Jacksonville man who worked for NASA recounts emotional Apollo 11 launch

'I still can't believe' we sent men to the moon, Jerry Hanks says

By Bruce Hamilton - The Morning Show anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Where were you on July 16, 1969, when Apollo 11 launched from Cape Canaveral carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on a flight that would put the first man on the moon?

Jacksonville resident Jerry Hanks was at the Cape, where he worked as a public affairs officer for NASA. That historic morning, he was at the press site and saw the Saturn rocket with the Apollo capsule atop it roar to life and rumble into space.

Hanks said the experience remains as clear in his mind today as it was 50 years ago.

“The whole thing was just incredible," Hanks said. "I think what was incredible as anything was that we did this in the time frame that President Kennedy said we need to do it in. And he said we needed to do it by the end of the decade. And then, by heavens, we did it! From point zero to the moon, in less than 10 years.

RELATED: Over the moon: How the Apollo 11 crew learned they were chosen

“I still stand outside sometimes on a clear night when that moon is full and I look at that thing up in the sky, and I still can’t believe that we actually sent men walking on that thing up there.”

Hanks said his position at the press site during the countdown and liftoff gave him a perfect view as the Saturn rockets roared to life and left the launchpad.

Hanks“Oh wow!” Hanks said. "When that thing took off, it was incredible, and the roar of the engines was just deafening, it was overwhelming! But you have to realize, this thing was 36 stories tall. The Apollo and the Saturn 5 rocket that boosted it into space. And you have to imagine the thrust that it took to get that thing boosted up alongside the structure that had it in place there on the launch pad and into space itself.

“And when it initially occurred, it just sort of inched up along the thing, and the noise was overwhelming, the ground was shaking, and I had a good friend standing next to me and he was the Public Relations Director for the Boeing Company, and they were in charge of the construction of the Saturn 5. And as this thing got inched up along the launch tower and finally got into space, and we finally talked a little bit and the roar was lessening, and I looked at him and I said, ‘Hey, Bill!’ I said, ‘Look at you! Look at the tears in your eyes!’ And he looked back at me and he said, ‘Jerry!’ He said, ‘you so-and-so.’ He said, ‘What do you think that is on your face?’ And we were all that way.

"This was the moment that we had been working for and if had failed, we were all gone. It couldn’t fail. And more than that, we pulled it off. There was not a slowdown at all. And the countdown to launch, we pulled it off right to the minute where we were supposed to do it, and then four days later we landed those men on the moon.”

Hanks said the unprecedented event was a unifying moment for the country -- and the NASA team at the Cape.

“We were all a team. We all worked together. There was never any infighting in all the years that I was there, everybody got along with everybody else,” Hanks said. “We all had the same goal -- we were going to send men to the moon. And then, by darn, we did it! If that whistle blew tomorrow and somebody said to me, 'Jerry, do you want your old job back?' I'd be out of here so fast you couldn't even see me. It was that great to be there during those years.”

Hanks said with as quickly as the NASA team pulled off the moon landing, he's surprised we still haven't gotten an astronaut to Mars.

“If you had asked me back in 1969, and you would have said to me, ‘Hey, Jerry, we managed to get men to the moon in the time frame that we were supposed to, when do you think we’re going to get men on Mars?’ You know what I would have told you? ‘Well maybe about 1985.’ And you would have looked at me with disbelief on your face, and I would have said, ‘Look, if we can get from point zero to the moon in less than 10 years, you mean to tell me with all these brilliant minds and the technology we have assembled right now, that we can’t get from the moon to Mars in another 15 years? Of course, we can!”

But we haven't. And Hanks said he thinks it's even harder now to accomplish the Mars goal than it would have been following the moon landing.

“I hope we do it. But I just sort of find it difficult to believe now, because they’re going to have to start over again at point zero, whereas we were so far ahead of that when we landed the men on the moon, that I think it will be much more difficult this time,” Hanks said. “Don’t misunderstand me, I hope we pull it off! I really do! I wish I were going to be a part of it, too.”

Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.