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John Winton looks at projection films of system components of NASA’s Apollo programs from his collection of memorabilia from the project. Winton created a website dedicated to a group of contractors who worked on the program.

TUSCUMBIA — Like millions of Americans, John Winton remembers watching television July 20, 1969, as two American astronauts made history.

The Apollo Lunar Module safely came to rest on the surface of the moon.

"I was at home," Winton said. "My wife just had our fifth baby."

While Command Module Pilot Michael Collins remained in orbit above the moon, Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the moon. About six hours after touchdown, Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon and recited this now famous phrase: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Winton understood the significance.

"I absolutely sat down and cried, I did indeed," Winton said. "And a lot of people in mission control did as well."

As Winton put it, there were "grown men crying all over the place" while others were lighting cigars to mark the momentous occasion.

"There was a lot of celebration and a lot of celebration going on in my house, even though we had a sleeping little girl," Winton said.

Winton's name might not be well known like Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, but he and others like him played a vital role in the success of the mission.

Winton, 84, is a retired aerospace engineer who was working as a contractor for Rockwell International on the Apollo program and with its predecessor, the Gemini program.

His team was involved in training the astronauts how to operate the systems on the command module and lunar lander.

"I worked with test pilots so I was just a natural to come along and work with the astronauts because they were mostly test pilots in those days," Winton said.

Getting started

Born in Decatur, Winton grew up in Tuscumbia and also live near the Nashville area. He later moved to southern California where he lived until returning to the Shoals about 10 years ago.

Winton was the son of a country preacher, but wasn't interested in following his father's career.

"I decided later in life to set my goals a little lower than his and just help tell folks how they could at least get to the moon," Winton said.

Uninterested in much of what he was learning, Winton said, he dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Navy, where he finished his education and began to learn about electronics.

After being discharged from the Navy, Winton returned to the Shoals and briefly worked at WJOI radio with Tom York, who went on to became a news anchor in Birmingham. Winton married a Tuscumbia native and moved to California to find employment more closely related to the training he received in the Navy.

He found what he was looking for at Lockheed Air Service and Hughes Aircraft Co., which was owned by the reclusive industrialist, Howard Hughes. After graduating from field engineering school, he was assigned to the 343rd Fighter Group in Duluth, Minnesota, to assist pilots and ground crews in maintaining a squadron of F106 fighter jets.

In 1963, Winton went to work for North American Aviation in its training department on the Apollo program. North American Aviation merged with Rockwell Standard, of Pittsburgh, to form North American Rockwell.

One of his first assignments with the Apollo Training Team was working with a group of instructors to present "The Apollo Spacecraft Familiarization Briefing" to fellow Rockwell employees who would be designing, fabricating and testing the command module and service modules.

Story to tell

The public, through the media, knew who the astronauts were, but the role Winton and his team played in the missions is not as well known.

Winton wanted to change that. He created a website, apollotrainingteam.com, about 15 years ago to share the story of his training team's efforts in putting man on the moon.

"Browsing through our website, you will learn about what went on behind the scenes of the Apollo space program in a small organization like ours," Winton said.

If the site appears to be a bit "braggadocios," Winton said, it's because the remaining team members are proud of what they accomplished.

"The technology developed in these programs is a part of our daily lives," Winton said. "Innovations in technology gave birth to the devices you wouldn't leave home without today."

Early digital data systems that provided space systems status on board Apollo spacecraft and measured crew members' vital signs and sent them back to Earth evolved into technology used in today's smartphones and biomedical health devices used in doctors' offices and hospitals, he said.

"I created the website with the input of all the other instructors," Winton said. "We are unique in that not a lot of contractors went ahead and put a website together."

NASA, he said, has not.

"All of us who are remaining were with the Apollo 11 crew," Winton said. "It was a thing we took a lot of pride in doing."

The website contains a variety of information about Apollo missions seven through 17. Each mission tab features the participating astronauts and the mission patch.

Apollo 7 was the first manned Apollo flight and lasted just over 10 days.

Another tab focuses on the training team, complete with photos and biographies on as many team members as Winton could locate.

Winton also provides a 45th anniversary overview of how he became involved in the space program, and how he and the team of instructors helped put Americans on the moon.

After Apollo

Once the Apollo mission ended, Winton said, he worked with Russian engineers and cosmonauts on the Apollo-Soyuz mission in July 1975.

"The Russians would play games with your head," Winton said. "They arrived with only two or three that spoke English."

There were interpreters, of course, but Winton learned the Russians opened up a bit after having a few drinks of vodka.

"After three or four drinks, they spoke better English than we did," Winton said. "We got to be good friends with these people. One of them gave me a pack of Russian cigarettes that I still have."

Winton said the early American astronauts were normally test pilots, but later they came to NASA with degrees in aeronautics and mathematics. He said Armstrong was a "no nonsense" person who didn't waste words.

"I was surprised that he didn't say anything more than ‘Houston, we are here,' " Winton said.

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were "challenging students who could absorb large quantities of information like a sponge and kept our instructors on their toes asking many questions involving detail beyond the level of our engineering briefings."

The astronauts, Winton said, took the information the training team provided to the flight simulators.

"We have celebrated the Apollo 11 moon landing for 45 years," Winton said. "It seemed like Buck Rogers still for a long time. It was one of the highlights of my life. Everything from then on was downhill."

Our spacemen

In all, 12 men explored the moon in six landings through 1972. But that first moonwalk, by Armstrong and Aldrin, is what clinched America's place as space leader supreme following a string of crushing losses to the Soviet Union, which claimed title to first satellite, first spaceman, first spacewoman and first spacewalker.

This year's big anniversary is the first without Armstrong, long known for his reticence, who died in 2012 at age 82. As Apollo 11's commander, Armstrong was first out the lunar module, Eagle, onto the dusty surface of Tranquility Base. Aldrin followed.

Collins, now 83, the command module pilot who stayed behind in lunar orbit as the gatekeeper, also spent decades sidestepping the spotlight. He's making an exception for the 45th anniversary — he plans to take part in a NASA ceremony at Kennedy Space Center on Monday to add Armstrong's name to the historic Operations and Checkout Building.

That leaves Aldrin, 84, as the perennial spokesman for Apollo 11. He will also be at Monday's ceremony.

"I consider myself a global statesman for space," Aldrin said in a YouTube video. "So I spend most of my time traveling the country and the world to remind people what NASA and our space program have accomplished, and what is still in our future at Mars. I feel we need to remind the world about the Apollo missions and that we can still do impossible things."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com. Follow on Twitter @TD_RussCorey.

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