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Sharon Sandidge, far right, stands with mothers family in Cleveland, Tenn., from the days surrounding the Apollo 11 launch.
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NASA employee Apollo memories

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Sharon Sandidge was a NASA employee working at Kennedy Space Center on the eastern coast of Florida when Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969.

She remembers the thundering roar and the billowing clouds of smoke and flame as the Saturn V rocket engines ignited and 7.5 million pounds of thrust propelled the 363-foot rocket into space and its three-man crew into the history books.

"The earth was shaking, and I remember the birds were scattering through the air," says the 68-year-old Cleveland, Tennessee, resident, who grew up in Mims, Florida.

Oddly enough, it was her second heart-pounding experience of the day. The first came in the early morning darkness when her ride into work overslept.

Most days, Sandidge drove herself to work in the yellow Volkswagen Beetle that her summer job in NASA's Public Affairs office was paying for. But this day, launch day, was different. NASA had instructed employees to arrive three to four hours earlier than normal and to carpool.

"Because we had to check through the gate at 4:30 a.m. and there were so many people and so much traffic, I was to ride in with another girl," Sandidge recalls.

The co-worker, Barbara, was in her late 20s, single and had an apartment in downtown Titusville, Florida, just across the Indian River. Sandidge remembers calling to tell Barbara she was on her way.

"When she answered her phone, she said, 'Public Affairs,'" as if she were answering an office line. "That should have given me my first clue," Sandidge says.

Sandidge arrived around 4 a.m., and assured her mother, who had driven her there, that there was no reason to stay. But repeated knocks on Barbara's door produced no Barbara. Finally, a neighbor, likely roused by the loud, incessant knocking, emerged from his apartment and offered his phone to call Barbara again. This time, she awakened, quickly got dressed and the two women made their way to work.

"I was still frantic that we were getting there later than we should have, but she remained calm," Sandidge remembers. Already, she says, "there were masses of people camped alongside the road and parked everywhere."

Nearly 1 million spectators were estimated to have crowded onto Florida's highways, byways and beaches to watch the departure of Apollo 11. A NASA special publication, "Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft," also reports that some 3,500 media representatives were present, about two-thirds from the United States and the rest from 55 other countries. The launch was televised live in 33 countries, with an estimated 25 million viewers in the United States.

Dignitaries included the U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland, four cabinet members, 19 state governors, 40 mayors, 60 ambassadors and 200 members of Congress, according to NASA records. These were the people Sandidge likely was tending to as a hostess at the VIP/Dignitary site, answering their questions and handing out NASA literature.

But their importance didn't register with the 18-year-old, who had graduated from high school on a Friday in June and started work at NASA the following Monday. She was little more than a month into the job on the day of the historic launch.

"I have been asked if I met any important people there that day, but honestly I was so excited that I probably wouldn't have recognized them if I saw them," she says. "I am sure that I probably met quite a few. Security was everywhere, and people from all over the United States and foreign countries were there and had been cleared to be in a forward area for the launch. I remember thinking that I could really have used those foreign languages [from high school classes] if I had them now."

History records that the day dawned with clear blue skies for the liftoff, which took place at 9:32 a.m. EDT. The crowds and anticipation for the importance of the day created a general stir of excitement as launch time neared, Sandidge says.

"Then everything got very quiet as countdown commenced, and everyone held their breath as the rockets fired," she says. "In the distance we could hear the loud roar of the rocket engines and see the gigantic clouds of smoke and fire as they ignited. People cheered, pointed and yelled out as Apollo 11 left the ground."

After the crowds dispersed, the VIP hostesses were transported back to the main office building to complete their regular shift. For the clerical staff in Public Affairs, the schedule returned to business as usual for the rest of the week. But Sandidge remembers, "The entire base was highly charged during that time, and conversations centered around the expected moon landing and safe return of our astronauts."

Three days later, after traveling more than 240,000 miles, command module pilot Michael Collins parked the command module Columbia in a lunar orbit 60 miles above the moon. Then Cmdr. Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin prepared for their descent in lunar module Eagle the next day.

At 10:56 p.m. EDT Saturday, July 20, Armstrong was ready to place the first human foot on another world. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbed down the ladder and proclaimed, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."

Aldrin soon joined him, and the two astronauts explored the surface for two and a half hours, collecting samples and taking photographs. They then returned to Columbia for their journey back to Earth. The crew splashed down off the coast of Hawaii on Thursday, July 24, 1969.

Sandidge left NASA to start college in the fall and returned the next year to work one more summer with the space agency, this time in the Test Integration office, which scheduled and adapted testing for the astronauts.

"The pace was starting to slow down at that time," she remembers.

She has kept several souvenirs of her time at NASA, mostly from the Apollo 11 launch, including her special-issue VIP site badge, a copy of a telex sent to the astronauts by President Richard Nixon, a commemorative letter NASA sent out for the occasion and a paycheck stub.

Sandidge later worked in hotel management in Florida and Georgia, and recently retired as a purchasing and assets administrator with Bradley County government. She still has fond memories of those long-ago NASA years.

"NASA was a whole new world for me, and I really never realized how fortunate I was to be working there, especially during that special time," she says. "It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event that is unforgettable."

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.

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