Homepage for One Small Step. One Giant Leap. Man's first moonwalk, 40 years later
Gene Cordell has a lifetime of fascinating stories to tell, but his face really lights up when he talks about the U.S. space program and his role in it.
"We started it, we sure did," Cordell said with a big grin. He worked at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the 1950s and '60s during the height of the space race with the Soviet Union.
He is most proud of his work on the Ranger spacecraft, which photographed the moon's surface from 1961-65.
"That meant so much," he said. "It was the first step going to the moon, taking pictures and picking out a place to land. It was the first step to the moon."
Cordell's name actually is on the moon, engraved on a metal shim used to make the Ranger spacecraft. "That's a thrill, knowing it's up there and maybe someday somebody will find it and say ‘There was Jim,'" Cordell said.
James Franklin Cordell, "Gene" to his family and close friends, was born Nov. 20, 1932. His father named him Eugene Talmadge Cordell after Georgia's governor at the time. The family found out only years later that the doctor, apparently no Talmadge fan, filled out the birth certificate with the name James Franklin.
Raised in New Holland, Cordell attended New Holland Elementary and then Airline High School. In 1951, he married his high school sweetheart, Joyce, who died in 2003.
"In the 10th grade, I quit and joined the Army four days before I was 16 years old," Cordell said. "You had to be 17."
His deception was discovered several months later and he was supposed to be given a minority discharge. The Army goofed and instead gave him a dependency discharge, which is given to soldiers with dependents back home. A few months later, his underage status forgotten, he enlisted in the Air Force and became a crew chief on the F-84 "Thunderjet," a jet-powered fighter bomber.
After his discharge from the Air Force in 1953, Cordell took a job with Lockheed in Marietta building the B-47 "Stratojet" bombers. In early 1957, a weeklong visit with friends living and working at Cape Canaveral led him to make a decision that would change the future for him and his young family - wife Joyce and children Kirk and Joann.
"So I came back home, sold my house in two weeks and we moved to Florida and I went to work for Douglas (Aircraft Co.) on the Thor missile," Cordell said. "I just thought it would be good to work on the missiles. At that time, I didn't know anything about the space program or anything else."
Cordell later returned to working with Lockheed, but stayed at the Cape to work on Polaris, the first ballistic missile launched from a submarine.
"I was in quality assurance inspection. Anything that was done to it, we had to inspect it and OK it, make sure it was done to the prints and (there) wasn't anything wrong with it," he explained.
He proudly shows off the certificate he and the others were given recognizing the missile's first successful launch on July 20, 1960, aboard the USS George Washington. His work on Polaris gave Kirk and Joann the chance to play with Silly Putty years before it was marketed; the material, wrapped with Teflon, was used as padding in the land-based tests for the missile.
Working at Cape Canaveral in the 1950s and '60s gave Cordell a front-row seat as the burgeoning space program was just getting started.
"That's where I got to see Vanguard trying to put the satellite into orbit, where I did see the Explorer go into orbit," Cordell said, describing the bits of history he watched while working at the Polaris launch pad.
Vanguard was the rocket system the United States first used, unsuccessfully, to try to launch the first satellite into orbit. The United States finally was successful in using an adapted Jupiter-C rocket to launch Explorer 1 on Jan. 31, 1958.
His thoughts as he watched the launch?
"Well, really, ‘Why in the hell didn't we have Wernher von Braun on this before the Russians beat us to it?'" he said with a hearty laugh. "That's really what I thought."
The launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, had put the Russians in space first.
In May 1961, Cordell watched the launch of the rocket carrying Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Like most Americans, Cordell was excited to follow the space race, but he wanted to get even closer than watching launches. He wanted to be a part of it.
"Just seeing trying to put the satellites into orbit and then Alan Shepard going down range, that meant a lot to me because I knew the space program was really going then if they were trying to put a man in orbit," he said.
He requested and was given a transfer into Lockheed's missile and space division. Shortly after his transfer, John Glenn successfully became the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962.
Cordell worked on Mariner spacecraft, which flew by Venus and Mars, and Ranger spacecraft, which photographed the moon. Von Braun, the famed German rocket scientist who had surrendered to U.S. forces at the end of World War II, worked on the rockets that launched Mariner and Ranger. Cordell said he crossed paths with von Braun and his fellow German scientists during launches.
"He would sit in the blockhouse with us during the countdown and during the launch," Cordell said. "At a certain point in the countdown, they went to a no-smoking rule in the blockhouse. But Wernher von Braun and his associates would sit in the back, back there smoking on their big cigars, and no one would say anything to them. They could do just about what they wanted to do, really."
Ranger was designed to fly straight down to the surface of the moon, snapping photographs as it went, until it crashed into the surface. One of the last projects Cordell worked on before leaving Lockheed in 1965 was the Ranger 8 mission, which photographed the Sea of Tranquility, the eventual landing spot for Apollo 11.
"From those pictures ... they picked out where they were going to land," Cordell said. "I just wondered what set of pictures and how they decided what spot to land in. But they did pick a perfect spot; there was no rocks or anything to interfere with the spacecraft or anything else. It just set down beautiful."
Cordell left Cape Canaveral in 1965 and was back home in Georgia by the time Apollo 11 went up. But like millions across the globe, he was glued to the television coverage of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.
"In 1969, with the moon landing, that was the most awesome thing that I'd ever seen. It was really something just to see a human being walking on the moon. I never thought I'd live to see it, but I did."
He still finds it hard to describe the emotions he felt that day as mankind made history, knowing that he had been part of it.
"Just everything. It's hard to tell. There wasn't nobody that really knew about it but my family," Cordell said. "I just watched every minute I could, and I still watch every minute of every space shot that I can get."
Cordell left Cape Canaveral in early 1965 because he felt that jobs were drying up in the space industry and he didn't want to get laid off.
"A lot of the companies, as far as the ballistic missiles, were cutting back and there was getting to be a lot of people unemployed. I thought maybe the space program might be cutting back also, and so I thought I'd leave at a good time. But they're still down there," he said with a laugh and a shake of his head. "Still down there."
"I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, too. I don't have any regrets," Cordell said. "Except, I didn't realize at that time what it would be in the space program. I just thought it would be in ballistic missiles, which that in itself was quite a deal."