Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, millions of people watched and listened as history was made by the astronauts of Apollo 11 as they took "one giant leap for mankind" by taking man's first steps on the moon.

And while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the two most notable names associated with the adventure, not many know that several Kentuckians had a hand in the success of the moon landing and the safe return once the mission was complete.

From analyzing moon rocks, to designing the Saturn V, to developing parachute equipment for their return, to rescuing the three famous space travelers, men and women of the commonwealth played their part in what is known as one of mankind's biggest accomplishments.

In getting the men on the moon, Boone County native John Leland "Lee" Atwood was paramount with his designing of the command and service modules in the Apollo Lunar Landing program.

As CEO of North American Rockwell, an aerospace firm, the company was able to secure contracts from NASA for the second stage of the Saturn V lunar launch vehicle, rocket engines that powered the main stages of the Saturn V and the engine that lifted the Apollo module ascent stage to the surface of the moon.

In an addendum from the Aviation Museum of Kentucky, they note that the Apollo 11 capsule survives to this day, and that Atwood's expertise and leadership were recognized, including induction into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000, a year after his passing.

Another Kentuckian that contributed to the space mission was Paducah man, Charles Lowry, a graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Engineering who helped design parachutes that safely lowered the astronauts into the Pacific Ocean upon their return to Earth.

Lowry was working with North American Aviation when one of the company's divisions was asked to do work for the program in 1962.

Jenny Wells, an employee with the Public Relations and Strategic Communications office at UK, spoke with Lowry about his work in the moon landing, and he told her, "I worked through all the design, all the missions, the whole program."

In an article by Wells, she wrote that Lowry's work began before Apollo 11, recalling back to the Apollo 7 mission, which was the first safe return of astronauts to Earth.

After the additional recovery successes of Apollo 8, 9 and 10, Lowry and his team were confident in their chutes when the crew was coming back from the moon.

Lowry told Wells, "We knew it would work, we tested them. There was no surprise. I was more in awe of men landing on the moon. That was a thrill I'll never forget."

Once the module landed in the ocean, it was up to Max Hellmueller, an active duty sailor from Lexington to recover and rescue the three astronauts.

Hellmueller was a crew member of the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier with the U.S. Navy that was assigned to retrieve the trio. He kept a photo collection of the recovery operation as well as artifacts from the cruise, which are on display at the Kentucky Aviation Museum.

After the safe return of astronauts, along with their samples and collections, it was another UK alum that was one of the "first and few" selected by NASA to study the moon rocks that were brought back from the mission, Wells' article states.

William "Bill" Ehmann, a chemistry professor and associate dean of research for UK, was given the samples for research because of his developed technique known as neutron activation analysis, which allowed him to study the rocks without damaging or corrupting them.

Wells also spoke with Ehmann's son, also named Bill, who said he remembered the arrival of the samples when he was just a boy in September 1969.

"They were kept in a safe in his office in the chem-phys building, and they were actually guarded at night initially," he told Wells. "It was quite exciting for us kids. I remember my dad bringing us into his lab at night after the samples were delivered, and we opened up the safe, and we each got to hold this plastic sample tube that contained moon samples. I knew we were lucky to be among the first people to do that."

He told her that his father was one of the first people who helped answer the question of the moon's origin, resolving that question of the theory that the moon was once part of the Earth.

"His dad was one of the first people to have a federally funded research agenda before we have what we have now," Wells said. "When I spoke with his son, you could tell that he was really proud of his dad."

To read Wells' article, go to

Reach Taylor Six at 624-6623 or follow her on Twitter @TaylorSixRR.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.