Silvey recalls watching anxiously as his project sent man to moon in 1969

H.K. Silvey. Photo courtesy of Elaine Burnett

Theodosia resident H. K. Silvey watched some of last week’s observance of the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing. “But, you know, it was kind of old news,” he said Monday with a chuckle.

That nonchalant attitude was the polar opposite of how Silvey felt 50 years ago as American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins blasted off for the moon.

“Oh, boy, did we watch it all. I’ve never been on pins and needles so long in my life,” Silvey said, recalling that time. “From the time it launched until them boys got back and dropped into the ocean and they picked them up, we was holding our breath the whole time.”

Silvey was nervous and excited because he had helped build the Saturn V booster that lifted the astronauts into space in July 1969. In fact, on the moon today, attached to the lunar module Eagle that was left behind when those first lunar astronauts returned to Earth, is a list of the names of those who worked on the Apollo 11 project – including Silvey’s.

It’s a source of pride for the boy who grew up in Longrun and attended the one-room school there before graduating from Gainesville High School in 1952.

After high school, Silvey, who will be 86 in September, went to work for Boeing building B-47 aircraft in Wichita, Kansas. “I worked in the nose section installing electrical wiring. Then I got transferred to the flight line doing systems check-outs and modifications,” he said.

Boeing transferred him to Walker Air Force Base near Roswell, New Mexico, where he stayed about two years. “I kept trying to get transferred into the missile division because that was the coming-up thing. But they said I didn’t have the qualifications and this and that,” he said.

He quit Boeing in 1960 and went to work for Martin-Marietta in Denver, Colorado, installing Titan I missiles. 

By then, Silvey was married, and he and his wife, Judy, had started their family, which eventually would include four children. The family bought a house trailer in Denver. Judy and the kids accompanied Silvey to many places as Martin-Marietta sent him “all over the country,” he said, working on the missile program: California, Arkansas, back to Colorado, then South Dakota and Washington State. During her first year of school, their daughter Sheryl went to four different schools in four different states, he said. 

In July 1964, he was laid off by Martin-Marietta, and the family returned to Ozark County for six months. Then, in early January, they were headed back to Denver, where their trailer was waiting and Silvey had a job lined up as an insurance salesman. They stopped to spend the night in Wichita with his uncle and aunt, Joe and Hazel Brewer. 

“I got up the next morning and thought I would call the personnel manager at Boeing, just to check. He said, ‘Come out, and I’ll buy your dinner.’ I met him there. … He introduced me to a guy who was a recruiting agent for the Saturn program in New Orleans. He said, ‘Would you consider coming back to Boeing?’ I said I didn’t think so.” 

The agent pressed Silvey: “Well, you would if the money was right, I betcha.” 

“It’ll take a lot more money than I was making when I left,” Silvey answered.

“You tell me how much,” the agent said.

“I doubled my salary, and he didn’t quabble one bit. This was on a Friday, and he said, ‘Can you be in New Orleans on Monday?’ I said, ‘No, I have a trailer and belongings in Denver.’ He said, ‘That’s not a problem. All we need is a key and an address. We’ll take care of it.’”

Silvey consulted with Judy, who said, “Whatever you think.” And by Saturday morning, they were on their way to New Orleans. 

“There was snow on the ground in Wichita, and it was cold. I had on my long underwear. We got to New Orleans that night, and man! It was 75 degrees.” 

About three days later, their trailer arrived from Denver. “They’d packed up everything. There was a glass of water on the counter by the sink. They never even spilt that water or nothing,” he said.

At NASA’s Machoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Silvey worked for Martin-Marietta on the Saturn booster as a quality control engineering aide. “I never had a degree, but I worked with the engineers all the time,” he said. 

When completed, the huge booster rockets were shipped from New Orleans to Kennedy Space Center in Florida on barges. 

On July 16, 1969, when Apollo 11 launched, Silvey watched with his co-workers in the assembly facility’s control center, where launches had been simulated. “We had all kinds of TVs we could watch. We were nervous as all get-out. I got a big relief after the launch because that was the part I had worked on. I had inspected a lot of those systems. Once the booster had done its job and dropped into the ocean, I felt a little easier,” he said.

Silvey left Boeing in 1973. “We were phasing out, laying people off. They wanted me to go to Seattle and help build airplanes. I didn’t want to go. Our daughter Sheryl was a junior in high school, and the other daughter Elaine was getting ready to start high school. We had two little boys at home. I told Judy, if we go to Seattle one or both of the girls will get married up there, and Dad won’t ever leave them girls, and that ain’t where I want to live the rest of my life.”

Boeing offered a lay-off instead, and Silvey took it and returned to Ozark County with his family. They bought a farm near his parents at Longrun, and he lived there until about a year and a half ago, when he moved to Theodosia to make it easier for his daughters, now Elaine Burnett and Sheryl Lawson, whenever he needs help. His wife, Judy, died in 2013.

As surprising as it is to think that an Ozark County man’s name is now on the moon, Silvey says he thinks the names of one or two other Ozark Countians may be there as well. Homer Wallace and Leslie Shaw worked for Martin-Marietta with him in New Orleans. he said. “I can’t be sure of Leslie. He might have left before it finished, but I think Homer’s name is probably there too.”  

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