WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 29: Bermuda’s unsung heroes of the ‘Space Race’ who helped Neil Armstrong become the first man on the Moon have spoken of their pride in that feat in the wake of his death.
Around 50 islanders worked at the Cooper’s Islander Tracking Station in the late 1960s as the US launched a series of Apollo missions to become the first nation to put a man on the Moon.
Their work and the data they collected was vital to the success of the Apollo XI shuttle that delivered Armstrong and his crew into a safe orbit around the Moon before the lunar landing in July 1969.
Armstrong died on Saturday at the age of 82.
But his death prompted former radar operators and technicians to pay tribute to the famous astronaut and relive their involvement in one of the most significant events in human history.
Robert Burgess, a Telemetry Technician at the station between 1967 and 1973, described his time working at the NASA base as the ‘pinnacle of my career’. Mr Burgess, 71, of Smiths – went on to work at IBM after NASA.
He told the Bermuda Sun: “It was a very exciting time to be working at the Cooper’s Island Station.
“I was hired specifically for the Apollo Missions and a lot of preparation had to done for each and every mission.
“Regular checks had to be done on all the equipment to make sure it was working properly.
“I remember being glued to the televisions at the NASA station for each launch and around four minutes later it would be our turn.
“I had friends and family at the time asking me ‘are they really going to put a man on the moon?’ People did not believe it was going to happen.
“But we worked long shifts back then to make sure we did our bit and we would go home busted at the end of each day.
“It was an incredible place to be a part of.
“I feel honoured and I thrilled by a sense that I have been able to participate in such a big event.
“I think about it often, but there are also times when I think ‘did I really do that?’
Asked about Neil Armstrong, Mr Burgess added: “He lived a long life and achieved a great deal.
“It is always sad when such a well known figure has passed but what he achieved with the help of a lot of other people in the US, Bermuda and other countries will live forever.
“Our work did not finish with Apollo 11. I stayed at the station until 1973 and we provided data that was used to help get the crew of the Apollo 13 Mission back to earth safely. That could have been a tragedy.
“Working at Cooper’s Island we experienced the highs and lows of those exciting times and to this day I am still benefitting from them.”
William Todd was a Radar Operator at NASA’s Bermuda base between 1961 and 1973. A retiree, he lives in Hamilton Parish.
He said: “We would pick up the shuttle after its second stage ignition and keep our eyes on the instruments. We were known as ‘Two Alpha’.
“Everything was prepared on the plot board in advance and these boards that outlined the path of the space craft.
“There were many simulations and checks. Everything had to be done very precisely.
“It was our job to determine whether the shuttle would go into orbit.
“The biggest thing for all of us was always the moon landing.We were all geared towards that.
“Neil Armstrong’s death at the weekend has brought it all back again for me.
“That was the highlight of the whole project. We worked on a lot of other projects too like missile tracking and weather determination but Bermuda played a crucial role in the NASA missions to get a man on the moon.
“We would track the shuttles and ensure that it achieved a safe orbit.
‘It was important work and the data coming out of Bermuda was vital to the success of the overall project.”
Mr Todd, who retired three years ago, added: “Neil Armstrong was a very dedicated man and I was sad to hear of his passing at the weekend.
“He was an important part of a very big team. He dedicated himself to being the one that would be the first man on the Moon and he has a special place in history.
“It is an era that you really have to be familiar with to appreciate.
“After I left the station I taught at Bermuda College and some of my students had no idea about the space challenge or the involvement of Bermuda.
“The people who worked at Cooper’s Island were very fortunate to play a part in this very significant era and Neil Armstrong’s death brings that all into focus again.”