When Apollo 11 launched into the July sky 50 years ago, the public faces of the mission were, by design, the three men on top of the rocket: astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
But 400,000 people worked on that mission, from the Boeing employees who completed the first phase of the Saturn V rockets to Edith Gustan and Richard Olson, who researched spacecraft decontamination for Boeing.
And one Seattleite made a major contribution that wouldn’t be tested until Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to take their first steps onto the lunar surface.
His name is Dr. James Joki. A self-described “Ballard guy” and a product of Ballard High School and the University of Washington, Joki, 76, served as an extravehicular mobility unit (EMU) flight controller for Apollo 11.
Now retired, he’s full of stories from his time at NASA, and lives in a sprawling house on Richmond Beach in Shoreline with a panoramic view of the Olympic Mountains and a huge pair of ceramic cowboy boots on the porch.
Inside are walls lined with space travel-related memorabilia, some from his time at NASA (including the sign from his Mission Control console), some collected in the decades since. A good Finn (Joki means “river” in Finnish), he keeps some of these artifacts in his home’s basement sauna.
As a flight controller assigned to Mission Control, Joki helped develop, test and modify the spacesuits, backpacks, visors, gloves and oxygen systems that Aldrin and Armstrong would rely on for life support during their walk on the moon. The mission unfolded in phases, and Joki’s part took place from the time Aldrin and Armstrong donned their suits and opened the door of the lunar module, to the moment they returned safely to the spacecraft and shut the door.
Joki’s interest in this line of work started early. He recalls formative developments in space travel during his boyhood and young adulthood — memories of Sputnik’s orbit, the Cold War and, finally, President John F. Kennedy’s statement in 1961 that the United States would mount a mission to the moon before the decade was over.
At a time when “we barely had a manned suborbital flight with John Glenn,” recalls Joki, “he was talking about having a booster 363 feet high, having three men to the moon and to land on the moon and come back.”
It was this high-stakes collision between geopolitical turmoil and the aerospace industry that Joki entered when he graduated from the University of Washington in 1965 with a degree in aeronautics and astronautics. He already knew he wanted to be involved in the space program — to have a hand in bearing out Kennedy’s promise — and that he wanted to work in operations, not direct engineering.
Through a combination of experience and luck, both hopes panned out, albeit in a circuitous fashion. Humble Oil had recruited Joki for a job, and paid his way to Houston for a company visit. There, Joki recalls asking his hosts: “‘While we’re here, is there any way that we could go over and take a look at that manned spacecraft center?’ It’s only been open for a year. And the guy said, ‘Well, our golf course is out there. Yeah, I could take you out there.’ ”
Joki called ahead to request a meeting with James E. Hannigan, a former Boeing engineer who was then the head of the Apollo program’s Lunar Excursion Module section in its flight-control division. The two men met and talked, and two days later, Joki had secured a contract to work at NASA — “where else but Mission Control?” As a thank you, he says, “I bought Humble Oil gas all the time — pay ’em back.”
Over the next two years, Joki realized nobody was working on the EMU, the wearable life-support system that would make Aldrin and Armstrong’s 21.5-hour duration on the moon possible. The backpack, called a PLSS (portable life-support system) provided “oxygen, water for cooling, pressurization for the spacesuit, and communication.” Joki describes it as “its own little spacecraft.”
The basic design was there — Joki will be the first to tell you he’s not a designer — but he noticed a number of deficiencies and went to work correcting them. “The communication system was not very adequate, and the telemetry data that I would be using to monitor systems need to be modified,” he explains.
Joki’s “major modification to the backpack” was improving its communication systems, which were originally akin to CB radios with “push to talk” buttons. “That’s not going to work,” he recalls thinking. The new system employed voice-activated transmission “where everybody can talk and you’re not overriding anybody.”
Part of Joki’s method was to make himself a test subject for the equipment the astronauts would be using. Because he was the same size as Apollo 16 Commander John Young, Joki even did some of the testing for Young’s spacesuit.
Joki recalls testing the suits in a variety of scenarios, the most vivid of which was the “vomit comet,” in which a plane would carry NASA staff into zero-gravity-like conditions through a series of extreme parabolic maneuvers that resembled the ups and downs of a roller coaster. In simulated zero gravity, they could determine how long it would take to put on a spacesuit in conditions similar to the ones the astronauts would encounter during the real mission.
