TBT: From Illinois to the Moon

President Nixon visits the Apollo 11 crew as they sit
in quarantine after returning to Earth, 1969. 
Three weeks after their historic mission to the moon, the three astronauts of Apollo 11 were honored with a ticker tape parade through Chicago attended by as many as two million people. They were formally welcomed by Mayor Richard J. Daley with a celebration in a jam-packed Civic Center Plaza.

It was part of a day that began with a similar parade in New York, and ended with a dinner in Los Angeles hosted by President Richard Nixon, at which they were each presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

For two of the Apollo 11 astronauts, it was also a homecoming of sorts.

Neil Armstrong had first set foot on the moon at 8:56 p.m. central time on July 20, 1969. It was the culmination of a career in flight which had started in the Midwest, and included some time in Illinois.

Armstrong was born in Ohio, and graduated from Purdue University in Indiana. His studies at Purdue were interrupted in 1949 when he went into the Navy, where he became an aviator. He was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Essex, flying Grumman F9F Panther fighters, among the earliest jet aircraft operated by the U.S. Navy. In 1951, his plane was damaged in action, but he was able to keep it airborne long enough to reach friendly troops before bailing out. Armstrong returned from Korea in 1952 and went into the Navy Reserve.

He was assigned to Fighter Squadron 724 at Naval Air Station Glenview, Illinois, on Lake Michigan just north of Chicago. The posting to Glenview allowed him to resume his studies at Purdue, and while there he met Janet Shearon of Wilmette, Illinois, at a party. In January 1956 he and Janet were married at the Congregational Church in Wilmette. The wedding came just months after Armstrong graduated from Purdue with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

Armstrong became a test pilot, and his career took him first to California, and eventually into space as part of the crew of Gemini VIII and, as the whole world knows, Apollo 11.

Michael Collins in a command module simulator, 1968.
Just a year after Armstrong left Glenview, an Air Force pilot named Michael Collins was reassigned from a base in West Germany to Chanute Air Force Base near Rantoul, Illinois, just north of Champaign. There he was a student in a course on aircraft maintenance, though he did not enjoy it much. Collins wanted more flight time, and the maintenance course just did not provide enough. Once he was finished at Chanute, Collins was assigned to a unit which trained Air Force mechanics around the world. It was his last assignment before test pilot school. A decade later, he would be the pilot of the Apollo 11 command module, orbiting the Moon as his fellow astronauts Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on its surface.

As Armstrong and Aldrin approached the moon, among those anxiously watching from Mission Control in Houston was 40-year-old Illinois-born astronaut Jim McDivitt, who had commanded the Apollo 9 mission four months earlier. McDivitt’s mission had been the first flight to test all of the necessary equipment for a lunar landing and was crucial in making the Apollo 11 mission possible. Apollo 9 was McDivitt’s last space flight. He was named Manager of Lunar Landing Operations a few weeks later, and headed the planning effort for the exploration of the lunar surface. He was the program manager for the five Apollo flights which followed the initial moon landing.

On the night after the Chicago parade, August 13, 1969, the Apollo 11 astronauts spoke at that dinner in Los Angeles where they each received the Medal of Freedom. Collins recalled the tumultuous welcome they had received in Chicago.

“As I looked at it from nearly a quarter of a million miles away, three weeks ago, the people of New York, or Chicago and of Los Angeles were far from my mind, frankly,” Collins joked. “But tonight, they are very close to my mind. I wish that each and every one of you could have been with us today to see their enthusiasm and the magnificent greeting which they gave us upon our return.”

Chicago's ticker tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts.
A significant role in their return was played by another Illinoisan. The Apollo 11 spacecraft returned to Earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean a few days after the moon landing. Waiting for them were helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. The choppers recovered the crew and flew them to the ship where television cameras and President Nixon were waiting to greet them. At the ship’s wheel as it made the recovery was Central Illinois native Kenneth Hoback.

“After I did that, my mission was kind of done, because we were alongside the capsule,” Hoback told the Peoria Journal-Star. “We picked it up, then I ran down below and took pictures.”

Apollo 11 paved the way for five more successful moon landings between 1969 and 1972. Two Illinoisans flew to the moon in those subsequent missions. The first was Apollo 16 command module pilot Thomas K. “Ken” Mattingly in April 1972. Mattingly had been scheduled to be part of the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970, but was removed from the crew days before launch due to a health concern. After Apollo 16; during which he orbited the moon 64 times; Mattingly would go on to fly two Space Shuttle missions aboard Columbia in 1982 and Discovery in 1985.

Gene Cernan and Snoopy during a press conference.
Eight months later, the final manned moon mission, Apollo 17, was commanded by Chicago-born astronaut Eugene “Gene” Cernan. Cernan was a spaceflight veteran, having flown on Gemini IX in 1966 and piloted the lunar module of Apollo 10 in May 1969, the dress-rehearsal for the moon landing in July. As the crew of Apollo 17 finished their work on the lunar surface and prepared to start for home, Cernan keyed his radio microphone and said the last words spoken on the moon. “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

Cernan then stepped off the moon’s surface and onto the lunar lander. He was the last man to set foot on the moon.

This week, the nation and the world will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The flight was made possible by thousands of Americans spread throughout the country who played some role, whether they had a front-row seat at mission control in Houston, designed or engineered some of the technology involved in the mission or its buildup, or whether they worked on the assembly line somewhere in America putting together some of the equipment which would send the astronauts to the moon and bring them safely home.

Throughout Illinois, museums, libraries and other institutions will have their own commemoration of Apollo 11. Illinoisans old enough to remember July 20, 1969, will share their recollections of a day which changed the world forever. And like communities all around the nation, a few places in Illinois will be able to claim the pride that comes with having played a part in that giant leap for mankind.