Donald Patterson

New Castle, Pa., native Donald Patterson, 83, played an integral role in the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Fifty years ago Saturday, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.

A New Castle, Pa., native played a key role in making that mission successful.

Donald Patterson, 83, who lives in Laguna Niguel, California, worked as a flight planner and analyst for the firm known today as The Boeing Company.

During his time as the prime contractor with NASA, Patterson provided information for mission control when it had questions as to what the lunar module could do, what it could tolerate, how far it could go and how it would work.

Patterson graduated from New Castle High School in 1953, then attended Penn State University, where he earned a degree in what was then called aeronautical engineering. Now, the program is known as aerospace engineering.

“I went directly to California to work in the aircraft industry,” Patterson said from his home in California. “I went to San Diego and worked on commercial jets.

“Then President Kennedy said we were going to the moon. I thought that was pretty darn interesting and exciting.”

Patterson moved to Downey, a suburb 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, leaving his wife, Sarah — also a New Castle native — behind in San Diego to sell their home. Meanwhile, he began working for North American Aviation, which later became North American Rockwell, then Rockwell International until it was purchased by Boeing.

It was in Downey that Patterson began working as a contractor on the space program.

LAUNCH OF A DREAM

“It was a pretty exciting idea,” Patterson said of President Kennedy's May 25, 1961, challenge to Congress that the U.S. "should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

“Space was new and getting a lot of attention, a lot of press," Patterson said. "I thought that with my aeronautical background, I could contribute. It seemed like it would be more exciting than working on the commercial airline programs that I was involved in at the time in San Diego. (In Downey), I worked on the Apollo project. I went into flight planning and analysis. NASA was doing all that, but as the prime contractor, we were supporting them with answers.”

MISSION EXPERIENCE

Patterson ended up working on multiple Apollo projects.

“There was more than one mission, more than one flight, more than one landing,” he said. “I supported the first few landings, including traveling to Houston to provide contractor assistance to the flight controllers and flight director.”

While Patterson wasn’t in the Mission Control room in Houston, which was recently restored by NASA and is now on display, he was in an adjacent room.

“I was in that building, specifically across the hall from Mission Control in a room called the SPAN room,” Patterson said. “Contractors were in there in case flight controllers had questions about the systems to perform as the mission developed.”

Patterson said the contractors definitely had the attention of everyone in Mission Control.

“We were there to answer questions and to help NASA,” Patterson said. “We knew a little more about the spacecraft and its systems and how it worked. We grew up with it. We were there if they had questions, and, sometimes, they did. We were generalists, We knew a little about every system, but sometimes we had to call back to Downey to get an answer about a complicated sub-system question.

"(Apollo 11) went smoothly. It was pretty exciting. We didn’t seem to have any emergencies, as far as I can remember. It has been a long time.”

And while Patterson may have remained earthbound during the Apollo 11 mission, he apparently has a lunar legacy nonetheless.

“"They took a microfilm," his wife said of the Apollo 11 crew, "and the people who worked on Apollo are on the microfilm. It is sitting on the moon. That is kind of exciting when I look up at the moon and think, 'wow, my husband's name is up there.'"

50TH ANNIVERSARY FLIGHT

On Saturday, Col. Drew Morgan, who also calls New Castle home, joins Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian Space Agency for a journey to the International Space Station.

Morgan will be wearing an original Apollo 11 patch on his spacesuit to mark the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing.

As space travel has evolved in the five decades since the moon landing, Patterson said he isn’t surprised.

“To me, it seems routine,” Patterson said. “Seems like business as usual. Going to a big space station which is near the Earth to just go around and around the Earth is not as exciting to me as landing on the moon a quarter of a million miles away.”

Brent Addleman writes for the New Castle News. Contact him at baddleman@ncnewsonline.com.

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