Once in a Blue Moon (Landing)

Millions of people dream about what it would be like to fly into space, to see planet earth from thousands of miles away and touch down onto the desolate, rocky surface of the moon.

Diane Daniels is one of the few people who actually helped make this dream a reality.

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Patricia Fodor and Diane Daniels

At the age of 22, when most people are wondering what to do with their lives, Diane was working for a relatively new company called IBM. One day she was offered a position as a telemetry specialist on the Apollo 11 launch. Along with 800 other young programmers Diane handled communications between ground control, the lunar landing module, and (as if her job wasn’t complicated enough) the shuttle crew itself. At any given time ground control had to keep track of 5 modules-all of which were orbiting in space hundreds of thousands of miles away. Yikes.

As she puts it:

“We had 5 different modules, we had to make sure we didn’t drop any bits…if we dropped a bit…we’d lose track of them, they can’t get off the moon. There were times I was pretty terrified.”

Diane spent her days holed up in her office writing out computer code line by line on paper, testing it, getting stuck, asking coworkers for help, and having to explain to her managers what exactly she was doing when they traipsed by every hour or so. There was little time for peer interaction.

“It was a solitary type work…I liked it…it was like a puzzle.”

By the time of the moon landing Diane had switched to another project studying the effects of the American bombing in Saigon during the Vietnam War. It was in Saigon, curled up in bed at 3:00 in the morning with her radio tuned in, that Diane actually heard the broadcast of Neil Armstrong touching down onto the moon.

“I had been living in an apartment in Saigon, a traditional four or five story apartment, and it was a hot night in Saigon and I turned on the radio…lying there in bed…I don’t even know if I got to sleep because I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to hear it but I was also so terrified something would go wrong, but there was a huge sense of relief in giving myself a really good cry when he (Neil) was able to walk around.”

This July marked the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. A big thanks goes out to Diane and Patricia for sharing their stories and to the Contemporary Jewish Museum whose support of StoryCorps in San Francisco allowed us to capture this anniversary.

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