'A giant leap for mankind' — 50 years later

Bristol resident served NASA during all Apollo missions

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 7/19/19

If you are old enough to remember the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landing, you almost certainly remember where you were when you heard the incredible news that two American astronauts were the first …

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'A giant leap for mankind' — 50 years later

Bristol resident served NASA during all Apollo missions


If you are old enough to remember the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landing, you almost certainly remember where you were when you heard the incredible news that two American astronauts were the first humans to ever set foot on the Moon.

But no matter how cool your “where-I-was-when” story, chances are Gary Watros has a cooler one. Mr. Watros, of High Street, was one of 30 flight controllers on duty at Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center, at the very moment the Lunar Module, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, touched down on the surface of the moon. As part of the team in charge of telecommunications for the Lunar Module, and selected to be part of the dedicated landing crew at Mission Control, for Mr. Watros, this was not just a seminal moment in American history — it was a really busy day at the office.

“When I was on duty, it was all business,” he said. “When we landed, you could hear a pin drop in Mission Control. I let out a whoop, and the rest followed suit for about 5 to 10 seconds, and then quiet reigned again.

“When my shift was over, I left for something to eat. As I walked across the parking lot, I looked up at the full moon and thought to myself, ‘We did it, REALLY did it!’ The enormity of it all hit home for first time. I was back in Mission Control for the initial walk, not on duty, but as a bystander. It was cool, but the realization in the parking lot was the most telling.”

Mr. Watros was at NASA (though not necessarily on duty) for Apollo missions 1 through 14. After 14, the writing was on the wall, the public was losing interest in the program, and the budget was becoming a concern in Washington. NASA eliminated Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20; and Mr. Watros left for a job at the research facility for the U.S. Department of Transportation after Apollo 14.

“It was never going to be as exciting; the nation was never going to be as interested in what we were going to do,” said Mr. Watros.

A tense lunar landing

Despite its success, the Apollo 11 mission wasn’t totally smooth sailing. “Things were going pretty well until it came to the powered descent of the Lunar Module,” he said, of the period of about 12 minutes when the Lunar Module was in lunar orbit and preparing to land. “One of the things that was critical, we had to have communications with the crew to know that systems were okay. We had this rule that if we didn’t have communications at certain points, we’d have to abort the mission. And we were having communications problems.

“It was dropping out,” Mr. Watros said, of communications with the module. “It was bad enough that if we couldn’t fix it we were going to have to abort. Then we directed the crew to roll the Module 30 degrees, and that took care of it. As the spacecraft was coming down to land, the antennae were being blocked by the legs of the Module.”

Another problem presented itself after the Module had landed on the surface of the Moon. “Pressure started building in one of the fuel lines. The concern was if it became high enough, it could cause an explosion,” he said. “The solution would have been to abort, fire the engines and get out.” The issue — fuel frozen in a line — thankfully resolved itself.

Mr. Watros would face his share of problems that did not resolve themselves two missions later with Apollo 13. If you are familiar with the the story of Apollo 13, you will recall Mr. Watros’ responsibilities — communications, environmental control, and electric power in the Lunar Module — were absolutely central to the “successful failure” of that mission and the survival of its crew.

A celebration of history

Mr. Watros and his wife Beverly will be attending the festivities in Houston this week. In addition to celebrating the anniversary, they will be among the crowd inaugurating a new National Register Historic Site.

“The Mission Control we used was updated until the mid 1980s, until it couldn’t be updated anymore,” Mr. Watros said. “It fell into disuse.” Flight director Gene Krantz spearheaded a $5 million effort to restore it to the way it looked in July of 1969. Among the many artifacts from that time, Mr. Watros’ handwritten log and notes from the landing phase will be on permanent display.

There will also be a photo session for those in Mission Control at the time, including individual photos of attendees at their consoles. Of the dedicated landing crew, 14 men, including Mr. Krantz, are expected to attend.

Mr. Watros will also be addressing the current crop of flight controllers as part of an ongoing series called “Foundations of Mission Control.” He’ll he talking about the old days, as well as a list of attributes needed to work in Mission Control, which was given to him by Mr. Krantz in preparation for a speech in 2012.

“Diversity was not one of the attributes — we were all young, white, and male. Now I understand it’s about 40 percent female, and the flight director is a woman, so that’s great,” Mr. Watros said.

Creativity in Apollo 13

The attributes he will discuss include teamwork, vigilance, toughness, competence, and discipline — but he would like to see a couple more added to that list.

“I’m going end with Apollo 13, and to suggest that they add creativity and imagination,” he said. “All those other attributes were drawn on to get those guys back, but if it wasn’t for creativity, they would be dead. It was creativity, in real time, that saved them.

“We were faced with a situation that was totally bizarre, in which we had the Lunar Module, designed to land two guys on the Moon for a couple of days; it had to sustain three men for six days, and its rocket had to get them out of lunar orbit and into Earth orbit. And it was never designed for that.

“I’m going to suggest they add creativity and imagination to the list of attributes,” Mr. Watros said. “We didn’t know it then, but we had it.”

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