After finishing his first year of graduate school, John Jurgensen ’62 was hired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to help with a special project – land a man on the moon. He only had one telephone interview before being hired. “I guess I answered all the questions right,” he laughed.
There were deadlines to meet. President John F. Kennedy had set a goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade in his now famous May 25, 1961, speech. NASA was hiring more and more young people. While the managers were in their 30s and 40s, Jurgensen explained, the average age in mission control was under 30.
Something like that would be unthinkable today. But looking back, Jurgensen said, the youth movement was probably intentional. While the younger employees knew the math and science, “we did not understand how complicated it would be.”
And, while the managers knew the risks, they didn’t talk about it. They let the different teams go about their respective business. And, in August 1967, he started at NASA’s Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston at the GS7 level, the government employee equivalent of a second lieutenant. He was prepared. “All the math I needed,” Jurgensen, who is the son of mathematics instructor Ray Jurgensen, said. “I learned at Culver.”
He was assigned to the team that was responsible for the computers in the Command Module and the Lunar Module.
“We were more empowered than any group I can think of. We were left on our own to do it.”
“We were more empowered than any group I can think of,” he explained. “We were left on our own to do it.”
Less than two years later, now a GS9 level employee (first lieutenant equivalent), Jurgensen was one of the men who worked through scenarios and crunched the numbers after the lunar module computer system issued a warning as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were headed for the moon’s surface.
“There was a great deal of internal pressure (in the control center),” Jurgensen said of that day on July 20, 1969. “There was a deep nervousness and concern. We all felt that.”
The team had run countless simulations, planning for false alarms, system failures, and backup systems. They would only have seconds to reach their conclusions. “We practiced as many times as we could,” he said.
Every scenario had been mapped out and taped to the console of his immediate supervisor, Jack Garman, who sat next to him. They were both 24, separated by only two-and-a-half months. “We were shoulder to shoulder.”
Similar alarms had occurred in their simulations. After running through their list, Garman told his supervisor Steve Bales the computers were good and recommended the landing go on. Bales then made the call to continue with the landing.
“We were certain of it,” Jurgensen said of the recommendation, “and we were correct.”
He explained the complexity of the Apollo missions were exemplified in a saying. If 99.999 percent of all the components worked properly, only 10,000 would fail. While the lunar landing team had run the numbers on the computer glitch, the unexpected presence of boulders at the original landing site forced Armstrong to take over the controls and manually land the module, which was running low on fuel.
After Armstrong said, “The Eagle has landed,” Jurgensen said there was little celebration. His team’s job quickly shifted to ensuring the module safely took off and returned to the orbiting command module manned by astronaut Michael Collins. It wasn’t until after the mission, the managers told the team they had placed the odds of everything working out on the lunar surface (landing, walking on the surface, gathering some rocks, planting the flag and taking off) at 50/50.
It wasn’t until the capsule splashed down in the Pacific that the cigars were broken out, he said. “We figured it was the Navy’s job now” to retrieve the three astronauts, the capsule, and the contents.
Now, 50 years later, Jurgensen plans to attend the two official celebrations at the Mission Operation Control Room in Houston and the “unofficial” one off campus. Now retired, he did return for the ribbon cutting on the completely restored control room three weeks ago. It looks exactly like it did 50 years ago, he said, “except for the cigarette smoke.”