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'My People Were Depending On Me': Apollo 11 Scientist Dr. Reatha Clark King Looks Back At Historic Launch

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The successful launch of Apollo 11 50 years ago Tuesday was also a launching pad for the career of a scientist with a Minnesota connection.

Dr. Reatha Clark King was 25 years old when she took a job as the first African-American female chemist hired by the National Bureau of Standards. From there, she went on to work on its contract with NASA.

Dr. King sat down with WCCO-TV's Reg Chapman to talk about one of her proudest moments: Creating the fuel system that helped put man on the moon.

"'One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' Now that brought tears to my eyes, too," Dr. King said.

Like every American who witnessed the first spaceflight that landed two humans on the moon, Dr. King says she's still amazed at this accomplishment.

"It was just an inspiring moment, very inspiring," Dr. King said.

Dr. King now looks at that historic moment with a sense of pride.

"It never occurred to me that my small project would make such a difference and have an impact," Dr. King said.

She worked tirelessly to design a system that would be a catalyst to getting man on the moon.

"It needed to be a controlled experiment, so designing the equipment so that you can control the mixing of those two materials, hydrogen and fluorine," Dr. King said.

Her invention of a coiled tube that allowed hot liquids, such as fuel, to cool instead of explode were crucial to rocket design in the NASA space program.

"My project was so intense, I didn't have time to think being proud for myself. There were so issues to be dealt with with the materials that I was studying," Dr. King said.

She says her work taught her the meaning of possible, a lesson that spilled over into her life as a black woman in the 1960s. Dr. King says while she worked in her laboratory, setting materials on fire for her controlled chemical reactions, civil rights protesters were setting things on fire in the streets.

"We were eager for change, and I hitched on to any symbol of hope," Dr. King said. "Hope is a very special word here for us."

Dr. King says she knew her work was not only important to our country's goals to be the first to put man on the moon, but it would also serve as inspiration to people who looked like her and the fight for equality.

"I was quite mindful of this part of my life, my upbringing, and that my people were depending on me to help pull them forward, or to lift as I climbed," Dr. King said.

Her dedication and professionalism garnered her an Outstanding Performance Rating, and the Meritorious Publication Award for a paper on the science of measuring the heat of a chemical reaction.

"It was a little vessel immersed in a body of water to absorb the heat that was generated," she said. "It was ingenious, I would say. Now if I was to pat myself on the back, and I would say it deserved that award [laughs]!"

At 81 years old, Dr. King is still dreaming and hoping to see more young people of color taking an interest in the sciences.

She served as president of Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, then worked at General Mills. Dr. King will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission by speaking at a special event at Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

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