Homepage for One Small Step. One Giant Leap. Man's first moonwalk, 40 years later
It was a pivotal moment in world history, a time when imaginations were stirred and our full attention was given to three men shooting toward the moon.
And NASA veteran Paul W. Schmid had a front-row seat.
"I knew I was part of history, and (the Apollo 11 mission) seemed like a natural progression I had experienced along the way," he said, clutching the arms of the green wingback chair in his Gainesville apartment.
Schmid, now 81, was working as a mechanical engineer at the time of the famous launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on this day 40 years ago.
The years may have slowed his speech, but they didn't halt memories, as he recalled the faith he had in the space program's success.
"We had sent them around the moon that Christmas Eve (in Apollo 8), and we knew that (Apollo 11 astronauts) were going to land," the soft-spoken Schmid said during an interview Sunday at the Smoky Springs retirement home. "I was glad that everything worked."
Schmid, after all, hadn't just walked into Kennedy's firing room a new employee. He had been associated with rocketry before NASA, to the days when he worked in the Army's first guided missile school in Texas.
But life first threw him a curveball. The Louisiana native and Tulane University graduate had been drafted to go to Korea. An Army board later determined Schmid had been misclassified and reassigned him to scientific engineering.
"We went out into the desert and poured a launch pad for ... (a) missile that had been developed ... to shoot down kamikazes," he recalled, referring to Japanese pilots trained for suicide missions during World War II.
After two years in the Army, he went to work for an asbestos pipe manufacturer that had employed him before he was drafted.
"I had already got bitten by the rocket bug," Schmid said. "... I quit (my job) cold and went to Detroit to work for the Chrysler (Corp.) Missile Division."
In the 1950s, Chrysler Missile, which later became Chrysler Space Division, "was charged with building the Redstone rocket that the Germans had developed as a successor to the V-2 (rocket)," he said.
"The good Lord provided that I walked in on a day when they were looking for somebody to train with the missile firing laboratory ... that was launching the Redstone down in Florida. ... I guess that's when I started working with the Germans."
The Redstone launched the first American satellite into orbit. The rocket was developed by a team headed by Wernher von Braun, who had been working for the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Von Braun was technical director of the Peenemuende Rocket Center, where Germany's V-2 rocket was developed and would be used with violent precision in attacks against Allied targets during World War II.
Near the end of World War II, he led more than 100 of his rocket team members to surrender to the Allied powers.
Many Chrysler Space employees went to work for NASA when it was formed in 1958.
Schmid would soon follow and would go on to work with the agency until he retired in 1997.
"I was in the firing room for all the moon launches," he said.
None drew more attention, though, than the July 16, 1969, launch of Apollo 11, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would walk on the moon's surface four days later. Astronaut Michael Collins served as the command module pilot.
He recalled the sequence of events leading to the moon landing.
"I remember ... seeing it on black-and-white TV at home," Schmid said. "I knew the whole world was watching."
Asked how he regarded Armstrong's first steps, he replied, with a hearty chuckle, "I thought this was real poor-quality TV. I believed it ... that it was something that was really happening."
Schmid downplayed his role in the historic event.
"I was just there and glad to get rid of all that paper," he said.
Schmid said he never met the astronauts involved in moon missions. "I'd see (them) at different times, but they were always isolated from where I was," he said.
Schmid lived in Titusville, Fla., until two years ago, when he moved to Gainesville to be closer to family.
His son, Bill, who has lived in Gainesville for 10 years, was 8 years old at the time of Apollo 11. He was on summer break from Apollo Elementary School, where Paul F. Moon was the principal.
"Our normal thing was to watch ‘Wonderful World of Disney,' but ... somehow my impression is that Disney wasn't on that night," Bill Schmid said. "There was extended (Apollo 11) coverage, there was (CBS News anchor) Walter Cronkite, Dad was home and there was a grainy picture on the black-and-white TV," he said. "I don't know what I expected to see, but I knew it was historic."
He also recalled thinking that "by now, we would have been to Mars."
Bill Schmid was interested in science and math but didn't follow in his footsteps, choosing real estate consulting work instead.
Today, he marvels at his father's long career with NASA, working as Kennedy Space Center's point man for the Saturn V instrument panel on the Apollo, Skylab and Apollo/Soyez missions.
"Everybody else's dad was there for a while and then was released," he said. "Through thick or thin, he was still there ... so he must have done something right."
As for reaching the moon, Paul Schmid worked alongside pioneers and didn't doubt the U.S. would fulfill the goal asserted to Congress by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Before Apollo 11, Schmid remembered debating the possibilities of a moon landing with his Uncle Russell.
"He said if man ever went to the moon, it would disturb the (Earth's) relationship with the moon," Schmid said. "I said I didn't know when we would go to the moon, but I was pretty sure we were going to go there someday."