07.19.19

Reflections On The Moon Landing

By Patrick Leahy

This week America celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of a monumental achievement for our country and all of humankind, the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first human beings on the Moon.

Like families across America, and across the world, our family gathered in front of the television in our living room that Sunday night of July 20, 1969, to watch this history unfold. I was State’s Attorney then, and we lived in a duplex in Burlington.

Our five-year-old son Kevin asked if he could stay up late to watch, and of course Marcelle and I agreed. He stretched out on the floor in his PJs. He had nodded off by the time the images from the Moon started to come across, and we roused our little fellow.

We knew this was a night we would always remember.

The next day I went to court for an arraignment. Then I met with police officers about several matters, and we all had a hard time concentrating as we excitedly discussed what we’d seen the night before.

As Neil Armstrong so famously said, his one small step was a giant leap for all of humanity.

As he and other astronauts often noted, that leap was made possible not just by his step, but by the small steps of thousands of men and women across America who participated in the space program, including some from the City of Vergennes, Vermont.

Fifty years ago this week, the Apollo 11 mission was hurtling toward the Moon. But getting to the Moon is not a matter of just pointing the nose of a craft and igniting the powerful engines. First the Command Module had to dock with the Lunar Expeditionary Module, then leave Earth’s orbit, then navigate to get into lunar orbit, and then return. Throughout the process, Michael Collins needed to use the craft’s engines — known as a burn — to adjust the heading.

But with no option to refuel, these burns had to be precise and effective, and any deviation from the planned fuel usage had to be worked into future plans. Otherwise there would be no return for America’s heroes. This is where Vergennes came in.

Vermont has a long tradition of building precision tools and machinery, and NASA turned to Simmonds Precision of Vergennes, Vermont, to ensure that the Apollo 11 crew and Mission Control knew exactly how much fuel they had. The fuel probes and valves had to be as nearly perfect as possible, and they had to perform perfectly in varying levels of microgravity. It was an immense technological challenge, which the engineers and workers in Vergennes met.

Fifty years later, the company is still there. Now operating under the name Collins Aerospace, they still make fuel probes, along with other aerospace technology that seems to be able to do the impossible. When you enter the factory, along their wall of history, the Apollo Program commands a special place of pride. It is a reminder of how the small steps taken by Americans everywhere, when working together, can accomplish tremendous leaps.

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[Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), of Middlesex, is Vermont’s senior United States Senator.]

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