Florida Remembers Apollo 11: 'How Brave the Astronauts Were, How Bold Our Country Was, How Small Our World Became'

July 16, 2019

Editor’s note: The following stories were contributed by readers of the Tampa Bay Times and compiled by Christopher O’Donnell.

Karen Jodal, SeminoleKaren JodalI was 18 years old when the Apollo 11 mission took place. I remember the night like it was yesterday.

I was gathered with my whole family around the TV set to watch Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. It was one of those WOW moments you never forget. I was so inspired that I stitched a sampler reflecting this momentous time in history.

I gave it to my Dad, and he hung it by his desk and it stayed there until he passed. My Mom gave it back to me then, and I still have it.

Image courtesy of Karen JodalArt Polin, OldsmarArt PolinI was attending an Atlanta Braves baseball game when the announcement came ... that Neil Armstrong had set foot on the moon.

At that moment, my microcosm of the world came to a standstill. The players stopped abruptly right in the middle of the game and joined the wildly excited crowd by throwing their gloves and hats into the air. That was an emotional experience I will never forget as long as I live.

Carl W. Neuscheler, SeminoleSeminole resident Carl Neuscheler heard about the moon landing while serving in Vietnam. [Photo courtesy Carl Neuscheler]I was an infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division recovering from non-combat injuries at the Army Cam Ranh Bay hospital in South Vietnam in early July 1969. Back then, the only way we got current news was from the Stars & Stripes newspaper, the Armed Forces radio station and if lucky....TV. Since there were no communication satellites back then, we had to rely on watching copies of tape-delayed broadcasts that were flown in from Hawaii to Saigon. This meant almost a day’s delay of the actual lunar landing event. Even though the quality of these tapes were poor at best and difficult to make out what we were seeing, it gave us a great feeling of pride to be an American.

Julie Wade, Tarpon SpringsJulie Wade About 40 students, teachers and chaperones from Bay High in Panama City were on the final stretch of an 11-country, 21-day tour of Europe on July 20th. I remember folks from all over the world clustering around a tiny, black-and-white TV in the dark lobby of a Paris hotel. Everyone held their breath as the landing module touched down and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Everyone gasped, applauded and cheered in multiple languages, with tears streaming down many faces, including mine. A proud and humbling day to be an American! How brave the astronauts were, how bold our country was, how small our world became as we shared a collective moment of awe and wonder!

Joe Sclafani, Sun City CenterI was a 13-year-old Boy Scout from Miami. One of our leaders and my troop master father somehow got permission for us to stay for free on the grounds at Patrick Air Force Base (near Kennedy Space Center). Pre-launch highlights were us doing the base obstacle course and eating at the base mess hall. Many of us were wanna-be astronauts, and we knew this was a special trip.

(Can you imagine anyone getting permission for 30 teenagers and five men to stay on base with no security clearances at launch time in 2019?)

On July 16, we were up and out and on the beach, just south of the rocket off of State Road 520, by 8:30 a.m. It was a bright, warm summer day, and we were there with many others who were all very excited. Many people had cameras for the historic day, including me with my trusty Kodak Instamatic. Those photos - poor quality anyway - are unfortunately long gone. Even at 5-plus miles away, the sounds were loud and reverberating, and the bright column of exhaust was like the sun.

What remains are my memories of a great event and a small plaque that my father made for me as a souvenir and commemorative.

My father took me back for three other launches, including the one night launch of Apollo 17. It was a great time to be a young person in America.

Image courtesy Sclafani familyRudy Fernandez, TampaRudy FernandezIn that era, most of the boys in my class wanted to become astronauts. During that first lunar landing, I was 9 years old and staying with my family at the Woodner Hotel during a summer visit to Washington D.C. In anticipation of the Apollo 11 mission, my dad spent weeks testing his new tripod with his 1957 German 35 mm Voigtländer camera (with film, of course), so that he could capture the moment. The Voigtländer took a front-row seat in our tiny hotel room in front of a 15-inch black-and-white TV, where my parents, grandmother, brothers and I huddled in awe (while drinking Tang, of course).

In the last half-century, I cannot think of a single event that brought the world together with the same sense of pride and excitement as when Neil Armstrong made this “one giant leap for mankind.”

