Homepage for One Small Step. One Giant Leap. Man's first moonwalk, 40 years later
In 1969, the U.S. government wanted to take three men, strap them into a 363-foot-tall rocket filled with almost a million gallons of fuel and send them to the moon.
What could possibly go wrong?
Just ask Gainesville resident Jim Blahnik.
From 1966 to 1971, Blahnik worked to create contingency, or emergency, plans for the Apollo missions to the moon.
"There was a lot of risk involved," Blahnik said. "You're putting people on top of a rocket. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that, by its nature, it's a highly risky venture."
Blahnik, a 74 year-old Atlanta native who retired to Hall County in 2004, holds on to many vivid memories of his days with the space program, a few years in his life that were filled with a sense of national unity, collective innovation and drive to explore.
Walls in his home office are adorned with mementos of his time with the Apollo program.
Among the treasures are autographed photos of astronauts, patches from various missions, and even a brass plaque that is an original replica of the one left on the moon, which were given to those who worked on the missions.
"One of the advantages of the Apollo program, the legacy, is it really united this country and gave us a sense of pride," Blahnik said.
But what became such an important part of his life only happened by coincidence.
After graduating from Georgia Tech, Blahnik started his engineering career at Lockheed Marietta working on the aerodynamics of the external fuel tanks of C-130 airplanes. He then picked up and moved across the country to work at Lockheed California on the Polaris missile system and later to Florida to work on RL-10 cryogenic rockets.
"That's where I really got my first introduction to rockets and the use of rocket propulsion," Blahnik said.
He never aspired to work for the space program, but a phone call prompted him to get involved.
"I got a call from a friend in Houston that said, ‘Hey Jim, how'd you like to get involved in the space program?' This was 1966. I said, ‘Well that's great,' I says, ‘but I don't know anything about sending guys in space,' and he said, ‘Well, neither does anybody else. So why don't you come join us?'"
So Blahnik made his way to Houston to work for a company called TRW, which had a contract with NASA.
"We assisted in the development of Apollo contingency missions, alternate missions, which were designed ahead of time in the event there was an anomaly, as we called it, that would occur somewhere in the trans-lunar trajectory," Blahnik said. "We'd run computer simulations so that in the event that one of those problems occur you already have a scenario that tells you what to do."
Blahnik soon discovered that he was not the only one who didn't know "anything about sending guys to space." Much of the science behind the space program was new to everyone.
"Nobody had to know everything. We would work on one small part of an overall mission," Blahnik said. "I'm not sure there was a single individual, including (rocket expert Wernher) von Braun, who had intimate knowledge of every single thing that went on during the mission. It was just so much."
Blahnik said the men on Earth, along with the astronauts, learned more with each of the six manned missions to the moon.
"Each mission became a little bit more of a challenge than the previous one," Blahnik said.
But all involved were shocked when they learned that the Apollo program was ending after Apollo 17.
"When Apollo 11 was completed, there was no immediate letdown," Blahnik said. "We were naive. We felt that now that we've accomplished, we've proved that we can do this, we're going to really make some super strides. We're going to explore the moon from pole to pole, we're going to go to the far side, we're going to build a lunar base, we're going to do all those things.
"Well of course, none of that happened."
After the end of the Apollo program, Blahnik stayed on to work in the early stages of the space shuttle program before moving on to develop mission control software.
Blahnik said he believes the United States should have continued lunar exploration.
"We're 40 years into it after the first mission and they're talking about returning to the moon. That remains to be seen," he said. "You have to get public support, which I don't think we have now, and you have to have a lot of money."
He thinks if lunar exploration had continued, the U.S. would have been able to expand upon each mission instead of having to start again from scratch.
"If we had not stopped the Apollo program we would not have to go back and build the Saturn-V and retrain engineers and create that technology and skills. We're starting all over again," he said. "If we had continued one might say ‘where might we be today?' There's no telling where we'd be. We'd certainly probably have a lunar base. We probably would have been to Mars by now."
Blahnik thinks another important element to expanding space exploration efforts is having young people who are passionate about science and technology.
"We need all kinds of talent but there seems to be a real lack of interest in that field," he said. "It makes me think that someone thinks that rocket science is so complicated and so difficult. It's not. It certainly isn't simple and it's not easy but there's a lot of things in this world that are probably more complicated."
He pointed out that in many cases, building airplanes is more difficult than building rockets because there are no aerodynamics in outer space.
Blahnik said aside from knowledge of the moon, the Apollo missions provided new technology and skills to the public.
"There were so many disciplines that Apollo created," Blahnik said. "The whole philosophy of risk management planning was started with Apollo. Today there's companies that do nothing but risk management."
Regardless of where the space program heads, Blahnik believes exploration must be a priority.
"The purpose of exploration is that. It's to increase your knowledge," Blahnik said. "It is very silly of us to say there's no reason to explore."