Rocket Man: Apollo 11 mission ignited Pete Petersonís lifelong interest in space

When Johnson City city manager Pete Peterson was 12 years old, he was captivated by the Apollo 11 mission that culminated in the first manned mission to the surface of the moon. The achievement has inspired Peterson to amass an impressive collection of spaceflight memorabilia. PHOTOS BY DAVE ONGIE
Peterson’s office includes several photos autographed by astronauts as well as mission patches – such as the Apollo 13 patch he is holding – that traveled into space aboard NASA spacecraft.

By Gary Gray

Fifty years ago, a wide-eyed 12-year-old boy in Pulaski, Virginia, gazed in awe as a low-tech television set wired with rabbit ears wrapped in aluminum foil delivered footage of Apollo 11 and the first successful manned mission to set foot on the moon.

That accomplishment on July 20, 1969, set in motion Johnson City’s City Manager Pete Peterson’s fascination and admiration of the intellectual and scientific prowess required to pull off such a monumental feat. Not only does he proudly display a portion of his historical and pricey collection of spaceflight memorabilia in his office conference room, he also has developed an enduring philosophical stance that the human race will prosper through continued exploration of the heavens.

“It was late at night, and I was sitting in front of a 19-inch black and white television set,” Peterson said from his conference room, which is decorated with paintings, photos, signed flight patches – you name it. “I watched the launch. But remember, you didn’t have continual broadcasting. It took them three days to get there. I’d get updates by watching the evening news. It was a feeling of exuberance and amazement. It seemed unbelievable that that could have been accomplished after all the trials and tribulations.

“When people look up at the moon, they see a celestial object. I think every human feels the mystique. Landing a man on the moon directly impacted every single human being on this planet. It was much more than a national accomplishment, it was an accomplishment by a species. John F. Kennedy, an extraordinarily brave president, threw down the gauntlet. In 18 months he was dead.”

Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin made the historic trip 50 years ago, and Armstrong and Aldrin made the first human footprints on another planetary body during NASA’s Apollo 11 mission. There have been six manned U.S. landings between 1969 and 1972. The Apollo program ran 17 missions, but humanity hasn’t set foot on the moon since the December 1972 Apollo 17 mission.

A large picture of the Apollo 14 mission hangs just inside the conference room door. A signed quote from astronaut Edgar Mitchell reflects Peterson’s open and eager attitude about space exploration: “The Wonder of it All.”

“All of this (collection) has appreciated much more than my retirement account,” he said with a laugh. “I watch the Apollo 11 documentary obsessively. I’ve been in the lunar receiving lab, handled moon rocks, did some simulated launches and landings. I’ve sat in the flight director’s chair at NASA in Houston and examined the tools they used. There’s some killer footage in that documentary of them riding the elevator up, cutting up with the other guys, the White Room. They even mixed in footage of the rockets firing off to the point one camera exploded.”

His impressive collection includes mementos from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, as well as the space shuttles. Some were acquired at auctions and signings, others have been given to him by astronauts and their family members. Peterson’s position as city manager has given him reason over the years to be proud — to sit back and relish the major tasks completed and progress made. But if you want to see both the boy and the organizer beam, talk spaceflight.

“Yeah, I’d like to go to the moon,” he said. “I think it would be awesome. The details and science behind how things work has always fascinated me. It would be so rewarding to be part of that effort. The pinnacle was the successful landing on the moon and the return. I think mankind has always been curious about the heavens and whether there is other life out there.”

Armstrong’s famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” were followed shortly by Aldrin who described the moon’s surface as “magnificent desolation.” An estimated 530 million people watched and listened. Following a flight of 195 hours, 18 minutes, 35 seconds — about 36 minutes longer than planned — Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Peterson became friends with the late John Young, an astronaut he befriended at a signing in Tucson, Arizona. Young was a U.S. Navy test pilot, worked with NASA, flew the first Gemini mission, several Apollo missions and piloted the very first space shuttle. Young hooked Peterson up so the city manager could sit in a special area and watch launches with astronaut and NASA family members at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

“Even today, I can’t help but look at the moon and think, ‘that’s where my friend John worked.’” he said.

Peterson has maintained his celestial circle of friends, and continues to go to auctions and look for treasured items. He has the utmost respect for the planning and allocation of time required for spaceflight, and applauds NASA for moving from assumptions based on how gravity and other factors were based on earthly experiences to training and computing for the foreign environment they would encounter and creating technology specifically for that purpose.

The moon landing gave us all perspective. But the process needed to gain that new vista also established technology we now use in our daily lives that we would not have if scientists did not continue to explore space, Peterson said. Weather satellites, freeze dried food, communication satellites, TV satellite dishes, medical imaging devices, the in-the-ear thermometer, fire-resistant materials smoke detectors and countless others.

“We had the technology to go to the moon 50 years ago,” he said with a tad more volume and a sense of urgency. “They’ve found potential clean energy sources on the moon that could meet the power needs of the entire country, and the only by-product would be water. But it would take a lot of effort and a lot of money. So with all the concern about global warming, why not take the chance?”


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