Looking back, peering up: Nevada County residents reminisce on 50 years since humans reached the moon – The Union of Grass Valley

From his childhood home, Bob Altieri would often sit on his porch, looking at the streets as they connected to one another, stretching further into the distance. He liked to imagine he could link the avenues in a chain, beginning from his home and moving further west until he reached the Pacific.

“I had a love for California, (but) I was New York born,” said Altieri.

But that hope was minuscule compared to what he was to help accomplish – something that most people hadn’t fathomed when he was a child. The now-business broker who lives near Scotts Flat was a part of nine Apollo missions, including Apollo 11, which saw the first humans land on the moon 50 years ago today.


After graduating from Indiana Institute of Technology in 1966, Altieri wanted to fly for the Air Force. It was during the Vietnam War era, and he was almost enlisted, he said, except for eyesight problems that disqualified him.

Instead of heading west, Altieri moved south to Cape Canaveral – then Cape Kennedy – Florida. In 1967, he found himself working as a test engineer for IBM, which was a subcontractor conducting a second level of testing for NASA’s Apollo missions.

“I thought, here’s where I can do something for my country,” he said.

While various workers in Houston were operating mission control, and everything going on while a rocket was launched into space, Altieri was part of a safety team in the cape, ensuring everything leading up to the launch went smoothly.

At the time, Altieri frequently marveled at the vehicles he operated on, which weighed up to 7.5 million pounds when fired, he said, and burned fuels at a staggeringly quick rate.

Participating on the launch teams, Altieri’s job was to troubleshoot issues months before launches took place. IBM, he said, had emergency systems installed. If a problem was detected, scientists would either scrub the launch or fix it and continue.

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His team “was the brains of the launch vehicle,” he said.

While working on the Apollo missions, the engineer still found a way to become a pilot, going to flight school in Cocoa Beach and subsequently receiving his license.

He still dreamed of moving to California, but that hope would have to be momentarily delayed. Although he may not have known it yet, Altieri was checking systems to ensure the safety, stability and efficiency of the first vehicle to carry humans to the moon. The year of that landing in 1969, he turned 25.


In 1961, the Kennedy Administration was clear: Americans would reach the moon before the decade’s end. Altieri said that sentiment permeated his work and his 28,000 peers working on the cape.

But despite the excitement and confidence in the Apollo missions, one thing today constantly strikes Altieri: the technology was relatively rudimentary, so much so that if a meteor made contact with the shuttle, it would have been destroyed.

“I was fascinated with this vehicle because the whole thing looks like tinfoil from the site,” he said.

Despite not having today’s hindsight, people recognized the vulnerability of the space missions, said Altieri.

“You could smell it in the room,” he said of smoke emitting from cigarettes, masking fears of failure and catastrophe in the control station before a rocket launch. “The tension (was) just unbelievable.”

Since his work was completed once a rocket safely took flight, Altieri was not in the Cape Kennedy station on July 20, 1969, but rather at home, watching history occur on his black-and-white television screen.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” he said, and it brought countries closer, which was the intention of the administration popularly known as Camelot. “I think we advanced as a society significantly.”

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Kirk Valentine – a co-owner of Nevada City Classic Cafe who worked on Project Gemini, which were space exploration programs that preceded the Apollo missions – was equally as inspired.

“We felt – when I say we, I mean the country – we could do anything,” he said.


After Apollo 12, Altieri left the cape, finally making it to the place he dreamed of as a child: California. After 1969, the Nixon Administration began cutting NASA’s funding, and Altieri took a job with Fairchild Resiliency Systems in the Bay Area, tinkering with transistors.

“Once we met the goal, then there was no reason to go much further,” he said, adding that “he wasn’t sad at all because the program accomplished its mission.”

Upon attending business school in 2000, Altieri started a few businesses, some of which, he said, failed while others succeeded. He went on to teach real estate at Sierra College and invested himself in the Foothills community.

The man who helped Americans stand on the moon has spent six years as a board member for the Hospice of the Foothills, one year on the Nevada County grand jury, and 23 years on the county’s board of education.


Some believe space travel is wasteful spending considering the issues we face on Earth. Altieri, however, believes lessons from space exploration can be, and have been, translated into progress.

Much of our medical advances, studies on climate change and advances in transportation technology, he said, can be attributed to the work contributed by NASA and other scientists. Plus, said Altieri, our solar system is just a speck, leaving much more to be discovered.

“We’re not alone,” he said. “I believe that totally.”

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This past week, Altieri was invited to the cape to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. There, he came upon a city encapsulated with students studying the sciences and aerospace engineering. He saw vehicle models for the next possible moon landing, which the current administration has tasked to occur by the year 2024. He witnessed technology that could also advance NASA’s goal to reach Mars by the mid 2030s.

“It’s buzzing down there,” he said. “There’s a lot going on.”

Looking back, Altieri said he was shocked by the accomplishment: the 400,000 people who contributed to the Apollo missions, the range of skills it took to help manifest Kennedy’s goal, the fact that humans reached the moon in 186 hours, and the peaceful consequences that endured in America’s foreign affairs.

“It was such a massive effort, you know, that’s my realization now,” he said. “That it was so awesome in the spectrum of things in thinking. It’s mind boggling that it actually all worked.”

For the first time in his life, Altieri said a client of his thanked him, acknowledging his intended mission all those years ago: to provide a service to the country.

In light of the remembrance, some Americans are beginning to ask: will we return to the moon, and beyond?

“It depends on our leadership, frankly,” said Kirk Valentine. “We went to the moon because of Kennedy. We went to the moon because of our belief and because we had a leader who took us there.”

Altieri also isn’t sure. It depends, he said, on the durability of our testing and our will to get there.

“It’s really hard to say,” he said, “because that’s going to be another super major milestone.”

Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at scorey@theunion.com.



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