Fifty years after the first lunar landing, Nasa is accelerating plans to return humans to the moon — aided by some of the workers and hardware that helped to secure Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind”. The US government space agency is transforming Kennedy Space Center in Florida, its gateway to the stars since 1962, for a new era of exploration as it prepares to get astronauts back on the lunar surface in 2024 and plot an onward course to Mars.
“This is as exciting a time now as it was back in the Sixties,” said Ken Poimboeuf, an engineer who worked at the space centre during the Apollo moonshot programme and who, aged 76, still works there now as a senior project manager. “I like what I do and the people I work with. I just can’t give it up. It can’t get better,” he added, speaking at launch pad 39B, from where Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted off on their historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon on July 16, 1969.
“When we stepped on that moon everybody’s mouth dropped open. It was outstanding. Every one of us who worked on it had been thinking, ‘Gee whizz, one of these days we’re going to be up there on that moon.’ Everybody wanted to be a part of it. Well, I want to be part of it again,” he said.
Launch pad 39B — used during the Apollo programme that ended in 1972 and the space shuttle programme from 1981 to 2011 — has undergone refurbishment to accommodate Nasa’s heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), set to be the most powerful rocket ever built. More than 1,000 companies and every Nasa centre in the US are involved in the development of SLS, which will power the crew-carrying Orion capsule into space. The first unmanned test-flight is due next year, with a crewed flight to follow in 2022.
Overseen by Mr Poimboeuf and his fellow project manager Regina Spellman, the launch pad’s modernisation has included stripping out 1.3 million feet of Apollo-era copper cabling and replacing it with fibre-optics. The roof over the pad’s catacombs, which must withstand the rocket’s pressure, is being reinforced to take up to 11,565 tonnes — equivalent to 2,125 African elephants.
The flame trench, a chasm below the pad that diverts fire and exhaust from the booster, has been beefed up with the installation of 150 heat-deflecting steel plates each weighing 1.8 tonnes and 96,000 heat-resistant bricks. One of Nasa’s crawler transporters, a vehicle the size of a baseball field that carried rockets and shuttles to the launchpads for more than 50 years, has also been repurposed for SLS. It can hold the equivalent weight of 20 fully loaded Boeing 777 aircraft.
A handing-down of wisdom from veterans of the Apollo years has allowed present staff to learn from those of the past and helped Nasa to share its history and its future with the public through educational outreach.
Bob Sieck, 81, was a spacecraft test engineer during the Apollo moon missions and the Gemini programme before it. He was launch director for 52 space shuttle missions. “Retirement was a tough decision but I stay connected by doing voluntary work for Nasa public affairs and consulting for the next generation and the next great adventure,” he said. “I hope the political commitment that it took to get us to the moon the first time will be there to achieve it again.”
Milt Heflin, 76, a capsule recovery engineer whose space work spanned five decades, said: “It wells my eyes when I see how people respond to what we’re involved in. It gives them a chance to feel good about something.”
Lunar landing celebrations
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission will be marked at landmarks including the Washington Monument, Times Square in New York and the satellite tracking station in Australia that relayed footage of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.
At the Kennedy Space Center crowds will celebrate tomorrow with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. The Saturn V rocket that powered astronauts to the moon will be projected on to the Washington Monument.
An Apollo 50th gala at Kennedy Space Center, organised by the Aldrin Family Foundation, will connect Apollo veterans in a live link-up with members of the satellite tracking team that relayed television footage of the first steps on the moon in 1969.
Britain will mark the landing in Piccadilly Circus at 9pm on Saturday with a display of historic footage and digital mosaics created by the British artist Helen Marshall and the People’s Moon.