WENATCHEE — Before Neil Armstrong took one small step for man 50 years ago today, a now-deceased Wenatchee resident helped make the giant leap for mankind possible.

Joe Renn, husband to Eva and father to John and Jim, worked as an engineer on the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo 11 spacecraft to the moon.

Joe died six years ago at 82. Eva lives in Wenatchee. She and John asked to tell his story.

“During the time he was there, it was a feverish pitch from 1967 to 1969,” John said.

After four years in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he earned a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Arizona and then went to work for North American Aviation in Seal Beach, Calif., outside his hometown of Long Beach.

“That really was the height of his (life),” John said of the Apollo mission. “He got out of school, it was just the right time. It was the height of the space program and they were hiring like crazy and he was just right there.”

The Saturn V was made up of three sections, or stages, and built by companies contracted by NASA.

The first stage lifted the rocket off the ground, the second stage carried it almost into orbit and then the third pushed the Apollo spacecraft toward the moon.

Joe helped design the second stage. There were… issues getting it ready for launch.

“The second stage had more problems than the other stages because NASA and the government kept changing the weight requirement of the mission,” John said. “And every time they did that, the second stage had to be adjusted to take more fuel.”

There were days during testing of the rocket when Joe didn’t come home until 5 a.m. In 1965, an explosion at the facility that forced him to miss the holidays.

“We were going to Montana for Christmas and he ended up staying home,” Eva said.

Away from work, Joe brought his family to the beach.

“He loved to surf,” Eva said. “He was known as the best surfer in Belmont Shore.”

Astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins toured the country following their return to earth, visiting the people and places that helped make the mission possible, including Seal Beach.

Eva took John and Jim to facility to see them. Jim, 2 at the time, got a hug from Armstrong.

“They came running down the red carpet from the helicopter and when Neil Armstrong got to us he held his arms out to Jim,” Eva said. “And I got a snapshot but I can’t find it.”

Joe was laid off in 1970 after the Apollo 13 mission and after eight years with North American Aviation.

In 1978, he sold his surfboards — with some tears, Eva said — and moved his family to Wenatchee to take a job at Central Washington Hospital as a hospital engineer.

Life slowed down. John and Jim grew up and went away for school. Joe served on civics boards in the community and he and Eva did ballet together.

The space program was never far away, though.

To this day, Joe’s old office is a shrine to the Apollo mission. Photos taken by NASA, models of Saturn V and the spacecraft.

“It was his favorite job he ever had,” Eva said.

Photo Editor Don Seabrook: (509)661-5225