As a kid, the moon was just a “funny, white thing in the sky.” Now at age 89, Jim Kukowski has a lot more to say about it.
For 25 years, Kukowski worked for NASA as a broadcast specialist and public affairs officer. During this time, he got to participate in many notable space firsts. The most memorable was the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.
“To me that was probably one of the highlights of my professional career,” he said.
Since Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the historic event, Kukowski took some time to reflect on his role in the successful mission and its impact on future space exploration.
Kukowski got his chance to work at NASA in 1968.
He had caught the attention of the deputy director of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland after giving a model rocket demonstration in front of the administration building. Three weeks later he was asked to join NASA.
Kukowski relocated to Houston, TX, to the NASA information headquarters at the Manned Spacecraft Center, which is now called the Johnson Spacecraft Center. One of his first assignments was the Apollo 8 mission.
“Apollo 8 was unique in the fact that no other American spacecraft or any spacecraft circumnavigated the moon … [It was] the first time anybody had seen the other side of the moon,” Kukowski said.
There were no major television networks to broadcast news about the mission at that time, just hundreds of independent radio and TV stations. So Kukowski’s job was to man a “news desk,” where he would sometimes work 14-16 hours a day answering calls and relaying the news to the media.
After the mission, NASA Public Affairs realized they needed an automated audio news system that offered hourly reports about the flights 24 hours a day. Kukowski was tasked with assisting with the design and operation of the system.
“The system worked out what we would call an inadequate facility using tape recorders and then taking the tape recorders and editing them down and then putting them on a repeater system,” he said.
Around the clock, his office would deliver a report that included a status update from the Mission Control Center and sometimes air-to-ground communications with the astronauts.
When it was time for the Apollo 11 mission, “we had over 43,000 calls to our repeater system,” Kukowski said.
ONE SMALL STEP
While the Apollo 11 crew made their way to the moon, Kukowski was busy operating the new broadcast system, manning the news desk and assisting in other duties. By the time the mission was over, he was exhausted.
“I have so many memories of that,” he said.
Kukowski particularly remembers the landing and ascent phases of the lunar module. Tensions were high. People crowded into the small broadcast room to view and listen to the commentary.
“It was very stressful, particularly when Neil Armstrong took control of the lunar module and landed,” he said. “They [thought they] only had a fuel seconds remaining of fuel on the lunar module, and it was truly a breathtaking event when he landed.”
Kukowski recalls excitedly watching the Apollo 11 command module return to Earth through a visual system.
“Although it only looked like a speck of sand, we were so excited about that,” he said, “and nobody will ever realize that the NASA employees at Houston held their own parade.
“It was small, only about 60 or 70 people,” he added. “We all marched down NASA Road 1 yelling and screaming like anybody else. That was another one of the exciting moments of my life.”
After the mission, Kukowski had several opportunities to interview the astronauts – Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – and share their feelings about the mission, being in orbit and experiencing weightlessness.
He was also tasked at one point with traveling with one of the moon rocks throughout the United States, allowing the public to touch it and see history up close.
So it disturbs him nowadays when he hears people theorize how the moon landing never occurred and was just some type of Hollywood production.
“There were about 400,000 people who contributed to the fact that the Apollo program was a tremendous success … and you would think that out of 400,000 people somebody would try and convince you that it never happened. Somebody would leak the story,” he said.
NEXT GIANT LEAP
Kukowski retired in 1980 as the deputy director of internal communications at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
In addition to the Apollo missions, he was involved in a variety of other space projects, including the development of the space shuttle, the Hubble Space Telescope, missions to Venus and Mercury, early Mars flybys and orbiting missions, the Viking landings on Mars and the Voyager 1 and 2 missions to the outer planets.
“I still relive many of my days working with astronauts, with engineers, with scientists,” he said. “I couldn't have gotten a better job.”
Nowadays, Kukowski is excited about the idea of the U.S. returning to the moon.
“Oh I think within 15 years or so, the United States will have established a permanent moon base, with habitation huts, with lunar rovers and with scientific information and equipment on board. Yes, I do see it, but,” he stressed, “everything is political.”
He’s also positive about going to Mars by 2040 but is unsure how the problems of time, distance and the effects on the human body will be solved for such a trip.
However, he’s confident everything will work out because remembers how difficult it was for younger generations to imagine the capability of going to the moon.
“The entire Apollo program was a magnificent effort by American industry …,” he said. “I was very, very proud working with NASA. We had a tremendous group of people who really worked hard and contributed so much. We see the results of that today.”