‘You just never forget that.’ Penn State professor reflects on his role in Apollo 11 launch

Engineer for Apollo 11: ‘I was really associated with something special’

Denny Gioia talks about being part of the engineering team and experiencing the launch of Apollo 11 at Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969.
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Denny Gioia talks about being part of the engineering team and experiencing the launch of Apollo 11 at Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969.

Denny Gioia stood just over three miles away from the launch site of Apollo 11 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and felt the force of lift-off nearly topple him over.

It was July 16, 1969 and the 22-year-old, a fresh graduate of Florida State University, had landed the job of a lifetime working as an astronautical engineer for Boeing Aerospace.

His assignment on the Apollo 11 project was as a member of the service arm team, which built and monitored the service arms that connected the launch tower to the launch vehicle, Saturn V. Service arms were integral to the launch because they delivered all the fuel, hydraulics, pneumatics and electricity, Gioia said.

As part of the service arm team, he was put on backup for the launch, meaning he and the rest of his team couldn’t be in the firing room. Instead, they gathered at the Vehicle Assembly Building about 3 miles from the launch pad, with Gioia toting a tripod and a Telephoto lens to photograph the launch.

“I was not warned about the shockwave, and so I, like a dummy, positioned myself between the launch pad and the Vehicle Assembly Building,” said Gioia, now 72, sitting in his home in Lemont. “And the shockwave hit me from the front, bounced off the building, got me from behind, so I’m back and forth.”

‘You just never forget that’

Even after 50 years, the launch is so clear in his mind it might as well have happened yesterday.

Photos by Denny Gioia, taken during the launch of the Saturn at Cape Canaveral. Denny Gioia

Details like the Saturn’s weight and height — 6 million pounds and 363 feet, respectively — and the thrust generated by the five first-stage engines — 7.5 million pounds — learned through experience with the vehicle and reading all the manuals, are “not stuff you forget,” he said.

Watching the launch, Gioia said he was struck by how slowly the enormous machine rose.

“To try to lift 6 million pounds is not easy, and so to watch (the Saturn) rise from the pad, it was almost painful, because it was so slow, ‘is this thing really gonna go into space?’ ” he said.

But the sound of the launch stuck with him the most. A real-life rocket launch doesn’t sound like the engine roar depicted in the movies, he said.

“What you get is an individual burst from each engine,” Gioia said. “So it’s like a shotgun popping repeatedly. And you just never forget that.”

No one could stand closer than three miles to the launch pad, because of the risk of the Saturn blowing up and producing a gigantic fireball, he said. The only people closer were stationed underground about half a mile from the launch pad.

Another thing most of the general public didn’t know? “If there was a signal that something was going wrong, the astronauts had a procedure where they could exit the capsule, jump into a chute that would take them underground (and) they would descend 400 feet,” Gioia said.

Denny Gioia’s office at Penn State is filled with memorabilia from Apollo 11. Gioia’s first job out of college was working on the Apollo 11 and 12 team and he witnessed the launch at Cape Canaveral. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Gathered with his team and most of the center’s nearly 5,000 employees, Gioia noted the crowd was mostly silent. His excitement meant he hadn’t slept much the night before, so he returned to the center in the middle of the night and got to the launch pad about 6 a.m. — 3 1/2 hours before launch.

“It was a lot of anticipation,” he said of the energy outside the VAB. “I would say there was some nervousness, just because the event was so momentous and we knew it.”

Nine-and-a-half seconds before launch (at 9:32 a.m.), the engines ignited, he said. While they’re building up power, all sorts of checks are happening. At launch, the “hold down” arms that hold down the space vehicle “flip back and release the vehicle.” The most important thing the space center crew needed to happen was for the space vehicle to clear the launch tower.

“As soon as it cleared tower there was a huge cheer,” Gioia said. “There was a huge relief, there were cheers, it almost felt like ... exultation. It was a grand relief and a grand ‘we did it.’ ”

‘Failure is not an option’

The attitude at Kennedy Space Center was, in the words of NASA’s second Chief Flight Director Eugene Kranz, “Failure is not an option.”

