VALLEY CITY – Lowell Busching shuffled into The Vault, pointed to the staff-less counter featuring self-serve sandwiches, Kuchen, and coffee before launching into a history of the building, once a bank. Books and magazines are piled in shelves and along walls in an honor system: take one, but leave a buck.
At 83, his fingers are bent, his shoulders sloop, but his mind is as sharp as the day he helped land astronauts on the moon July 20, 1969, his birthday 50 years ago. Raised and schooled in Valley City, he left to join the Air Force in 1954, and never strayed far from military and aeronautical programs until he retired 40 years later. From tropical paradises such as Bermuda, the Caribbean, to Cold War zones where he watched bricklayers along the Berlin Wall, Busching worked as a calibrator and data interpreter that helped launch the nation’s space program and send Commander Neil Armstrong on a two-hour walk along the moon’s surface.
Although never a direct employee of NASA, or the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Busching worked for General Electric and other companies that bid low to win contracts to track missiles and spacecraft.
“They postponed the whole deal so they could land on my birthday,” Busching said. He joked. He was one of approximately 300,000 people with dozens of companies involved in sending Apollo 11 Lunar Module, or the Eagle, to the moon. “What surprised us is we watched it on the TV like everyone else, right there with Walter Cronkite.”
The Apollo Project took ten years and $25.4 billion, but a little known mistake occurred just as Armstrong took his first steps, Busching said.
“When Armstrong landed – and he landed with about 20 seconds of fuel left – if he would have landed a little bit further they would have tipped over, but when Armstrong was getting out of the plane it was as if he was walking up from the right.”
Total silence followed, he said.
“And then came this loud booming voice over the speaker, in a southern Australian accent, saying ‘Do you know your picture is upside down?’”
When Apollo 11 landed, a camera was fixed to cable or “D” ring, almost a 1960s version of a selfie stick, Busching joked, and somehow the camera’s angle wasn’t correct. Busching spent 50 years trying to confirm that NASA tried to keep the slipup a secret, and only recently found footage of scientists talking about how it was fixed. A flick of a switch and the camera’s angle was corrected, he said.
“You see pictures in Houston and they were cheering and all that, but I was just dumbfounded,” Busching said. He didn’t know what to expect when Armstrong first stepped onto the moon.
“A guy next to me said ‘That’s it,’ and for me it was an anticlimax. All that work, ten years, and it was over. What was Apollo good for? Well, for one, we wouldn’t have all the iPhones and satellite communications without it.”
Some NASA employees went on after Apollo’s success to become taxi drivers, he said. Busching “lucked out” more than once during his life. He worked six track lengths from East Germany, tested an Atlas missile that reached the tip of South Africa while Secretary Nikita Khrushchev pounded a shoe at a United Nations assembly and President Fidel Castro threatened invasion from 300 miles away.
“That missile didn’t seem to impress Khrushchev though,” Busching said.
Busching heard crystal clear communications through satellite phones while the rest of the world still used rotary phones. He watched “Top Gun” styled F-14 Tomcat fighters test Phoenix missiles.
“I don’t see a lot even today that I didn’t work on,” Busching said.
Working from remote islands was not without perks, he said. During an “unbelievable” break in the clouds during the rainy season, he once watched Bob Hope and Zsa Zsa Gabor perform on a pristine beach in the Bahamas that later became a Club Med. He traveled in a NASA plane that could have been shot down as a spy plane at any time if government clearances failed.
“Trinidad, Tobago, Rio de Janeiro, it was tough duty, you know.” Busching smiled. “Very strange that just about all the tracking stations were in these beautiful resort areas. It was a good time to be a techie.”
Busching chuckled at those who believe the moon landing was staged.
“That’s funny,” Busching said. “Those who say it was done in a studio might be 90 percent right because there were Hollywood producers who reenacted the landing because the actual landing on the moon footage wasn’t so clear. So it depends on what footage these people watched.”
Original footage is grainy, and unless censored begins with Armstrong upside down, he said.
“Conspirators try to keep proving their beliefs,” Busching said. “They say the flag itself looks like it’s waving in the wind and the moon has no wind, but they had put metal braces in the flag, or it would have just dropped. There is no way with the amount of time we spent on it that it was faked.”
After seeing the world over, Busching returned to Valley City where he lives quietly. He kept up on digital and technological advances until recently. Now, he uses computers for internet access and emails. Never married with no children, he enjoys drinking coffee at The Vault most afternoons, sometimes longs for the jazz bands he used to watch in Los Angeles.
“It’s a nice place to retire in, I guess,” Busching, who dubs himself as the “Marco Polo of the Space Age,” said.
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