For Illinois rocket scientists, Apollo launched career dreams


ROCKFORD — Fifty years after the Apollo 11 lunar landing, some of the region’s rocket scientists are recalling how the historic mission inspired them to work in the space program — and predicting that the U.S. will resume crewed space missions to the moon and beyond.

 Retired engineer Bob Guirl of Rockford was 8 when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin steered the lunar module Eagle to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.

“It was the awe of the astronauts flying away, landing and coming home,” Guirl said, as he recalled watching the lunar landing while in the living room of his family’s Rockford home. “We drew the curtains so we could see the black-and-white TV on the little roll-around metal cart. I was lying on the floor watching them (astronauts) climbing down the steps.”

Guirl was hooked.

After graduating from Guilford High School, Guirl earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois before landing a job working on the space program at Sundstrand, now Collins Aerospace. Today, the Rockford area boasts the sixth-largest concentration of aerospace employment in the United States.

“It was kind of inspiring,” he said. “Me, a rocket scientist. I didn’t think that would ever be in my purview. I was an engineer and the space program was interesting and captivating and unique. Kind of all drawn from those early memories of that (Apollo 11) launch and that landing and that return.”

While at Sundstrand, Guirl oversaw the production and assembly of an auxiliary power unit built for the space shuttle.

“I had been there for about a year and a half before the first piece of equipment that I had been actively involved in was installed on a shuttle and flew,” he said. “I think it was installed for probably four or five subsequent missions. A part of what I had done is now flying up there and helping to bring the guys back every time. Kind of neat stuff.”

Retired engineer Ted Biondo, 75, was working at what was then McDonnell Aircraft Corp. in St. Louis during Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs in the 1960s.

“It started out as competition with Russia,” Biondo said. “Sputnik got up there and everybody was afraid that there was going to be this political problem with that. Then, John Kennedy stood up and said, ‘We’re going to get to the moon by the end of this decade,’ and most of us said, ‘Yeah, right.’”

Biondo was actively involved in the Gemini program and traveled to Cape Kennedy, Florida, in the mid-1960s to see a rocket.

“It wasn’t just loud when it took off — the vibration would just hit you in the chest like somebody hitting you with a punch,” he said. “You not only held your ears, you felt it hit you in the chest.”

After leaving McDonnell in 1974, Biondo worked for Rockwell International’s space division in Downey, California, where he tested the space shuttle’s control system.

The following year, he relocated to Rockford, where he worked for Sundstrand for 30 years.

NASA spent $28 billion during the 1960s to achieve the goal of landing men on the moon.

That was money well spent, Biondo says.

“It’s the return on the investment that we get throughout the years with materials that were invented,” he said. “The miniaturization of computers, communications, all kinds of things that we take for granted.”

Kaney Aerospace engineering manager Rudy Valdez, 59, worked for more than three decades as a manufacturing engineer at Sundstrand and supervised the engineering and operation of the company’s contributions to NASA’s space shuttle program between 1995 and 2007.

“The products that we made were critical items,” Valdez said. “Without our auxiliary power units, you can’t steer the boosters and they wouldn’t be able to go.”

Valdez went on: “During the Apollo time, most of the calculations were done on slide rule. It was extremely dangerous but unbelievably forward-looking. I think every step that was taken by the space program was a boost to our national pride and our ingenuity of what we could do as a country and as individuals. I think that’s the biggest takeaway from the whole space program.”

As for the future exploration of space? The three Rockford rocket scientists are optimistic.

“For NASA, their focus should be what their focus is now,” Valdez said. “Looking at continuing to the moon and possibly making a fueling station to be able to go to other places, whether it’s Mars or possibly redirecting asteroids.”

Private industry will eventually send humans back to the moon with help from NASA, Biondo said.

“I want to see us return and I think we will go to Mars eventually too and beyond,” he said.

It’s only a matter of time until humans return to the moon and land on Mars, Guirl said.

“There may be moral issues with ‘Is it a one-way trip?’ or ‘Is it a higher risk then than you might normally decide?” he said. “But for people who choose to take that risk for that adventure, I see it happening. Absolutely. I think it will happen in my lifetime.”

Ken DeCoster: 815-987-1391;; @DeCosterKen

Story made available through Capital New 

IIllinois / Illinois Press