I frequently forget that I never met my rocket engineer grandfather. My mom’s dad, Charles “Chuck” Yee, died in 1987, almost 10 years before I was born, but his legacy has lived long past his life, told through the stories of my grandma, mom, and aunts and uncles.
I’ve heard stories about his work with the Chinese Historical Society, the printing shop he owned during the later years of his life and the adventures he would take his family on.
But the stories that captivated me most had to do with his work on the U.S. space program, including the Apollo 11 mission that put the first man on the moon.
Even though he was just one of tens of thousands of people to work on the mission, his role in such a momentous occasion is a huge source of pride for my family. My Aunt Kathy told me that when she was in elementary school she would take photos of astronauts for show and tell, and proudly explain how her father worked with them. I remember learning about the moon landing when I was the same age, and trying to find every excuse to brag that my grandfather worked on the mission.
In 1959, my grandfather started working for North American Rockwell — which eventually merged with Boeing — as an engineer on rocket guidance systems. There, he trained astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on how to successfully navigate their spacecraft.
But while he was working on one of the most significant projects in American history, he was also helping to raise a family of five children. My uncles and aunts insist that he left any stress of work at the office, though there were many ways that his work meshed with his home life.
“When I thought of Dad, I thought of the Apollo,” said my Aunt Lydia.
Coincidentally my Aunt Lydia was born during astronaut John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth in 1962. My grandma recalls my grandfather being torn about whether he should leave the hospital to watch the orbit. My grandfather had a tremendous amount of respect for John Glenn, so much that when, after three daughters, they had a son, they named him Glenn.
My grandfather took a lot of pride in the work he did, and made his best effort to share his knowledge to whatever extent he could. After coming home from work, he would sometimes call all his kids into the living room to give them a minilesson on various STEM topics, using diagrams and drawings.
“I remember at one point he was working on the rocket gyroscope,” my Uncle Glenn — John Glenn’s namesake — said. “He wasn’t allowed to tell us most of the details about it for security reasons, but he’d try to explain it in other ways.”
During the actual moon landing on July 20, 1969, they all gathered in the living room to watch the broadcast on TV. My aunt Kathy, the oldest child of the family, was 8 at the time, and remembers everyone was completely silent.
“He had the confidence that they could succeed, but still it was something so new, something that no one had ever done before,” my grandma told me.
When Armstrong eventually took his first steps on the moon, everyone erupted into cheers. It was obviously a very exciting moment, but an especially proud one for my grandfather.
From all of the stories I’ve heard, I’m certain that my grandfather was a great man, not only for his work, but also for the way that he took care of his family. His kids continue to take pride in all that he did, and I’ll always look forward to hearing more stories about him.
Especially this one: At some point, my grandfather asked my grandma if he could invite Neil Armstrong over to their house for dinner. She swiftly said no. When grandma told me this, I was shocked, “You could have had Neil Armstrong come to your house and you said no?”
“What are we supposed to do with an astronaut? This man has been to the moon! What if he fell or something bad happened to him while he was at our house?”
It was too much pressure for her to handle.
More than 400,000 people worked on the Apollo 11 mission to land an astronaut on the moon. Do you know someone who did? Where were you when the moon landing happened? We’d love to hear your stories. Submit them here: