David Lauderdale

‘Are you listening, Washington?’ Moonshot lessons from Bluffton man who was there

Watch the Apollo 11 mission land on the moon

This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.
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This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.

Norman Solon of Bluffton was there when Apollo 11 lifted off to put humans on the moon 50 years ago.

Now approaching his 88th birthday, he still calls it the most exciting week of his life.

At the time, Solon was associate editor running the cerebral Electronic Age magazine, a quarterly publication of RCA.

In it, he published a story by Isaac Asimov, “Is There Intelligence Out There?” His pre-launch cover focused on all the electronics in the space suit that would enable three astronauts to live to tell the story. The New York Times Magazine picked up that graphic for its cover in that exciting week, touting “What the well-dressed moon man will wear.” Inside was a story by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., “Excelsior! We’re Going to the Moon! Excelsior.”

Solon is a witty and down-to-earth native of New York City who got to see the celebrated astronauts as real people — some scholarly, he said, and others willing to tell a bawdy joke.

His personal venture took off when he enrolled at the University of Alabama. He said he wanted to leave New York for an exotic place, and now nobody either up North or in Alabama can understand him when he shouts, “Roll Tide!”

His has been a life of words, and putting them down on his Apple computer is something he wishes he did more often today. In his career, he edited and wrote for other industrial publications when money was gushing for corporate communications. He became a speechwriter for the CEOs of Texaco and US Tobacco, and then a public affairs representative for the American Petroleum Institute.

That’s when he met his wife, Barbara, who was chief of labor and employee relations for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

In retirement, Solon, as a member of the National Press Club, conducted televised interviews of business and government leaders for C-SPAN.

The Solons live in the Riverbend section of Sun City Hilton Head. When they moved in 19 years ago, only six other couples lived there.

“We drove all over the United States, and this place was beautiful,” he said.

A fall in New York City last November has him more down to earth than normal, still doing therapy and scooting around with a walker.

But it is his firsthand look at the human race’s mighty adventure toward other worlds that prompted us to ask Solon to write the following essay.

From one of this planet’s most thrilling moments ever, Norman Solon delivers a powerful message.

REFLECTIONS ON APOLLO

By Norman Solon

Fifty years ago, I witnessed a week when the world was really one: no jingoism, no tribalism, just wonderment and universal concern for the three men — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins — who were about to attempt to break the boundaries of earth and travel to an alien world.

I was at Cape Canaveral covering the Apollo 11 launch for Electronic Age, RCA’s quarterly magazine. The week of the moonshot, the excitement at the Cape was electric — the mission, all encompassing. Strains of Frank Sinatra’s “ Fly Me To The Moon” drowned all other sounds in restaurants and bars all over town.

Solon_Norman0719DM.jpg
Norman Solon, a resident of Sun City Hilton Head, stands for a portrait on Friday afternoon as he holds his commemorative envelope that features the three astronauts of the Apollo 11 with a postmark from Cape Canaveral of July 16, 1969 and a six-cent, Apollo 8 postage stamp. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

Finally, launch day came. Our crew, wearing distinctive yellow hats, was bused to the launch site before dawn. Time passed slowly as we gazed at the giant spacecraft across the water directly in front of us. We stretched to see the three astronauts exit their van at the elevator that would take them to the spacecraft’s control room. Each was clad in an Apollo space suit designed to be man’s electronic link to his earthly environment. Certainly, the suit was key to the mission and would be featured on the cover of Electronic Age.

(The New York Times published our spacesuit rendition as the cover for its pre-launch Sunday Magazine.)

The countdown for the launch began shortly after nine. A roar came up from the thousands of spectators jamming the viewing areas. I stood among the anxious scientists and engineers from NASA and many of the 2,000 companies that were a part of America’s space program. The tension was overwhelming.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the rocket moved skyward. The usually staid scientists sounded more like cheerleaders than objective observers. It was as if the sound of their voices could add a bit more thrust to the rocket — could in some way help the spacecraft through the atmosphere. I stared skyward, listened to the announcements, until there was nothing more to see.

Returning home I joined some 600 million people across the globe in watching grainy TV pictures of Neil Armstrong make his famous “giant leap for mankind” with my family in Glen Cove, Long Island. That involved enticing my 4- and 6-year-olds to forsake their cartoons and join mom and dad to witness history in the making.

Looking back some 58 years ago, I vaguely remember President John F. Kennedy’s impassioned speech calling for a national goal of sending a man to the moon in 10 years.

I recall that the response was mixed at best. Former President Dwight Eisenhower remarked that spending $40 billion in a race to the moon is “nuts.” Many politicos and engineers claimed that sending machines to the lunar surface would be more cost-effective.

Months before the launch, I asked designated Apollo 11 commander Mike Collins about these claims. Slowly rising from his desk at the NASA Manned Flight Space Center, he replied, “Scrap the manned exploration mission in favor of placing instrument packages on the moon? That would be the same as Columbus sailing to within 60 miles of the Florida coast and deciding to turn around and go home.”

That kind of sentiment was echoed by almost everyone involved in the manned flight program. It led to unprecedented cooperation between the public and private sector and among the thousands of companies involved. Technology was passed down the line, which meant problems involving Apollo needed to be solved only once.

As the program progressed, almost all Americans got aboard, and enthusiasm became universal.

President Kennedy’s proposal for sending a man to the moon in 10 years was estimated upwards of $30 billion. Miracle of miracles. This massive and wonderfully successful effort came in ahead of schedule and under budget. The final cost for the eight-year Apollo program was a little over $27 billion.

Cooperation was key. Competitors talked to one another.

Are you listening, Washington?

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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