NEW PALTZ — Fifty years ago a 26-year-old “Brooklyn boy” was perched next to the tip of the 36-story Apollo 11 booster rocket and moon landing module at what was then known as Cape Kennedy in Florida.
Louis Cariola Jr., now a 76-year-old retired engineer and physicist living in New Paltz, had been summoned from Grumman Aerospace in Long Island 31 days before the scheduled launch of the historic trip to the moon to determine the adequacy of “one small part” among hundreds. The radar antenna of the lunar lander built by Grumman was crucial to ensuring that the astronauts on the surface of the moon could return to the orbiting command module and come home.
A NASA worker told Cariola that if a fix was needed it would set back the project by five to six weeks. After a 15-20 minute inspection, Cariola concluded the part would hold up.
Cariola followed the eight-day moon trip on television. “I only had real butterflies when they took off from the surface of the moon on July 21, 1969. I am sure I had more tears in my eyes than when they landed" back on Earth as the most difficult part of the mission had been completed.
Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. “Eagle,” the lunar lander, touched down at 10:39 p.m. July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Sea of Tranquility at 10:56 p.m.
Cariola was part of a huge back office supporting astronauts Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin — 400,000 private and public workers who contributed to the Apollo project, 9,000 at Grumman alone.
He worked at Grumman for five and a half years, where he led a quality control group he dubbed an engineering CSI. He oversaw tests to ensure the spacecraft “skin” didn’t overheat.
Cariola said his 1969 trip to Cape Kennedy wasn’t anything special. NASA was a stickler for quality and many former colleagues had similar experiences. He also visited Florida for tests on Apollo 7 and Apollo 9.
President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, to send a man to the moon before the end of the decade — before the Russians — generated tremendous enthusiasm around the country.
“I totally remember getting up in the middle of the night to watch,” said Carla Wise of Goshen. “It was tremendously exciting and I also recall that everyone was involved. We knew the names of all the astronauts, the mission names and which astronauts were doing what. I was teaching at the time and the kids knew as well. In fact, there were little mini quizzes about the space program on the little milk cartons we got in school.”
However, her own children do not have her knowledge of the flight.
Cariola, who gives talks to local schools about the moon landing, said that it is not surprising that the event may seem remote to many young people.
The Trump administration is pushing for a return to the moon in 2024, the first since 1972, as a way station to a trip to Mars and to forestall new competitors like China.
The Apollo program was expensive — $28 billion from 1960 through 1973, $288 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Planetary Society — and skeptics wonder whether the money for a more ambitious space program would be better spent on Earth.
Cariola disagrees, pointing to benefits from numerous spinoff technologies that include CAT scanners, cooling suits, computer joysticks and microchips and scratch-resistant lenses.
There are intangible benefits to feeding mankind’s zest for exploring, “seeing what’s beyond the next bend,” said Thomas Bregman, director of the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum, whose Cornwall organization will host an Apollo 11 documentary and discussion Saturday night.
"I believe people need to feed their spirits and their bellies,” he said.
After leaving Grumman, Cariola forged a career in teaching and the state prison system, but he said that, other than his family, the time he spent on Apollo was the most significant of his life.
“I was/am aware of having that opportunity afforded me, to be a small part of a national achievement for just a kid from Brooklyn,” he said. “I felt honored, blessed and proud to be an American, and I still do!"