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Aeronautics engineer reflects on historic moon landing

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Larry Nichols looks at a certificate he was given for his involvement with the Apollo 11.


Kim Grizzard

Saturday, July 20, 2019

As the nation pauses to remember the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Larry Nichols does not need to watch video footage to look back on the historic event. He was there.

The 83-year-old was at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in July 1969 when Apollo 11 was launched. He was part of 10 Apollo Space Missions as an engineer.

Moon memorabilia chronicling an aeronautics career that spanned more than three decades can be found throughout the home his shares with his wife of 60 years. There are commemorative patches along with certificates of appreciation acknowledging his work as a lunar module pioneer.

“I just felt lucky for the fact I was there,” Nichols said in an interview. “You felt so lucky to have the right experience … at the right time.”

A native of Massena, N.Y., Nichols was not identified in early childhood as a student who would become a rocket scientist. He had somewhat of a struggle in reading, leading some to question whether or not he would be admitted to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. But his gifts in mathematics and science made him a natural fit for the school in Troy, N.Y., which is said to be the oldest technological university in the English-speaking world.

“When I went to college, airplanes were the thing. When I got out, missiles were the thing,” he said. “We were in a missile race with the Russians.”

Nichols, it seemed, was in that race from the first leg. His first job after college was working on the Atlas Missile Program in Plattsburg, N.Y.

He later went to work for Grumman Corp., which NASA contracted to design, assemble, integrate and test the lunar module. His skills took him to Cape Canaveral, Fla., beginning with Apollo 5, the first unmanned flight of the Apollo Lunar Module that would later carry astronauts to the lunar surface.

Eighteen months and two more Apollo missions later, Nichols’ name was among those on a piece of negative film left on the Apollo 11 lunar module on the moon.

“We did another one for Apollo 12,” Nichols said as he pointed to his name among a sea of signatures of people involved with the Apollo 11 mission. “We did one for 13, but that wound up in the Indian Ocean.”

While he said it was gratifying to work as part of the team on the spaceflight that first landed man on the moon (“one quarter of the people in the world were watching”), Apollo 11 was not what he considered the program’s finest hour.

“What I’m most proud of is Apollo 13,” he said. “That was with our system, and it worked. If that hadn’t worked, they wouldn’t have made it back.”

Nichols stayed on at Grumman until Apollo 17, the final manned moon mission, in 1972. He had hoped for an even longer career at Kennedy Space Center.

“They had plans through Apollo 21, and they cut it back to 17,” he said. “I think we were all disappointed.”

After the moon program ended, Nichols joined his father-in-law’s construction business in New York for a few years, but he missed his work as an aeronautical engineer.

“He was very much into his work,” his wife, Francesca, said. “This is a guy who liked to go out and work every day because he loved his job.”

Nichols later would return to his beloved career, working at Goddard Space Flight Center. In a career of more than 25 years, he contributed to projects including the Hubble Space Telescope, Cosmic Background Explorer and Global Geospace Science project team.

A half-century after the moon landing, Nichols sees room for improvement at NASA.

“We’ve got to have the Russians to get us to the space station,” he said, incredulously. “We’ve got a space station up there that we can’t get to.”

Still, he is quick to defend the Apollo Missions against conspiracy theorists who claim that the moon landing never happened. He has encountered his share of doubters, including a young man he overheard a few years ago saying that the whole thing was a hoax.

“He said, ‘I don’t believe it. It was fake,’” Nichols recalled.

“I said, ‘You’re wrong. It wasn’t fake; it was real. … I was there.”

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com or call 329-9578.