AURORA — The 50th anniversary of man’s first landing on the moon stirred unique and special memories this month for the children of a lunar pioneer who played a role in providing those iconic images being beamed back to Earth.
Several years before establishing International Sensor Systems Inc. and moving his young family to Aurora, Giltner native Clifford Williams headed the team at IBM which developed the technology to create electronic, or digital, photographs. In the mid-1960s he then became part of a team at United Aircraft which designed and built the Apollo 11 lunar module.
“This has been a very emotional week thinking about all that and watching all the coverage,” his oldest daughter, Barbara Johnson, said in a recent phone interview from her home in South Dakota.
“It brings back a lot of memories for our family. We kind of grew up with it, but I guess it takes 50 years to figure out how cool it was to be with dad when this happened.”
Like millions of Americans, Johnson watched the television documentaries this month which replayed Neil Armstrong’s famous first step on the moon, followed by the infamous words, “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.”
“I was thinking that if it wasn’t for my dad and his team we wouldn’t have the pictures coming from the moon,” she said. “That’s kind of overwhelming, and to think my dad shared that moment with his children. He had to be thinking about what our future would be like.”
The family lived in Avon, Connecticut, at that time, home base for United Technologies. As for the events of July 20, 1969, Johnson, who was 19 at the time, remembers it well.
“I remember we had a picnic supper and dad came home from work like he usually did,” she said. “We were all sitting around in the family room like any family in the 1960s watching TV.”
Their father’s reaction, however, was perhaps not the norm in American households.
“He was so happy,” Johnson recalled. “He just kept saying, ‘It worked. It worked. It worked.”’
What the three Williams children didn’t know at the time was just how involved their father, who died in 2010, was in a top-secret mission focused on electronic photography.
His role with IBM was part of a Cold War effort related to the U-2 photo overflights of the Soviet Union, explained son Matt Williams, who lives in the Seattle area and was back in Aurora for a recent International Sensor Systems Inc. board meeting.
Later at Information Technology Eastman Kodak, their father headed the team that figured out how to miniaturize a camera that would eventually take electronic images, which allowed NASA to transmit photos from the dark side of the moon.
A photo taken during the Apollo 8 mission hung in Cliff Williams’ office for more than 30 years. It was given to him in recognition of his contribution to the lunar program.
“It was that technology that allowed NASA to figure out the landing sites for the lunar missions,” Matt Williams said. “He was truly a lunar pioneer.”
Matt Williams spoke with both his sisters during the week and realized the 50th anniversary celebration sparked an opportunity to reconstruct things they never really talked about while growing up.
“Each of us have different memories of a time when dad was absolutely in the thick of the Cold War,” Matt Williams said. “He was developing technology to transmit photographs and that was a time he never really talked about. We had a chance to actually share the things we remember and start piecing it together.”
Matt Williams recalled times when his father would vanish in the middle of the night, learning only years later that he would go to work at a private lab next door. And then there was a time when his father went deeper into the building, leaving young Matt in the supervision of a soldier.
“At the time it was a relatively remote, secret base,” Matt Williams said. “It was a time they were developing the camera systems that would be used to launch into orbit, for surveillance and ultimately for the lunar module.”
Though always very proud of their father’s accomplishments, the family said this month’s celebration put much of his life’s work in a different perspective.
“We were there,” Matt Williams said. “We had a front seat to those times and the sacrifices that mom, dad and our family made to the Cold War. It’s been interesting being able to reconnect our memories, which are different.”
Johnson recalled that her father never bragged about his various accomplishments, partly due, she suspected, to the secret nature of his work, and partly because he was just doing his job.
“Even on the day of the moon landing he didn’t say to us, ‘I was the guy who designed that,’” she said. “He was very excited that it worked. I think he always had kind of a 1960s Cold War mindset, so we really didn’t talk about exactly what happened.”
When the family moved to Aurora, much of the technology Cliff Williams had helped develop became available for civilian use. He was very excited about the launch of International Sensor Systems Inc. and the opportunity to create high-tech jobs in small-town Nebraska.
“The switching and integrative circuits had many, many applications and that’s part of what made the moon thing work,” Johnson said. “I think it became not so military and top secret because that’s when dad started talking more about those kinds of things.”
Daughter Pat Glee of Aurora also shared thoughts on the historic anniversary, calling her father an unsung hero of that era.
“Now that it’s 50 years and the images are public, I was honored there was interest in helping people understand the importance of those pictures for the knowledge of all humanity,” she said. “The pictures also gave us a perspective that we are all just a small part in an infinite universe.”
The iconic “earthrise” image, as well as many others captured on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, were described by astronauts on that mission as “a blue marble in an inky black void; a total immersion in the heavens.”
“These photos taught us that we are all brothers and it is humanity that needs to seek the knowledge that our solar system provides,” Glee said. “We can only do that work by combining our efforts as a global population.”
Cliff Williams was the 55th electrical engineer to be hired at IBM and was the first electrical engineer recognized by the University of Nebraska. A movie about the electronic photography project being shown at the Edgerton Center in Aurora includes a video interview with Cliff Williams.