Column: Plenty of people took small steps to put man on the moon | TheUnion.com

Column: Plenty of people took small steps to put man on the moon

From left, James Riquelmy, his wife Pat Riquelmy and astornaut George Zamka. This photo was taken around 1998.
Submitted to The Union

By the time the first man walked on the moon my father’s job was done.

He stayed up to watch it, though my mother opted for bed instead. Maybe my brother, almost 1 year old at the time, played a role in her decision.

I’m not certain about that, though. I wasn’t around yet.

They lived in Huntsville, Alabama, at the time — the home of Marshall Space Flight Center. A mechanical engineer, James Riquelmy — called “Rick” since childhood — had worked for NASA almost since its inception. For the past several years he’d worked on a booster that would enable the Saturn V rocket to escape our planet’s gravity.

That booster burned for about two minutes on July 16, 1969. Its job done, the spent booster then fell into the ocean.

And then his job was done.

Putting people on the moon, and bringing them back, was a Herculean task. Any one glitch could have halted it, or worse. A leak somewhere, the pressure dropping. Multiply the possibility of mistakes by a thousand, by 10,000. It’s astounding we put people on the thing, my father said.

This monumental feat took years and involved a host of people. My father, just one of those folks, might never have been part of it, if not for a job fair at his college.

It was his senior year at Southwestern Louisiana Institute — now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He was scrounging for a job and applied for a civilian position with the Army. That application garnered a response, a telegram about Redstone Arsenal and a space flight center.

A bit confusing, as he hadn’t applied to anything resembling space. But a job’s a job, and he’d gotten one sight unseen.

So: on to Huntsville, Alabama. The Marshall Space Flight Center. Sputnik years before orbiting the Earth. Everyone’s minds on space, racing to the stars. President John Kennedy saying we will put a man on the moon.

And my father, along with countless others, gathering data and evaluating it for a project meant to defy gravity.

It started with small rockets. The team would then test more powerful ones. Over the years they worked toward the Saturn V, the rocket that would launch Apollo 11 into space.

The days, and the tests, passed. My father got married and had a child. They considered having another. Maybe in a few years. We’ll see.

Finally launch day arrived: July 16, 1969. My father and his team looked at the data. They waited as the astronauts took the elevator to the capsule. The door closed.

This had happened hundreds of times before, but those were tests. This was real. Years of work hinged on this moment. Two minutes later it was done, at least for my father. The world would have to wait until July 20, 1969, to see the first man walk on the moon.

James Riquelmy called it a miracle that everything went right. Plenty more miracles would occur over the next several days. The journey to the moon, the successful landing, returning to the moon’s orbit and the trip back to Earth.

Beating the Russians drove our government to put people on the moon. That Space Race may have fueled the mission, but the moon landing has fueled our dreams ever since.

The awe felt by my father is hard to describe. He’d been part of something larger than any one person. Difficulties and problems always arose. People argued. But the goal never changed. As long as the team worked toward that goal it would progress, and we would reach the stars.

And then we’d keep going.

To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email ariquelmy@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.


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