As the 50th anniversary of mankind’s first walk on the moon approaches, two men instrumental in America’s space program regaled Long Islanders Wednesday with tales of their space adventures.
Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham and Milton Windler, a NASA flight director over the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, spoke to about 200 people at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.
Windler, 87 and living in the Houston area, recalled the harried moments when he and other NASA officials heard that the Apollo 13 spacecraft had a problem.
“It was an intense time,” Windler said. “The first thing that happened was whole panels lit up. They were all red and green lights. It was a lot of confusion.”
Apollo 13 took off April 11, 1970, but the lunar landing was aborted after a fuel tank exploded, crippling the service module. The crew used the lunar module as a kind of life boat to make it back to Earth.
Sitting in the museum audience, Roger Price, 82, of Elwood, asked Windler about mission control’s preparedness for such an emergency.
“There had been a simulation some months before, with a possible solution,” Windler said. “There was some thought given to it, but not a great deal.”
The guest speakers were part of the museum’s multi-event celebration tied to the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, moonwalk, which will include further guest appearances by astronauts and a reunion of the Grumman employees who worked on the lunar module.
The evening was part of the Newsday Live programs. Moderators included Newsday columnist Joye Brown and former Rep. Steve Israel.
Cunningham, also 87 and living in the Houston area, noted that his mission was the first space shot after the disastrous Apollo 1 mission, during which the three astronauts died in a flash fire while the rocket was still on the launchpad.
Cunningham was part of the backup crew for that mission.
“We had done the same test before, without closing the hatch,” he said, referring to the test that took place prior to the fatal fire.
The two men said that each of the Apollo missions helped prepare NASA for the big moonshot.
Cunningham’s flight launched 21 months after the Apollo 1 disaster. The desire to fix the problems competed with the pressure to outdo the Russians in the space race, he said.
Was he scared?
Cunningham said he was cool until the launch went 2 1/2 minutes over the planned departure. “That’s the only time in the countdown I felt irritation,” he said. “We were cussing at each other.”
Cunningham also talked about the stresses of long preparation periods in the astronauts’ families, including their marriages.
“It was a thoroughly consuming job,” he said. “There were a lot of potential divorces.”
Cunningham also talked about the event that inspired him to become an astronaut. He said he was a young man driving with his car’s top down on May 5, 1961, when he heard on the radio the countdown for Alan Shepard’s flight. Shepard was the first American in space.
“I had to pull over and park,” he recalled. “I realized that I was not just interested in space. That’s what I wanted to do.”