Fendell helping preserve memories of moon landing
Published on: July 18, 2019
Becker College graduate Edward I. Fendell was in the NASA Mission Control Center, handling mission communications, when Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on the surface of the moon. Fifty years later, Fendell has been instrumental in making that experience real and tangible for generations to come.
“It’s hard to believe that it was 50 years ago,” said Fendell, speaking recently about the Apollo 11 lunar landing, which happened on July 20, 1969.
Fendell said he never dreamed of being in the midst of one of the most important moments in history.
“It’s a crazy story. Imagine there’s a kid sitting next to you in class and he never did anything. He had no goals and never went anywhere. That was me,” he said. “But there was a teacher who decided I was college material, and I ended up at Becker College. It was Becker Junior College back then.”
Fendell graduated from Becker in 1951 with an associate’s degree in merchandising. While his degree didn’t end up as his career path, he said he learned something more valuable during his time here.
“I learned how to grow up,” he said.
After graduating from Becker, Fendell served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War, and from there he ended up working for NASA.
“I had no experience in engineering or math,” he said, “So when I was given schematics, I said ‘I can’t do that.’” I was told ‘We don’t say that here.’”
That moment turned into what has become his philosophy in life.
“I’m a big believer in the ‘can do’ attitude. I learned that you can do a lot of things in life if you don’t talk your way out of it,” Fendell said. “We live in a world where you can do anything. If you say you can’t do something, you’re just wasting time.”
While it was fifty years ago, Fendell still clearly remembers the day of the moon landing, as well as the months leading up to it. On July 20, he was in the Mission Control Center, making sure his system assignment, communications, was going smoothly.
“You have to understand that we did countless simulations,” he said. “The training was constant. Every day, day after day, for hours and hours, this training went on and on. So when you walked into the control room, it was hard to tell whether you were running a simulation or running a mission.”
Fendell said that, at the time, he didn’t really think the moon landing would happen on the first try, because so many things had to happen to make it a success.
“When we came in for landing day, we were excited. We’d walked in there a million times, and now things were starting to happen. But as time went on, things got quiet, and all you heard was the flight director, Gene Kranz, and the crew. If your system was OK, you didn’t say anything. You were just listening to the voice of either Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin.”
“You’re sitting there and all of a sudden you realize Armstrong is looking for a place to land—someplace without a crater the size of Worcester! And then he comes up with a landing spot and says, ‘Picking up dust, contact.’ Now all of a sudden you realize he’s on the fricking moon!”
In the years since the moon landing, Fendell has shared his story and his experiences, including at Becker College in 2009 when he was the Commencement Speaker and an Honorary Degree recipient. While he has retired from NASA, he has still kept in touch with his colleagues there, which is how he ended up back at the Control Center a few years ago.
“Gene Kranz is my ex-boss, and we’ve become very good friends,” Fendell said. “So when he asked me to go in his place to a meeting about the Mission Control Center, I went.”
The room where he had worked to help make the lunar landing a success was still there. It had changed considerably over the years, but it was considered an historic site and shown to people who came to NASA for tours. After the meeting, Fendell was asked if he would like to see it. But what he found was far from what he had expected.
“There were a bunch of young people in there, eating lunch and playing games that involved climbing all over the place,” Fendell said. “I just lost it.”
After which, not surprisingly, he decided to do something about it.
He decided to work with others to bring the room back to exactly what it had been like on that famous day, to help visitors understand, and feel, what it had been like to be there on July 20, 1969.
“At the beginning we got an incredible amount of resistance,” Fendell recalled. “One of the things we were fighting for was to protect it. What was the sense of fixing it up if it was going to get broken again?”
To further complicate things, Fendell said, NASA was unwilling to spend any of their budget on the project.
So Fendell, along with supporters around the world, tried to find a way to raise the money they needed. Their first big success was a $3.1 million donation from the nearby city of Webster. They also raised $630,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and then when the cost of renovations exceeded the original estimate, Houston residents stepped up with fundraising efforts to support the cause. But fundraising was only half of the effort.
“Working with the National Historic Preservation Society, we had to make it historically correct,” Fendell said. “Everything had to be exactly how it was.”
Items that could not be found and restored had to be recreated, right down to the carpet on the floor and the ash trays on every desk. More than four years after he took on the effort, the Mission Control Center has been restored to look almost exactly as it did the day man first stepped onto the moon.
“The only thing that’s missing is the smoke,” Fendell said. “On landing day the smoke in there was so thick that you could barely see.”
Despite the lack of smoke, Fendell said he is happy with the result. He’s heard that one of the biggest reasons that people come to take a tour of NASA is so that they can see the Control Center. Thanks to his efforts, and those of many others, people who visit that room now can experience something very close to being there in 1969, when the whole world watched Armstrong step onto the moon.
“We accomplished what we set out to do,” he said. “We accomplished our goal. And when Gene Kranz’s great grandson visits the Control Center, they can tell him that’s where your great grandfather sat.”