Williamsburg recalls watching Apollo 11 and helping crew get there

Staff writer

In 1969, 3.5 billion people lived on Earth, and on that July 20, 600 million of them, a full one-sixth of humanity, watched as Neil Armstrong descended from the lander and made that now-famous giant leap for all mankind.

The world watched Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first people to walk upon another planet; in Williamsburg, the Granger family watched along with the world.

Greg Granger, then just 4 years old, didn’t quite understand the significance of what was about the happen, but he knew it must have been important if his parents let him and his two sisters stay up past midnight to watch.

“I remember mom and dad really making an impression that I needed to watch this, and I’ll never forget seeing them make their way down out of the capsule,” he said. “It almost didn’t seem real as I was watching it the first time, but even then, I thought it was pretty miraculous.”

He wasn’t alone thinking that, as parents Gilbert and Connie Granger recall, with Connie remembering holding her breath watching the astronauts make their way to the surface.

“I pulled my breath in as Armstrong went down the ladder, not letting it out, waiting to see if he was really going to touch the surface of the moon,” Connie Granger said. “We didn’t know what to expect, or even what would happen, if he would sink into the ground or bounce off, or even if our little black-and-white television would even show it, but eventually, I just settled in and realized that this was really happening, a man was walking on the moon!”

As powerful as that moment may have been, compared to most of America, the lead up to Apollo 11 received a chillier reception in Williamsburg and the Peninsula.

A bittersweet miracle

Gilbert Granger, a retired accountant and former Williamsburg city councilman, said the attitude in town surrounding the moon landing was fairly subdued.

There was a lot of bitterness over, as Granger puts it, “Houston stealing a moment that belonged to Hampton Roads and Newport News.

“It gets overlooked now, but at the time, we’d watched a lot of the jobs and money that until then went to Langley, start going to Texas instead, and everyone in town had friends or neighbors involved,” he said. “One of the astronauts, Donn Eisele, even rented a house in Williamsburg from us.”

In the early days of American space exploration, the heart of NASA wasn’t Houston or Cape Canaveral, but down the road at NASA Langley, which was selected to serve as NASA’s first field center, was the home of Project Mercury and was where the first seven astronauts trained. That, the region’s existing aerospace industry, and the proximity to Washington, D.C., made it seem like the space race would bring boom times to the region.

Then in 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a native Texan, used his position to push for a new space center in Houston. Johnson got NASA HQ in his home state, which would eventually be named after him, and for 50 years, Houston got tens of thousands of new jobs, billions of dollars added to its economy and grew to be America’s fourth-largest city.

“Losing that was devastating to the Peninsula, and more than the money, it hurt to see those friends and neighbors have to leave for Texas,” Gilbert Granger said. “We’d gotten a raw deal, and that wound was still fresh in 1969.”

Those feelings were so common that The Virginia Gazette only ran a single article about Apollo 11 at the time, a six-paragraph piece naming two area residents who had directly worked on Apollo 11: Elizabeth Niner and John Llewellyn. The only other mention it got during the entire month of July 1969 came from an ad for the Sheraton Motor Inn.

“Don’t misunderstand, we hoped the astronauts would get there and back safely, and we were proud watching it as it happened,” Gilbert Granger said. “There was still a feeling that what could have been a huge boon and historic moment for the region was taken from us.”

From Earth to the Moon (and back again)

Though Houston may have supplanted it, the work being done at Langley in the ’60s laid the foundation for all that came after, including the moon landings.

“Even after main operations moved to Houston, Langley still played a critical part in getting Americans to the moon, like hosting the Lunar Landing Research Facility where the Apollo astronauts trained for the eventual descent to the lunar surface,” said Langley public affairs specialist Kristyn Damadeo.

“That’s on top of all the research and development made by thousands of scientists and engineers here.”

One of the critical breakthroughs achieved at Langley was a group of engineers who proved the feasibility of lunar-orbit rendezvous, which became the selected approach to landing on the moon, and played a significant part in making sure astronauts made it to the moon "before the decade is out," as promised.

After Apollo ended, NASA Langley contributed heavily toward Skylab and the Viking Mars rovers. With NASA recently proposing an ambitious new series of moon missions, with a hopeful launch in 2024, Langley is focused again on the moon.

“Langley is working on prototypes for the Orion capsules that will return astronauts to the moon,” Damadeo said. “This was where the first astronauts trained, this was where the first men to walk on the moon trained, and maybe soon this will be where the next astronauts to walk on the moon will come from.”

From Jamestown to the moon

Folks at NASA aren’t the only ones finding new optimism in the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11; the Grangers are looking back at the moon landing with some new perspective.

“It was still a thrill to see our flag on the moon, and it was a great moment for America, even if it would have been nice had NASA invested here instead of in Houston,” Gilbert Granger said. “We named bridges for those first seven astronauts, we might have renamed the whole peninsula after Neil Armstrong if they had, he would have earned it, too.”

Gilbert and Greg Granger discuss the various TV specials and news articles, or how Apollo gave us everything from cell phones to orange drink mix, but talk eventually turns to hope that the next generation of Americans will get to have a moment as miraculous as seeing the U.S. flag planted on the moon.

“My son saw something about Elon Musk’s new rockets, and the way he lit up, and told me we had to go watch it, for all that’s changed because of Apollo 11, that spirit’s still there 50 years later,” Greg Granger said.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Jamestown or the moon, Americans are explorers and pioneers at heart.”

An unforgettable moment

James City County resident Baxter Carr will be the first to say he has lived quite a life, from serving in the Navy as a radar instructor in World War II to running a raspberry farm in Toano, to a happy 75-year-long marriage to his wife Ruth.

One of Carr’s proudest achievements though was his time working as a project control officer at Langley from 1962 to 1974, where he oversaw more than 20 projects connected to the Apollo program, including work on a solid propellant rocket motor that earned Carr and his group a commendation from NASA.

Carr said what drew him to the program was his desire to do his part for his country, and he eventually worked on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. He downplays his own role, saying he was one member of a brilliant team of 400,000 others, but said those first few crews of astronauts, true to the tales, had the right stuff.

“Langley was the center of it all in the early days. We focused mainly on research, though we did train those first groups of astronauts before LBJ moved that part of the program to Texas, and everyone there was dedicated to seeing those men make it to the moon and back,” he said.

“They really were the best of the best. Every one of them is a hero in my book.”

Carr hopes Americans will return to the moon, even if he may not see it happen. He’d happily be proven wrong about that though, if only to relive one of the proudest moments of his life: That summer of ’69 when he watched with the rest of the world as Armstrong and Aldrin planted an American flag on the moon, and knowing that he’d played his part to get them there.

“In my 97 years on Earth, I’ve enjoyed every minute, seen so much and have been lucky to have had a few remarkable achievements of my own,” Carr said. “In all my time, people ask me what was the most memorable moment of my life, and without question, the moon landing was it.”

Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email sean.korsgaard@vagazette.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.

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