VANCOUVER, Wash. — When the Saturn 5 rocket launched carrying the Apollo 11 lunar module 50 years ago, Vancouver resident Jack Atkinson had a pivotal role in making sure it was successful.

Atkinson worked for Grumman, an aircraft manufacturer with an aerospace contract under NASA.

Coming from an aircraft background, he was shocked at what the lunar modules for Apollo 9 looked like.

"The first time I walked in and saw the spacecraft, the lunar module, I thought, 'What in the name of God is that?' It looked like somebody took a bunch of tinfoil and scrap metal and threw it in a pile and said that's the LEM," he said.

He was a part of four different Apollo missions during his five years there. His crowning achievement was Apollo 11.

"When the lunar module gets to the Cape, the first thing we do is take it apart and then put it all back together again," Atkinson said. "My job was to make sure that it was done absolutely, 100% correct. No tolerance for mistakes. Absolutely zero tolerance."

He said watching Apollo 11 take off was terrifying.

"You're helpless. You're just watching your work and your friends sit up on top of this thing and there's nothing you can do," he recalled.

But also, he said, it was gratifying.

"That was a pretty proud moment for all of us. We felt good," Atkinson said.

Jack Atkinson
Jack Atkinson helped build Apollo 11.
Devon Haskins

Atkinson partied with the rest of America, but that party didn't last long. A month after the moon landing, he was working on Apollo 12 when he was told to report to the office.

"That was it, they took our badges, gave us our final paychecks and said goodbye," he said.

Atkinson said that moment left a bitter taste in his mouth.

"I wouldn't even watch the launches after that. I didn't care. You want to land on the moon, land on the moon. I don't care," he said.

It took him 20 years to get past it.

Today in his Vancouver home, he still holds onto the memories of the past, the pride he held working on a piece of history. A framed picture with hundreds of signatures, each name played a role in the success of Apollo 11. Underneath a picture of the three astronauts is Jack Atkinson's.

"If I lost these, I could never replace them," he said.

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