Meet the A&M professor who worked for Apollo 50+ years ago

BRYAN, Tex. (KBTX) - While Americans are reflecting on the Apollo 11 launch that took place 50 years ago, there were thousands of people behind the scenes that worked hard to make his historic moment happen.

Some of those people have ties right here to Aggieland, including John Junkins, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University.

Junkins began his career at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, as a co-op student during the Apollo program.

Below is the full conversation with Junkins on First News at Four, also viewable in the video player above.


News 3’s Kathleen Witte: Dr. Junkins, what was it, 1962 that you started working at NASA? How old were you?

John Junkins: I was 19 years old. About 18 months earlier, I had signed a letter of intent to play football at Clemson University.

KW: Well, your career took a turn.

Junkins: I had a really insightful coach, and he had a very unambiguous way of communicating. He said, “John, I don’t know what God’s plan for you is—excuse my language—but it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with your body. It’s got something to do with your mind.” Eighteen months later, I shook the hand of Wernher von Braun, and I’ve been surfing a wave of enthusiasm ever since. It’s been a very exciting ride, and I’m still at it. I love this business.

KW: What did you do, beginning when you were 19 years old, at NASA.

Junkins: Well, of course, I was the young kid on the block. There were plenty of strong engineers. It was a beehive of activity. The culture there was, the work ethic was just tremendous. That NASA bears very little resemblance to this NASA because we had such an aggressive learning curve, and we were simultaneously conducting research and aggressively implementing that. I can give you an example. The first operational laser was about the size of a horizontal refrigerator. In 1966, someone looked at that and said, “Wow, we’re going to shrink that to smaller than a loaf of bread, and we’re going to make a laser altimeter, and that’s going to be one of the instruments on the Apollo program.” There are hundreds and hundreds of examples where technology was accelerated and brought to maturity and made operational in that mission.

KW: What do we not know, all these years later? What can you tell us about that environment of working at NASA in the 1960s that we don’t know?

Junkins: You can’t mentally simulate the Cold War. That was really the background for everything, the competition with the Soviets and the mutually assured destruction kind of an environment, with the threat of nuclear warfare in the background. That competition was very real. The Russians orbited the Moon with a dog, which didn’t survive re-entry, in 1968, and we took tremendous risk to send the first three astronauts around the Moon in Apollo 8 in 1968. That mission, in some respects, is more swash-buckling than Apollo 11. By that time, we had had matured more technologies, but we had those astronauts back, and that was a tremendous exhilaration for that to occur. We knew with someone confidence that we were going to get there, we hoped without loss of life. But again, the risk tolerance by the astronauts and the space agency and by the American public for space flight was quite different.

See the video player above for the full conversation on First News at Four.