How A 10-Year-Old Boy Helped Apollo 11 Return To Earth | WYPR

How A 10-Year-Old Boy Helped Apollo 11 Return To Earth

Jul 19, 2019
Originally published on July 21, 2019 2:26 pm

This story is part of the StoryCorps series of conversations.

A half-century ago, America's dreams were realized in space. The power of U.S. innovation and spirit took the Apollo 11 crew to the moon and back.

That mission was possible because of a diverse team of engineers, astronauts and mathematicians. It was also possible thanks to the help of one 10-year-old boy who was in the right place at the right time.

In 1969, Greg Force lived in Guam, where his father, Charles Force, worked as the director of a NASA tracking station that helped connect the capsule with NASA Mission Control for voice communication.

"I loved it," Force told his daughter, Abby Force, in a StoryCorps interview. "I looked up to him a huge amount. Not only was it a prestigious job, but he was very good at it."

After Apollo 11 began its departure from the moon, a problem arose — a bearing had broken in the dish antenna needed to track the ship. Without it, NASA risked losing the ability to communicate with the capsule as it approached Earth.

Scrambling to find a solution, Charles called home, hoping that Greg's child-size dimensions could be of assistance. He asked Greg to come to the tracking station and squeeze his arm through the antenna's access hole and pack grease around the bearing.

The 10-year-old rose to the challenge and scampered up the ladder.

"I would take a big handful of grease — you know, you squish it," Greg says. "It comes out between your fingers, and I stuck them down in there and packed them the best I could."

Greg succeeded, and on Day 8 of the Apollo mission, a NASA public affairs officer noted his contribution in an announcement from Apollo Control:

"The bearing was replaced with the assistance of a 10-year-old boy named Greg Force who had arms small enough that he could work through a 2½ inch diameter hole to pack [the bearing]."

The rest is history. This month, America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, an event firmly planted in the nation's collective memory.

Ten-year-old Greg Force in 1969, greasing the antenna bearing at the NASA tracking station in Guam.
Courtesy of Greg Force

"Now that I look back on it, I'm very proud," Greg says. "Not especially anything amazing that I did, but that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I'm also proud that my dad trusted me enough ... to do it."

Greg, now 60 and the owner of a gymnastics studio, says he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and work for NASA, but his colorblindness prevented him from becoming an astronaut.

His father, Charles, died in 2007 after 29 years of service to NASA.

Following the Apollo 11 mission, Charles continued on to develop NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System.

According to Charles' NASA obituary, the technology he helped implement "replaced an aging ground-based communications network and was designed to increase the time spacecraft were in communication with the ground and improve the amount of data that could be transferred. It cut NASA's telecommunications costs in half and is still in use today."

Though he never went on to a career at NASA, Greg's role in history has been memorialized. He inspired a children's book titled Marty's Mission: An Apollo 11 Story, by Judy Young.

His 17-year-old daughter admires both her father and grandfather for the roles they played in history.

"I mean, I think it's pretty dang important," Abby says. "My dad helped with Apollo 11. I look up to you and Pop Pop for it."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey, it's Friday - finally made it - and it's when we hear from StoryCorps. Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Back on Earth, 10-year-old Greg Force was dreaming of going to space himself. Greg's father, Charles, worked on the Apollo missions, and his family lived on Guam, home to a massive antenna that connected the astronauts to Mission Control.

Greg is now 60 years old and came to StoryCorps with his daughter, Abby, to remember the little-known role that he played in the success of that historic mission.

GREG FORCE: I can remember where I was when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. I was 10 years old. We were going to the grocery store. And we were about to get out of the car, so we sat there and listened to it. I remember looking up and thinking that there are actually people up there on that moon right now.

ABBY FORCE: What did you think about Pop Pop working at NASA?

G FORCE: I loved it. I looked up to him a huge amount. Not only was it a prestigious job, but he was very good at it.

In my dad's office out at the tracking station, he had a little box that sat on the desk always playing...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUCE MCCANDLESS: The magnitude of midcourse correction No. 1...

G FORCE: And all four of us boys, we'd go up there and sit and listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCANDLESS: ...Looks like about one seven feet-per-second...

G FORCE: And it was the live communications between astronauts and Mission Control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL ARMSTRONG: That sounds good to us.

G FORCE: So that evening, Apollo 11 was returning from the moon. We were at home getting close to my bedtime when my dad called, said that a bearing had broken in the big, huge dish antenna they used to track the spaceship, so they couldn't communicate with the capsule as they were coming back in.

His idea was to pack grease around the bearing. But the problem was the access hole to the bearing was small. And what he wanted to do was see if my arm would fit through that hole. So he took me out there. And we climbed up on the antenna - you had to go up these big access ladders. So I would take a big handful of grease. You know, you squish it, it comes out between your fingers, and I stuck them down in there and packed them the best I could.

Me being able to climb up there and help was kind of like I was part of the crew there just doing the job that needed to be done. And then the next day, some of our friends heard a news report about 10-year-old boy saved the day.

A FORCE: I mean, I think it's pretty dang important. My dad helped with Apollo 11. I look up to you and Pop Pop for it.

G FORCE: Now that I look back on it, I'm very proud - not especially anything amazing that I did but that I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I'm also proud that my dad trusted me enough to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Greg Force with his daughter Abby Force at StoryCorps in Greenville, S.C. Greg's father, Charles, Force died in 2007 after almost 30 years of working for NASA. Their interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.