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When Neil Armstrong left the first footprint on the moon on July 20, 1969, Joe Allen was behind a microphone at NASA’s Mission Control Center, relaying information to the astronauts.
“His heart rate… went from about 65 beats-per-minute up to 68. The guy — he was just as cool as could be,” Allen said.
As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Allen, now 82, recalled his role in the Apollo 11 mission that brought a joyous conclusion to a decade rocked by assassinations, social unrest and war.
The Crawfordsville native was a capsule communicator tasked with sending messages from the ground directly to the spacecraft’s crew. When Armstrong emerged from the spacecraft more than six hours after touching the lunar surface, the team at Mission Control passed out cigars to celebrate.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is exciting,’” Allen said. “Everybody prays to live in interesting times and… I have been very lucky because we live in very interesting times.”’
As a scientist-astronaut, Allen became lifelong friends with Armstrong and fellow crew members Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, greeting them at the quarantine chamber after they splashed back to earth.
When the organizers of Allen’s 50th class reunion at DePauw University joked that Armstrong had been invited to give a speech instead, the quick-witted Allen insisted Armstrong didn’t have an excuse: His bowling league didn’t meet on Saturday mornings.
A physicist, Allen was doing research at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York when he saw an advertisement from NASA seeking astronauts with a Ph.D in chemistry, physics or astronomy. The National Academy of Sciences had accused the agency of calling itself a scientific organization without employing any scientists, Allen said.
NASA selected Allen to be part of the second class of scientist-astronauts in 1967, sending him to an Air Force base in Oklahoma for flight training. He was on the astronaut support crew for Apollo 15 in 1971 for the nation’s fourth landing on the moon.
The Apollo missions were a “shot of adrenaline” into the space program, Allen said, setting the stage for his flight aboard the first fully operational space shuttle, Columbia, in 1982.
He returned to space aboard the Discovery in 1984. After retiring from NASA, he led a commercial space company and was chair of a defense contractor. Allen lent his expertise as a consultant for the Hollywood blockbuster “Armageddon,” where a crew of deep-sea oil drillers stops an asteroid from colliding with earth.
Back in Crawfordsville after years of residing in Washington, D.C., Allen made an appearance this week at the Carnegie Museum of Montgomery County, where some of his NASA memorabilia is on display. Sitting in front of the fireplace in his nursing home, he and high school classmate John Kummings talked about the moon landing.
“When they landed, they had to move sideways for, I don’t know, maybe an eighth of a mile because there were boulders out there,” Allen said.
Americans haven’t made their final stop to the moon, he said, envisioning spacecraft sending people to live in oxygen-packed huts.
And there’s other planets left to explore.
“When [I speak to] kids in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade, I say, ‘The first human to walk in Mars is already alive on earth right now,’” he said. “And I say, ‘She is in the eighth grade, but we don’t what language she speaks.
“And, boy, the girls in the eighth grade get very excited about that. ‘Maybe it will be me.’”