The Apollo 11 mission that landed the first two humans on the moon 50 years ago next month is one of those epochal events, like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in which anyone who was alive and at least of adolescent age at the time will remember where he or she was and what he or she was doing at the time.
I watched the moon landing on television while visiting my grandparents in a suburb of Sacramento, California, having graduated from Morningside College that spring and awaiting a draft summons that came a month later in that Vietnam War era.
Bruce Droessler won’t forget. He worked in the Apollo program at Cape Kennedy for 3 1/2 years and was a member of the team that tested and prepared the Saturn V rocket for the eight-day mission that flew astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon and back.
The Maquoketa resident told his story at one of the weekly brown bag lunches at the Clinton Engines Museum. A few days afterward, I visited with him at his kitchen table filled with memorabilia from those days.
Today it seems incredible to me how we accomplished that feat given the technology available today that wasn’t available a half-century ago, what little we knew about spaceflight when we set out to reach the moon, all that could have gone terribly wrong, and all the components that had to come together to succeed. Droessler said it’s true that the smartphone you carry in your pocket today has more computing power than any computer aboard Apollo 11.
“Televisions had tubes, radios had tubes and the transistor was just coming in,” he noted. Breakthrough technologies in all areas of science and engineering such as GPS, artificial intelligence, metals and electronic circuitry were still to come. Heck, if something had gone wrong, the astronauts couldn’t have even looked up a YouTube video to see how to fix it.
Never in his wildest dreams did Droessler see a role in moon exploration in his future.
Iowa creamery to Apollo
Droessler, 74, grew up in LaMotte, where his dad, Howard, owned the LaMotte Creamery.
“I was often called upon to wrap butter or clean the separator,” he recalled at the brown bag lunch. “That was not my favorite thing to do, but at my age it was expected.” He attended Holy Rosary School in LaMotte through eighth grade, then Marquette High School in Bellevue, graduating in the spring of 1964.
As graduation approached, he faced the decision of what to do after high school.
“Some of my classmates went to work for John Deere and some, with the Vietnam War going on, joined the National Guard,” he recalled. He had received some advice from Lloyd Gonner, who repaired television sets in the area (note to younger readers: yes, at one time you actually could get a TV set that wasn’t working fixed instead of disposing of it and buying a new one).
Gonner, who had gotten his training at DeVry Technical Institute in Chicago, “suggested that maybe I go to DeVry and learn how to fix TVs. My dad said, ‘TVs are going to be around for a long time, so it might be a good option for you to take,’” Bruce recalled.
So he enrolled at DeVry, completed a two-year course, and graduated in April 1966 with an associate degree in applied science and electronics engineering technology.
As graduation approached, representatives of several companies came to offer jobs to the new graduates. Bruce received an offer from aircraft manufacturer Lockheed, but that would require moving to California, which he didn’t want to do. Another company, International Business Machines Corp., sent two recruiters – one to meet with graduates looking for jobs in the Chicago area and the other seeking people for Cape Kennedy.
“Most of us were from the Midwest, so we said we wanted to talk to the Chicago guy. While we were waiting our turn to talk to him, one of the graduates was from the Orlando area and was talking to the Florida guy. When he came out, he said, ‘I’m getting a free ride to Orlando. They’re going to fly me down there!’ Suddenly, we decided we wanted to go to Orlando, too. That sounded pretty good. We flew to Melbourne and got set up. That was the first time I was on a plane.”
Droessler was given a job as a launch technician on the Saturn Apollo program at a salary of $114 per week. He and four other other DeVry classmates who also took jobs with IBM at the Cape rented two apartments in the town of Cape Canaveral. He reported for work on April 18, 1966. When I noted, “So you’ve just turned 21, you’re only two years removed from the classrooms of Marquette High School, and you’re now part of the Apollo 11 team that will put a man on the moon,” Bruce laughed and said, “I know; can you believe that? I was just in the right place at the right time.”
He joined a workforce of National Aeronautics and Space Administration personnel and technicians from the several lead contractors such as North American Aviation, Boeing, Bendix, Douglas Aircraft and IBM that were assembling the various components of the spacecraft for the Apollo missions, which were developed to fulfill the goal President Kennedy had set in May 1961 of the United States “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of that decade.
IBM was contracted to build the instrumentation unit for the Saturn rockets. That component, a ring-shaped structure 3 feet high, contained the rocket’s guidance system and housed equipment that provided electrical power, radio communications and other electronic functions. It was fitted to the rocket on top of the third stage of the Saturn engines and below the command module that housed the crew and the lunar module that descended to the lunar surface. During the journey, the legs of the lunar module extended into the open area in the center of the instrumentation unit.
Assigned to the electrical department, Droessler’s job was to hook up cables to the lower sections of the rocket, connect wiring, and run tests on the equipment. Each morning, part of his routine was to test the wiring leading from the launch tower underground to the rocket attached to it to make sure water hadn’t infiltrated the cables or that a groundhog hadn’t chewed through the wiring during the night.
Droessler first worked on the Saturn 1B, one of the first unmanned launch vehicles that preceded the manned missions. Once, an accidental fuel spill inside the rocket necessitated that all the components and all the connectors replaced. It was a painstaking job requiring the replacement of a set of pins with each connector.
