Apollo 11 engineer remains razor sharp 50 years later: Looking forward to lunar exploration

The nation is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a seminal moment in manned space travel.

On July 20, 1969, two American astronauts became the first people to set foot on the moon. They didn’t make the journey alone, as a team of engineers and scientists across the country worked feverishly to make sure all the final details were correct.

Slowed by the passage of time, but still razor sharp, Victor Peterson is one of the engineers who helped the Apollo 11 lunar landing have a happy ending.

“All of us were on pins and needles for the mission. From the time before it launched from earth, all the way through the landing on the moon and the return,” said Peterson, now 85-years-old.

While the small step that changed the course of human history is indelibly etched in memory, the moon trip would have been a disaster without a safe return. That’s where Peterson and the other scientists at NASA Ames came into play. They did design research on the heat shield at the base of the Apollo series space capsules.

“If you made the vehicle with a rounded face, and came in with the blunt-body forward, causing the shockwave to stand-off in front of the vehicle. And a lot of the heat flowed on by,” said Peterson, while sitting in a classroom on the San Jose State University campus.

The movie Apollo 13 showed how critical this piece of equipment is to a safe re-entry. As the vehicle streaked through earth’s atmosphere at more than 35,000-feet per second, the heat shield deflects the effects of frictional heat. Peterson says the team was satisfied with the results, feeling “pretty sure” it would all work.

“While it was exciting and interesting and prideful it wasn’t so much out of the ordinary that it really got to us too much,”  he said.

Those contributions and cool resolve serve as a foundation for the next generation of space engineers. Dr. Fred Barez was a teenager during the first lunar landing, which helped spark his interest aviation. Now he’s the chairman of San Jose State’s Department of Aviation and Technology.

“This is amazing. That people could actually go to the moon. I would be sleeping outside looking at the moon, but now there’s somebody up there,” said Dr. Barez.

Recent master’s degree graduate Dhaval Kandani says he hopes his work designing the next lunar rover will help pave the way for the future the way Apollo paved the way for him.

“I listened and heard about those things and you get to work on these things and make sure we provide some example for future generations,” said Kandani.

Peterson says he believes his contributions will be viewed like the Wright Brother’s first flight, which led to a new era in human history.

“We kind of set the stage for the future in space,” said Peterson.