HIGH POINT, N.C. — It was an island of unity in an otherwise tumultuous time.
The 1960s were similar to our time now, when the country seemed very divided over big questions, like the Vietnam War and Civil Rights. But there was one thing that seemed to bring the country together: the space program.
“It was like a whole new world,” said Pat Neal, about her time working in public affairs at NASA and its predecessor, NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
“Everyone who worked in the space program got totally immersed in it. It was the main thought — the main thing that you talked about,” she said, while going through old memorabilia she has in her High Point home. She grew up in High Point and in Bassett, Virginia, before taking the job with NACA.
That meant spending a lot of time with astronauts who were recruited from the best and brightest of young Americans — most of them, military pilots.
“I didn’t know any one of those astronauts that you didn’t look up to and respect,” Neal said. “They were nice people and they didn’t consider themselves to be special.”
But, indeed, they were — as was their great accomplishment, winning the “Space Race” against the Soviets who had beaten the US when it came to putting the first satellite in orbit. But, as President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress on May 25, 1961, just a few months into his administration, he charged American scientists to be the first to send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth.
What an accomplishment and yet the men at the center of it — men Neal knew very well — didn’t brag about what they had done.
“They did not harp on the stuff that they did,” she said. “They just knew what they had done and they knew we knew what they had done. And they just wanted to talk about general things. They were all so, just happy and excited that they had done what they were able to do and it all went so well.”
See what Neal looked like in her NASA days and the famous person who came into her life because of it in this edition of the Buckley Report.