Phil Sumrall, 81, is among those who have fond memories of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.
A chance encounter with Dr. Wernher Von Braun led Sumrall to a 40-year career with NASA. His earliest work was on the Saturn V rocket that took Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon.
Sumrall lives in Huntsville, but he has a tie to Guntersville. He loves the city’s airport and has kept a plane there since 1990.
Sumrall was the guest of honor Saturday when about 30 children built and launched their own rockets as part of “Rocket Day” at the airport. He was genuinely exited to see so many youngsters taking an interest in rocketry, and said that wasn’t available when he was a child.
The moon exploration took place 50 years ago this week. The launch took place on July 16, 1969. The Lunar Landing Module, dubbed “Eagle” by NASA, landed on the moon on July 20. Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon a few hours later on July 21.
Sumrall was educated in Missouri and came to Huntsville in the early 1960s to teach mathematics and physics.
The best hotels in town in those days often had a barbershop. On a Saturday morning, Sumrall went to the barbershop in the old Erskine Hotel in downtown Huntsville. It was crowded and he took a seat. A short while later, Von Braun strolled in and took a seat next to Sumrall.
The space race had already started and Sumrall knew who Von Braun was. But he thought it would be rude to engage a celebrity in conversation.
“He had his briefcase with him and he started going through his papers and making notes,” Sumrall said.
When Von Braun finished, it was he who started the conversation. He asked Sumrall what he did, and Sumrall told him he taught math and physics.
Von Braun quizzed him about what courses he’d taken in college and what kind of grades he’d made.
“I’d only been out of college a year or so,” Sumrall said. “So I could talk about the courses I’d taken.”
Von Braun was impressed.
“He asked, ‘Have you ever thought about working in the space program? We could use you.’”
Sumrall had been interested in the space program, but he figured the scientists working at Marshall Space Flight Center were from MIT, Cal Tech and similar places.
Von Braun wrote down a name and number and told Sumrall to call it if he decided he’d like to work in the program.
A very modest man, Sumrall later called, but he didn’t call the name or number Von Braun had written down. He instead called the main number for personnel at Marshall.
He was told there might be some jobs available in October, but school started in September.
“There was no way I could start school, then leave because I got a better offer,” Sumrall said.
Eventually during that call, he mentioned the name Von Braun had given him.
He got a job interview that week and was hired. He was 23 years old.
Sumrall went to work at Marshall on July 2, 1962.
Just a year earlier, President John F. Kennedy had given his speech about America sending a man to the moon within the decade and returning him safely to Earth.
“You could say I got in on the ground floor of the Apollo program,” Sumrall said.
At his job interview, he was given a number of offices to visit to see where he might best fit in. He was hired at the first office he visited.
That office was tasked with coming up with the mathematical equations to figure out how much the rocket could flex; how to configure the baffles for the liquid propellant that fueled the rocket; and similar things.
“There were no equations,” he said. “We had to develop them. We were doing something that had never been done before.”
The urgency of the overall Saturn and Apollo projects gave rise to its own culture. There was no overtime, but the scientists and engineers routinely worked 12-hour days.
“We weren’t officially required to work Saturdays, but if you were not going to be there on a Saturday, you were expected to explain it to your manager ahead of time,” Sumrall said.
The Saturn V had five engines that weighed 18,500 pounds each. The engineering work included developing gimbals for the engines that could control yaw, pitch and roll.
Much of the design work was about making the rocket as stable as possible.
“The work on the baffles was important because you had to control slosh,” Sumrall said.
For a young math and physics major, it was very exciting work.
A test stand was built at Redstone Arsenal to test the engines. The scientists huddled in a bunker to watch those tests.
“The ground would shake and you’d even feel your cheeks shaking,” Sumrall said.
His parents came to visit while he was working on the Saturn rocket and a test fire coincided with their visit. Sumrall really wanted his father, a rural mail carrier from Oklahoma, to get to see the test.
He talked to Ernst Geissler, one of the German scientists who came over with Von Braun, about making it happen.
“Geissler liked me and my dad got to see the test,” Sumrall said.
For a long time afterwards, his dad thought his son was part of a team developing a new weapon.
“It was only after we went to the moon that he realized it really was the moon rocket,” Sumrall said.
Watching Von Braun through his daily work was educational to Sumrall.
“Von Braun was a charmer,” he said. “He became the center of attention in any room he entered, and people would hang on every word.”
His powerful personality shaped more than just the Apollo program.
“He was a cultured man,” Sumrall said. “He wanted theater and arts for Huntsville, and we have the Von Braun Center named after him today. He wanted the planetarium and was instrumental in its construction.”
Von Braun was meticulous in his follow through on details as well.
Every department head working on the project had to submit a weekly report on Thursday. It couldn’t be generalized. Von Braun wanted details on that week’s specific successes, failures and challenges. He’d write notes on the reports and send them back to his department heads.
When it came time to launch Apollo 11 for the moon, Von Braun knew it would be a historic occasion.
"It was either going to be a huge failure or a great success," Sumrall said.
Von Braun arranged for anyone who did not have an operational role during the mission to be able to go to Merritt Island, Florida, and see the launch.
“I was newly married by that time and my young bride and I got to take a second honeymoon to Florida,” Sumrall said.
Among the noted guests, Sumrall saw Vice President Spiro Agnew.
“We were kept 3-1/2 miles from the launch pad,” Sumrall said. But it was still a front row seat.
“I had a clear view and I had a wonderful new piece of technology, a Super 8 movie camera,” Sumrall said.
He filmed the launch.
“The ground shook, you could feel your cheeks shaking, then you felt the heat from the ignition,” Sumrall said.
Saturn V remains to this day the largest rocket to have ever flown. It was 363 feet tall, 33 feet in diameter and weighed over 6 million pounds.