Milt Heflin was right out of college when he started working on the Apollo missions at NASA in 1966. His role back then involved recovering the command module when it splashed down in the Pacific after returning from the moon.
“I was a NASA team leader of a contractor team that met the aircraft carrier back in Pearl Harbor. Our job was to take the command module from Apollo 11 off of the carrier. And then this contractor team basically ‘safed’ it for air transport back to the U.S., actually back here to Houston. There were unfired pyrotechnics, explosive devices that had to be ‘safed’. And then the residual fuels on board were purged and taken out of their fuel tanks.”
It wasn’t visible or glamorous work, but Heflin took pride in it. He placed a flag on top of the Apollo 11 capsule during its journey back to Houston, and he still has it today.
“For me it was nice to be a tiny part of the mission, to watch over it, as we brought it all the way back here to the United States. What a wonderful time I’ve had doing that.”
Heflin worked with Armstrong to practice splashdown. The astronauts had to learn how to exit the module, enter a raft, and be lifted into a pick-up helicopter.
Heflin remembers Armstrong as modest and a team player. And that didn’t change even after he became famous.
“He was still a very reserved, very private person, but given the opportunity to talk about what he did. It wasn’t about Neil Armstrong. It was about what we, the team, accomplished.”
Heflin says it makes sense that Armstrong’s death seemed like a surprise, because he wasn’t the type to trumpet his illness or private life.
Heflin is now 69 years old and an associate director at the Johnson Space Center. He disagrees with people who say the era of heroic astronauts is over. He says he meets many younger NASA employees who remind him of Armstrong:
“They got the same fire in the belly to do this kind of work today. They’re around; they’re here. You’ve got to unleash them. Don’t hold them back; let them go do the great things.”
Heflin says what’s holding them back is NASA funding that is held hostage to political cycles and budget fights.
He says space missions take years to plan, and Americans must step up and provide long-term support to accomplish them.
From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.
Flags fly at half-mast at the Johnson Space Center to memorialize astronaut Neil Armstrong, who died Aug. 25 at age 82.