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As NASA plans Moon return, Botts remembers first landing

When the Apollo 11 spacecraft was launched on July 16, 1969, from Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida, Jesse Wyman Botts was there. Only a stone’s throw from him was Wernher von Braun, the pioneer of rocket technology and space in the United States.

“The launch was on countdown and I was standing in front of the launch control center,” said Botts, a retired NASA engineer.  “Wernher von Braun was standing just over in the back of a pickup truck. He wanted to experience the shock waves and hear the sounds as the Apollo 11 spacecraft lifted off.”

Botts was seeking the same experience. He said there is no way to describe the atmosphere or the excitement of being there when the United States sent men to the moon.

“At launch, even my pants legs shook. You could feel the incredible force of the shock waves,” he said.

Botts said, at launch, the entire area was in a festive mood. And when the Eagle Lunar Module landed on the Moon and Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap for mankind,” on July 20, 1969, a wave of patriotism engulfed the nation. Botts was caught in that wave and rode it until he retired from NASA after 26 years.

Botts, a Brundidge native, had a ringside seat to the space race and was there to celebrate when America won the race against Russia and the world.

Botts graduated from Auburn University in 1959 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He worked with Douglas Aircraft Company in Southern California and then Brookley Field in Mobile until it shut its doors in 1965.

“My wife, Betty Ross Botts, and I decided to go to the Kennedy Space Center to explore any job opportunities that I might have there,” Botts said. “I was pleased to find there were five different job opportunities that fit my qualifications.”

The push to put a man on the moon was in high gear and Botts had several offers.

“There were jobs for engineers of all kinds,” he said. “It was an exciting time, stressful at times, but always interesting. I was fortunate to have been able to be a part of the Apollo and shuttle programs.”

To close out his career in the space industry, Botts accepted a special assignment in California and had the opportunity to work on a space station design before he retired three years later.

The space program continues to be of great interest to Botts and he is supportive of the efforts to send men to the Moon once again. The United States has the capabilities and the benefits will be far-reaching, he said.

“Basically, the big push to go back to the Moon is so that we will have the capabilities to put a man on Mars,” Botts said. “We have nothing on the Moon left to study but the Moon would provide a base from which to launch a space craft bound for Mars. Gravity on the Moon is one-sixth that of Earth, so it won’t take as much lift to break away from the gravity of the Moon.”

Botts said the idea or plan for a base to be located on the Moon is feasible. He believes, too, that putting a man on Mars is probably not as far in the future as some might think.

And those who accept that years-long journey and mission to Mars must be prepared to stay, he said.

“When they go, in all probability, they will not come back to Earth,” he said.

Those who go will provide a great service to their country and to all mankind, Botts said.

“Just consider all the benefits we have reaped from the Moon landing. The technology that went into that program has launched great advances in medicine and technology. And it also had a lot to do with the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia nearly went bankrupt trying to beat the United States to the Moon.”

Botts said the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the U.S. space program will continue to be well-spent as the mission to Mars moves into high gear.

“The money spent on the space program is not tossed out into space. It goes into the pockets of the workers involved,” he said. “We all benefit from the research that is done. And what really impresses me is that NASA shares everything. They make the information gained available to the public – the medical technology, the materials, the electronics. Industries pick up that shared information and develop and market it.

“And think of the benefits of the propaganda that comes from the space program. No other country can do what the United States of America can do and that helps our military. There are so many benefits that have come from the space program and it will continue to benefit our country and others.”

And what about taking that “one giant leap” on Mars?

“Without a doubt,” Botts said.