Moon landing: 'Great amount of pride being the only Native person on the control team'

Johnson Space Center. (NASA photo)

Julia Gross and Jerry Elliott have worked at the top of the fields, showing the path for the next generation of Native scientists

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Neil Armstrong walks on the moon, July 20, 1969. (NASA photo)

On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 moon landing mission launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Four days later on July 20, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

While Armstrong’s famous words,“That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” will forever ring throughout history; lesser known is the team that got the Apollo 11 astronauts to and from the moon safely.

Jerry Elliott was on that team. 

He was a retrofire officer in the control center, responsible for computing the return to Earth path from the moon. Elliott, Cherokee and Osage, was also the lone Native American in the room.

Looking back on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Elliott remembers the excitement in the control room to the build up of the moon landing.

“I was feeling a great amount of pride being the only Native person on the control team,” said Elliott, who was also the first Native American hired at NASA. “It was a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride to know that our Native people were represented.”

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Jerry Elliott, Chrerokee Nation, was the first American Indian hired at NASA's Johnson Space Center. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Elliott)

From a young age, Elliott knew it was his destiny to land men on the moon. During a summer in Oklahoma City when he was five, Elliott says he received a vision that told him so.

“I went inside and told my mother the vision and she said ‘Keep the vision, believe the vision and achieve it,’” Elliott recalls. “I knew early on when I was a child what my role in life was to be.”

Before he started his 40 year career at NASA, Elliott became the first Native American to graduate from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in physics. He said he’s had to overcome a lot of different things in his career, including colleagues and professors who said Natives couldn’t be scientists and engineers.

“They did not understand American Indians and would look upon me as someone incapable of carrying out my duties,” Elliott said. “So my challenge was not to compete with them, my challenge was to compete with myself.”

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Julia Gross, Lakota, was inspired by the moon landing. (NASA photo)

The moon landing and subsequent Apollo missions inspired generations of kids to dream about going to outer space, including Julia Gross, Lakota, as she grew up on the PIne Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Gross never lost that dream. She admits that she sometimes struggled when she first got to college but it was through an organization of which Jerry Elliott was a co-founder, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, or AISES, and people she met through the organization that helped her stay in school.

While working as an engineer in Denver, Gross attended a career fair that NASA was apart of and it was through that process in which she would eventually meet Elliott, who would become one of her mentors.

“It kind of blew my mind" that Elliott worked at NASA, Gross said. “He’s just one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.”

For the first couple years of her time at NASA, Gross worked on a team building a communications system that was going to be permanently placed on the moon. She then moved on to being in charge of building the communications system for the Orion spacecraft.

No longer at NASA, Gross is an aspiring scientist attending graduate school at Columbia University in New York City. She is a radio astronomer, using radio telescopes to study galaxy evolution and is her current work is surveying hundreds of galaxies deep into space.

“The furthest galaxies that we’re studying, it took five billions years for that to get to the Earth, so we’re looking at things very far back in time.” she said. “It blows my mind every day.”

Both Gross and Elliott have worked at the top of the fields, showing the path for the next generation of Native scientists to achieve their goals and dreams. They also share similar sentiments of advice for people who are willing to dream big.

“If you are true to yourself, you can navigate and find a way to add to the environments that you’re in,” Gross said. “All the things you encounter growing up and any kind of hardships, those are things that will give you a unique perspective.”

Elliott said the best advice he could give to people is to overcome your fears and accept challenges.

“Don’t limit yourself because you are unlimited,” Elliott said. “Dream. Believe. Achieve.”

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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