Local man witnessed history first hand

Published 10:42 pm Saturday, July 18, 2009

On July 20, 1969, history was made and Suffolk’s own Jarvis Howell was there.

Forty years ago, Americans watched their televisions as the men of Apollo 11 mission became the first to go to the moon and the first to step foot on it.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, while moments later, fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the second.

Howell, a 1946 graduate from Suffolk High School, did not have to watch television to see history unfold, he was below the control center helping make it happen.

“I was down there just concentrating on the computers,” Howell said. “I was watching and making sure everything was working.”

Howell went to for NASA after graduating from Virginia Tech and serving as a Navigator Bombardier in the Unites States Air Force.

By the time of the Apollo launch, Howell served as the chief of the ground computer support system for NASA. His responsibilities included developing and monitoring software that would connect the launch pads to the control centers, which were located two to three miles away from the launch site.

Howell said the majority of his work was on computers the size of rooms. The computers had just a 4K of memory and there was a fixed hard drive that had a 10K memory.

“That’s all it took to launch the Apollo,” Howell said.

And Apollo’s launch, Howell said, is one he will never forget.

“The launch of the Apollo was a very, very exciting thing,” he said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful sight. Once you see one of these launched, it’s so inspiring it’s beyond description. It’s quite a sight to behold. It’s so powerful, with the rockets and the noise. The whole world shakes. It’s like hell on earth.

“I defy anyone to be lackadaisical in that environment. It’s an unbelievable experience.”

While the world was glued to the views of man walking on the moon, Howell said those who worked there saw it much differently.

They saw their work as work, not history.

“In most cases, it was just another day at the office,” Howell said of the Apollo 11 mission. “I regret I didn’t spend more time, when it was actually happening, to take it in. You just don’t realize the significance of it until it was too late.”

If Jarvis Howell was not caught up in the day’s events, his wife, Doris, made up for it.

“I was a nervous wreck,” Doris said of Apollo 11’s mission. “I was just hoping everything was going to be OK and I wanted it to get up there OK.”

Doris added that, at the time, all of the workings surrounding NASA were considered highly confidential. She said she rarely knew of what her husband was working on.

“I’m hearing things now I didn’t know because he couldn’t discuss it,” she said.

But there would be times where Jarvis would give his family a hint of what was coming.

“He would say to me, ‘Doris, it might be a good day to go to the beach,’” Doris said. “And I would get the kids and head down there to see what would happen.”

“We would use our own code language,” Jarvis joked.

The Howells knew all the astronauts, and would often socialize with them men who would become instant American icons.

“We used to know them really well,” Jarvis said. “We partied together and all that. They were a rowdy bunch. They were pretty feisty.”

Feistiness aside, Jarvis said the mission to the moon did not change the men they knew. After the parades and the celebrations, it was back to work.

“We were just regular flyboys,” Jarvis said. “It was work as usual, you know, checking the clock for the next coffee break.”

Jarvis retired from NASA in 1994, but stayed in Florida.

He and Doris returned to Suffolk in November 2008 in order to be closer to family.