LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. -- America is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 this week and the lunar landing on July 20, 1969.
But it’s entirely possible Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wouldn’t have stepped foot on the moon -- if not for a Kansas City man and his taste for barbecue.
Harold Finch watched on a black and white TV with the rest of the country for the historic lunar landing, but admits he "had more interest in it than the average person.”
Finch had graduated with a master's degree in thermodynamics and was working for what would become MRI Global in Kansas City in the early 1960s.
As NASA worked to develop a module capable of carrying man to the moon, the organization wrestled with a big issue: vast temperature differences on either side of the rocket due to the absence of an atmosphere in space.
“If it hits one of these little rockets for five hours, it will burn up. But on the other hand, if the rocket is facing away from the sun, it will freeze up. Either way it’s going to be a disaster," Finch demonstrated on replicas of the Saturn V rocket and Apollo control module Tuesday at his Lee's Summit home.
Unable to gain approval from his managers to work on the project, Finch spent nights and weekends trying to come up with a solution, though co-workers said he was wasting his time.
“I was competing against the space giants, Boeing and Grumman. Everyone said they are going to get it. Why would they want you to do it?” Finch recalled.
Saying his brain was simply fried, he finally took a day off, went to a barbecue restaurant on the Plaza and suddenly -- it clicked.
“I saw this chicken on the rotisserie, and I immediately had that 'ah-ha' moment. This is it!" Finch exclaimed.
He developed what would be known as the "Barbecue Roll" and was named the director of the Apollo Heating Program for all nine lunar missions.
He gave NASA the idea to make Apollo spin, but he still had to work out the math, which was even more complicated for the lunar landing because of the shadows cast by the lunar module, the Eagle. He’d have to compute temperatures for 950 spots on a 1/10 scale model, for all 360 degrees of the rotation.
“You can’t be 99% safe. You’ve got to be 100% safe when you’ve got lives involved," Finch said.
But as he walked out of his Overland Park home 50 years ago this week, he was still just as amazed as the rest of America, as he looked to the sky.
“I remember going out that evening and looking up and the Moon and realizing there’s people up there," Finch smiled.
Finch said he ever met Armstrong, Aldrin or Collins. But he remembers passing them once getting out of an elevator at Johnson Space Center, the trio perhaps never realizing how important Finch was to their mission.