H.H. Luetjen knows exactly where he was 45 years ago Sunday when, along with some 600 million of his fellow earthlings, he heard those fateful words broadcast live from the surface of the moon by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong.
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Those words were the culmination of a 1961 call to action from President John F. Kennedy to see the United States land human beings on the moon and return them home safely by the end of the decade. For Luetjen, it was also the fulfilment of more than a decade of work on the U.S. space program as an engineer with McDonnell Aircraft (later McDonnell Douglas) beginning in 1960 as a launch test conductor on the Mercury program that saw John Glenn earn heroic status as the first American to orbit the Earth.
Luetjen recalled the deafening roar of the Saturn V rocket as it blasted Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin into space July 16, 1969, for their eight-day round-trip voyage to Earth’s closest celestial neighbor.
“My office was in the same building and on the same level as the astronauts’ quarters. I made my way into the hallway about the time I knew they were leaving so I got to high-five the three of them — Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin — on their way to the trailer that would take them out to the pad,” he said.
The Smithton native — now a spry 89-year-old living with his wife, Marilynn, in the same house he was born in — would eventually spend some 30 years working on aerospace and defense projects at Cape Canaveral, Fla., including Mercury, Gemini, and Skylab.
Though the contract for construction of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) would eventually go to McDonnell Douglas’ competitor Grumman Aircraft Engineering, Luetjen served as a consultant on that project following the April 24, 1967, command module fire aboard Apollo 1 that killed astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
Luetjen recalled that he was in his office with the intercom on around 6:30 p.m. that evening and heard Grissom report “we have a fire on board.”
“Landing a man on the moon really started with that Apollo fire. The reason being that the vehicle in which they had the fire would never have made it to the moon. It was wrought with numerous errors and problems, enough so that Grissom said he didn’t want to fly in (it),” Luetjen said. “Anytime you kill three astronauts it really makes you stop and ponder.”
A little more than two years later, Luetjen was joined by family, friends and co-workers at his home watching the landing on television.
“I watched it just like everyone else at my house on television — sweating it just like everyone else,” Luetjen said. “It was a sigh of relief. We had a group of us that had been through the space program, and one of them said ‘By God, Kennedy was right.’ It was an emotional time. A lot of us knew what could have happened, so it was very emotional.”
Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin would fulfill Kennedy’s call when their spacecraft splashed down safely in the North Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.
The U.S. would launch six additional moon missions, ending in 1972 with Apollo 17, with equal success save the ill-fated Apollo 13 which was unable to complete its moon landing after an on-board oxygen tank explosion.
Luetjen would go on to serve as McDonnell Douglas Launch Operations Director for Skylab 1 — a precursor to the International Space Station — and would later oversee multiple defense and aerospace projects, including development of the M47 Dragon — a wire-guided, shoulder-launched anti-tank system that remained in use by the U.S. military until 2001.
Although budget concerns scuttled additional moon missions and saw the U.S. turn its attention to the space shuttle program, Luetjen said he believes the investment in human and financial capital was worth it and produced more than just bragging rights in the space race between America and the Soviet Union.
“They argue about shooting all that money into space. It didn’t go into space. It was all spent right here on Earth,” he said. “Many, many advantages came out of that moon program. We utilize the getting there every day in plastics, medical miniaturization, better materials for firemen, a whole recipe of things that are benefits from that. The space program has benefited us tremendously.”
And, Luetjen added, there are still opportunities to be gained by reaching out again beyond low earth orbit. He said he believes humans should establish permanent settlements on the moon and foresees a day when similar installations will be established on Mars. However, he said he believes much of the heavy lifting to meet those achievements will be done this time by private contractors, such as the Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, which has already successfully launched a number of resupply modules to the International Space Station.
“Eventually, unless we shape up and cut down on the population we aren’t going to have an abode here on Earth,” Luetjen said. “For various and sundry reasons we need to become independent of the Earth. The closest place I know of is to establish colonies on the moon, and it is very feasible. I believe that should be our next step.”