50 Years After The Moon Landing, A Tennessee Engineer Remembers Testing The Apollo Rocket’s Engine | Nashville Public Radio

50 Years After The Moon Landing, A Tennessee Engineer Remembers Testing The Apollo Rocket’s Engine

Jul 16, 2019

Some kids dream of going to the moon. But from the time he was in eighth grade, Bill Baker knew he wanted to help build the rockets that would send people there.

In 1969, his dream came true. Fifty years ago this week, a spaceship that Baker tested touched down on the moon. Baker was part of a team at the Arnold Air Force Base in Tullahoma that conducted more than 55,000 hours of testing for the Apollo Program, the NASA project that landed Neil Armstrong on the moon. 

An engineer inspects a Saturn rocket model at the Arnold Engineering and Development Center in 1961.
Credit Courtesy of Arnold Air Force Base

Baker was raised in Mississippi during the Cold War, at the height of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The teenager who’d tested rocket fuel in his basement from the time he was 15 didn’t want to miss his chance to be a part of it.

With help from his dad, Baker crafted a high school schedule with all the courses he would need to get into Mississippi State University’s aerospace engineering program.

President John F. Kennedy had announced in 1962 that he planned to send an American to the moon within the decade. Baker worried he was running out of time.

“I was afraid that the entire space program was going to be over before I could get out of college,” he says.

So Baker took classes year-round and graduated with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in just a few years. And in 1964, he conducted his first test of the Apollo.

He spent long nights in the Arnold Engineering and Development Center’s wind tunnels, evaluating the escape module that would parachute the astronauts to safety in the case of an emergency.

“It was one of those things that, it needed to work correctly, and hoped we never had to use it,” he says.

Baker says he and his colleagues knew there was no room for error. Even the smallest misstep in calculation could jeopardize the entire space mission.

During wind tunnel tests, they’d stand in a control room filled with switches, dials and machines plotting the data with an ink pen. But at the time, he says, computers didn’t guarantee the most reliable numbers.

The engineers didn’t want to risk it. First, they’d program their equations into the computer. Then, a team of female mathematicians – like those featured in the hit movie "Hidden Figures" – would calculate each equation by hand.

“We were checking the computer to make sure it was correct,” Baker says.

The goal, he says, was to guarantee that the astronauts made it to the moon and back safely.

“Everybody felt they had a job to do,” he says. “When people came to work, their main concentration was working to ensure that they did the best testing possible.”

Without it, Baker adds, “We would not have gone to the moon.”

An engineer inspects a piece of rocket machinery at the Arnold Engineering and Development Center in 1961.
Credit Courtesy of Arnold Air Force Base

On July 20, 1969, Baker held his breath as the Eagle landed on the moon’s surface. A co-worker had built his own Heathkit color TV, and they and their wives crowded into his living room to watch the fuzzy pictures on the screen.

“Everybody’s eyes were glued to the TV screen,” he says.

No one said a word.

“We had tested the engines here, so that we knew the engines worked to get them onto the moon, and knew the engines would work to get them off of the moon,” Baker says. “But you still hold your breath until they do it.”

Then, Armstrong took his first steps and planted an American flag on the moon’s dusty surface.

“That’s one small step for man,” he said, “one giant leap for mankind.”

Baker says he takes pride that engineers in Tennessee continue to do cutting-edge work in aerospace. And even after 55 years in the field, he’s still excited about each new development in space exploration.

Next, Baker says, he hopes to see an astronaut on Mars. But even for an engineer who's spent decades studying spaceships, the moon is a bit of a mystery.

“I do remember, during one of the manned missions,” he says, “going out in the yard and looking up at the moon and thinking, 'Gee whiz, we have people actually walking around up there.' ”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.