‘I was there. Oh yeah, I was there.’
Local resident was part of NASA during the Apollo program, highlighted by man landing on the moon 50 years ago today
SALEM — When astronaut Neil Armstrong took that small step for man and giant leap for mankind 50 years ago today, he got a big boost from so many others.
Among the hundreds of NASA support team members was Ronnie White. A longtime Salem resident, he was tasked with helping monitor fuel and oxygen levels for the space program including the history-making Apollo 11 lunar landing.
Not bad for a young guy just a half-dozen years out of high school.
Tall and gangly and into music and not football and other sports, White was bullied in school. He graduated near the bottom of his 1963 Beaver Local High School graduating class.
“I was like number 85 in a class of 93, 94,” he recalled with a chuckle.
Looking to develop self-esteem and take on a challenge he joined the Marines. Smack dab during the Vietnam War. Not drafted and reluctant to go like so many others but volunteering to go fight.
Reared in Calcutta, White ended up serving four years of active duty including 14 months in Vietnam. He was involved in heavy fighting as an automatic rifleman. He saw the bloodshed, the wounded and the dead. Yet he has no regrets.
“The Marines made me a man,” he said. “I wanted to go fight over there. I was one of those kids in school who was always bullied and picked on. I wanted to make something more of myself. The military didn’t lose that war, Congress did — they’re the ones who pulled everyone out.”
Jump ahead post-Vietnam and White, who also served two years of inactive duty, went job searching. He had a pal whose dad worked for NASA in California. The Mojave desert was utilized for moon landing simulations.
He made a solid impression and got the job. He ended up on the east coast, working at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. which is just northeast of Washington, D.C.
“I was 22 and it was my first job coming out of high school and I was earning $300 a week which was a lot of money back then,” White remembered. “I got there just as the Apollo program was getting started.”
As a member of a vast support team for the space program, he was trained to monitor critical components such as fuels and oxygen.
“I helped take care of the supply work; it was the most exciting job I had in my life,” he said. “It was a unique job. The hours were long. We worked all the time even when there was no launch. There was always plenty to do.”
The Apollo 11 flight, moon landing and return was a true out-of-this-world experience for those directly involved. And although the spotlight was on mission control in Houston, the support team tentacles expanded elsewhere including the Goddard Space Flight Center.
“I was there for the launch and there for the landing, monitoring such things as the fuel and oxygen,” White said. “The Goddard Space Center was like a third cousin because Houston was in control. There was a whole lot more going on behind the scenes than what you saw on TV. Houston was the fair-haired child — getting all the glory. We got a pat on the back.”
White did receive NASA recognition proclamations for being part of the historic Apollo program. He beamed like a full moon when asked about the pride involved with being part of moon landings — six missions landed men on the moon.
“It was a feat nobody had accomplished but we did,” White said. “So many little things that could’ve gone wrong. It was a relief when it was over. There was a sigh of relief when it was over and we moved on to the next thing.
“I’m definitely proud of that. I was there for the good stuff. How many people in Salem had anything to do with Apollo, physically and hands-on? I’m proud as hell of that part of my life.”
Being directly involved in two of the most dramatic events in American history and certainly the turbulent times of the 60s and 70s — the Vietnam War and man landing on the moon — is a distinction few carry through their lifetimes.
“I know I’ve done well in my life,” said White who lives in Salem with his wife, Judy, also a 1963 Beaver Local High School graduate.
In 1983 he moved back to Ohio where he worked in our area as a electrical tradesman.
Now 75, he suffers from various illnesses traced to Agent Orange — the tactical herbicide used by the military on trees and vegetation during the Vietnam War. It was named for the orange band around storage cans of the toxic compound.
“We used to get yellow powder on our uniforms,” recounted White who carries 16 stents and counting inside his body. He was wired with electrodes when interviewed. “We were told it was nothing to worry about,” he said sardonically.
It took a good seven, eight years but he did get 100 percent disability. Still he said: “I’m proud of Vietnam. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
As for today, he will get a unique sense of accomplishment not many Americans will when glancing upwards and thinking back a half-century ago.
“NASA, the Apollo program, was the highlight of my life,” he said. “I was there. Oh yeah, I was there.”