OGDEN — Fifty years ago, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin captivated the world as the first humans to set foot on the moon, Pat Condon watched on his television set, astonished by the fact that he played a small role in getting them there.
The momentous Apollo 11 spaceflight — which also included Michael Collins flying the command module in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin explored the moon’s surface — launched on July 16, 1969 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The group returned to Earth on July 24.
Condon, a longtime Ogden resident and retired major general in the Air Force, was a young lieutenant, assigned to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston during the heyday of the Apollo project. Condon, who went on to serve as commander of Hill Air Force Base’s Ogden Air Logistics Center in the 1990s, worked in Houston from 1967 through 1971 — there for Apollo missions 7 to 14.
“Houston was an amazing place to be at such an incredible time in our country’s history,” Condon told the Standard-Examiner earlier this week.
The Manned Spacecraft Center, which has since been renamed Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, has served as the epicenter of human space exploration for more than half a century.
According to NASA, the center is still the main hub for the United States’ astronaut corps and is home to International Space Station mission operations, the Orion crew and several future space developments. It continues to play an important role in human space exploration and forwarding technological and scientific advancement.
As an engineer, Condon was assigned to the mission planning and analysis group that designed the rendezvous maneuvers associated with Apollo 11. Those maneuvers got the lunar ascent vehicle to return safely to the service module orbiting the moon. Condon says he was only a “small cog in a great, huge piece of machinery” and that his part in the historic spaceflight was “minuscule,” but it’s work he’s nonetheless extremely proud of.
“For a guy who grew up in an itty bitty town in Kansas, it was amazing to be a part of,” Condon said.
Condon recalled what he describes as “an incredibly young workforce” during his stay in Houston and around the time Apollo 11 launched. He said some upper management staff there were in their late 30s, 40s and some even into their 50s. But for the most part, those working with NASA then were around the same age as Condon — in their 20s.
“It was mostly a workforce of 20-something-year-olds,” he said. “Which is pretty amazing.”
Condon said his building also housed the mission control operation for the Apollo program, which involved many simulations of the spaceflights. He said he’d often “take a stroll over there” and watch practice for actual missions.
When astronauts finally put their footprints into the moon, Condon took photos of the television, like many other Americans who witnessed the landing. He marveled at what it took for it to happen — new inventions, congressional buy-in and a nation unified behind the plan — just eight years after President John F. Kennedy proposed the idea.
On May 25, 1961, Kennedy stood before Congress and said the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
“We did it eight years and two months later,” Condon said. “And at the time Kennedy said that, we couldn’t even have put the chair I’m sitting in into orbit. It was literally out of this world.”