For the upcoming 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, local engineer Michael Liebowitz recalls his contribution to the important mission.
Photos courtesy of Michael Liebowitz
Not many recent college graduates get to launch astronauts to the moon for their first job out of college. But that’s just what Michael Liebowitz did in the summer of 1969.
On the 50th anniversary of the famed Apollo 11 mission, Liebowitz, who enjoyed a career afterwards in the automotive industry and who is a dedicated member of Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield, looks back at this time of his life with nostalgia and pride.
When Liebowitz graduated from New York Institute of Technology in 1964 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he landed a contract job with Boeing and spent the next four years working at NASA on its Apollo missions. Working alongside men with mostly military backgrounds, he said he was the youngest person in the famed Firing Room 1 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where engineers like himself oversaw launches of the Apollo missions all the way through the first space shuttle mission in 1981.
Sometimes working the midnight to noon shift, his work included testing the switches that moved the five, 42,000-pound pneumatic arms that held the 363-foot, 6.2 million-pound Saturn V in place on the launch pad and then released them at just the right second as it lifted off into space to send Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon. The arms had to withstand the upward thrust of 9.5 million units of horsepower. Compare that with a typical racecar, which has 500 horsepower.
Apollo 11 was a mission first proposed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. On July 20, 1969, humans first ever set foot on the moon. According to NASA’s website, the astronauts explored the Sea of Tranquility site for more than two hours. They collected soil and rock samples, set up experiments, planted an American flag and left behind medallions honoring the Apollo 1 crew and a plaque saying, “We came in peace for all mankind.”
Though engineers like himself were not in the media limelight, he had some encounters with well-known icons of the age, including taking an elevator ride with TV newsman Walter Cronkite. He also spied Alan Shepard — the first man to orbit Earth in 1961 and then, in 1971, went on the Apollo 14 mission where he hit a golf ball on the moon — high atop the launch pad in a red Corvette and a blonde woman.
“Shepard had sweet-talked the guard into letting him take the Corvette and that blonde woman up on the launch pad to take some pictures,” Liebowitz recalls. “And we all knew damn well that was not his wife!”
Liebowitz said after the Apollo missions, space engineering contracts dried up during the Nixon administration, so he took nearly a year off sailing and scuba diving around the Bahamas with a friend.
“I would have done it a lot longer, too, if my father had not called me and reminded me that I should get a job and a haircut,” Liebowitz says.
He spent the rest of his career at Volkswagen and Porsche, and then worked for Ford Motor Company for 31 years until his 2005 retirement. But it has been his time at NASA that Liebowitz reminisces about the most, even giving talks about his experience with schoolchildren as well as his congregants at B’nai Moshe.
These days, you can find him there at the morning minyan where he davens and has also prepared breakfast for the last 14 years. He also volunteers as a docent for the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.
Liebowitz says while history focuses on the crew of the space missions, it is also important to remember the thousands of engineers on the ground, like him, who contributed to designing and engineering the mission.
“The astronauts got all the media attention,” he says, “but if it were not for the work of the thousands of engineers, Saturn V would have never gotten off the ground.”