The glow of media coverage surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Apollo space program’s crowning achievement — landing the first of 12 men to walk on the moon during six missions between 1969 and 1972 — ignites memories of a moonwalker’s stay in Dundas County.
Nation Valley News
U.S. Air Force Colonel James B. Irwin called out the fuel and altitude numbers as the Apollo 15 Lunar Module gradually closed in for a landing near a crook in the meandering Hadley Rille, a huge canyon cutting through a mountainous region on the face of the moon. It was July 30, 1971. At 100 feet from the surface, Irwin announced that the bug-like LM was already kicking up dust. Within moments, the spacecraft would come to rest on the moon.
Contact. The lander’s spindly legs met the surface a little more forcefully than the two astronauts inside expected. “Bam!” Irwin blurted, a remark first picked up and reported around the world as “damn.”
At the helm, Mission Commander David Scott declared, “Okay, Houston. The Falcon is on the plain at Hadley.” Scott was the ‘Neil Armstrong’ of the pair; Irwin, with the title of Lunar Module Pilot, assumed a second-fiddle role established by Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11’s famous Eagle. Respectively, Scott and Irwin became the seventh and eighth man to walk on the moon, and the first human beings to ever visit a lunar mountain range. They spent three days on the surface, logging more than 18 hours outside the LM — walking, running, and driving an electric rover over the grey terrain.
Eight years later, Irwin, in the midst of a different sort of mission, was jogging and driving the rural roads of Matilda Township — part of South Dundas today — and beyond.
“He was very down to earth,” says Grace Tibben, in an interview with this reporter two decades ago. “Very humble, just a regular kind of person.” Grace and her husband, George, long associated with the local farm equipment industry at the time, still lived next door to the Brinston bungalow where they resided in 1979. It was in November of that year — a decade after America first put a man on the moon — that they were privileged to have one of the few individuals to make the ‘giant leap’ stay as a house guest for a three-day stint.
Belonging to a church group that was looking to raise some money for a project at Timothy Christian School in Williamsburg, the Tibbens had recalled hearing Irwin speak at a Massey Ferguson convention in Florida a couple of years earlier. Landing on the moon, as it turned out, had more than a physical impact on the astronaut. Within a year of returning to earth, a spiritually invigorated Irwin started a Christian organization called High Flight, the name of which was inspired by a poem by John Gillespie McGee, a Canadian aviator who was killed in World War II.
“He was such a powerful speaker,” says Tibben, reflecting back on her first impressions of Irwin.
By letter, the group from Williamsburg Christian Reformed Church invited the astronaut to the area, and in fairly short order George Tibben was picking him up at the Ottawa airport on Monday, November 12, 1979. The media attention was fairly impressive when Irwin got off the plane in the city, but, overall, his visit to this area doesn’t seem to have been that big of a deal at the time. Attendance at the two evening fundraising presentations he delivered — one at the Matilda Hall and one at North Dundas High School — was just high enough to cover his expenses.
But that was just fine for the morale for the group of nine or 10 couples who brought him here. “We were really on a high, with the preparation and waiting for his arrival. It had a huge impact on us as a group.” And it’ll do for some special memories, lasting decades. Not many people have owned cars driven by the first person to ride shotgun in the first moon rover, a little dune buggy that made its debut on the Apollo 15 mission — but the Tibbens did. On his own time during the day, Irwin went out to speak to students at Seaway District High School and Timothy Christian School. The following day, Irwin brought his audio-visual presentation, which included a replica of a moon rock, to North Dundas District High School. “On the way back, he had stopped at the Cheese House [near Winchester] and picked up this big thing of cheese. He couldn’t get this certain kind of cheese in Colorado,” Tibben laughs. It was somewhat ironic as well, considering Irwin was the first astronaut to spot some little green rocks on the moon, prompting headlines with ‘green cheese’ and the like.
A little Spartan apple tree from Dentz Orchards, outside Iroquois, also went back home with the Apollo alumnus. Irwin left behind his share of mementoes as well (some of which have become collectors’ items.) Personally autographed photos of him saluting the U.S. flag on the moon — with Mount Hadley — taller than Mount Everest relative to its surroundings, towering in the background — are to be found framed on walls or tucked away in more than a few scrapbooks in this area.
“His Love From The Moon” was the spiritual message the astronaut wrote before every signature, which included a little scrawl of a crescent moon. “God Walking On The Earth More Important Than Man Walking On The Moon,” perhaps best summing up his gospel message, came on copies of an autograph sheet given to every student at Timothy Christian.
Irwin, who suffered a heart attack hardly more than a year after returning from the moon, was an avid jogger who worked hard at maintaining his health. He maintained a special diet, with an emphasis on whole wheats, and went for a run nearly every day he was here, jogging the block around Dixons Corners, up what was then called Payne Road and back over to Brinston. Tibben reports that her son, Doug, 12 at the time, and neighbour Ron Zandbergen, 10, were unable to keep pace with the American hero.
The Tibbens corresponded with Irwin and his wife, Mary (she didn’t come to Brinston) for a number of years after the visit. In the 80s, the astronaut associated with mountains on the moon took a deep interest in Turkey’s Mt. Ararat, in a search for the remains of Noah’s ark. He wasn’t successful in that endeavour.
There are many firsts associated with the Apollo moon missions, and sadly, Irwin was the first moonwalker to pass away. In 1991, at age 61, he died of a heart attack and was buried in section three of Arlington National Cemetery. He has since been followed by legends like Alan Shepard (1998), Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad (1999), Neil Armstrong (2012), Edgar Mitchell (2016), Eugene Cernan (2017), John Young (2018) and Alan Bean (2018) — leaving Aldrin, David Scott, Charles Duke and Harrison Schmitt as the last survivors of the 12 men to walk on the moon. Only now is NASA seriously planning to put more humans on the moon, by 2024. Reports also suggest a woman will be the next person to set foot on the extraterrestrial body.
To learn more about Irwin’s moon blast, check out the February 1972 issue of National Geographic or NASA’s archives online. You might also try to find Irwin’s book, To Rule the Night, which details the mission as well as some his exploits as a test pilot.
This article was edited to correct the number of surviving men who have walked on the moon.