Mission possible: Kluckings had hand in early attempts to send man to space
WORTHINGTON — Nine years before astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin took their first steps on the moon — a momentous occasion that took place 50 years ago today — Worthington residents Tom and Sharon Klucking were part of the support system to send Americans into space.
It was December 1959. The Kluckings, who grew up in Gaylord and Winthrop, were newly married, and Tom was handpicked by the U.S. Air Force to report to Cape Canaveral, Fla. by Jan. 1. His military duties were changing from that of radio repairman to missile system analyst in electronics.
“There was only 20 of us,” recalled Tom, who at the time of his reassignment was stationed in Bangor, Maine.
At Cape Canaveral, Tom was assigned to work on the Titan missile, the launching vehicle for the Gemini space program. The programs advanced from Mercury to Gemini and finally Apollo.
“Military missiles are what founded the space program,” Tom said.
America’s race to space went full throttle when, on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) successfully launched Sputnik, an artificial satellite that could orbit the earth in about 98 minutes.
“Sputnik was what drove Eisenhower nuts,” Tom said. “They put monkeys up, and we couldn’t get a missile to fly.”
When Tom arrived at Cape Canaveral, he was stationed at the last of the missile sites on the property. Everything was in testing mode — there was a lot of trial and error during work to develop a launchable missile.
During test launches, the Kluckings said there was nothing quite exciting as everyone yelling, ‘Missile, missile, missile' and going out to watch the launch. Sometimes, due to faulty trajectory, the missiles had to be blown up. Successful launches erupted in much enthusiasm from the observing workers, they said.
“That’s the unique thing about the American space program,” Tom added. “Russia hides theirs. We put it out there.”
“The goal was to get a man on the moon before Russia,” Sharon said.
Tom was involved in seven or eight different missile launches — one was done at night, the others during the day.
“It seemed like they were launching every day,” Sharon said of the different launch complexes.
“The Titan wasn’t every day,” added Tom.
It was an exciting place in which to work — for both of them.
“He worked nights quite a bit,” Sharon added. “I was lucky enough to get a job with Mercury Control. We didn’t know how exciting that was at the time.”
She was one of 18,000 people working on the Mercury Space Program. Her role was to check everyone’s security clearance when they entered the center.
“I was the first person they saw,” Sharon said, recalling the time a group of several men walked in and, as standard protocol, she asked to see their badges.
“Among them were the astronauts,” she said, noting that the group laughed about being checked by security.
“I wish I had pushed a little further that day. If I’d been bolder and said, ‘Who are you?’, I might have met Alan Shepard.”
Shepard became the first American to travel into space in 1961. He was also the only original astronaut, of which there were seven, to step onto the moon.
“We just happened to be on the threshold of it,” Sharon said. “Nobody realized how important it was. Everything was so secret — it was classified.”
While Sharon said they were “just nobodies” — among the thousands aiding the missile program — Tom disagreed.
“I think anyone who had anything to do with the missile program had a finger in (the success of the space program),” he said. “It was the biggest Works Progress (Administration) move in the history of the country. It was basically a welfare project. Look at the people it employed.”
After 10 months at Cape Canaveral, Tom was reassigned by the Air Force to the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where he spent the next two and a half years as a lead crew member, instructing people how to launch a missile. In all, he spent six and a half years in the military.
The Kluckings returned to Minnesota in June 1963, and Tom attended the University of Minnesota. He became an electronics teacher at Alexander Ramsey High School in Roseville, where he taught from 1968 to 1983.
Fifty years ago today — on July 20, 1969 — the Kluckings joined people around the world to watch as Apollo 11 landed on the moon and astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps.
“Our TV didn’t work so we had to knock on the neighbor’s door,” Sharon said. “We had to watch it on their TV.”
Tom said while some saw the space program as a waste of money, that isn’t so. The technological revolution grew from the research and testing done through the space program, he added.
The Kluckings remained in the Twin Cities until 1983, when they moved to Waseca and Tom continued his career. When he retired, the plan was to travel — to camp and drive across the United States and see the country. Plans, though, have a way of changing.
At the time, they were making frequent trips to Worthington to visit their daughter, Suzy, and her family, and Tom was fixing up their West Lake Avenue home. That home became their home 16 years ago.
“I realized I could come down here and see the grandkids once a month, or I could move here and see them once a day,” Tom said.