Tom Shackelford kept apologizing to the crowd.
A lot of the details were fuzzy. Dates had faded into each other. The 93-year-old World War II and Korean War veteran had tucked away many of his memories for safe keeping.
But, he remembered vividly what it felt like to be part of the team tasked by President John F. Kennedy to place a man on the moon.
“Some of the greatest people I ever worked with were in the space business,” Shackelford said. “We were a tight knit group in the early days. That’s how we got the job done.”
Shackelford spoke Tuesday at Westminster Village in Spanish Fort where residents celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission to the moon. While he spoke, residents were treated to moon pies, astronaut ice cream and glasses of bright orange Tang. The crowd also launched rockets in the courtyard as part of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s Global Rocket Launch.
Shackelford was a radioman aboard an aircraft carrier in World War II and served on submarines in Korea. When his military tenure ended, he went to Huntsville to work for Chrysler, one of the companies that provided contractors to the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. After the U.S.S.R. launched the satellite Sputnik into space, the military labs were absorbed by NASA and Shackelford was at the forefront of America’s race to the moon.
“After Shepard made his flight downstream we jumped into space pretty quick there,” Shackelford said, referencing Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in 1961. “That was something else.”
Shackelford worked with Shepard and many of the other astronauts of the early Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. When Apollo 11 launched on July 16, loaded with three astronauts headed for the moon, Shackelford was sitting on the roof of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
The smoke that filled the launch pad in Florida once the rocket’s engines ignited made tracking difficult for scientists on site. Shackelford and his co-workers were able to track part of the launch better from Alabama.
Shackelford also worked side by side with Wernher von Braun, a German-American aerospace engineer who was a pioneer in rocket technology.
“He joined us in the ranks when Shepard was getting ready to go,” Shackelford said. “I saw him in a ditch laying cable with the rest of us. It was a blessing to work with him.”