, I went to M.I.T. where I concentrated on guidance and spacecraft systems. We were at the cutting edge, programming state-of-the-art computers, designing communications systems, and inventing a dozen other systems that would need to work together to enable a manned spacecraft to find the specific moment and location it would need to safely land on (and return from) the moon.
By the summer of 1967, 10 years after I’d seen Sputnik streak across the night sky and heard its distant beep, I had fulfilled my dream. I was assigned back to the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center as an Air Force officer and a rocket scientist working on the guidance systems and simulators that would enable us to put a man on the moon.
Visiting the man in the moon
Surely the ancients dreamed of life on the moon. But the first man to truly believe it was possible was Robert Goddard, the inventor of the original liquid-fueled rocket. It was his discovery and belief that these liquid-propulsion engines had birthed the first real possibility of space travel — specifically, space travel to the moon.
By 1920, he had published articles outlining his experiments and suggesting uses for solid- and liquid-fueled rockets. While he was mocked for his efforts by media the world over, he is now credited with being the father of space travel.
The first practical (albeit destructive) use of rocket science was employed by the Germans during World War II when they launched unmanned jet-propulsion missiles at 3,500 miles per hour over the English Channel and into the heart of London. Their technologies were captured by the Allied forces after the war, and serious work was begun by the Russians, Americans, and others to translate their work into military, meteorologic, and interstellar applications.
By the time I started full-time at NASA in 1967, the administration had figured out that the only way to put a person on the moon was through a highly capable and fully collaborative trinity: NASA, universities, and corporations. Together, these three systems held the keys to space travel: NASA had the organization charter and funding; universities had the scientists and fundamental research capabilities; and corporations had the practical application of technologies and emerging computer systems that the rest of us lacked.
On my team, we had access to computers and programming that could manage calculations needed to guide us into earth’s orbit, transfer to a lunar orbit, land and ascent from the moon, and return home safely. We couldn’t do this quickly enough with just slide rules and hand calculations.
The job was full of complexities and unknowns. The Apollo 11 project had three spacecraft that all needed to work in tandem through that multi-stage space flight: the Saturn rocket (to reach earth’s orbit), the Columbia command module (that would fly to the moon and back to earth), and the Eagle lunar lander. All three were needed to exit Earth’s atmosphere, survive in space for more than a week, get to the moon, and return to Earth through the dreaded Van Allen Radiation Belt.
It would start with the Saturn rocket launching the Columbia and the Eagle into orbit. After one-and-a-half orbits around Earth, the Columbia command module would be dispatched and rotated to attach to the Eagle and start its journey to the moon. After 24 hours orbiting the moon, the Eagle (with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) would separate again for the lunar landing, leaving Michael Collins in Columbia to orbit until their return. Then the Eagle would need to ascent and return to the Columbia, reattaching in orbit for the three astronauts to return safely to earth.
All of this with the computing power of a smartphone.
Against all odds, the NASA-university-corporate triumvirate was able to complete the mission, and on July 20, 1969, we heard a man speak from a place never before reached in the history of humankind.
I was in the living room at the home of my fiancé, Sharon Priddy, in Houston, Texas (she was a Rice student working at NASA that summer). Surrounded by her family, we watched at 3:18 p.m. Central Time as Neil Armstrong nearly ran out of fuel before announcing, “The Eagle has landed.” By 9:56 p.m., we watched as he stepped out of the lander and stated his famous words before planting the American flag: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Never once did I fear we wouldn’t make it. I had too much faith in the people who had worked together for this historic moment.
Only the beginning
The technologies that put a human on the moon are the same ones that we use today to put satellites into orbit, send landers to Mars and Saturn and beyond, and build the International Space Station — all projects I had the honor to work on.
Landing a person on the moon was a turning point for our nation in the Cold War. It was a boon to all Americans, serving the peaceful innovation of technology and space exploration. It brought men and women of all races and nations together in a common mission. It made us proud to be Americans and members of the human race.
We have experienced many things since Sputnik in 1957 and the Apollo 11 mission that put Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon, but nothing has been so magical to me as those early years of the space program and the following years of discovery.
And for me, it all started on one October night watching a lone human-made satellite streak across the night sky. It was the moment I knew we might reach the stars and touch the face of God.