“You had to make sure that no fuel had gotten into that connector,” he said. “Even though that missile was not going to be manned, you wanted to treat it as though it was manned.” Anytime Bruce or any IBM technician worked inside a spacecraft, he had to be accompanied by another technician and by a NASA inspector. Sometimes a second inspector would be on hand.
Droessler worked on the seven Apollo flights that preceded Apollo 11. He had been at the Cape about nine months when the cabin fire occurred that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a launch rehearsal test in January 1967.
At the time, Droessler was been working at the launch pad next to the pad where the fire occurred, which was to have been the launch site following the ill-fated Apollo 1. He had left work for the day and was at his apartment when he learned about the fire, which occurred in the early evening.
“The stuff that did not burn in the fire got moved to the pad I was working on,” Droessler recalls. “Everything came to a total stop and they had to do a lot of research into the cause of the fire. The cabin had been filled with pure oxygen and they found that was not a good idea.”
For the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, Droessler was assigned to the firing room. That’s the room, often seen in spaceflight news coverage, in which numerous technicians are seated before computer monitors and controls. The last eight weeks before the planned July 16 launch date were spent testing. Droessler and another IBM technician alternated 12-hour shifts at their console in the firing room.
“We had a list of all the different things we had to do,” he said. The countdown for the Apollo 11 liftoff began four days and 20 minutes before liftoff. Droessler still has copies of the three thick manuals that list, minute by minute, each operation and the time it must be done throughout the countdown.
On the day before the launch, Droessler completed his last shift in the firing room at midnight. Apollo 11 was scheduled to blast off the next morning.
“I don’t think I went to bed that night,” he recalled. “I probably wandered around until the sun started coming up.” As the liftoff time approached, he went to a viewing area with restricted access, but which he had the proper badge to enter. The area was about 3 miles from the launch pad, the closest anybody was allowed to get.
The launch was viewed by an estimated 1 million spectators, including many dignitaries and about 3,500 media representatives, from viewing areas around the Cape and along highways and beaches in the vicinity.
“I was there with a couple other guys who had worked until midnight as well,” he recalled. He recognized and spoke to Dave Garroway, the longtime host of NBC’s “Today” program who had left the show a few years earlier. Garroway, who had a strong interest in astronomy, had brought a “small but powerful” telescope he set up on the hood of his car. He invited Droessler to look through it during the launch.
Once Apollo 11 lifted off the launch pad and entered Earth orbit, the jobs of Droessler and his colleagues in the firing room were essentially completed as far as that mission was concerned. Once in orbit, the NASA space center in Houston took over operations of the mission.
“Once they lift off, we throw all our switches off because there isn’t anything we can really do any more. From there, it’s Houston’s ballgame.” But there was still work to do, as IBM had operations continuing at two other launch pads.
Droessler recalls watching the moon landing four days later, on the night of July 20, on television in his apartment.
“Did you have a sense that this is a history-making event and you are part of it?” I asked.
“It didn’t really register that much. I knew that it was significant enough that I wanted to keep a scrapbook on all this stuff. But I never thought I’d live 50 years past it.”
Droessler received two awards from IBM during his three-year, seven-month tenure at Cape Kennedy. For one of the awards, he was cited for investigating and discovering a “significant problem” before the start of an important test.
“Had the problem not been detected beforehand, we would have entered this major test with an undetected or unresolved problem,” the award citation reads.
After the successful Apollo 11 mission, although there were six more moon flights to come, funding for the space program was drastically reduced. As a result, NASA and the Apollo contractors had to reduce their workforce.
One day in November 1969 an IBM official came to Droessler’s department and asked if anyone was interested in transferring to another company location. Droessler said he would accept a transfer. After an aptitude test showed he would be suited to computer programming, he took a two-month course in programming IBM mainframe computers and was transferred to a facility in Mahwah, New Jersey. Droessler liked the job, but did not enjoy living close to New York City. After about three years, he asked for a transfer to a facility in Boca Raton, Florida.
“I got an interview down there, but I didn’t have the skillset they needed, so I quit.”
He moved back to Florida and was working for a computer repair service in Orlando when a neighbor suggested that he apply for a job with the aerospace firm Martin Marietta. He landed a job writing computer code. During his tenure there, Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin – ironically the company with which he turned down his first job offer. After 25 years with Lockheed Martin in Orlando, Droessler retired June 30, 2002, and moved back to his roots.
Today he keeps busy in retirement serving on the Jackson County Zoning Board of Adjustment, volunteering at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Davenport, maintaining a family cabin on the river at Bellevue, doing family genealogy research, and golfing.
Droessler and his wife, Deb, will be at Cape Kennedy in July for the golden anniversary observance of the Apollo 11 mission, where he is looking forward to reconnecting with a couple former coworkers. He attended a reunion of the astronauts a few years ago, at which he met Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. He obtained Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s autographs on the cover of one of the Apollo 11 countdown manuals.
Growing up, “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d be involved in something like this,” Droessler said. When he started working on the Apollo program at Cape Kennedy, he knew the plan was to put the first man on the moon. As a young man, however, being a part of momentous historic events wasn’t at the top of his mind.
“I never really thought twice about it,” he said. “I had a good job, I was earning $114 every week, and I was in Florida and a mile from the beach. What more could you ask for?”
So, a woman asked Bruce at the brown bag lunch, did you ever repair a television?
“Nope,” he replied. “Never repaired a single one.”