Apollo mission anniversary sparks nostalgia for Wood County native

Photo by Jenna Pierson. Ron Ferrell proudly displays his Apollo Mission Badges.

PARKERSBURG — Among the key moments in American history was 50 years ago today when man first landed on the moon.

On July 20, 1969, Americans watched their TV sets with wide-open eyes as astronaut Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the lunar soil, the culmination of a pledge made by President John F. Kennedy seven years earlier.

On the 50th anniversary of the historic day, Ron Ferrell, 70, of Parkersburg, who worked at NASA during the lunar mission years, reminisced about that day and its contributions to America’s space program.

Ferrell had milestones that led him to a career involving space in increments of nine. Born in Vienna on Oct. 4, 1948, Ferrell remembers his birthday nine years later in 1957 when Russia launched the first satellite into space, Sputnik I, and began the space race.

“The fear of my aunts and uncles and parents was palpable,” Ferrell said. “I was 9 years old and it truly fascinated me.”

Another nine years later in 1966, Ferrell got the opportunity to pursue his fascination after his brother helped him become a mechanic for the Launch Support Division at Cape Kennedy through the Bendix Corp.

“I was always extremely mechanically inclined,” Ferrell said. “My father and I built my first car when I was 13.”

Within six months, Ferrell was promoted and granted top-secret clearance at Cape Kennedy.

“I was so interested in all of it and it really didn’t feel like a job to me,” Ferrell said. “But if I look at it that way, it was the greatest job I have ever had.”

Ferrell’s job ranged from fixing and maintaining parts to making sure items that were being taken into space on the Saturn V, a massive rocket designed by Wernher von Braun to take man to the moon in the Apollo Missions, were considered hyperclean and uncontaminated.

Ferrell also was on shift for the Apollo I failure on Jan. 27, 1967, when a fire in an Apollo capsule killed astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, an original Mercury astronaut and America’s second man in space; Ed White, the first American to walk in space, and Roger Chaffee.

“For a moment the whole program stopped,” Ferrell said. “But then the mission to put a man on the moon forged on.”

Ferrell continued to work for NASA until he was drafted into the military between the Apollo 9 and 10 Missions in 1969. He witnessed major moments from an inside point of view that he candidly recalls the first flight to test the ability to dock on the moon, the first flight around the dark side of the moon in preparation of Apollo 11, spotting Russian spy ships and meeting astronauts like Grissom.

“The space race was extremely high priority to the Kennedy Administration,” Ferrell said.

Although Ferrell was stationed in Germany when the first man landed on the moon, he remembers the pride and the wonder associated with the event.

“It was a time when America was struggling for an identity,” Ferrell said. “This manned effort to the moon in my opinion was one of egos and political stature, and we as America weren’t going to be second.”

On July 20, 1969, Ferrell was correct. America was indeed not second in changing the course of history and space exploration, but first, he said.

Ferrell went on to pursue other interests when he came back to Parkersburg. He founded his own companies in 1994 and 2008 that dealt with hospital sustainability and created a way for medical facilities to recycle their surgical plastics. He became an instrument rated private pilot and purchased his own airplane.

Despite all of these accomplishments, Ferrell always fondly remembers his time in Cape Kennedy.

“I was so young when I had this experience and it taught me so much about responsibility,” Ferrell said. “Now, 50 years later, there isn’t a lot of us left to tell the story and its excitement.”

Ferrell hopes that younger generations will not doubt their wonder and their abilities to be a part of instrumental changes.

“If a story like this can happen here in Parkersburg, it can happen anywhere,” Ferrell said.