My Father, the Man on the Moon

With Father’s Day occurring later this month, we asked Wilton resident Dan Sullivan if we could share an essay he wrote about his own father. It fits nicely with the SpaceX launch that took place this past Saturday.

Recently I celebrated the anniversary of my dad, Dan Sullivan, Sr.’s passing. Now that I’m a dad myself, I try to see him as more than just my dad, but as a man like me with a job, a family, and hey, even a life.

But as a kid, he was just my dad who left for “work” every day. Turns out years later when I was able to appreciate him as more than a dad I asked him about his job. As a kid, I only knew he worked at Grumman and came home with a free turkey at Christmas every year. The fact that I knew so little about his job was in part his own humility, and that much of his work was classified. You see, my dad was an engineer at Grumman who was part of a colossal undertaking by our nation during the ’60s. He unwittingly had taken on one of the most daunting tasks imaginable to work on the Apollo 11 space program to send men to the moon.

He told me about the day he was hired at Grumman, he was one of several hundred men (yes back then, all men) gathered in an auditorium for their orientation. A man took to the stage turned on a projector and showed a short film. It was President Kennedy addressing the nation, issuing a challenge to Russia and the rest of the free world that America would be the first to put men on the moon in 10 years. It would be the single largest initiative in peacetime, in modern history with over 400,000 employed by the space program.

When the film of President Kennedy’s speech ended the man on the stage said,
“Gentlemen you’ve just received your briefing. Your job is to figure out how we are going to send men to the moon. The clock is ticking, I suggest you get to work.”

These men felt such overwhelming pressure, the nation was watching and they had been issued a deadline. They had a challenge to meet and to live up to our President’s vision for our nation. The entire auditorium of men was freaking out, some men started smoking, others headed to the nearest men’s room and threw up. My dad said the bars in Bethpage, LI were full that day after work. But they got to work and began hatching a methodical plan to build a spaceship that would carry men to the moon, taking this challenge head-on.

My dad was assigned to the Lunar Module Project in the Standards group. That meant they tested to a fault every single piece of equipment and every instrument onboard. He’d say if something breaks the Astronauts weren’t able to pull over to have it fixed, so every instrument had to have five fail-safes and it was his job to come up with the workarounds for every failed system.

Engineers needed to plan on every instrument on Apollo 11 failing. Their job was to solve the repairs ahead of time.

My dad and all the men who worked on the space program had such an amazing sense of pride that is impossible to find in any job today. They felt a greater sense of purpose, but more than that they felt such national pride serving their country and putting their minds to work solving one of the world’s most complex puzzles. Add to that this was a time of civil unrest in our country when we were divided with racial tensions on the rise, the Vietnam war was ending with such divided support and then miraculously, we as a nation came together to watch the impossible. We landed a man on the moon and gathered in front of our black and white TVs and came together as a country. We saw the future in front of our eyes and it was wonderful and America was leading the way.

My dad told me, “Danny, we sent men to the moon with calculators and slide rules.”

Their accomplishment is still regarded today by NASA as a near-impossible feat. NASA has regular sessions with these men to pass on the learning since today’s engineers readily admit to these men that without computers they could never have done it.

All this pride and accomplishment this man, my dad, was carrying around, and to me, he was just my dad. He grabbed his briefcase each morning, pulled out of the driveway in the station wagon until he’d be home again for dinner to his wife and six kids that night.

This kind of quiet grace seems absent from our culture today. It’s a great reminder to me as my father’s son, as I navigate my own life and career, not to get so caught up in building my own brand, touting my accomplishments in order to further my career. And to look for inspiration and things that can bring us together, not divide us. To dig deep and take challenges head-on and to work the problem and before you know it, you’re on to the solution.

But mostly to take inspiration from others that came before and, even though they were the greatest generation, we all have greatness in ourselves. Our job is to find that greatness and live up to our potential no matter what we do.

So to my dad on this anniversary of his passing, I say, “Dad, I know you’re out there, thanks for it all, you’re our hero, our Man on the Moon!”

4 COMMENTS

  1. Beautiful story, thank you so much for sharing. The Space program so close to my heart too as my husband was a broadcast journalist who was so knowledgable on space, covered many launches and recently has passed away. Now we will send some of his ashes into space!

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