There were posters in all the four towers that said, “Can Do!”

“That was a signal to everybody that, ‘you gotta solve what comes up, whatever problem you’ve got, you gotta figure out a solution.’ And that’s what we did,” Gioia said.

In the aftermath of a fire on a test capsule that killed three astronauts in 1967, solving critical problems became even more paramount, he said.

“It was pretty somber,” he said. “Nobody forgot what had happened a couple years earlier. And it had everybody on their toes. I mean, we just can’t have a mistake like that again. It can’t happen.”

On the day of the launch, Gioia said, all the engineers felt like they had done everything possible to make the launch go off without a hitch.

“We had enough experience to believe we had solved all the engineering problems. We knew we could do it. So were we worried? Yeah we were worried,” he said with a laugh.

Once Saturn V cleared the tower, the mission had only just begun.

Gioia watched as the stages of Saturn V separated from the vehicle and burned up. Then, the spacecraft orbited the earth while checks on the system were performed. The penultimate — and Gioia’s favorite — part is “translunar injection” where Saturn V’s stage 3 engines were reignited, sending the astronauts in Apollo 11 on their way to the moon.

Photos by Denny Gioia, taken during the launch of the Saturn at Cape Canaveral. Denny Gioia

Apollo 11’s lunar module landed on the moon July 20, 1969, and Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

But “Neil Armstrong scared the pee out of us,” said Gioia, as he flew the lunar module to the lunar surface.

He had a fixed amount of fuel to land, and a readout saying how much fuel was left was called out. At 60 seconds of fuel left, Armstrong still hadn’t landed. Then 30 seconds went by.

Gioia, who watched the landing on TV, said he was thinking, “Put this thing down! Thirty seconds of fuel is all you got?”

Armstrong got the module down with 17 seconds of fuel to go. Once he and Buzz Aldrin were on the surface, Gioia headed back to the center “because they had direct communications with the astronauts there and I could listen in on all of that.”

Looking forward, looking back

After participating in the launch of Apollo 12, which was Gioia’s primary focus at the KSC, he became the recall coordinator for Ford Motors.

Then, he got a three-year contract offer from Penn State to teach. Now, when he’s not at home in Lemont, you can find Gioia at his office at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business. He teaches MBA students how to manage organizations and the people in them.

Denny Gioia talks about the different sections of the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo 11 mission on a model in his home on July 8. Gioia started his engineering career working in Cape Canaveral with the Apollo 11 team. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

While he’ll always be an engineer at heart, Gioia went to teach at the business school “because the world works as people want it to work, not as engineers want it to work,” he said.

But space travel is still his passion. You can see it in the Apollo 11 mementos he keeps in his office — a certificate of participation, a lunar module model, an Apollo 11 patch, a picture of the firing room in 1969.

Since the Apollo program ended in 1972, so much has changed in the space industry.

“I’m not very happy about what’s going on with the space program now,” Gioia said. “I would rather see us be explorers, than what we’re doing now, which is basically nothing.”

Private companies, like Blue Origin and SpaceX, have moved to the forefront of the space game in the United States, and Gioia said he doesn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

“We’re making space travel part of the human experience, not something all that special, and I’m OK with that,” he said.

But he still longs for the U.S. to return to the moon. “We’ve got to go back to the moon. There’s so much on the moon,” he said.

With all the technology nowadays, Gioia thinks, for safety reasons, we should see fewer peopled missions to the moon or Mars. “What I care,” he said, “is that we send human-engineered systems to the far planets.”

He often tosses around the benefits of space travel, wondering if there’s better ways to spend that money.

“Couldn’t we use it to take care of some of the poor people around, for instance? And I’m really torn about that. Because there are people in great need around,” he said. “On the other hand, you have to do big things as a nation, as a human race. We just have to do these kinds of things. We’ve always been explorers. We’ve always been experimenters. We’ve always been daredevils. So yes, clearly we need to devote more money to taking care of people, but it should not replace — it should not supplant — our adventurousness.”

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.