As a five-year-old growing up in Oklahoma in the 1940s, Jerry Elliott had a vision that he'd someday travel into space. His family was amused, but Jerry had the last laugh. He graduated with a physics degree from the University of Oklahoma—the first Native American to do so—then went to work for NASA, eventually becoming a flight controller for Apollo. During the first lunar landing mission, Elliott was in Mission Control as a RETRO officer responsible for helping to plan aborts and engine retrofires. He served in that role for all the lunar landings except the last one, Apollo 17.
Some of Elliott's personal papers are now in the Oklahoma History Center, including his handwritten journal describing the scene inside Mission Control on July 15, 1969, the eve of Apollo 11's launch. (Click here to download an excerpt from the journal).
"It is sprinkling drops of rain outside," he wrote during a quiet moment that afternoon. The center was a "bee hive of activity before tomorrow's mission. 10,000 people a day have been visiting here."
Elliott's memories of Apollo 11 are as strong as if they happened last week. It helped that he took notes. In his journal and logbook, along with his careful recording of specific times for certain key "Go/No Go" decisions, you can find a list of celebrities who stopped by the control center, including Princess Grace of Monaco, Bob Hope, and, Presidents Nixon and Johnson.
After the mission, once Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were released from quarantine, the astronauts celebrated with flight controllers at a local beer garden near the space center. Elliott recalls talking to Armstrong in the parking lot afterward, just the two of them, the astronaut's awed impressions of the moon fresh in his mind.
Elliott still lives in Oklahoma, where, under the name of J.C. Higheagle, he celebrates his Osage/Cherokee heritage and performs country music. Forty years ago, as a young man doing the job he'd always dreamed of, he wrote this poem:
Mankind’s never ending quest for the stars: To break the bounds of gravity’s grip To sweep the universe and beyond. Dedicated and courageous explorers Of the universe Looked upwards in awe at the universe’s Mysteries manifested in many forms; Souls in boundless sea of space; Voyager pioneers never yielding to the Temptations of failure or defeat. How many know we explored the Moon’s mysteries, With our minds Before our feet?
Men of guts and grit, Commanding spacecrafts of nuts and bolts, Panels and nerves of steel. All with one goal in mind: To be the first of their kind. Men ready to brave the challenges; Men setting sails for unknown journeys, To satisfy mankind’s insatiable curiosity Of discovery and what lies beyond reach. Footsteps in the sands of the moon Whereto for only footsteps on the beach.
Men and machines risking disaster Without care or cause for alarm, To pierce the thin shell of air And find answers to what lies there. In their quest, they trained well For whatever the outcome: Be it heavenly success --Or Hell.
It is mankind’s nature to question, To find answers to the universe’s puzzles; It is the universe and beyond We seek to know and Leave behind our legacies; To unravel the secrets of the stars And unite the world in peace and love For all humanity. July 16, 1969 launched our hopes along With our spacecraft For a successful journey with God speed To fulfill our dreams for mankind’s destiny. We dared to do the impossible— To turn dreams into reality, And dares into proud victories. Fearless explorers have braved the unknown So others may find their way. They pierced the blue into the black for The glory we celebrate today.
Here’s to the footsteps on the moon! To the victors, we give our cheers. To the pilots beyond the sky, We raise our glasses high— To those who quenched their fears. A toast to victory and pride of success, And to the men and women who Proudly gave their best.
Here’s to the NASA team— Those daring and hearty souls so few Who made footsteps not only on the moon But also imprints on the pages of history By those on the ground who never flew. Here’s to those who, In the annals of time, Helped write the story. And to all believers that failure was No option In their quest of the moon landings’ glory. Here’s to the dauntless heroes who, In the breathless final moments, Never gave up— always knew— The winning victory over defeat. But how many know we Got to the moon— With our minds Before our feet?