A PSU Professor, Then An Engineer With NASA, Recalls The Apollo 11 Launch

Jul 15, 2019

Denny Gioia, professor in Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and former Apollo engineer, stands in front of a wall in his office devoted to Apollo memorabilia.
Credit Min Xian / WPSU

Fifty years ago, on July 16, 1969, a Saturn V rocket was launched from Cape Kennedy Florida (now known Cape Canaveral), sending astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on their way to the moon.

That morning, legendary CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was in a Florida studio near the launch site bright and early. The Saturn V rocket stood next to the launch tower on the screen behind him.

At 9:32am eastern time, that huge 36-story high launch vehicle is scheduled to thunder to life,” Cronkite told his TV audience, “pushing the astronauts into temporary orbit around the Earth. And two and a half hours later, another rocket burn will send the spacecraft on its way to the moon.”

“The night before the launch we spent testing everything on Apollo 11,” Denny Giola recalled. He’s a professor of management in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.  

But his bachelor’s degree was in engineering. At the age of 22, while working for Boeing, Gioia was assigned to work with NASA on the Apollo program. And he was there, at the launch site in Florida, on the day Apollo 11 soared into space.

“But I had gone home around midnight, because they told us to go home,” he said. “Well, that was ridiculous. You just couldn’t go to sleep.  So, in the middle of the night sometime, I headed back to Cape Kennedy just to see what was going on.  It was just a beehive of activity.”

Gioia had been assigned to Apollo 12, and he was part of the backup team for Apollo 11. That meant he didn’t have to stay inside the building called “the firing room” with the launch team. 

“That was a good thing,” Gioia said. “I was lucky, because I could be outside and experience the launch. And the closest anybody was allowed, besides the rescue team and the astronauts themselves, was 3.1 miles away. A lot of us, along with a lot of muckety-mucks - VIP’s - were standing between the vehicle assembly building and the launch pad.”

The launch of the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 into space.
Credit NASA

Jack King from Launch Control finished the countdown, “…three, two, one zero – all engine running.  Liftoff.  We have a liftoff, 32 minutes past the hour.  Liftoff on Apollo 11.” 

And the Saturn V engine’s roar almost drowns out the anchors in the CBS studio. Denny Gioia, outside watching the launch, heard and felt its force.

“The Saturn generates 7 and a half million pounds of thrust to lift a 6.4 million pound vehicle off the ground.  It’s a controlled explosion. And then the ground was shaking.  It’s like an earthquake.  And that’s what it felt like through your feet.”

“The building’s shaking,” Walter Cronkite said, in the TV studio, as the anchors’ mics picked up the roar of the rocket’s engines, loud and clear. “We’re getting that buffeting we’ve become used to.”

“I was standing three miles away with a camera on a tripod - telephoto lens,” Gioia recalled, “And I had not been warned about the shock wave. It rolled in from the launch pad.  And it began to vibrate me, so I had trouble holding the tripod still. What I didn’t realize was that I had positioned myself between the launch pad and the vehicle assembly building. The shock wave hit the VAB, bounced off, and came back and got me from the other side. It was a struggle.”

“What a moment,” the CBS anchor observed, “Man on the way to the moon.”

This historic flight, would be a resounding success. Less than five days later, on July 20,1969, a human being would, for the first time, set foot on another world.