Astronaut Paul Weitz piloted the first manned Skylab mission in 1973 and commanded the first flight of the space shuttle Challenger in 1983, and later became deputy director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
But the former Navy pilot was a rookie in America’s most competitive program when NASA was overcoming technological hurdles in the Cold War race in space — and capturing the nation’s imagination in everything from Walter Cronkite-narrated missions to the prime-time comedy series “I Dream of Jeannie.”
Weitz, 80, spoke by telephone from his home in Arizona about those days and the steely legacy of lunar pioneer Neil Armstrong, who died Aug. 25 at 82. Weitz said he’s not attending Armstrong’s funeral in Cincinnati on Friday but expects NASA remembrances in Houston and Cape Canaveral.
Q. When did you meet Neil Armstrong?
A. When I showed up in Houston in May of 1966.
Did you have any sense that he would be the first on the moon, the fulfillment of a promise that John F. Kennedy made at the beginning of the decade?
No, no one had any sense of who would be the first. Pete Conrad, who commanded Apollo 12, thought he had as good a chance as Neil, and I agreed. But they mixed up assignments a lot in those days.
Where were you on July 20, 1969 (the afternoon Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed Apollo 11’s lunar module on the moon)?
I was in the Mission Control room. I did not have an active role; I was an observer.
Seems like it was a day in which no one needed coffee?
You can say that.
How did Armstrong change after the return of Apollo 11? What sort of different pressures did he bear than your other colleagues?
I did not know Neil very well. There’s a quote of his going around that he was the same nerdy, pocket-protector kind of guy before and after, and I suppose that was true. He was the same from the time I got there until he left in 1971.
What sort of advice did he give you and your colleagues on his return? Advice with dealing with the media?
No, no. The main thing on our briefings was getting on with the missions and making each mission better.
Apart from being the first man on the moon, what do you think Armstrong represented in our history?
I think he symbolized a different era, when our country was willing and able to do the difficult thing. As John F. Kennedy said, we chose to go to the moon and do other things, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . . because that challenge is one we are willing to accept.’’ I’m not sure we have that same spirit today.
Thank you, sir, for your time and for your service.