Even Decades Later, Apollo Missions Still Awe and Inspire

NASA to celebrate moon landing’s 50th anniversary at SXSW

For generations, we have been living in a world in which something that seemed fantastic to people of the past is an established fact: we have been to the moon. The first landing was 50 years ago this coming July, and SXSW is celebrating with a featured session with former astronaut Charlie Duke, former Apollo flight director and Johnson Space Center director Gerry Griffin, current Johnson Space Center Deputy Director Vanessa Wyche, and Bobak Ferdowsi, systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“I look up at the moon, and I get this real sense of satisfaction—I’ve been there,” said Duke, who explored and conducted experiments on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. “You can remember the general terrain when you think about your landing site, and the dramatic contrast between the bright moon and the dark sky … we felt right at home.”

“[It was] untouched, unspoiled. I never got tired of just looking around the moon.”

Duke and fellow astronaut John Young stayed on the moon for 71 hours, ranging about on foot and in a lunar rover across a 16-mile area and sleeping in hammocks in their tight lunar module spacecraft, where they tracked in dust from outside just like on any terrestrial camping trip. During their expedition, they gathered geologic samples, measured local radiation and the sun’s solar winds, and conducted other experiments.

“You weren’t overcome with the beauty of it, but it was still the most spectacular desert you could imagine,” Duke said of the lunar landscape. “[It was] untouched, unspoiled. I never got tired of just looking around the moon.”


The Apollo program ran from 1961 to 1975 and put 12 men on the moon between 1969 and 1972. We have not been back, but the way forward for humanity in space, to Mars and the rest of the solar system, may be through emulating these bygone achievements. However, this time it will be in an international and gender-integrated effort.

“Getting back to the moon, I think, is extremely important to do,” said Griffin, who was a flight director in the control room during the Apollo program and later held many senior administrative roles at NASA. “We don’t know everything we need to know about the moon, but it also gives us a good place to depart from for Mars.”

Without Earth’s gravity to contend with, launching a Mars mission from the moon is much simpler than from Earth, Griffin explained. He also envisions a permanently crewed facility on the moon, a surface-bound International Space Station, which can be used for experiments and as a staging area for missions into deep space.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Griffin was one of a few flight directors who supervised ground control crews in 24/7 alternating shifts during the Apollo missions. Each crew consisted of specialists who monitored specific aspects of the mission, such as its flight path, the spacecraft’s life support systems, guidance and navigation, and the vital signs of the astronauts. These experts all reported to the flight director, who was the final decision-maker.

“To this day if anybody asks me, the best job I ever had in the world was being a flight director at mission control,” Griffin said. “It was a hoot, and it was a big responsibility, but everybody in there was kind of like that ... it was how they were wired. The DNA was such that challenges were what drove you.”

Both Duke and Griffin remember a work environment at NASA during the Apollo missions that was very busy, but also always professional and cordial, filled with people who kept calm even when astronauts’ lives were in danger, and aborted missions or even catastrophes loomed.

Gerry Griffin (Left) and Charlie Duke (Right). Courtesy of NASA on The Commons

Gerry Griffin (Left) and Charlie Duke (Right). Courtesy of NASA on The Commons


“That room [the mission control room] no matter what happened was always disciplined until the guys stepped out onto the deck of the carrier [returning astronauts splashed down in the ocean and were picked up by U.S. Navy aircraft carriers],” explained Griffin. “Then we got to relax and have some fun.”

“Mission Control were the unsung heroes of the Apollo program,” Duke said. “They saved the day on just about every Apollo mission.”

Both men were in mission control during Apollo 11’s epochal “one small step” moment on July 20, 1969. On lunar descent, the astronauts were nearly out of fuel, seconds away from having to abort the mission within feet of the moon after eight years of effort, when the decision was made to land.

“There was one comment made by Buzz Aldrin that to this day when I think of it, it gives me chills,” Griffin said. “Intermixed in all of these comments [technical reports from mission control officers] he got to a point where he said, ‘We’re picking up some dust,’ and I thought, ‘Good golly, we’ve got an engine blowing dust off the moon and he’s seeing that, and we’re that close after all these years that we’re blowing dust with the descent engine.’”

It was very exciting personally for me. I didn’t say anything about it at the time but I remember thinking, ‘Good golly, we’re there.’ ”

Watch The Apollo 50: Celebrating the Past to Awaken the Future Featured Session, part of the Intelligent Future Track below.

Super Sponsors

Volkswagen logo
Austin Chronicle logo
Porsche logo
C4 logo
Delta logo
U.S. Army logo

Stay Tuned

Sign up to receive the latest announcements, tips, networking invitations and more.