Frank Moss, SeminoleFrank MossMy college roommate Jerry and I just graduated from USF and were killing time waiting to start law school and dental college, so a road trip to see the Apollo 11 launch seemed like a good idea. We piled into Jerry’s 1967 Chevy Nova and headed down Interstate 95 toward Cape Canaveral. A very large MP at the gate pointed down the road and told us to turn right at the Chevron station and continue on to Mosquito Lagoon, the closest site to observe the launch.

We managed to secure a small piece of beachfront 6 miles from ground zero as our observation site. It was amazing being with like-minded adventurers from all over the United States seeking to witness history.

We spent the night on lawn chairs, kindly donated by a couple from Indiana and enjoyed boxed Frosted Flakes for breakfast.

As the launch approached, “Huey” helicopters circled overhead and gun boats patrolled the water. One of the cars parked there, a black 1958 (Chrysler) Imperial, had a 9-inch TV perched on the rooftop showing the same image we could see in the flesh: The launch pad with the Saturn V steaming and ready to go. We anxiously awaited lift off.

It did not disappoint… smoke, engine fire and slow movement ensued, followed by a rock show, bass speaker thumping on our chests as the giant rocket lifted skyward. Three minutes later, the only trace of this unbelievable event was a thin wispy contrail in the morning sky.

Marianne O. Blanchard, RiverviewOn the night of the moon landing, my five siblings and I were at my sister’s house in Rochester, N.Y., along with several others. We were all sitting in her small, hot living room in the dark, struggling to make out the fuzzy images on the television set.

When President Nixon called the astronauts to congratulate them on their success, there was a brief pause. My 10-year-old younger brother, who was in the back of the room, suddenly held his nose and, sounding like a stereotypical old-fashioned telephone operator, said, “Please deposit $25,000 for the next three minutes!”

Needless to say, the intense drama of the moment was interrupted with hilarious laughter.

Irene Prosser, Tarpon SpringsIrene ProsserOn July 18, 1969, I gave birth to my second daughter in a Massachusetts hospital. It was a joyous occasion, especially since she came five weeks prematurely but was totally perfect and just beautiful.

Among the excitement of our daughter’s birth was the anticipation of the landing on the moon by Apollo 11. This was especially significant in our family since my husband was a British engineer, who worked for NASA in Boston, and had been recruited by the U.S. as part of the so-called “brain drain.”

Anyway, on July 20th, he appeared at the hospital with a small TV set (at that time there were no TVs in hospitals) and, together, we watched the first landing on the moon while our new treasure was peacefully sleeping in the nursery. So I have beautiful memories of that momentous occasion.

Ruth Lampl Barrens, St. PetersburgMy father, Sherman Lampl, was an electronics engineer for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. (D.C. suburbs) for many years.

In World War II, when radar was still a military secret, he was chosen by the Navy to be one of our first radar technicians and later designed radar systems for various U.S. government agencies and departments. In his final job before retiring at age 48, he was part of the Apollo team as one of the designers of the Navy ships’ tracking system.

He set July 20, 1969 as his retirement date to coincide with the Apollo 11 mission. He said that ... once they put a man on the moon, the program would gradually wind down, so it was an auspicious day on which to bow out.

John Bisney, SeminoleFirst Lady Pat Nixon signs John Bisney's autograph book at the Apollo 12 launch. (Photo courtesy John Bisney)I was 15 years old. My parents and I had toured the Kennedy Space Center in 1966, and I saw the Apollo 8 launch in 1968 from our backyard in St. Petersburg. So when a date was set for the first moon landing mission, I knew I had to be there.

At the time, I was a student in the astronautics program at the Science Center of Pinellas County, and many of us were very excited about possibly attending. Our adviser, a senior manager at ECI, Don Colbert, saved the day. ECI was an Apollo subcontractor, and he somehow wangled a launch pass. We had a drawing to determine which of the students would go, and I was one of the lucky three or four. We left St. Pete probably around 4 a.m. and arrived at Gate 1 of Cape Kennedy Air Force Station about three hours later. Our pass allowed our car to proceed through the gate and park on the grass just inside the base.

