Fifty years ago, Jack Bussa leaned close to the radio and hung on every word from Cmdr. Neil Armstrong.
Bussa, a young 1st lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and his wife, Marilyn, were stationed at an air defense missile installation in Germany.
They held their breath during the tense moments when Apollo 11 astronauts touched down on the moon. So many things could go wrong. So many things were unknown.
On July 20, 1969, more than 500 million people worldwide anxiously watched and listened on television and radio as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the lunar surface.
The Eagle lunar module landed at 5:17 p.m. Central Time, while Michael Collins waited for its return in the Columbia command module orbiting the moon.
As the 50th anniversary approaches, many people such as Bussa remember the landmark moment of human endeavor.
Bussa, John Wolfram and Paul Rufledt, who was born after the moon landing, shared their unique stories with The Gazette to mark the occasion.
Bussa described himself as incredibly alert and unable to speak as he listened to Armstrong on Armed Forces Radio.
He did not have access to a TV, but he vividly imagined the descent.
Only when Armstrong said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” did Bussa realize the module had touched down safely.
Bussa felt relieved and thrilled.
“It was for the whole world to see,” he said. “I was a very proud American. I think everyone was inspired by it. It was something achieved in just eight years.”
The U.S. effort to send astronauts to the moon began with an appeal by President John F. Kennedy.
On May 25, 1961, he told a joint session of Congress that the nation should commit itself to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.
Eight years later, Bussa listened in awe to reports of Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon.
“There was no sense going to bed because it was all too exhilarating,” Bussa said. “We stayed up for the first steps, the moon walk and the president’s call, all occurring quite late at night for us.”
President Richard Nixon made what has been called the longest-distance telephone call ever when he called the astronauts on the moon to congratulate them.
Bussa was an engineer for a decade but later studied medicine.
He and his family moved to Janesville in 1988.
Today, Bussa is an ophthalmologist for Mercyhealth at Mercy Clinic East.
He recently viewed the actual television coverage of the moon landing on the National Geographic channel.
“I finally understand what people in this country were seeing,” he said. “Back then, you did not have a constant bombardment of coverage. Every hour, you would get a news update about what was happening.”
He still finds the event astounding.
“It is still heart stopping,” Bussa said. “It is still incredible.”
Critical recovery mission
John Wolfram never dreamed his strong swimming skills would link him to one of the most historic events of the 20th century.
The former Fort Atkinson man was the first person to see the Apollo 11 astronauts after they touched down in the Pacific Ocean.
Wolfram was a Navy SEAL frogman who had the critical job of stabilizing the space capsule so it would not sink after splashdown.
“How fortunate I was to be a part of it,” Wolfram said, recalling that he was only two years out of high school. “I knew that history was being made and to be part of it was a one-in-a-million chance.”
The strongest swimmer in the Navy’s recovery team, Wolfram lifted off the USS Hornet in a helicopter. Then he jumped into the ocean to attach a sea anchor to the module to keep it from bobbing up and down.
When he swam up to the module, he looked inside to see if the astronauts were OK.
“They gave me a thumbs-up, and there were smiles on their faces,” Wolfram said.
Wolfram and other elite sailors had trained for weeks for the rescue mission.
Just back from Vietnam, Wolfram reflected his nonconformist streak by attaching showy flower decals to his wetsuit.
The flowers were the kind that often adorned Volkswagen buses of the day and “represented peace in a controversial era of unrest,” Wolfram said, referring to demonstrations in the U.S. against the Vietnam War.
But Navy frogmen were known to have fun.
“The SEAL team guys were independent-minded and mavericks in our days,” Wolfram explained.
On Apollo 10, the frogmen had placed a flower decal on the capsule’s hatch window. NASA gave them strict orders that there would be no tomfoolery on Apollo 11.
In the end, the young SEAL team carried out the crucial task of recovery without a hitch.
They made sure the fragile capsule was not punctured on the high seas and that the astronauts and the moon rocks they collected were safe.
Later, Wolfram served a second tour of duty in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart for being wounded under fire.
After Vietnam, “I searched my heart about eternity,” Wolfram said. “I had a dramatic conversion and was called to the ministry.”
Today, he lives in Powder Springs, Georgia, and oversees a number of domestic and international evangelism ministries.
Recently, he built a Bible school in central Vietnam to honor three high school classmates and five Navy SEALS who died in the war.
Wolfram recently returned to Fort Atkinson to talk about recovering the Apollo 11 astronauts.
On the 50th anniversary of the moon walk, he points out a lot of skeptics did not think it could be done.
“It shows you if you put your mind to something, you can accomplish most anything,” Wolfram said.
A special building project
In his spare time, Paul Rufledt of Janesville is happiest when creating YouTube videos on how to make things.
Rufledt figures that Andrew Barth must be a fan of “Paul’s Garage” because Barth contacted him with an intriguing request.
He asked Rufledt to make a replica of the hatch handle of the Apollo 11 command module.
Barth works on Project Egress, an effort to build a life-size replica of Apollo 11’s hatch.
Adam Savage, host of the Science Channel’s “Savage Builds,” has partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to create the replica for display.
Some 44 artists, including Rufledt, and fabrication shops from around the country have used various mediums and techniques to make the hatch’s components.
On July 18, Barth will help Savage assemble all the parts in front of the public at the Washington, D.C., museum.
The event is part of the Smithsonian’s 50th anniversary celebration of the first lunar landing.
Last week, Rufledt mailed his handle to the Smithsonian.
The 31-year-old was born 19 years after the Apollo 11 mission, but you would never know by his enthusiasm for the project.
“I’m rarely asked to make something,” Rufledt said. “It’s a recognition and cool.”
Barth, an engineering student, digitally modeled each of the hatch’s components using special software.
Then, he shared the 3D program files of the components with Rufledt and the other artists.
Rufledt chose to cast the aluminum handle in an oil-bonded sand.
He tested it for strength by hooking it to his homemade pottery wheel and picking it up. He also clamped it to the back of his 1988 Mazda and pulled the Mazda out of the garage.
Rufledt’s excitement about the project came in part from his interest in space travel, which is fueled by the Kerbal Space Program video game.
The space-flight program attempts to simulate real-life rocket science.
Rufledt admits he has “blown up a lot of spaceships” learning how to get them to a planet and back.
“It gives you a new appreciation for space travel because the game is so hard,” he said.
When he is not making things, Rufledt works full time with his father, Dan, at D&P Appliance Repair.
If Rufledt were in charge of NASA, he said he would push for more probes and fewer rockets.
“We would go back to exploring, not building rockets,” he said. “The private sector is doing well at building rockets.”
He firmly believes in the benefits of space travel and exploration.
“If you think exploring the moon was great,” Rufledt said, “imagine what we will find on Mars.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.