Mr. and Mrs. Waddell couldn't have known it at the time, but the sight of their 2-year-old son Willard atop the 30-foot-tall windmill that pumped water for their southeastern Nebraska farm was a glimpse into the future.

In a scene that might have come straight out of "October Sky," the 1999 film based on the celebrated biography of a NASA engineer, Will's teen cousin scrambled up the windmill that day in 1929 and rescued the boy while his frantic mother tried to steady her nerves below.

That cousinly heroism mellowed the toddler's space wanderlust only briefly, if at all. By the time Waddell had reached adulthood, his government had a bad case of it, too.

It was a match made in the heavens.

Waddell, who retired to Bakersfield with wife Joanna almost 20 years ago, skipped the traditional college experience. After serving with the U.S. Army Air Corps starting in 1944, he went off to study aeronautics, ultimately graduating from Northrup Aeronautical Institute, top of the class, in 1953. Over a career that spanned more than 40 years, he worked for several NASA contractors, including, in two different stints, North American Rockwell (later known as Rockwell International). After first working in aircraft design, he moved to the Apollo and Skylab programs, among others, before retiring from the Space Transportation System, or space shuttle program, in 1994.

Rockwell designed and built Apollo's command service module.

Supersonic, intercontinental ballistics never interested him. For Waddell, it was all about the wonder of space travel.

"The Minuteman — that's a war machine. I wanted to go into exploration, and that was Apollo," said Waddell, who carried a secret clearance all the way into the space shuttle days of his long career.

In his time, he saw tragedy and triumph, recalibration and renaissance.

This week holds special meaning for Waddell, 92: Exactly 50 years ago, as Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. were guiding Apollo 11 toward Earth's moon, he was in a makeshift CBS Television studio in Downey, Calif., answering network anchors' technical questions about the mission, by way of NASA's press liaisons.

Waddell and a handful of colleagues helped staff an information desk during crucial junctures of the mission. Mankind's first visit to an extraterrestrial sphere took a grand total of eight days, three hours and 18 minutes, liftoff to splashdown, and Waddell was keenly engaged in every second of it. 

"CBS did a studio mockup of the spacecraft in Downey," Waddell said, "and when (famed news anchor Walter) Cronkite wanted to switch to the Downey plant for a technical update, there I was, sitting off the side. The PR guys would say, 'Hey, Will — explain that.'"

But the evening of July 20, 1969, he was home, having raced through the door, turned on the television and plopped onto his couch just in time to see the Eagle lander touch down on the basaltic lunar plain dubbed the Sea of Tranquillity. 

It was a moment he and his fellow engineers and project instructors — that was actually Waddell's job — had been working toward for eight years. President John F. Kennedy, in a memorable, May 1961 speech, had declared that the U.S. would reach the moon, as Waddell remembers it, mimicking JFK's Boston accent, "before this dee-cade is out."

Waddell had voted for Republican Richard Nixon in 1960, but orders were orders, and Waddell and his fellow engineers seized the challenge with gusto.

"'We gotta get there first,' we told ourselves," Waddell said, remembering the mindset of the day. "We did beat the Russians, too, but, boy, did we have to work hard." 

There was tragedy early on: Astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire on the launchpad on Jan. 27, 1967, in preparation for the mission that came to be known as Apollo 1.

"They were in that 100 percent oxygen environment, and a spark set it off like an acetylene torch," Waddell said. "They were dead within a minute."

He, like everyone in the program, was devastated. The tragedy set back the Apollo mission by months.

But they learned from it, and halting step after halting step, Apollo moved forward, starting in November 1967 with unmanned Apollo 4, which tested the Saturn V rocket that would deliver a crew from the bounds of Earth to the moon's surface.

Apollo 5 tested the capabilities of the lunar module. Apollo 6 tested the abort system and, like Apollo 5, qualified the Saturn 1B rocket for its planned launch of Apollo 7. Apollo 7 orbited Earth with a crew: Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele. Apollo 8, with Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, orbited the moon 10 times in 20 hours. Apollo 9, with James McDivitt, David Scott and Russell Schweickart, demonstrated the life support system that would be used on the lunar surface. Apollo 10, with Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan, came tantalizingly close to the ultimate objective, flying the lunar module to within 10 miles of the moon's surface.

Then, finally, Apollo 11.

The U.S. would return to the moon five more times, failing only with Apollo 13, the mission that Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were forced to abort; they famously limped back to Earth aboard a low-power "lifeboat." Ron Howard's 1995 film version of the real-life drama, aptly "Apollo 13," was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two. 

Apollo 17, with Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt aboard, visited the moon for the final time in December 1972.

Forty-seven years later, we continue to wait for a return.

"Congress and NASA should have listened to Buzz Aldrin about going back to the moon a lot sooner," Waddell said. "Now they're talking about going back, all as part of the effort of going to Mars. They'd create a moon filling station, basically.

"They're building a new, big booster to take the place of the Saturn V. The crew module will look similar but bigger, with room for more crew.

"But they've waited too long. That's the feeling of a lot of those guys — we should have gone back sooner."

He blames the Obama administration for cutting NASA's budget so dramatically, but recognizes the astronomical budgetary needs of the space agency and its goals.

"It's true about the costs — they were awful. We did things in the States, instead, that I guess we needed to do," he said. "But what happened to NASA is kind of a thorn in the side of us engineers."

One irritating, unsettling aspect of Waddell's career is the reality that some, even now, deny that humans ever walked on the moon at all.

"We've got skeptics to this day, I know," he said. "But could you imagine trying to simulate a 363-foot-tall rocket (assembly)? What studio could do it? A Hollywood stunt? What a bunch of baloney."

He fondly remembers reading about the day in 2002 that Aldrin punched a conspiracy theorist-filmmaker who had forcefully accused him of lying about the moon landing.

Waddell takes no position on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

"Aliens? Who knows? But every time we turn around, at (Area) 51, Nevada, something is going on," he said. "Anything is possible. It's that mystery: 'Are we gonna find out there's little green men?' It's part of that curiosity that inspires us."

Curiosity: For Waddell, that's what it has always been about.

"We humans have a natural desire, somehow, to explore," he said. "It's natural to have that curiosity: 'I wonder what's it's like up there?' That's why we do what we do."

This July 20, Waddell won't have any news networks seeking his technical expertise, no traffic to dodge as he races home to witness history. He'll already be on his couch, comfortable in the satisfaction of knowing he was there, somewhere in the background of that blurry, black and white replay of a space traveler's flag-planting.

This story has been updated to clarify that North American Rockwell (later known as Rockwell International) built the Apollo program’s command-service module. A subheadline over the print version erroneously attributed a different component of the moon rocket to Rockwell.

 

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

(3) comments

Stephen

I shared the frustration and anger of space technology advocates who were angered at President Obama’s cuts in support of NASA. With two disastrous shuttle flights maybe, by ending the shuttle program when he did, we dodged a bullet.

That said I find it ironic that the so-called, “socialist” Obama’s actions opened the gates for much private enterprise extraterrestrial related technological development.

RefereeB

Missle not Middle - darn spell check...

RefereeB

Great story, Bob. There are heroes all around us from NASA and the relationships with Edwards and Eastern Kern. Unfortunately, like the “Greatest Generation” these men too are passing and their stories need to be memorialized. While you are covering the “Ridgecrest Rocks” stories, I’d encourage some questions from folks over there that may have been involved in the creation of the SideWinder middle and other armaments that have protected our freedom and been instrumental in the USA’s defense programs. There are certainly more that have contributed and deserve to be acknowledged. I suspect they are a humble breed that won’t readily seek the spot light...

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