As Apollo 11 was returning to Earth after the first Moon landing, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins noted his gratitude for the NASA workforce that made their flight a success. He said:
“All this is possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of a number of people…This operation is somewhat like the periscope of a submarine. All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others.”
One of those people was Lou Ramon.
During his decades as a NASA engineer, Ramon worked on nearly every human spaceflight program, from Gemini to the International Space Station — and at one point, as the Lunar Module Crew Station Engineer for Apollo 11. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were his bosses.
On Apollo 11, Ramon was a part of a five-person team assigned to the flight crew to represent the astronauts during the assembly and checkout of the spacecraft, as well as the equipment they would use during the mission. To be sure, Ramon’s work focused on the technical aspects of preparing the lunar module, but looking through Ramon’s eyes 50 years later, we are offered a glimpse of the personalities and humanity of those first lunar explorers. As Ramon recalls:
“We had three very different personalities on Apollo 11, and the most personable was Mike Collins. Buzz was the most analytical — truly a mathematical and physics genius, but he was not people oriented. Neil was very focused. He was the best test pilot I had ever met and could ever think of. He was not as much a people person, but he was very much focused on what he was doing.
“I cannot imagine the pressure that poor guy must have felt. He had to learn to fly the spacecraft, he had to learn geology, and he recognized the pressure of being the first human being to go to another world. He had a pretty darn good idea of what he was going to have to do after the flight, and it was probably very contrary to his personality.”
Indeed, the flight crew of Apollo 11, and particularly Armstrong, returned to Earth as heroes celebrated around the world. But even as their voyage was heroic, Ramon tempers reality with stories that reveal the humanity of these history-making men. Consider some of the things they carried to the Moon, which Ramon dutifully packed in the lunar module on Earth.
Communing on the Moon
Buzz Aldrin is a faithful man, and in the time after the lunar module landed, but before the astronauts took their first steps on the Moon, he celebrated the Christian rite of communion. Getting those items to the Moon in the first place, however, took the work of Ramon, who packed a small chalice just a few inches tall, some wafers and some sealed packets of communion wine. They packed it separately from other items so Aldrin could easily access it. Aldrin later wrote:
“I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the Moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the Moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”
As it happens, the chalice from which Aldrin took communion on the Moon is now kept at his Webster Presbyterian Church near the Johnson Space Center in Texas.
As Apollo 11 was approaching lunar orbit, Collins complimented the food in their spacecraft, noting “various breakfast items, bacon in little small bites, beverages like fruit drink.” Armstrong and Aldrin, however, were less certain of food quality before launch. The remedy required Ramon:
“Neil came to me with a request to add a package of Lifesavers candy to the food that we were going to carry in the lunar module. They wanted something sweet and tangy to supplement the rather bland food normally carried.”
While NASA’s dietitians were fine with the request, the Safety Office rejected it, noting that the lunar module cabin would be pressurized with 100% oxygen, and if one of the crew bit down on the candy, there was concern it could spark a fire. Ramon recalls:
“I went back to Neil, and I said, ‘Sorry but (the Safety Office) wouldn’t let me add the candy.’ And he made some slightly sarcastic comments about my abilities as an engineer, so since I worked for him and I knew who signed my paycheck and did my employee evaluation, I said ‘OK, yes sir, I will do that. But on one condition.’ I made him promise, cross his heart, hope to die, that he and Buzz would only suck on the Lifesavers and not bite down on them.”
The astronauts agreed, and so at 2:00 a.m., shortly before the food was to be stowed in the lunar module, Ramon snuck into the area with the equipment and supplies and stowed two rolls of candy.
Kilroy Was Here
While Ramon is a serious scientist, during Apollo, he was also a young man taking part in an exciting endeavor—and so he was not above a small act of rebellion. One night, he was awakened by an emergency call that the bracket used to secure the black and white TV camera to the lunar module had rough edges that could snag or tear the spacesuit gloves; it needed to be reworked. He hurried to Kennedy Space Center to fix it, irritated at having to do so before sunrise. He said:
“After I filed and burnished the offending bracket, while still fuming, and while I had a file and other equipment in my hand, I scribed my name on the bottom of the camera bracket (making sure that it didn’t have any sharp edges, of course). Months later, when the lunar module was on the Moon and the astronauts were preparing to move the TV camera from the lunar module, they removed the bracket and tossed it onto the Moon where it still rests, attesting to the fact that 26-year-old Lou Ramon had a part in humankind’s first visit to the Moon.”
A half-century later, these stories remind us that the people who made Apollo possible were not superhuman or somehow different than the everyday person. Rather, while embarking on arguably the most exciting and daring adventure in human history, those doing the work were people of faith, people who enjoyed candy, and people who were sometimes not the most social. They were brilliant scientists, engineers, and pilots, true, but they were also human beings.
Despite an extraordinary career, Ramon is a modest man who recounts his work with a humble awe that seems never to have waned since he joined NASA as a 20-something engineer. His sentiments today still echo the humanity and humility that took human beings to the Moon.
“I was just a mediocre engineer,” he said. “Nothing outstanding. But where I’m blessed is that I was there at the right place and at the right time to work on some very exciting stuff, and I got to meet and work with people like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Alan Bean — these were the visionaries and the heroes, and I was just privileged to get help them.”
Lou Ramon has retired from the aerospace industry and volunteers as a docent at the Space Foundation Discovery Center in Colorado Springs. There he shares his unique experiences with guests and tries to encourage and excite the many school children who visit the museum about the wonders of science, engineering, and space.