NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Fifty years later, engineer Jyotin ‘Joe’ Mehta looks back fondly at a time when NASA had its most triumphant moment. On July 20, 1969, he sat in Texas, looking intently at his small black and white TV screen witnessing Neil Armstrong and his crew land on the moon.
The euphoria experienced then could not, however, be relived by the 77-year-old Indian American when India fell painfully short in its moon mission. Noting the striking similarity between the Apollo 11 mission and India’s Chandrayaan-2, Mehta said it was the last few miles of the landing that became critical, even in 1969.
Mehta worked on NASA’s Simulator Complex (SIMCOM) lab and remembers when the lunar module missed its landing by four miles and Armstrong had to take manual control of the spacecraft and land it safely on the moon. “We did not know about it till much later,” he told India-West or the tension while viewing the landing would have climbed.
“For me and many of us, what we did was just a job,” he said. But looking back, “I still say wow!” he laughed. Mehta credits the whole man-on-the-moon program with giving the world several management techniques. “It was the way it was structured,” he explained; a massive program divided into unique pieces where everyone knew what to do and did it with a sense of purpose.
It was the golden age of engineering, a “hot field” with buzzing activity, Mehta remembered, in math, technology, study and research. The catalyst was President John F. Kennedy who, not to be outpaced by Russia, had declared that America would be number one in space exploration and put a man on the moon. The race was on.
The mood, Mehta told India-West, was not a jingoistic one because “at the time we were No. 1 in so many things, that it seemed natural that we should be in this too.” The whole program, he pointed out, was done in a compressed period – from 1968-69. It was possible because of the high levels of motivation and even an event like the disastrous Apollo 1 fire in 1967 was not a deterrent.
Mehta’s title was “engineering programmer.” Laughing, he said, “No one knew of computer programmers then. The aerospace engineers would give us equations which we would program in the computer and the astronauts would run the simulator.”
So, was he friends with the astronauts? “I get asked that a lot,” Mehta responded, “but they were not famous then. A number of the them would come in and most of the time we didn’t even know their names. Jim Lovell, I knew.” Lovell was the commander of Apollo 13, made famous by Hollywood’s film of the same name.
The retired engineer told India-West he was proud to be a part of the early Indian American immigrant group “who contributed to making something that is still important today.”
Mehta came from Gujarat to the U.S. to obtain a graduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and then got his second one, in electrical engineering, from Ohio State University. After a stint with NASA, and the budget cuts that followed, he moved to San Jose. Two years ago, he and wife Neela moved to Orange County to be with their only daughter and her family.
The recent media blitz on the Apollo 11 anniversary, Mehta said, was noticed by his 7-year-old grandson who now talks about grand-dad to his friends. “It is kind of a special feeling,” said Mehta.