We monitored the countdown on the car and transistor radios. Finally, the big moment came, right on time. I saw an intensely bright, white light at the base of the Saturn V and steam began to billow from its five main engines. After a few seconds, the thrust built up enough for the hold-down arms to release, and three Americans were on their way to the moon! I had only my family’s Brownie Reflex camera but snapped a few photos before the huge booster disappeared downrange in the blue morning sky. I bought a bumper sticker, one of the surprisingly few souvenirs available. We endured huge traffic delays on the way back but returned to St. Pete tired but so pleased to have been there in person.

A souvenir from launch day. (Image courtesy of John Bisney)A few months later, I met President Nixon at the VIP site for the Apollo 12 launch and attended the launches of Apollos 13, 16, 17 and the Skylab missions at the Launch Complex 39 Press Site. I then covered the space shuttle program for 30 years as a correspondent for RKO and CNN. I was one of the few broadcasters at the launch site for the 1986 Challenger disaster. I retired to Seminole in 2014 after 31 years in Washington, D.C.

Stephanie Hall, St. Petersburg[Photo courtesy Stephanie Hall]July 20, 1969 was my seventh birthday. It was also the first day I was able to ride my bike without training wheels. No one in my family would come outside to watch me ride. They were busy watching history being made on TV. Shattering, at the time, for a 7-year-old on their birthday. In hindsight, a remarkable day that I will always remember fondly.

Andrea Schleicher, Tarpon SpringsMy dad, Perry Jacobs, worked for Military Sealift Command as a marine engineer on the range instrumentation ships that tracked the spacecraft. He received a medallion that was crafted from parts of the Eagle and the Columbia. Of course, I remember being up and watching the lunar landing on our little black-and-white TV, bringing tears to my eyes.

A family memento remains a cherished keepsake. (Image courtesy of Andrea Schleicher)Dick and Carroll Risk, South PasadenaI was a general’s aide assigned to the Third Air Division headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, which operated from Guam, Okinawa and Thailand and directed all B-52 bombers and KC-135 tankers in the Western Pacific during the Vietnam War. Guam was one of the few places in United States territory where the first steps on the moon could not be witnessed live, because we had no satellite television coverage. This mission was very memorable to us, as we were awaiting the birth of our first child, Amy, who was born July 28, just a couple of days after the crew returned to earth.

Following their successful mission, the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives made a goodwill tour around the world and were on Guam Nov. 2-3, 1969. I had the opportunity to shake hands and visit with all three members of the crew — (Neil) Armstrong, (Buzz) Aldrin and (Michael) Collins. To me, this was better than seeing live coverage of the moon landing.

Armstrong returned as part of the annual Bob Hope Christmas Tour the following month. Carroll got to meet Armstrong at a party in the backyard of our three-star commander. He was gracious to pose for a photo with Carroll and me. When we got the print back, I mailed it to him, and he autographed it for us, “To Dick and Carroll Risk – Neil Armstrong.” It is proudly displayed on our wall today. We learned that he stopped signing autographs later in his life when he found out that they were being sold.

Neil Armstrong, center, with Dick and Carroll Risk (Photo courtesy Risk family)Leroy Kullman, TampaI was a member of the Apollo 11 check out and launch team while working for Grumman Aerospace, the civilian contractor for the lunar excursion module.

Our team was responsible for getting the lunar module ready for its mission of landing on the moon.

We worked at the 300-foot level of the 330-foot rocket when the lunar module was housed inside the rocket, with special platforms inside. We had to crawl around inside to do our tasks as space was so limited. Our team’s most exciting task was loading the LM with exotic fuels, which required us to wear self-contained breathing packs/suits to protect us from these dangerous fuels.

Being a part of this history-making event was more than any young man could ask. Soon the survivors of the team will reunite for the 50th anniversary at the moon landing celebration in the Apollo Room at the Cape, where all the Apollo hardware is on display, including the Saturn rocket.

I can’t wait for the next launch to the moon. I think I will sit that one out and watch from my easy chair.

Thomas Zurflieh, St. PetersburgAn enthusiastic fan of NASA’s space program, I absorbed every news item, saved newspaper and magazine articles, and built a 3-foot tall model of the Saturn V vehicle with all the components. I had dreams about witnessing the launch of Apollo 11. I was absolutely obsessed. I had to be there!

