Lunar mission ‘something quite significant’

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

TAOS – Like millions of others around the world, David Schultz will be watching televised 50th anniversary retrospectives today of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission and that “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” taken on the lunar surface.

Schultz, 81, a former NASA engineer now living in Taos, worked directly with the three mission astronauts on training and in the writing of procedures for extravehicular activity, or EVA, meaning the detailed steps involved in the actual moon walk.

Schultz, his wife, Barbara, and their three children, then ages 2, 4 and 6, were at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969, to watch as mission commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins launched atop a Saturn V rocket that generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust and contained nearly 950,000 gallons of fuel.

“At the time, I knew we were doing something quite significant and memorable, but I will tell you for sure that it never occurred to me 50 years downstream we’d be talking about it,” Schultz said. “I wasn’t a poet; I didn’t have grandiose thoughts. At its most base it was a job, but it was more than that, of course.”

A major reason for the success of Apollo 11 was that “we developed the detailed procedures step-by-step with the astronauts, and they were pretty doggone religious about following them,” he said.

“Basically, the whole mission was carried on a series of checklists, starting with pre-launch, launch and all the maneuvers between the Earth and the moon,” Schultz said. “My specialty was EVA, which involved starting with putting on the liquid-cooled undergarments, then the spacesuit, and strapping on the big backpack.”

The backpack contained the astronauts’ life support system, necessary for pressurizing the spacesuit and providing breathable air.

Further, there were procedures for checking the various interfaces that allowed Armstrong and Aldrin to communicate with each other on the moon as well as communicate with Collins in the orbiting command module, and for all three to communicate with the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, later renamed the Johnson Space Center.

The EVA prep for the moonwalk took about three hours, Schultz said. That’s longer than the two hours and 32 minutes the astronauts walked about on the 250-degree Fahrenheit surface of the moon, where they set up cameras and scientific equipment, conducted experiments and collected samples to return to Earth.

After the launch, the Schultzes piled into their 1967 Pontiac Ventura for the two-day drive back to their home in the Houston area – plenty of time, one might think, for Schultz to reflect on the still unfolding historical mission.

Well, not really, he said. “Have you ever traveled in a car with three little kids? I didn’t do a whole lot of philosophizing.”

Nevertheless, days later, on July 20, when the lunar module, named the Eagle, set down on the surface of the moon and Armstrong announced that “the Eagle has landed,” Schultz and his wife were glued to the television and the grainy black-and-white images.

“I knew everything about my little bit of the program, and I wasn’t worried about that, and I wasn’t worried about the astronauts messing up or the hardware failing, because we all had a lot of confidence. There were a lot of smart people working on the mission.”

Still, he noted that the astronauts themselves sometimes joked that “every piece of hardware up there was made by the lowest bidder.”

Also on Schultz’s mind was an ill-timed exchange between him and Armstrong, something he now regrets. About a week before the launch, the astronauts and support staff were among those gathered at an oceanfront beach house on the property of the space center in Florida for a cookout.

“I said to Neil, ‘What do you think your chances of success are?’ He said ‘about 50%.’ We never fleshed it out so I don’t know if he meant 50% he’d get home alive, or 50% they wouldn’t be able to land on the moon or what. But I was young and brash, and it was a hell of a thing to ask.”

Of the three astronauts, Schultz knew Aldrin the best. He had previously worked with Aldrin on EVA in preparation for the Gemini 12 spacewalks. Aldrin, who had a doctoral degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the scholar among the trio, and something of an athlete, and has remained so throughout his life, Schultz said. Aldrin was a contestant on TV’s “Dancing With the Stars” in 2010, when he was 80 years old. He’s still going strong at age 89, appearing on a host of documentaries and recent news reports about the Apollo 11 mission.

Schultz knew Collins the least, working with him on limited issues related to the mission, but he recalled that “Mike had the most visible sense of humor.”

Armstrong, on the other hand, “was very reserved but supremely talented,” Schultz said. Unlike Aldrin, he was not athletic. “He was not fat, but he was soft. One of his mantras was ‘I believe God gave me only so many heartbeats, and I’m not going to waste them on exercise.’ ”

Needless to say, watching the grainy images of the astronauts landing and walking on the moon, then departing in the lunar module, docking with the orbiting command module and ultimately returning safely to Earth gave Schultz a sense of pride – as well as relief – he concedes.

As a child growing up in Detroit, Schultz said he was only slightly aware of our country’s growing interest in rocketry and space exploration. It had no influence on his later decision to get a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan in 1960, and no role in his decision to work for NASA.

Engineers were in high demand and the university arranged for various companies to come to the campus and conduct interviews with graduating students. One of those companies was an outfit called Sandia Corp. in Albuquerque, whose roots were in World War II’s Manhattan Project. The interview went well, and Schultz landed a position there. He also attended the University of New Mexico and got his master’s degree in mechanical engineering.

In the meantime, he had married Barbara, whom he’d met at the University of Michigan on a blind date to a toga party. They have been married 59 years.

They didn’t stay in Albuquerque long. In 1964, Schultz took a job at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

“I knew damn near nothing about rockets. NASA was new, the space center was new, and I had an undefined job,” Schultz said. “But it turned out somebody was needed to work with the astronauts on their backpack maneuvering unit in the Gemini program, allowing the astronauts to conduct spacewalks outside the spacecraft. I was available so I grabbed a hold of that as a job and that segued into everything I did in EVA.”

Schultz subsequently worked in the Gemini, Apollo, Apollo-Soyuz, Skylab and shuttle programs, finally retiring from NASA in 1998.

He and Barbara, who worked as a high school English teacher, bought a second home in Taos, to escape Houston’s summer heat and to indulge their hobbies of skiing, hiking and roaming art galleries. By 2005, they had sold their house in Houston and settled permanently in Taos, building a new home that backs up to the Carson National Forest.

As for the enduring, if not annoying, assertions by conspiracy theorists that the moon landing was a hoax, “I just have to laugh,” said Schultz. “But I’m not 100% sure my mother believed it, either.”

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