Monday, July 20, 2009
The 10-year-old who helped Apollo 11
It sounds like something out of a movie, but that's what it came down to as Apollo 11 sped back towards Earth after landing on the moon in 1969.
It was around 10:00 at night on July 23, and 10-year-old Greg Force was at home with his mom and three brothers. His father, Charles Force, was at work. Charles Force was the director of the NASA tracking station in Guam, where the family was living.
The Guam tracking station was to play a critical role in the return of Apollo 11 to Earth. A powerful antenna there connected NASA communications with Apollo 11, and the antenna was the only way for NASA to make its last communications with the astronauts before splashdown. But at the last minute on that night, a bearing in the antenna failed, rendering it nearly useless.
To properly replace the bearing would have required dismantling the entire antenna, and there was simply no time. So Charles Force thought of a creative solution: If he could get more grease around the failed bearing, it would probably be fine. The only problem was, nobody at the station had an arm small enough to actually reach in through the two-and-a-half inch opening and pack grease around the bearing.
And that's when Greg was called in to save the day. Charles Force sent someone out to his home to pick up Greg. Once at the tracking station, Greg reached into the tiny hole and packed grease around the failed bearing. It worked, and the station was able to successfully complete its communications role in the mission. Apollo 11 splashed down safely the next day.
At the time, Greg didn't think what he was doing was a big deal, and 40 years later, he's still modest about his role in the mission.
"That's all I did, was put my hand in and put grease on it," he says. If he hadn't been there, NASA would not have been able to make its last communications with the mission before splashdown, but Greg says "it wasn't life or death, [from] my understanding."