B.J. Shaffer recalls his time in the control room during the Apollo 11 moon landing
By Bill Richardson
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Those immortal words were delivered 50 years ago this summer by astronaut Neil Armstrong when man walked on the moon for the first time.
It was Armstrong who took that first step, but that step would never have been taken without the tireless work of thousands far away back on Earth. One of those was Lawrence County, Illinois, native Billy Joe “B.J.” Shaffer.
Like the moon mission, Shaffer has gone full circle. A 1953 graduate of Lawrenceville Township High School, he went on to a distinguished career that included being part of the development of the Apollo space program that took the world to the Moon and back. Now Shaffer is retired, back on his farm in Lawrence County.
On July 16, 1969, American astronauts Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, destined for the moon on the Apollo 11 space mission, were launched by a Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. Shaffer was in the control room that morning as he was for all of the Apollo flights.
“It’s hard for me to believe that 50 years have gone by,” said Shaffer, now 83, and residing on his family farm in northern Lawrence County. “And it’s even more hard for me to believe that in those 50 years, we haven’t really been back.”
Upon his high school graduation, Shaffer served a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. Then, thanks to the G.I. Bill, he earned an engineering degree from the University of Illinois in 1961. That time in the service led to a job with General Electric, which landed contracts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to build the Saturn rockets, used to launch the capsules into space. Shaffer worked as an engineer at the George Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, from 1962 to 1973. He also worked as a launch support engineer for ground test and launch equipment.
Aside from earning his engineering degree from the U of I, Shaffer trained at the General Electric Management Institute and Advance Systems Engineering Studies at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.
It was his Navy experience that gave Shaffer a leg up, when it came to landing the job working on the Apollo missions.
General Electric had been awarded the contract to design the rockets at a facility to be built in Huntsville, Alabama. The caveat was that GE was asked to use engineers with at least five years experience.
“Well, in 1962, there weren’t very many of us,” Shaffer said. “I thought, ‘Where the heck is Huntsville?’ Then it dawned on me that it was the Redstone Arsenal, and that meant Apollo. And in those days, if you were working on rockets, you wanted to be on the Apollo program. So I went.”
We were working on scientific stations to colonize the moon, and rockets to go to Mars. Any of us would have bet our lives that within a few years, we would do both.— B.J. Shaffer
In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy had challenged NASA to put a man on the moon before the decade ended, and to beat the Russians in the process. America was not to do this because it was easy, Kennedy said, but because it was hard.
“But when he said it was going to be hard, he didn’t have any idea of how hard it was really going to be,” Shaffer said. “At that time NASA had nothing.”
Progress was steady, but came at a cost. On Jan. 27, 1967, three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — lost their lives in a training accident at Cape Kennedy.
Still, NASA steadily advanced toward its goal. Apollo missions 7, 8 and 9 were landmark. In May 1969, Apollo 10, the second flight to orbit the moon, served as a final dress rehearsal.
Finally, historians note, Apollo 11 was launched at 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969. Shaffer and the others had reported to the control room about 12 hours earlier, because that’s when the countdown had commenced.
Once the flight lifted off, there was an informal party in the control room.
“It was really exciting,” Shaffer said. “There had been a tradition established, and if a launch was successful, people passed out cigars like they’d just had a baby. We were all patting each other on the back and having a great time.”
As far as Shaffer and the others in Florida was concerned, their job was finished. Once the launch was complete, the mission control center in Houston took charge of the mission, the rest of the way to the moon and back.
“Everything went fine. In fact, everything worked like clockwork,” Shaffer said. “Everybody was really happy. We figured we’d put the man on the moon, just right then. It had been a struggle, but we’d made it.”
Apollo 11 landed on the moon at 3:17 p.m., on July 20. Six hours and a few minutes later, Armstrong walked on the surface, in front of a proud worldwide television audience.
“It’s still the most-watched television program in history,” Shaffer said.
Everyone thought it was the beginning
The Lawrence County native thought it was only the beginning. All of those in Florida figured the program would, literally, continue onward and upward.
In retrospect, he couldn’t have been more wrong. There were problems with the Apollo 13 flight in April 1970, when astronauts Jim Lovell, Ken Mattingly and Jack Swigert aborted their planned moon landing and instead were lucky to make it home.
“It was the most successful mission (NASA) ever had, even though it was a failure, because they got those astronauts back,” Shaffer said.
Missions 14 through 17 were carried out as planned. However, at that point the program — which was scheduled for 22 missions — was terminated. Budget cuts played a big part.
“They said they were canceling the program to save money, to be used for more important and better things,” Shaffer said. “I don’t think they probably saved much, because those aerospace contracts all had cancellation clauses. I’m sure they got every bit of money they would have gotten, even if the program had made it all the way to the end.”
Shaffer and the other GE employees consider themselves fortunate. All were offered the opportunity to remain with the company, provided they were willing to accept a transfer.
“But a lot of companies laid off their people,” Shaffer said. “All that talent went out into the street. The knowledge that was there at Apollo, when they went out into the street, went with them.”
Shaffer continued to work for GE, in various other locales. He’s now long retired and lives on his family farm near Pinkstaff and is still a very productive member of society. He’s served on several boards since he retired, and is currently on the board of directors at Lawrence County Memorial Hospital.
“(At the time) we knew we were doing something special. But to me, at the time, it was a job,” he said. “I was just going to work.”
He’ll also continue to wonder what would have happened, had those in power chosen to move forward in space.
“I’ve always felt like that was one of the biggest mistakes Congress ever made,” he said. “At the time they canceled (the Apollo program) we had five complete rockets and five complete spacecraft, all built, ready to launch.”
Traveling to Mars, not just the moon, was America’s future, he thought.
“We were working on scientific stations to colonize the moon, and rockets to go to Mars,” he said. “Any of us would have bet our lives that within a few years, we would do both, and that by now, either one would have become a commonplace happening. I would have never believed that we’d have never been back there.”
There are, of course, naysayers, people who claim that the Apollo program wasn’t a great accomplishment but rather, history’s greatest hoax. Shaffer has a ready response for all of the non-believers, noting that the astronauts put a plaque on the moon, with a message that America had come there “in peace for all mankind.”
“That proves, that in a time long ago and far away, that the United States reached for the moon,” he said. “And we got there.”