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Port St. Lucie man had a hand in first moon mission

Lunar Mission news article from 2012 About Joe Zobay

Interior of one of converted Airstream trailers intended for use as Apollo 11 quarantine trailers by astronauts. Two trailers were sent to an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. One was for the frogmen who would retrieve the astronauts. the other was for Apollo 11 crew members themselves. Joseph Zobay, now of Port St. Lucie, is second from the left.
Aug. 28, 2012

The death of Neil Armstrong over the weekend brought back a flood of memories for Joseph Zobay of Port St. Lucie.

Zobay, 99, worked from 1967 to 1969 converting four Airstream travel trailers for use by the Apollo 11 astronauts as quarantine units once they returned to Earth after the first moon landing.

In the end, only one trailer was used aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Two other units were destroyed before they reached Houston from the Airstream plant in Ohio. A fourth made it to the carrier, but wasn't used.

NASA was concerned that men who'd stepped on the surface of the moon could contaminate the Earth. So the heavily modified trailers were commissioned to be sited around the globe because NASA wasn't exactly sure where the Apollo capsule would land.

Zobay, a quality control engineer for the technology company Melpar Corp. in Northern Virginia, worked on the trailers, which were intended to house the astronauts for as many as two weeks while doctors examined them for contaminants and other health issues.

"At that time, we didn't know if there were any bugs on the moon," Zobay explained.

Zobay's company had the lowest bid at $150,000 and lost money on the deal, he said, figuring the publicity would bring a lot more business.

He began working on the project two years before the mission. The trailers were 35 feet long and weighed about 10,000 pounds. The wheels were removed and a new aluminum frame added, so that the units could be transferred to and from ships with a crane.

Each trailer, according to media reports from that time, contained bunks, a complete bath, a galley "with an electronic oven," a lounge with aircraft-type seats, water and waste storage. To make sure no bacteria escaped, the units had to be airtight. NASA also was worried that the carpeting could contain or retain contaminants and so it was ripped out and replaced with tiles.

Two of the trailers didn't get very far, Zobay recalled with a chuckle.

Despite a lot of planning to select a safe truck route from Ohio to Houston, one driver managed to find an overpass low enough to clip off the air conditioning unit on the trailer roof.

A second trailer failed to make it after the truck driver decided to take a detour ? to meet up with a lady friend, Zobay told me, laughing. The driver failed to negotiate a sharp turn and rolled the truck and trailer, destroying everything.

Two trailers made it safely to an aircraft carrier. One, intended for use by the frogmen who retrieved the Apollo capsule, never was used. As for the other, Zobay watched on TV as the astronauts walked briskly from the helicopter that had plucked them out of the sea and into the Airstream trailer on deck. He remembers the men waving to President Nixon through the windows of the trailer, where they stayed until they reached Houston, and "I was pretty well thrilled," Zobay said Monday.

Zobay later met Armstrong briefly, when the first man to walk on the moon visited the Airstream plant and handed out handfuls of pictures. Zobay still has one black and white photo, a little worse for wear with water stains, of Earth taken from Apollo 11. He remembered Armstrong as "a real likable person."

Since his brush with fame, Zobay has been involved in a multitude of different projects. He built golf courses, opened "the biggest ice cream parlor in Georgia" and eventually retired to Port St. Lucie.

He'd bought a Port St. Lucie lot in 1953 for $10 down and $10 a month. Yet when he and his family came on a vacation, they were unable to get to it because there was no bridge over the St. Lucie River. He ended up buying another lot near the intersection of Floresta Drive and Thornhill Drive, where he's lived since 1980.

Zobay said his time working on the NASA project was extremely interesting and it was exciting being part of the space race, but "it was just one of a lot of programs I worked on around that time. We didn't know it'd be so big."

Anthony Westbury is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects his opinion. Contact him at (772) 409-1320


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