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WAKE FOREST — Larry Grunewald has always been a bit of a space enthusiast, serving as president for his high school rocket team in the 1960s.
The Richmond, Virginia native went on to study aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech. During his last year and a half of college, he had the opportunity to work alongside Boeing engineers as the company worked on one of the most famous space projects in history — constructing the Saturn V rocket that launched men to the moon during the Apollo 11 mission of 1969.
“This is one of the things that we got as a token for having participated in the whole deal,” said Grunewald, now 72 and living in Wake Forest, during an interview this week to reflect on the mission’s 50th anniversary.
He pulled out certificates signed by Boeing officials and Kennedy Space Center Director Kurt H. Desus, recognizing Grunewald’s participation in making the Apollo 11 mission a success. Grunewald also has other memorabilia: several old Richmond Times-Dispatch editions reporting on the moon landing, Buzz Aldrin’s autograph from when Grunewald bumped into the astronaut years later, and the autograph of NASA engineer Christopher Kraft, who died earlier this week.
Boeing was one of several companies contracted to build parts of the Saturn V rocket. The company was responsible for constructing the first stage of the rocket — the bottom section of engines and fuel tanks that was the first to detach after the vessel left the earth’s surface. Grunewald traveled to New Orleans as one of about 20 students shadowing Boeing’s engineers as they created the first stage.
Then Grunewald was asked to travel to Cape Canaveral, Florida as NASA assembled the four stages of the rocket and transported it to the launch pad.
The timing was perfect, Grunewald said. He and his wife married July 6 that year, and the two spent a honeymoon of sorts living by the Florida beach while Grunewald continued his involvement with Boeing.
“There was a lot of energy,” Grunewald recalled. “People were always working hard but here ... you were having double-checks, triple-checks, quadruple-checks because any little thing that could go wrong could abort this or could delay the mission.”
His job involved documenting potential issues with the rocket after they were noticed by the craftsmen putting the rocket together. Grunewald would then give measurements to the engineers who were responsible for coming up with fixes.
“I got to fill in my two cents every now and then when I thought I knew something — but I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” Grunewald said. “But I had a couple of ideas they seemed to implement.”
On July 16, Grunewald and the other Boeing engineers were about as close to the launch pad as it was safe to be to watch the launch. He remembers being up against a chain-link fence watching and listening to the countdown.
A few seconds before the timer hit zero, the engine started to move and the fuel began to combine and combust. Then, at zero, the rocket began to lift into the sky.
“I was just all goosebumps, all from my head to my toes,” Grunewald said. “The one surprise that I had was when the rocket was elevating into the sky the sound was different than I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be this huge loud roar. Something like a train going by. But instead it was like a series of explosions.”
That was the sonic boom of different gases exceeding the sound barrier, Grunewald later learned. For the next two minutes the rocket continued its ascent, until at last the first stage detached. The work he and all the other Boeing engineers had done fell into the ocean, its role in the mission over.
Fifty years later, nothing has come close to seeing that launch.
“That was probably the most exciting moment in my life, seeing that thing go off, and that’s all apologies to my daughters and my wife and everything,” Grunewald said with a laugh. “They put more in my life than that, but just that moment was exhilarating.”
When Grunewald graduated college, he got a range of job offers, including Proctor & Gamble wanting him to help make peanut butter. Grunewald decided to go into telecommunications, working with companies like AT&T and Satellite Business Systems to create infrastructure and launch communication satellites into orbit.
One of his biggest disappointments is that in the 50 years since, technology hasn’t advanced enough to where he could journey to the moon himself.
He said he thinks he understood the significance of what he was working on at the time. But there was one effect of the mission that he said he only realized later.
“It was political as much as anything to get to the moon before the Russians back then,” Grunewald said. “And it was something that pulled the country together. I’m not sure I sensed that as much then as I do now.”