Steve Harper and friends shared beers and a sense of pride from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
Bruce Webbon, who was working on a master’s degree, was in Florida with his family visiting his grandparents because they had a large television.
Fifty years ago, when Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, took the first-ever steps on the moon, Webbon and Harper were far apart in faraway places.
Harper, 75, a retired commander of Kingsley Field and former state representative and senator who lives in Klamath Falls, was stationed in the Philippines as an Air Force captain. His job was serving as a navigator on C-130 transport planes to and from South Vietnam, shuttling personnel and material.
“We were sitting around the living room listening to it on the radio as it was happening,” he remembers of the 2 a.m. session with a group of friends. Harper admits there was a sense of anxiety because, “You never know what’s going to happen.”
War on hold
The war in Vietnam was put on temporary hold as Harper’s group, like others around the world, anxiously followed the landing, listening to radios or watching on television as Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the moon’s surface and pronounced, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
“The whole base knew what was happening,” Harper remembers of the interest in the moon landing. “We all had a great sense of pride. We were all bachelors. Everybody had a date. We were a pile of friends. It made for a pretty good party.”
He and friends celebrated with bottles of San Miguel beer — “We had it delivered to our house, like the milkman,” he chortles in remembrance.
Harper still has a Stars and Stripes newspaper about the landing, a Life magazine and a reel-to-reel tape of the landing and moon walk, although he’s unsure about its condition because it’s been unused for decades.
Soon after the moon landing, Harper took and completed his pilot training. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1963 to 1993, serving as commander at Kingsley Field from 1984 until his retirement as a colonel. He was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives and served two terms until being elected State Senator from 2001 to 2005.
Webbon, 74, had started work on his master’s degree a year earlier and was embarking on a career as an engineer with NASA, the National Aeronautics Space Administration, that spanned 50 years. Unlike Harper, who had to listen on a radio, Webbon, who lives with his family in Lakeview, was one of an estimated 600 million people around the world — about one-fifth of the earth’s population — glued to a television watching as the Eagle, the crew’s lunar module, made its landing. Unlike others, Webbon kept watching during the 21 hours and 36 minutes from the time the Eagle, with Armstrong and Aldrin, touched down until it blasted back into space and docked with the command module, the Columbia, for the return flight to earth.
“I watched the black-and-white television for every minute they were on the surface,” he recalls. “I was just sitting there watching and napping. The time of day? I really don’t recall. I was watching television all the time. I remember Walter Cronkite got so emotional about it. He had a tear fall on his cheek.”
An engineer, Webbon had insight into the reliability of the backup systems and copious amount of testing of the Saturn V rocket that carried the Columbia and the three astronauts — including Michael Collins, who stayed in the Eagle — so he was more interested than concerned. Years earlier, he had been at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the launch of Apollo 8 and he had confidence in the operation.
“It wasn’t beyond imagination,” he says of the landing. “Everybody was pretty sure everything would work, but you never know. It was incredible to see.”
Webbon stayed close to Apollo missions after finishing his master’s and joining NASA in September in Houston, Texas, a few months after the moon landing. He was at Cape Canaveral for the launching of Apollo 12, 13 and 14. During his career — “I consider myself a second generation NASA” — his focus was on research and development, such as life support systems, upgrading and improving spacesuits, gear that allowed astronauts to work outside their space capsules and medical devices.
“I became one of the tens of thousands involved and working on the program.”
All these years later, however, he remains disappointed that NASA’s space program hasn’t expanded. “That lunar landing gave a focus to NASA and to the space program and excited millions of people around the world. I expected by now would be on Mars. We’ve lost that feeling,” Webbon believes, “that we can do anything.”