Bill Moon: 'You've never seen teamwork like you have at NASA'

Apollo 11 flight controller sits down with KPRC

Rose-Ann Aragon reports

HOUSTON – The Apollo 11 50th anniversary is here. There were many people behind the mission who made it possible for humans to land on the moon.

One of those people was then-27-year-old Bill Moon, who started at NASA when he was just 23. He is the son of two Chinese immigrants and grew up in rural Mississippi.

Photo provided by Bill Moon

Moon would go on to be the lead the Electrical, Environmental, and Communications controller for Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 and would then work on every manned spaceflight mission after that. Moon sat down with KPRC's space reporter, Rose-Ann Aragon, about the incredible 50th anniversary milestone.

Rose-Ann Aragon (RA): Fifty years have gone by. What is this moment like for you?

Bill Moon (BM): It gives you a sense of pride that everyone is taking an interest in the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. But back then, we took it as a challenge from the president to (get to) moon by the end of the decade, and we did it with 1 1/2 to spare. Back then it was just a challenge. We were meeting a goal at the time. At the moment it happened, there was a sense of pride and exhilaration, but for us guys who were in the Command and Service Module, we had to focus back and do our job and make sure the vehicle (was) still safe and sound, and then our major goal was to get our crew was safe and back home.

RA: Take me back to Apollo 11. 

BM: I think that everyone was focused on their job, you know, being professional engineers and a team. You've never seen teamwork like you have at NASA during one of the space programs. I don't think you find too many people that use the word 'I.' They use the word 'we' (as in), collective.

Photo provided by Bill Moon

Because it's not (just) the people in the Staff Support Room and the people in the Mission Operations Control Room, but we also had a host of other people working on this.

Day of the mission 

BM: On that day, there was a real solemn, focused (feeling) -- eyes on the data, listening to the crew, especially keeping an eye on the fuel that was being used to get to the moon that day.

I think there was a lot of guarded optimism. I think we were going to land. Some guys, according to their jobs, were triggered to watch the fuel real closely, but some of us were thinking to ourselves, 'Well, they're going to land anyway if they get that close,' but it was a lot of, how should I say it? A lot of guarded optimism there.

RA: You were the ones who got it done here on Earth. What was the dynamic like in mission control?

BM: Flight controllers walked with a little swagger, you know, us guys. I mean, we flew spacecraft. Not many people get to do that, and that's what kept me focused to stay on my job for 37 years. You know, people would ask me, 'What don't you change jobs?' Well, not too many people get to fly spacecrafts.

There was a sense of rivalry amongst the organizations. You know, we were the systems guys, and then you had the trench with the FIDOs, GUIDOs and RETROS. You know, they pointed us how to get there. I don't understand all of that good stuff, but we kept the vehicles running, you know, and kept the crew alive.

RA: I hear you all are a family.

BM: It was like a big family.

Photo provided by Bill Moon

We had a bowling team. We could go bowl. Each area had a bowling team -- we just had a lot of fun. Of course, after the flight or after the simulations, we would go drink beer at the Singing Wheel down in Webster, which is no longer there, but we used to have beer parties and things like that. You worked and you played hard, but you were real serious when you had to fly missions because you had crew safety on your mind all of the time, so that ended when we walked into the control center. 

RA: Did you get to work with the astronauts?

BM: It wasn't unusual for (an astronaut) to pop into your office or send you a note or drop a note on your desk that said: 'Come see me. Let's talk about this.' Course, we also had meetings where we would discuss flight rules, so they were all around us, too, when we're talking.

Photo provided by Bill Moon

To this day, we have a lot of them that are real close friends.

RA: What was the culture like back then? 

BM: I think the world was watching. I think there was a lot of interest because we hadn't gone to (the moon), and the world was watching.

RA: What about when you landed on the moon?

BM: Of course, when we landed, there was this sense of pride and joy for when the crew got there, but for the people in the control center, their job was to bring them back home.

Photo provided by Bill Moon

We didn't have a lot of time to enjoy the joy of landing on the moon because the controllers needed to focus back on. We had different stages. You hear us talk about stage one (and) stage two.

RA: Where were you when they landed on the moon?

BM: I was in the Staff Support Room. You're watching your data. You know, our job is to watch the data in that room. In the SSR, you don't have TVs or anything like that. We have to watch to replay. You still get excited, you hear it all (and) you know it's happening.

RA: What do you want people to know about Apollo 11?

BM: I would like people these days to understand what a big task it was and how we accomplished it. ... We did it with slide rules and pencils and plots, you know, hand plots.

Photo provided by Bill Moon

The people these days have all the calculators and cellphones that have more memory on them then we had aboard the command module. We just did it with old-fashioned knowledge. There are other people besides the flight controllers. We have the engineering community. People up at Bethpage did the lunar module, the engineers there. Rockwell that did the command service module, and the Huntsville guys that did the rockets (and) Chrysler and all of the other things involved. (It was) just not us. It was a big group of folks. We couldn't have done it without them.