Family of Canadian scientist remembers his critical role in Apollo 11 moon mission
Fifty years ago Saturday, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began collecting rocks from the surface of the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.
It turns out it was a Canadian, and future president of the University of British Columbia, who was telling the astronauts which rocks to bring back to Earth.
During the Apollo space program in the 1960s, David Strangway was a geophysicist at the University of Toronto who regularly took leave to bring his expertise to NASA.
WATCH: How Canadians made significant contributions to Apollo 11
By the time Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, Strangway was at mission control in Houston communicating directly with the crew, which still thrills his B.C.-based daughters Patricia and Susan.
“My dad was on a first-name basis with all the astronauts,” Patricia said. “He had to train them. He had to tell them, ‘This is what we’re doing, this is the experiment, this is where I need you to go.'”
The astronauts knew Strangway so well, Susan remembers, that he earned a dubious nickname.
“They called him Dr. Strangelove as a joke,” she chuckled.
When Strangway came back home to his family in Toronto weeks later, he brought some of the rocks Armstrong and Aldrin collected with him.
WATCH: How Apollo 11 inspired Canada’s astronauts
“He just had them in his luggage with his shirts,” Susan said. “When customs asked him if he purchased anything when he was away, he said, ‘No, but I have some moon rocks,’ which they took as a joke and let him carry on.
“Then the media covered that the moon rocks were in Canada, so customs came to our door in the middle of the night and brought forms to fill out. But how do you fill out forms for things that aren’t from this world?”
Susan still remembers how, in the afterglow of the Apollo 11 mission, her dad brought some of the rocks into her Grade 2 class for the ultimate “show and tell.”
“He brought moon rocks and moon dust,” she said. “Everyone was blown away. There were police escorts for my dad. The newspapers covered it. The kids even drew some illustrations of the day afterwards.”
In 1970, Strangway and his family found themselves living in Houston full-time when Strangway became the chief geophysicist for NASA.
Patricia and Susan both remember playing and going to school with the children of the astronauts and scientists from the Apollo missions.
WATCH: Canada’s contributions to the Apollo 11 mission
Strangway’s new job also allowed him to bring back even more samples from the moon for study at his own lab.
But the Apollo 11 rocks continued to hold a special place in his heart.
When Strangway became president of UBC in 1985, Patricia says he had a box of the rocks in his office, which became a subject of fascination among his staff.
“Some members of my dad’s administration, I was talking to them recently, and they recall that box,” she said. “I’m not sure what happened to them.”
As the world celebrates the anniversary of one of mankind’s greatest achievements, both Patricia and Susan are proud that their dad, who passed away in 2016, played a role.
“Every time I look up at the moon, I think of my dad,” Patricia said. “I can’t help but look at the moon and think of him.”
“We still can’t believe our dad brought home a piece of it,” Susan said.
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