Reaching For The Moon: A Journey Of Triumph And Tragedy

NASA’s Gemini spaceflights, and the early Apollo missions, laid the groundwork for man’s first steps on the moon.

By Jill AmentJuly 19, 2019 8:49 am, ,

President John F. Kennedy publicly launched the nation into a furious space race with Russia in his 1962 “moonshot speech.” He reminded listeners that putting someone on the moon wasn’t going to be easy. And the mission that would ultimately succeed – Apollo 11 – depended on the wild successes, and in some cases, tragic failures, that paved the way for America’s historic moon landing.

It took nearly seven years after President Kennedy’s moon speech at Rice University for the U.S. to put men on the moon. And in that time, NASA hired thousands of people tasked with figuring out how to accomplish the president’s bold objective.

One of those people was John Aaron. He grew up in rural North Texas, near the Oklahoma border. As a child, he says he had no plans of becoming a “spaceman.”

“I grew up in a very rural environment – very rural kind of work ethic. And I wanted to be a rancher,” Aaron says.

John Aaron

John Aaron would work as a flight controller for nearly all of the manned Gemini and Apollo missions. After the last Apollo mission, Aaron continued working at NASA, first for the space shuttle program, then eventually becoming the deputy manager for the International Space Station.

But once Aaron landed at Southwestern State College in Oklahoma, he found he had a passion for math and physics. As he was nearing graduation and looking for a job, a former classmate who was working for NASA encouraged him to apply for a crop of positions that were open in the space program.

“A lot of the managers that were in charge at the time wanted to go hire young people from rural environments because of their sense… those people that grew up in rural environments accept responsibility much easier than more affluent college kids did,” Aaron says.

Aaron was 21 years old when he was hired by NASA in 1964. He was sent to Houston to work as a flight controller for NASA’s Gemini program.

While the mission goal of NASA’s original Mercury astronaut program was to put a man into outer space, and orbit the Earth, Gemini would be key in helping the space program figure out how it would fly humans to, and land them on the moon.

To travel the 240,000 miles to the moon, NASA would need to create a spacecraft that would not only have enough power to be launched to the moon, but also not be too heavy to land on, and then take off from the lunar surface. So, the concept of a space rendezvous was born. During the Gemini program, two spacecraft would successfully meet up, or rendezvous, while orbiting the Earth. This critical maneuver would have to be mastered before a moon landing could happen. And a space rendezvous was something that had never been done before – not even by the Russians.

But that’s not all this middle phase of space exploration, known as the “Bridge to the Moon” accomplished. In just two years, the Gemini program would send ten flights into space. U.S. astronauts would take their first space walks. Better rockets were developed that could launch a spacecraft further and faster. And NASA’s famous Mission Control Center was created in Houston.

In short, Gemini paved the way for Apollo.

Sheryl Chaffee was seven years old when her father, astronaut Roger Chaffee, was assigned to the first Apollo flight in March of 1966.

“He had an office at the house, and he had a big map of the moon there,” Sheryl Chaffee says. “And he would show us different things on the moon, you know on this map. And of course – and go outside and look at the moon in the sky.”


The crew of Apollo 1 included astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee. All three were killed in a flash fire during a launch test in Cape Canaveral on Jan. 27th, 1967.

The Chaffees and many other astronaut families lived in Nassau Bay, near what was then the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Sheryl’s memories of her dad’s job are pretty vague because she was so young. What she does remember is her being a kid and her dad, just being a dad.

“You know mostly, when he was home, we were, if the weather was nice, we were playing in the pool or we were going fishing or just watching television,” she says. “Just doing normal things that families do.”

But while he was at work, Roger Chaffee was getting ready for his very first spaceflight. A reporter interviewed Chaffee about it.

“Is there anything scary about a first spaceflight even though you’ve flown many hours of conventional aircraft? Jet aircraft?” “Oh, I don’t like to say anything scary about it. Um, there’s a lot of unknowns of course and a lot of problems that could develop, might develop. And they’ll have to be solved and that’s what we’re there for.”

Chaffee would be paired with veteran astronauts Gus Grissom and Ed White.

The plan for Apollo 1 was to orbit the Earth for 14 days to test the new three-part spacecraft and rocket designed for Apollo.

But the mission never happened, as CBS News reported.

“American’s first three Apollo astronauts were trapped and killed by a flash fire that swept their moonship early tonight during a launch pad test at Cape Kennedy in Florida.”

Sheryl Chaffee remembers vividly when her family was told about her father’s death on January 27, 1967. Astronaut Mike Collins, who would later fly on Apollo 11, rushed over to the Chaffee home after he got word of the incident.

“Mike Collins came over and took my mom back to her bedroom… and then I don’t know, a few more minutes after that he came out and asked us to go back and see my mom… and that’s when… um, she told us that, that our Daddy wasn’t coming home anymore,” Chaffee says.

The loss of Chaffee, Grissom and White was the worst disaster the U.S. space program had experienced at that time. It was devastating for the families of the astronauts, and for their colleagues at NASA. David Reed was a flight dynamics officer at Mission Control in Houston at the time. His shift had just ended when the fire happened.

“It was quite a setback,” Reed says. “And we figured that’s it…. This could be the end of Apollo. I had worked with Grissom just days before. He was sitting literally beside me in an ops review. Nice people. “

Flight Controller John Aaron’s first shift on the Apollo program was when the fire happened.

“It was a watershed event for NASA – NASA just stepped back and said ‘OK, we’re going to review everything: All of the designs, all of the procedures from top to bottom and we’re gonna fix what we need to fix.’” Aaron says.

Jill Ament/Texas Standard

Aaron at his home in Central Texas.

While the accident was a major setback for Apollo, it did not end the program. Nearly two years after the Apollo 1 disaster, NASA sent the program’s first manned mission to space in October of 1968. Apollo 7 would be able to successfully test the new Apollo spacecraft while orbiting the earth.

Then, a few months later, on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Jim Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon.

Lovell remembers when he saw the Earth rise for the first time.

“I could put the Earth behind my thumb,” Lovell says. “And I have to think about that. 240,000 miles away – the Earth is behind my thumb. All the 3 billion people, the oceans, the deserts, and everything I ever do was behind my thumb.”

Apollo 8 made ten revolutions around the moon before it returned to Earth. Flight Controller John Aaron says Apollo 8’s success was an important milestone for the space program.

“I think, I knew, I just had a feeling… this was all gonna work. We were gonna land on the moon someday and someday soon,” Aaron says

Aaron was right. In less than a year, Apollo 11 would land on the moon.

He says his shift in Mission Control ended before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon’s surface, but he was going to stick around the Mission Control Center to watch.

“I mean it’s clear the impact hadn’t totally hit me,” Aaron says. “But when I stepped outside… walked outside of the building, outside Mission Control and looked up into the sky… and I saw that crescent moon in that hot, humid, summer day, hanging in the sky with just a sliver on it… that’s when it hit me, you know. We’re really there. And I’ve never looked at the moon the same way since.”