Dr. Norm Chaffee was heavily involved in the Apollo 11 moon landing, working in NASA’s Propulsion and Power Division, but he wasn’t at work when the lunar lander touched down. He was at home, viewing the historic event on TV with his children in his lap.
“I was telling them, ‘Now watch this, watch this. This is a historical occasion. This has never happened before in the history of the world,’ ” Chaffee, now 81, said in a telephone interview. “They could care less. They were squirreling around.”
Chaffee, who will speak about his on-the-job experiences while at NASA at the North Medford High School planetarium at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24, was at full attention. There had been a hiccup as the lunar lander came in for a landing, as it had overshot its landing site and was coming down on a large boulder field. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, not too far away from saying some very famous words about a “small step,” arrested the descent and helped guide it toward a more suitable spot.
“He just throttled and hovered and then used my little steering rockets to move to the right about 100 yards,” Chaffee said.
Over the television, Chaffee could hear a second-by-second countdown as the craft moved closer and closer to the moon’s surface.
“At 17 seconds, they said ‘Contact,’ ” Chaffee said, adding one of the probes hanging from the landing module’s foot pads had touched the surface.
Moments later, Armstrong’s voice echoed throughout mission control: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
“Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground,” an official NASA transcript of the event reads. “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
Chaffee will recount his time at NASA during his North Medford talk. The event is free to attend, though space is limited to the first 88 people through the door, according to North Medford planetarium director Robert Black.
“His number one goal is to stimulate students to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math,” Black said. “He wants to effect change in young people.”
It’s part of the Rural Schools Educational Initiative, started by James Loftus, whose father, Joseph Phillip Loftus, Jr., served in multiple roles during his own 47-year NASA career.
One of those roles included director of operations for the agency’s System Engineering Program during the Apollo missions. The JPL Museum in Stayton, Oregon, is named after him. James Loftus invited Chaffee to speak in Oregon last year after Chaffee gave Oregon robotics students at a world championship tournament in Houston a tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center’s robotics lab. Loftus’s niece was among them.
“As a way for us to thank him, I asked him if he could come out,” Loftus said, adding he wanted Chaffee to give talks to students and inspire them to pursue careers in math and science.
Chaffee has spoken to about 700 students so far. He says he enjoys telling stories and answering questions.
“It’s my hope that the first person that steps out on Mars is in this class today,” he once told a group of students.
Chaffee worked in NASA’s Propulsion and Power Division from 1962 to 1983, working as the deputy division chief 1980-84 and again in 1987-90, according to the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.
He also worked on the International Space Station program from 1984-87, and was manager for engineering and integration for the NASA Lunar Mars Exploration program. He became deputy chief for NASA’s Robotics and Automation division in 1991, working there until 1996. He worked on the Johnson Space Center’s Public Affairs’ Education and Information Services branch from 1995-98, and retired in 1998.
He was named NASA Engineer of the Year in 1987 and received the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal in 1993, according to the JSC Oral History Project.
His fondest memory is of Apollo 8, a 1968 mission with the goal of orbiting — not landing on — the moon before returning to Earth.
“For the first time, people on Earth, including me and the control room, could see the lunar surface from about 50 miles up, and so we were just transfixed,” Chaffee said.
The landscape was a dark mass of craters, hills and jagged peaks. But all that darkness was suddenly broken up by a blip of light.
“There was a sudden realization that was the rising Earth,” Chaffee said.
Later, astronauts would read from the Book of Genesis creation story, their voices broadcast for anyone listening on Earth to hear. It was Christmas Eve. The mission was a success.
“They got that done,” Chaffee said. “Everything went great. They got into orbit. No problems at all.”