When the engines of the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 ignited on July 16, 1969, and carried the trio of Americans to their historic rendezvous with the moon, it's likely that a nearby Peoria native was urging it skyward.
The deputy director at the Kennedy Space Center at the time of the launch — and for six years prior, through all the Gemini missions — was Albert Siepert Jr., whose career in public service included roles with NASA starting at its formation.
His ties to the Peoria area ran deep. Raised here, he was a graduate of Bradley Polytechnic Institute and recipient in 1960 of its alumni association's distinguished alumni award; his father, Albert Siepert Sr., was a longtime dean and vice president at the school.
A fast-rising star, the younger Siepert was among the first group of federal interns, starting at the Farm Credit Administration and later getting jobs at the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Division of Patent Administration.
He was a top executive at the National Institutes of Health before being brought to the brand-new space agency in 1958 where its first administrator, T. Keith Glennan, called him someone who "has had many years of experience in providing the administrative support necessary to the carrying forward of a vigorous research and development program in basic and applied science," according to an Oct. 5, 1958, Journal Star article.
His responsibilities there were initially more financial than anything. Siepert was director of business administration, managing a budget of $915 million in 1960 dollars (about $8 billion today) and ensuring operations stayed effective as staffing increased tenfold. Siepert also oversaw consolidating the Jet Propulsion Laboratory from the Army and the Vanguard satellite team from the Navy under the aegis of NASA.
Speaking in Peoria on June 4, 1960 — almost a year before President John F. Kennedy would lay down the challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s — Siepert was already predicting victory in the space race.
He previewed plans then to orbit men in the Mercury program and talked up the Saturn V rocket program — which later launched the Apollo astronauts on their lunar path.
Born in 1915, while air travel was still relatively new, Siepert knew how extraordinary it was that people alive when the first airplane flight occurred could be alive to see humankind go to space.
About the research leading to the Saturn V rocket and beyond, he was asked where it would take astronauts.
"Siepert smiled. Then he asked if Orville Wright would ever have imagined that Pioneer V would be sending messages back to earth from 14 million miles away," reads a Journal Star article from that 1960 appearance.
His effectiveness, and his vision, earned him a transfer to the deputy director role on the Space Coast.
"I only applied for one job in my life and, fortunately, I never held a position anyone else had held," Siepert told Bradley's Hiltopics alumni magazine in 2003. "Each time I was invited to fill newly established positions with major new programs."
Under his supervision, the Kennedy Space Center's structures rose, including buildings that would hold the mighty Saturn V rocket to take men to the moon.
Indeed, he pointed out highlights of that rocket's operation to dignitaries including the king and queen of Belgium during the launch of Apollo 10, the dress-rehearsal mission for the moon landing.
Siepert left NASA in December 1969 — once man had both walked on the moon and safely returned there for a second time — to take up a position with the University of Michigan. He retired to Arizona, where he died in 2008, remembered by his family with this epitaph:
"A 'greatest generation' leader, he was brilliant in serving large complex technical organizations because of his enormous intellectual capacities, zest for life, boundless curiosity, and probing mind."