Homepage for One Small Step. One Giant Leap. Man's first moonwalk, 40 years later
There are decades of adventure behind Allen Kirby's smile.
It grows from a twinkle in his eyes to a nostalgic smirk as he recounts the tales from his 20 years in the Air Force.
Kirby worked on Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft, which were passenger aircraft that provided tracking and telemetry information to support the space program in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He saw the introduction of Snark, Matador, Atlas and Titan missiles from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The highlights of his career included John Glenn's orbital flight around the world and the splashdown of Apollo 11.
"I figured everything was over after we went to the moon," he said, shifting in his comfortable recliner in a living room full of pictures of his five children, 27 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. "Then we moved to a satellite tracking site in Australia."
He wanted his five children, all born on Patrick Air Force Base, to see more of the world. Kirby said he didn't realize he had a hand in history until much later.
Kirby joined the Air Force in 1953, which took him through Korea and Japan for two years and landed him in a prime position to work in Florida during the space race.
"It was quite a thrill to be part of that," he said. He was the antennae controller for the EC-135, unofficially nicknamed "Snoopy" for a big nose cone that resembled the cartoon beagle by Charles Schultz. It held the 7-foot moveable dish Kirby maneuvered to relay reports between the astronauts and Houston.
Kirby was 35,000 feet in the air when Apollo 11 launched to cover the Trans Lunar Insertion, a propulsion to put the spacecraft on a trajectory to the moon. The crew then returned to Fiji and waited until the capsule splashed down days later.
"We waited until the Navy brought the canisters of moon rocks and blood samples from the astronauts," he said. "Our plane loaded those up and took them back to Houston. We arrived back at Patrick Air Force Base at 2:30 a.m. Our families met us there that early in the morning."
Kirby said he remembers different adventures during the development stages of all the moon shots, including refract missions and recovery of all the nose cones.
Crews in the C-131 planes would record how the air refracted so photographers could adjust cameras for shuttle launches, and crews in the C-54 planes would direct ships to the nose cone locations. Kirby most remembers when the dye marker and radio beacon didn't work on the first Atlas missile, originally designed as intercontinental ballistic missiles in the late 1950s but were later used as a launch platform for satellites and space vehicles.
"For three days we flew searching for this thing the size of a basketball out in the middle of the ocean," he said. "We would search for six hours, fly six hours back, spend six hours on the ground and do it again."
The crew also tracked the Titan splashdowns, rockets used in the Gemini program of manned space capsules in the mid-1960s, and pilots would often bet on which plane would find the nose cone first.
"One would fly uprange and one downrange, and it's supposed to come down between us. I stood up at briefing and asked them not to turn the aircraft to head towards it because it would tilt the antennae away ... and miss data," he said.
When the missile re-entered the atmosphere, the plane started turning. Kirby stood up, threw down his headset in anger and started walking forward.
"But then things started hitting us, so I sat down and kept my mouth shut," Kirby said, a humble smile creasing his face. "When we landed we had 67 holes in the aircraft where the nose cone had exploded. They were turning away from it, not towards it."
Kirby said he had many "firsts" in his career. After working as an antennae controller, he was a flight examiner and wrote the test for antennae controllers who came after him. His crew was the first to take over from civilians who developed the system, he said.
"It was just a good time," he said. "I would never have stayed near 20 years in the Air Force if it wouldn't have been for this."
Kirby keeps a binder of photographs taken when he received his first and second oak cluster honors and certificates of his training and number of times he crossed the equator. Included in the book are an appreciation letter from John Glenn and a signature from James Lovell, who took six pints of Kirby's AB positive blood with him on his Apollo 8 space flight. In 1960, Kirby was recognized for modifying a receiver case on a plane to save "at least five manhours per working day," the paper states.
"I had over 10,000 hours flying at that time, and luckily nothing ever happened to any of our airplanes while I was there," Kirby said. "One of the C-130s did crash afterwards ... and everybody on board was killed."
Kirby then served 28 years in the Boy Scouts and worked as a plantation manager on Hampton Island near Savannah before Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck "bought the big house" in 2003. He and his wife traveled to Hong Kong for missionary work and moved to Gainesville in 2006 to live near his sister. The Kirbys celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary this June and his wife, Rosie, was as much a part of the adventures as he was, Kirby said.
"They'd be gone so much that we'd have to do everything they'd normally do - shopping, getting the car repaired, mowing the grass," she said. "When he'd come home after a month or so, he'd try to take over his old position ... and say ‘I'm the daddy now.' There was a transition there."
But Rosie stuck with him because he was doing an honorable job.
"A lot of the women went through some hard times, and a lot of marriages didn't last," she said. "I feel sorry for the women today who can see everything that's going on the TV. That's too much. You always know your man's in danger."
Now the two are proud of Kirby's involvement with the space program and their chapter in history.
"I don't think we had the full scope of it then, but there were a lot of good men there," she said. "The men take orders and don't know exactly the ramifications but wanted to do a good job and did. They did."