PALO ALTO -- Forty-four years ago, a nation watched mesmerized as Neil Armstrong bounded onto the surface of the Moon. But Al Kuhn, of Palo Alto, waited anxiously for hours while everyone around him celebrated: He knew the Moon landing was the easy part of the mission; leaving was the hard part.
"The landing, there was a backup. If anything goes wrong, [the lunar module] separates, and we go back. There was always an abort," he said. "But the lift-off, here was no backup."
Kuhn, a 78-year-old retired propulsion engineer, was a part of the group that designed and built the rocket system for the lunar module's ascent and descent. By the time the Apollo 11 mission launched, he already was working on another project, but he distinctly recalls the pride and euphoria of a nation on July 20, 1969.
"I remember one gentleman who had a minor job to do, he was a mechanic," Kuhn said. "He had one day's work -- he installed the hooks for the astronauts to hang their hammocks on when they napped. And he was as proud as everyone else on the project."
Kuhn was always fascinated by space -- by its size, its possibilities, and its challenges. In a 1953 high school yearbook, he jokingly wrote that he would be the first man on the moon. A decade later, he was working on the technology that made it happen.
Manny Cherkas, of Palo Alto, was an electronic engineer at NASA on the PioneerVenus mission that launched in 1978. He remembers the excitement and the worry of an entire nation as Apollo 11, with the world watching on television, neared the surface of the Moon. As an engineer, he was acutely aware of the mission's many risks.
"They only had one chance to take off," he said, referring to the astronauts' trip back to Earth after the Moon walk. "If it doesn't start, you stay on the Moon and die."
Deeply rooted in Silicon Valley since his undergraduate days at Stanford studying electrical engineering, Cherkas, 81, has witnessed firsthand the boom of space exploration during the space race and its steep decline. He's concerned about recent funding cuts to NASA and the lack of public support for space exploration, believing they will fundamentally change the way Americans interact with the universe.
"Of course there is funding from companies like SpaceX ... but it's almost a ride out to space and then, come back," Cherkas said. "It's a blow to science."
Space exploration today is moving away from manned exploration in favor of cheaper, lower-risk unmanned missions, Kuhn said. With the budgetary and political constraints that NASA finds itself bound by, he believes this is the most practical way for the United States to pursue space.
"This seems to be the more practical approach -- using these great observatories, further exploration of Mars, a similar exploration of some other planets," he said. "Meanwhile, we need something like 'Star Trek,' a miracle way to get around space faster."
Kuhn agrees that manned spaceflight today is more commercial than scientific.
"[Sir Richard] Branson is selling tickets to go up and come back down. You don't even enter orbit," he said, referring to the eccentric CEO of the Virgin Group, a conglomerate of more than 400 travel, entertainment and lifestyle companies.
"That's one of the sad things. Maybe space tourism will revive interest in space in general," he added.
More than five decades after President Kennedy issued his famous Space challenge, it's hard to understate the magnitude of the Moon landing. For Kuhn, it was above all a statement of human potential: no obstacle, even the sky itself, can restrain the curious human instinct of exploration.
"(Apollo)'s contribution, 500 years from now, may be the way the 20th century is remembered," he said. "We did it. Against terrific odds. The first step away from our little planet."
Contact Edward Ngai at 408-920-5064.