I got a launch pass through my cousin, a NASA employee. The crowds and traffic along the way were unbelievable. People and cars, reportedly by the hundreds of thousands, lined the roads and filled every available niche. I felt honored to be on a NASA bus and avoid the congestion. The morning was pleasant and warm, and we had a clear view of Apollo 11 across the Banana River.

When the Saturn V fired at 9:32 a.m., a cloud of steam obscured Apollo 11 for a few seconds. The ship rose above the cloud, slowly at first, then accelerated tremendously as fuel burned off and lightened the load. Apollo 11 was a spectacular sight as it soared with trailing flames into the blue sky. I had indeed willed myself to be there. That day remains one of the highlights of my life.

Image courtesy Thomas ZurfliehJoe Birnbaum, Sun City CenterAs a U.S. customs inspector stationed at Cape Canaveral, I was granted access to the Space Center and watched the launch from there.

As I had witnessed several failed launches, exploding rockets, crashes into the Banana River or the Atlantic, I’ll never forget my excitement, concerns and trepidation. I watched the lift off of the Saturn rocket with crossed fingers and bated breath.

It wasn’t until three days later, after watching the successful landing on TV, that I uncrossed my fingers and slowly exhaled.

As an aside, on the return trip, the moon rocks, because their “country of origin” was literally ”out of this world,” had to be cleared by customs. It was just a formality. The required documents were signed and stamped “RELEASED BY U.S. CUSTOMS.”

I still have an Apollo 11 patch that was given to me by NASA after the rocks were released.

Apollo 11 patch awarded to Sun City Center resident Joe Birnbaum, who was one of the Cape Canaveral U.S. Customs inspectors who approved the entry into the United States of moon rocks collected by Apollo 11.Steve Allbritton, Palm HarborEarly on Wednesday, July 16, 1969, at our Harbor Oaks, Clearwater home, my dad loaded us all into the station wagon and drove to Cape Kennedy to watch the Apollo 11 launch.

A few months later, local political leaders welcomed Buzz Aldrin to Pinellas County, and my parents took me to see his arrival at the St. Pete/Clearwater airport. Since my teacher at South Ward School required a signed excuse letter for my absence that day, my mom typed up a note and dad presented it to the political leaders to have Buzz sign it.

Photo courtesy Steve AllbrittonSandra C. Lohden, TampaOn July 20, 1969, we all packed into the car at some unearthly morning hour and took off for the Cape. My husband driving, my dad riding shotgun and my mom, my 2-year-old son and I crunched in the back seat, along with beach chairs, blankets, towels, pillows, coolers, thermos bottles and grossly inadequate cameras. The only incident along the way was the spilling of grape juice in the back seat. I had an adult tantrum because my sundress would be stained. Arriving, we drove right up on the beach and unloaded our gear.

Awaiting the lift off, we chatted with others, then I spotted the fins in the water. Sharks! As we all pointed, gazed and expressed fear, a fellow watcher strolled over and patiently explained that the fins belonged to dolphins. Whew! As he strolled back to his party, I’m sure he was laughing under his breath and saying, ”dumb Yankees!”

The time had arrived. The beach became very quiet as we stared at that magnificent rocket, standing tall ready for takeoff. As it started to move, it seemed everyone went into his own world, no talking, no touching, just watching. Boom, crack and there it went. The silence continued as we looked up into that beautiful clear sky as Apollo 11 disappeared into the clouds. I had only an indescribable feeling of awe ... and admiration for the brilliant minds ... who orchestrated every iota of this phenomenon.

Sandra Lohden's 2-year-old waited, along with the adults, for the launch. (Photos courtesy Sandra Lohden)Cheryl Hapke, St. PetersburgMy father was a young, new faculty member, a planetary scientist, at the University of Pittsburgh during the build up to the Apollo missions. His research shed light on what the surface of the moon was composed of - they were expecting lava flows (hard rock). His research suggested there would be a layer of thin soil formed by the process of space weathering. He was one of the first scientists to receive moon dust - the very soil he predicted - to analyze upon its return. I remember him bringing the sample to my elementary school, getting all excited about the Apollo missions. His name is Bruce Hapke, and he now has a mineral that forms on the moon and astronomical bodies named after him (because of) his theories.

Bruce Hapke, holding a vial of moon dust. (Photo courtesy Cheryl Hapke)


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