Cedar Rapids man recalls critical role he played in moon landing

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - When Neil Armstrong took some of the most famous steps in history on July 20, 1969, hundreds of millions of people were watching as he walked across the surface of the moon.

But those steps might not have happened without the work of Richard Morningstar, who was born and raised in the Cedar Rapids area.

Morningstar graduated from the University of Iowa in 1959 with a degree in mechanical engineering, and he had no plans of leaving the Hawkeye State.

“Had I not gone to the University of Iowa, I’d probably have been a farm boy somewhere around here,” he said.

Instead, Morningstar was offered a job in California to do engineering work on the Valkyrie Bomber, a supersonic bomber, so he packed his bags for Los Angeles.

A few years later, he got a job with Space Technology Laboratories, which eventually became TRW Space and Defense, and it was a big-time for the company.

“They had just won the lunar descent engine contract from NASA,” Morningstar said.

He served as the chief design engineer for that project, leading a team of more than 30 people to design the engine that would allow the Apollo 11 lunar module to land on the moon.

Designing this spacecraft to go where no person had gone before had its own challenges, including how to design an engine with an adjustable throttle.

“It could not go so fast, or it would crash into the moon’s surface,” Morningstar said. “So Neil Armstrong had to be able to throttle the engine up and down.”

They were also under a time crunch for the labor-intensive work, as President John F. Kennedy had set the goal in 1962 of Americans reaching the moon by the end of the decade.

“The schedule was tight. It required a lot of extra time,” Morningstar said.

But that pressure didn’t deter them.

“I don't recall anybody really complaining about it,” he said. “I spent a lot of extra time there on weekends, and so on, but it was a national effort. It was special.”

A few years passed between the completion of Morningstar’s project and the time Apollo 11 launched in 1969.

“But it was always on my mind about that engine,” Morningstar remembered. “Will it work when we really need it to work?”

It did when the lunar module touched down on July 20, 1969.

Morningstar happened to be camping at Yosemite National Park in California that day, and he said it created a special memory for one of his sons, who was a boy at the time, as they listened in on the radio.

“He says, ‘You let out a whoop we couldn’t believe!’” Morningstar said with a laugh.

After the Apollo program, Morningstar worked on projects for NASA, the military and other groups before retiring from TRW Space and Defense in 1992.

But none were as meaningful to him as the one that’s the most iconic.

“It’s a good feeling to think you really contributed to something that’s really special,” he said.

Several years after retiring, Morningstar moved back to Cedar Rapids, where he now lives with his wife, Judy.