David McFarland was just shy of his 14th birthday when on July 20, 1969, he sat in front of the family television and joined 650 million other enthralled viewers as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon.
Kelly DeFazio put crayon to paper to sketch pictures of the Saturn V rocket launching off from Cape Kennedy. Dan Quinn watched thousands of fans gather along the Indian River in Brevard County to watch historic Apollo program rocket launches.
“How amazing that all was watching those first steps,” McFarland said. “It just re-amplified my interest in what the country was doing. It was an inspiration.”
Florida’s growing space industry is now, in large part, led by the young people that watched the Apollo 11 astronauts in awe, from the rank-and-file workers putting satellites into space to billionaires plotting ambitious trips beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity.
“People, especially young people, wanted to be a part of it,” said Robert Taylor, a history professor at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. “They wanted to have the same kind of trajectory the astronauts they were watching on television did.”
Many workers leading today’s projects to return astronauts to the moon or even send them to Mars were inspired by the Apollo 11 astronauts, scientists and engineers.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Tesla founder Elon Musk and Virgin chairman Richard Branson have all cited the Apollo missions as inspiration for their space ambitions.
“I was 5 years old when I watched Apollo 11 unfold on television, and without any doubt it was a big contributor to my passions for science, engineering and exploration,” Bezos wrote on his Bezos Expeditions blog in 2012.
The historic Apollo 11 moon landing was a catalyst for the five-decade space industry career of McFarland, now 63 and chief engineer of launch operations for United Launch Alliance at Kennedy Space Center. McFarland was one of millions of children during the apex of the Space Race inspired to take after Armstrong, Aldrin, astronaut Michael Collins and thousands of engineers and scientists to join the U.S.’s efforts.
To that point, it was the most watched event in television’s young history.
The need was high at the time. At the peak in 1966, NASA accounted for 4.4% of the U.S. budget.
“NASA was criticized for using the country’s supply of scientists,” said John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
After the U.S. won the race to the moon, NASA’s budget shrank significantly. Many went into the private industry, at companies such as Grumman Aerospace Corporation, which later became Northrop Grumman.
McFarland, who grew up in St. Louis, earned a degree in aerospace engineering from Arizona State University in 1977 and took a job in Los Angeles with Lockheed Martin in the same factory where Delta rockets were being manufactured. Shortly after he was asked to transfer to Cape Canaveral.
“I said, ‘I would love to work at Cape Canaveral.’ That’s where they launched Neil Armstrong and the Apollo programs,” McFarland said.
Kelly DeFazio was just 4 years old during the moon landing, but as a child living on the Space Coast with her father working on the Apollo program, it dominated her childhood. She went on school field trips to Kennedy Space Center to see Saturn rockets and family trips to watch launches.
Her father, Howard Webster, was an instrumentation engineer on the Grumman-manufactured lunar module.
“They kept the launch times secretive, but my dad had a code for my mom to let us know when to go watch a launch,” DeFazio said. “He would call within an hour of when it was going up and say, ‘I think I left the pump on.’ ”
DeFazio earned an electrical engineering degree at the University of Central Florida and went to work for Lockheed Martin in Huntsville, Alabama, then back to Brevard County where she was born and raised.
A half-century later, DeFazio is doing much the same thing her father did. She’s now the program director at Lockheed Martin for the Orion project, the next-generation spacecraft intended to take astronauts back to the moon and beyond.
“There are quite a few people here that grew up in the area,” DeFazio said. “Certainly living here and in this environment, people tend to go into the industries they had around them growing up.”
Also growing up in Titusville with a father working on the Apollo program, Dan Quinn remembers crowds of hundreds of thousands of people flooding the small city for rocket launches.
“It was followed by millions of people,” said Quinn, who was 14 at the time of the Apollo 11 mission. “We followed all the missions, and we remember how much pride and everything the nation had.”
Quinn took more interest in the mechanical side of space travel and ended up working on airplane engines in South Florida. But his brother, George Quinn, who worked at Boeing, convinced him to return to the Space Coast to work for NASA on engines.
Today he is the lead technician on the CST-100 Starliner project, Boeing’s crew capsule for NASA to send astronauts to the International Space Station.
Now, 50 years later, Quinn’s memories of the moon landing are still vivid. He remembers how the first images from Apollo 11’s moon landing were upside down. Then Armstrong’s first steps and iconic, “That is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Meanwhile, his father, another lunar lander engineer, sat quietly on the couch.
“He was speechless, like, ‘We really did this,’ ” Quinn recalled. ‘This is really happening after all that work we put in.’ ”