The recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the triumphant accomplishment of putting a man on the moon, allowed one local man the chance to reminisce about his role behind the scenes in making U.S. history.
Jon Keyes leads the expected life of a 79-year-old retiree. He enjoys his time searching out new treasures to offer at his antique booths in Sulphur, and he cherishes the moments with his grandchildren and wife of 49 years. But the framed photos and awards hanging on his walls tell the story of a motivated young man who was determined to make a difference in the world.
Keyes joined the U.S. Navy in 1957 and served as a gunfire control technician. He went on to work in instrumentation and radar, and by the time he left the military in 1961 his training had qualified him for a career in the civilian technical world.
Keyes was soon hired to work on the McDonnell aircraft missile system where he worked on fighter jets just before the Vietnam War. Five years later, he was recruited by Boeing. In just a few short years, the Petty Officer 3rd Classman had made his way to becoming the lead technician at the Kennedy Space Center.
“I can remember being so excited about the technology and equipment I was about to work with,” Keyes recalled.
“It’s funny to look back
at it now; the equipment was so large it would take up an entire room. Now, the phone
in your hand probably has more capabilities than the technology we were using to put men into space, but at the time it was ground-breaking and I couldn’t wait to begin working with it.”
Keyes worked on 10 Apollo missions during his time in Florida, but his favorite mission to be a part of was the Apollo 11 project — and for obvious reasons.
“It is an amazing moment in our history. All these years later, 50 years later and it has not been replicated. I think that goes to show how truly remarkable what we did that day was,” he said.
Keyes credits the accomplishment with the team of men he worked with in Florida. While each team was tasked with their own responsibilities, they worked together seamlessly preparing and checking each and every part of the rocket they were building. The job was not without its stressful moments, he admitted. Even as the countdown to launch began on July 16, 1969, a hydraulic leak put his team on the offensive, and immediately another hydrogen leak occurred for another team to fix.
“You had to be on your toes, that’s for sure,” Keyes said.
The issues were fixed, and with the coolness and discipline that only military training could produce, Keyes said he assured his team the countdown could continue. The launch went on successfully without another issue.
As the world looked back on the launch and the moonwalk last month, Keyes will celebrate a different day. Aug. 12, 1969, was the day when astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were released from quarantine after their space mission, and Keyes with his fellow team members went out publicly for the first time with the astronauts to celebrate the feat they all had just accomplished.
“That day was a celebration I won’t forget,” Keyes recalled. “We all cheered for ourselves and took photos. Everyone added their signature to a menu next to Buzz and Neil’s signatures, and it was just a great time.”
Keyes still possesses the menu from that day, and keeps it near his other most treasured items including the Apollo/Saturn V Role of Honor. One of only 11 non-NASA personnel to be given such recognition, the honor means that Keyes’ role on the Apollo mission will be forever documented in the national archives at the Smithsonian Institution.
“I have a lot of favorites, but I think that one might be my most favorite,” he said.
Keyes would go on to take a job in California, but not before making a stop in Jennings to marry a local school teacher he had met in Florida while she was on vacation one year.
That sweetheart would later convince him to make Louisiana their retirement home.
Last month, Keyes returned to Cape Canaveral for a 50th anniversary celebration where he was reunited with the men whom he had worked with, but lost touch with over the course of time. Together, the men enjoyed dinner and took new photographs together as tribute to their celebration all those years ago.
“It was the first time in 50 years that we were all together again in the same place at the same time, and we were reminded of the great camaraderie we had,” Keyes said.
“We had tough times and we had good times, and we had some truly hilarious moments that we probably should not ever talk about again, but it really was a great time that I’m honored to have been a part of.”