As for the spacesuit, Joki gave himself a crash course in the purpose of each of its layers, from a comfort layer to a restraint layer, so it didn’t blow up “like something [in] a Macy’s parade.” It was a learning process for Joki, who would find himself facing questions like why the spacesuits were pressurized at 3.7 PSI when the cabin was at 5: “How low can you go?” He’d have to find out.
These were questions of physiology as well as engineering, so Joki studied subjects including organic chemistry while at NASA to help him understand the complicated dynamics of safely putting a human body into outer space — an education that would serve him well working on future Apollo missions and, later, in an unexpected second career as a physician.
The spacesuits came home, but after the Apollo 11 backpacks did their job, they didn’t return to Earth with the crew. Jettisoning excess weight was a necessary part of the mission. Of the components that made up the original 363-foot-tall “whole stack” at launch, the small command module is “all that ever comes back,” says Joki. “Everything else is thrown away, including the lunar module.”
After six successful lunar landings, that means 12 of Joki’s backpacks have been left on the moon. “I’ll give you a special deal,” he says, “We’ll sell ’em to you at dirt cheap — but we don’t deliver.”
“We were a young bunch”
Joki remembers the NASA of the time as a “little cocoon” of young aerospace employees dedicated to their roles on the Apollo program, all of them highly specialized and routinely working well beyond the 40 hours they were paid for.
“The average age working in Mission Control was 26. I mean we were a young bunch,” recalls Joki. “Most of the time [it was] our first major job.”
They came to Houston from all over the country to work for NASA, and formed tightknit communities. Joki still attends reunions with his co-workers from NASA; one is slated for this summer.
The complex mission would be broken into stages, with different teams to monitor each one, from launch to orbit to landing, each team handing off the mission to the next like a relay baton.
It’s not surprising, then, that Joki and his cohorts were siloed by specialty, and understood what their counterparts were doing only in limited, broad strokes.
Joki recalls having no idea what the employees working on the booster rocket were up to, and that “They had no idea what I did — ‘it’s something about a suit.’”
What they had in common was a demanding workload under an audacious schedule, one that Joki says routinely included working overtime (without overtime pay) and running through simulations after normal business hours.
But he remembers one key moment of leisure.
“On Monday night at 5, we shut everything down because we had to go home and watch ‘Star Trek’. I mean that was a big deal.
“That was our weakness.” It’s also the only TV show he recalls watching during that period. “We didn’t have time.”
Joki doesn’t recall meeting many other Northwesterners during his time at NASA, but he just missed overlapping with a fellow alumnus of Ballard High School, astronaut John Creighton, who graduated a year behind him and arrived at NASA after Apollo 11. The two didn’t meet until they had both left the space program and were living in Seattle.
From NASA to OB/gyn
After the events of Apollo 13, when carbon-dioxide levels became dangerously high after the spacecraft’s service module was damaged, NASA identified the need not just for seasoned flight controllers but for a physiologist. So Joki returned to school to study physiology with funding from the agency. The digression would lead to his second career.
Joki recalls walking through a hospital during this time and hearing the beeps of a machine monitoring a pregnant woman’s unborn child. He instantly sensed a parallel between seeing astronauts through a moon walk and helping women and babies through pregnancy. In 1971, he left NASA and went to medical school, and he spent the next chapter of his career delivering babies at Seattle’s Northwest Hospital.
“I took a lot of my NASA education and I always tell [former NASA flight director] Gene Kranz when I see him — because we’re buddies now — that I used my mission rules from Apollo toward my labor and delivery patients,” he says.
Though a nine-month countdown to launch is much longer than the one for a rocket, Joki, as he had in the simulators with astronauts, would work out a protocol with his patients for what to do if something went wrong during delivery.
“I miss the labor and delivery patients; they were so much fun,” he says. “They put so much confidence in you. Kind of reminds me of the astronauts putting confidence in the flight controllers — same sort of thing. The guy sitting in the console needs to know his job or he shouldn’t be there.”
Something else childbirth and the moon landing have in common is that both require a set of complicated tasks to be completed correctly in order to go as planned. Everything needs to go right to make the whole thing happen, and each phase is critically important.
It’s an imperative Joki knows well from completing his phase of the mission: He recalls leaving Mission Control, looking at the moon and absorbing the reality that he’d just played a role in putting Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin on that bright shape in the night sky.
“Neil Armstrong, he would always say, ‘You know it’s not me. It’s the 400,000 that made this possible.’ I mean he was that kind of guy — really nice. It took us all, and I was just one of the cogs in the wheels …”