Bud Kennedy

50 years after the moon landing, he’s still the Fort Worth space hero nobody knows

Apollo 11 Moonwalk Montage

Highlights of the Apollo 11 moonwalk
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Highlights of the Apollo 11 moonwalk

This summer is a celebration of America’s space heroes, the generation that 50 years ago planted the U.S. flag on the moon.

Every Fort Worth child of that era knows that a south side guy, late Astronaut Alan Bean, walked on the moon.

But most don’t know that west Fort Worth had a space hero, too.

From a childhood working at a drugstore soda fountain on West Seventh Street, Gerry Griffin went on to serve eight years as a flight director in NASA Mission Control.

He was the guy in charge of getting Bean and other Apollo astronauts to the moon and safely home.

“Here we were on the same mission, a guy from Arlington Heights [High School] and a guy from Paschal,” Griffin, now 84, said the other day.

“We had a lot of back-and-forth about that. It was kind of fun.”

While Fort Worth remembered Bean for 50 years, starting with a 1969 tickertape parade and continuing right up through his death May 25 in Houston, Griffin is all but forgotten.

His Fort Worth roots were last mentioned in the Star-Telegram in 1971. (We congratulated him for serving as lead flight director on Bean’s Apollo 12 flight and also on Apollo 15, which pioneered the lunar rover.)

“We haven’t had a parade yet for Gerry Griffin,” the Editorial Board wrote.

We still haven’t.

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Gerry Griffin is former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Griffin Marketing

At last, the Fort Worth school district is recognizing Griffin. At a public reception June 17, Griffin (Heights ‘52) and five other graduates including civil rights icon Opal Lee were added to the school district’s headquarters Wall of Fame.

“I haven’t been back nearly as often as I’ve wanted,” Griffin said. After college at Texas A&M, he came back to Fort Worth only briefly in 1962-63 to work on the F-111 at General Dynamics, now Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

But he kept in touch with Heights friends from a noted class that also included the late actor Van Williams and author Tommy Thompson.

“I was back in April and where I grew up [Mattison Avenue] — that’s still a nice neighborhood,” he said.

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Larry Griffin, left, and his twin, Gerry, received Eagle Scout awards in 1951 at a court of honor of the Yucca District of the Longhorn Council, Boy Scouts. (UT Arlington Special Collections) Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection UT Arlington Special Collections

The pharmacy where he once worked, Daniel Drug, is still on Seventh. But there’s no soda counter.

The old movie theater of his childhood, the Bowie, is a bank. His old favorite ice cream parlor, Taylor’s, is a different shop now. But a frozen custard stand is a few doors away.

“Fort Worth looks like a little city all grown up that still feels like home,” he said.

“I grew up going to Will Rogers [Coliseum], to the rodeo and to the zoo, and none of that’s changed.”

Griffin went from the 1950s, Fort Worth and Texas A&M to a central role in America’s 1960s dream of sending humankind to the moon.

He joined Mission Control in 1964, moved up and was in charge the last time Americans left Earth’s orbit, for Apollo 17 in 1972.

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Former Johnson Space Center Director Gerry Griffin, left, a flight director for all of the crewed Apollo missions, sits next to Apollo astronauts Harrison Schmitt, Rusty Schweickart, Walt Cunningham and Tom Stafford, from second from left, during a panel discussion at the Apollo Celebration Gala at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, July 21, 2018. The event kicked off a yearlong celebration of the upcoming 50-year anniversary of the first moon landing. (AP Photo/Alex Sanz) Alex Sanz AP

Eventually, Griffin was director of the Johnson Space Center.

If you’d like to know more about his NASA career, there are plenty of interviews and videos online. He’s particularly remembered for Bean’s Apollo 12 flight, when lightning struck the spacecraft after liftoff and systems had to be restored.

In a dramatic moment, Griffin passed along an order to reset an obscure fuel-cell switch. Bean knew where to find it.

“The lightning was like when you get hit with a power surge,” Griffin said.

“Alan Bean had to throw that switch. He did and that restored everything. Then it had to be my call about whether we would go on to the moon or come home, and after about 90 minutes we decided to go on.”

When he was sending astronauts to space, America was changing.

The summer of 1969 brought the moon landing, Chappaquiddick, Woodstock, the Charles Manson murders and locally, the Lewisville Pop Festival, UFOs and sightings of the Lake Worth Monster, our own version of Bigfoot.

“It was a really turbulent time,” Griffin said.

“The space flights became a great positive sign.”

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Gerald “Gerry” D. Griffin and actor Ed Harris (right) on the set of “Apollo 13” (1995). NASA Courtesy photo NASA

He consulted on movies including fellow Heights alumnus Bill Paxton’s “Apollo 13.”

Lately, he’s gone around the world to talk about the documentary “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo,” on Netflix.

“What’s interesting is that in school-age kids, there’s a renewed fascination with space,” he said.

Schools’ emphasis on science and math is “starting to work,” he said.

“Kids are interested in space. And they’re good at it.”

They’ll want to leave earthly orbit again. And not wait another 50 years.

Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.
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