MOON TOWNSHIP, Pennsylvania - Earl Edwards can’t pinpoint where he watched Neil Armstrong take that giant leap for mankind.
Was he in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, watching two American astronauts bouncing about the celestial moon?
The 79-year-old retired engineer, a Moon Township resident, knows he was watching closely, intrigued and fascinated that in 1903, two aptly named Wright Brothers willed their flying machine into the sky over Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and that by July 20, 1969, the cold competitiveness between the Soviet Union and the United States fueled the latter to a moon landing.
“It was a very fast thing. At that time (1969), man had only been flying about 65 years, and all of a sudden we’re reaching way out,” Edwards said.
All of a sudden it’s 2019, and because 50th anniversaries are golden, it’s apropos to revisit what many Americans deem the best thing that happened during the dour 1960s.
In 1969, South Dakota-native Earl Edwards was 29. He and his wife, Mary Ellen, were parents of 4-year-old Dan and 2-year-old Julie. In 1966, the family moved east from northwestern South Dakota to Moon Township, farmland transformed into a burgeoning community anchored by the bustling Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.
What is now Robert Morris University was the Kaufmann family’s Pine Hill Estate, a two-story home with a big field and several oil wells.
“You could see foxes out there sometimes and pheasants,” Edwards said.
The Edwards family lived in a split-level home on Smallwood Drive in Amherst Acres complete with a one-car garage and a black-and-white TV in the living room. Though schooled as a civil engineer at the School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota, Edwards worked in mechanical engineering as a project engineer and manager at Dravo Corp. on Neville Island. His job required travel. When his plane landed at the airport, he’d often walk the mile or so home.
Wherever he was that Sunday, and however fuzzy Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin appeared on TV, Edwards knows how he felt.
“I was thrilled to think that it was possible.” And impressed. “The focusing of energy to get into orbit is a pretty spectacular thing, and being able to talk to the astronauts.”
CBS-TV newsman Walter Cronkite lived up to his reputation.
“He did such a great job of lending that thing the proper air on the news,” Edwards said.
Cronkite turned complicated science into words that viewers understood. Yet, the iconic anchorman couldn’t find words to say when Armstrong’s boot first touched the moon’s surface. His face exuded awe - a combination of respect for what NASA had accomplished and his passion for aviation and space.
Edwards has both. He considered a career in math, and then became interested in engineering in college. As the space program moved forward, he knew the calculations required putting rockets into earth and moon orbits had to be exact.
The 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” which focused on three black women whose brain power immensely helped propel astronaut John Glenn into orbit, provided an acute awareness.
“The guy wants to go on the rocket, and he wants her (the mathematician’s) calculations,” Edwards said. “Before that (movie), I didn’t realize the stuff that they didn’t know.”
Edwards grew up loving aviation. As a youngster in the 1940s, his family’s home in South Dakota had kerosene lamps, not electricity. No telephone. No TV. Water was drawn from a well. He went to a country school with an enrollment of five students in grades first through eighth. His teacher had a friend who owned a ski plane that he landed on a cornfield in January and February when country roads were nearly impassable.
Frank Edwards paid the pilot $5 to take two of his sons on plane rides. Earl Edwards was probably 12.
“That turned us on,” he said.
All four of the Edwards boys learned to pilot planes.
That aviation interest is entwined in Edwards’ passion for history. He has been a member of the Moon Township Historical Society for 10 years, serving seven as president. So he knows who the masterminds at NASA were and what they did. He has no need to drop names.
Edwards said he admires Wernher von Braun, the leader of Nazi Germany’s rocket team that developed the V-2 ballistic missile in World War II, and who later became the architect of the NASA’s Saturn V launcher that boosted man to the moon.
“He did a lot of really great research and guided the early program. It kind of gave everyone confidence at the same time,” Edwards said. “He took pride in his technical work. He dressed up. He was an imposing figure.” And he roused fiery debates among usually quiet engineers.
Von Braun escorted President John F. Kennedy around Cape Canaveral in Florida, became the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and was in the control room when Apollo 11 blasted into space.
And much of today’s technology is rooted in what scientists and engineers garnered from the U.S. ventures into space, Edwards said.
“Almost all of our communications systems had a good founding there,” he said. “Computer technology accelerated tremendously. We know more because of what we did 50 years ago.”
In 1973, the Edwards family moved to their present home on Patton Drive in a township that boasted a moon logo on its police cars and water department. Earl and Mary Ellen are grandparents of five grandchildren ranging age from 14 to 22. Their grandfather would certainly tell them about the U.S. space program, “if I could slow them down enough to listen to me.”
If that happened, Edwards said, their attention would likely stray. Several might pull out cell phones and check grandfather’s facts or another phone would chirp.
However, they might be interested in knowing that their great-grandfather, the late Frank Edwards, never truly believed that U.S. astronauts walked on the moon.
“How do you know they really did that?” he asked his son Earl many years ago.
Earl Edwards has no doubts. Two men walked on the moon on July 20, 1969.
And if his grandkids should ask for his advice.
“I would tell them to live as hard as they could, to do things, and I would preach adventure to them,” Edwards said.
Who knows, they might be lucky enough to make it to the moon, to Mars, to wherever, and back.