Remembering Those Who Lived the Apollo 11 Mission

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They designed modules, examined rocks, wrote a poem and, of course, put a foot down on lunar soil. Thousands of people played a role before, during and after the event, if such a banal word can be used for the gargantuan project to land humans on the moon. The New York Times published obituaries about many of them; here is a sample.

The Moon Walker

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

“Houston, Tranquillity Base here,” Mr. Armstrong radioed to mission control. “The Eagle has landed.” Some hours later, he stepped onto the surface of the moon, the first person to do so. He marked that fact with words that have become familiar: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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The Rocket Builder

Wernher von Braun (1912-1977)

Von Braun designed the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo 11 mission and eight other Apollo launches. His work gave him a central place in the pantheon of space exploration, but his legacy is ambiguous. He also designed the V-2 rocket for the Nazis.

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The Program Manager

George M. Low (1926-1984)

Mr. Low was deputy director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston when the Apollo spacecraft caught fire on Jan. 27, 1967, killing three astronauts. In a shake-up of Apollo management, Mr. Low was appointed to head the spacecraft program. For the next year and a half, he oversaw a redesign and testing, imposing more rigorous quality control and pressing to meet ambitious production schedules.

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The ‘Father of the Lunar Module’

Thomas J. Kelly (1929-2002)

Mr. Kelly rallied a team of engineers at what was then the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation of Bethpage, N.Y., to build a vehicle that would take a crew to the moon and bring them back to Earth. The Grumman team came up with the idea of a two-stage spacecraft that would carry two astronauts to the moon’s surface while a third crew member stayed in orbit around the moon. The result was the Lunar Excursion Module. Its nickname was Eagle.

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The Poet

Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

Presence among us, / wanderer in our skies,

dazzle of silver in our leaves and on our / waters silver,

O / silver evasion in our farthest thought —

“the visiting moon” . . . “the glimpses of the moon” . . .

and we have touched you!

The New York Times felt that the magnitude of the moment required the voice of a bard, and it commissioned Mr. MacLeish to versify the news. The poem ran on the front page. Read it here. A.M. Rosenthal, a top editor at the time, described how the poem came about.

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The Program Director

Lt. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips (1921-1990)

“The men and equipment that are Apollo 11 have performed to perfection,” General Phillips told reporters after the astronauts lifted off from the moon to return home. “Perfection is not too strong a word.” The general had commanded the Apollo missions since 1964 and within months would leave the program.

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The Deputy

Eberhard Rees (1908-1998)

Mr. Rees was the longtime top deputy to von Braun. He served on a team assigned to solve the technical problems that had caused a fire aboard the Apollo 1 spacecraft, killing three astronauts in 1967.

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The Engineer

George Mueller (1918-2015)

Dr. Mueller (pronounced Miller) was deputy associate administrator for manned spaceflight at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He revamped testing procedures and brought together control of three separate NASA centers to help beat the Soviet Union in the space race.

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The Mineralogist

Clifford Frondel (1907-2002)

“It’s basalt! It’s igneous!” Dr. Frondel exclaimed. He was present in Houston when a box containing 48 pounds of moon rocks brought back by Apollo 11 was opened. NASA had recruited Dr. Frondel, a Harvard mineralogist, to study the material. Such was the uncertainty over lunar properties that he was quarantined for two weeks after being exposed to lunar dust.

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Daniel J. Wakin is an editor on the Obituary News Desk. He has been a reporter and editor in the Culture and Metro departments and has reported from three dozen countries. He is the author of “The Man With the Sawed-Off Leg and Other Tales of a New York City Block” (Arcade, 2018). @danwakin

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