On July 20, 1969, NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surface. Four days later, Armstrong and his crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. Behind the three men were, of course, thousands of NASA personnel and private contractors. Dan Cooksey was one of them.

MIRAMAR BEACH — In 1962, Don Cooksey was a young University of Kentucky graduate designing bridges in Louisville. Then NASA came calling.

Soon after, the 24-year-old engineer was part of mankind's biggest "bridge-building" project — the effort to span the gap between Earth and the moon, inspired by President John F. Kennedy's 1961 challenge to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.

"As a kid, I was interested in astronomy," Cooksey said. "I was going to build my own telescope. I sent off for the lens and everything, but I was only 8 or 9 years old and I couldn't get any help doing it, so I ended up just playing with them as magnifying glasses."

And while he certainly was more prepared when NASA recruited him for his engineering expertise — he had spent some time at Douglas Aircraft Company — Cooksey initially didn't understand what his role would be at the space agency. Initially, in fact, he thought he was being recruited for nothing more than a terrestrial bridge project.

"I asked them, 'Where are we going to put the bridge?' " he remembered. "They said, 'We're not doing bridges, boy. You forget that. We'll teach you everything you need to know.' "

From there, Cooksey and other young engineers were sent by NASA to the University of Michigan and other schools to develop the knowledge they would need.

As he embarked on what would become a 33-year career at NASA, Cooksey wasn't particularly concerned about his lack of specific expertise in the somewhat uncharted area in which he would be working.

"No," he said. "It was just a challenge. Everything was kind of exciting. It certainly wasn't a dull time in my life. You got up and went to work wondering, 'Well, what am I going to do today?' "

The goal set by Kennedy was, of course, reached a little more than eight years after his address to Congress. On July 20, 1969, NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surface. Four days later, Armstrong and his crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. Behind the three men were, of course, thousands of NASA personnel and private contractors.

Cooksey's role in the moon-landing effort came relatively early, beginning in 1962 at NASA's Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, a testing facility that was part of NASA's Lewis Research Center in nearby Cleveland.

His first NASA job, as part of a team of 15 or 20 other people, was to ensure that the Atlas rocket, the mainstay of America's early space exploration, could safely launch a second rocket and a probe, named Surveyor, to a landing on the moon to get an up-close look at selected moon landing sites.

The Atlas rocket, Cooksey said, "had never been given this type of heavy payload before, and there was a consideration it could fail during launch. Our job was to determine how much payload we could put on top of it before it would fail."

One of the challenges of testing the Atlas, Cooksey said, was that Plum Brook Station didn't have the proper equipment tor stand the rocket upright in its test stand. So in advance of the rocket's arrival, Cooksey said, "I got myself a 60-foot piece of pipe, about 7 feet in diameter, and I had two crane operators practice every day on handling this piece of pipe, to erect it just like the Atlas. They got really good at it, so when the Atlas came in, to them it was just another piece of pipe."

Also presenting a challenge to the young operations engineer was that the test stand itself wasn't designed for the Atlas rocket.

"It barely fit inside," Cooksey recalled. "There was like a foot of clearance on either side, so we had to be kind of careful as we took it in so it didn't puncture the side of it (the rocket)."

Plum Brook Station got just one of the more than $1 million Atlas rockets for testing. And despite the technical challenges, Cooksey and the team were able to determine with that one rocket that the Atlas could lift the second-stage Centaur rocket and the Surveyor probe into space and on to the moon.

Their work allowed other NASA teams to send seven Surveyors to the moon to survey landing sites. And while Armstrong famously piloted Apollo 11's lunar module to an entirely different spot, it was at least close to one of the seven surveyed locations.

Now living in Sandestin with his wife, Carol, Cooksey has stacks of photos and memorabilia from his days at NASA. As the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approaches, Cooksey is eager to see America set new goals in space exploration.

"It's been 50 years," Cooksey said with a touch of frustration in his voice. "It's time to do something else. We should have done something by now. I don't think we're going to gain much by going back to the moon. We need to move on and head out to Mars and beyond."

Even as NASA was focused on landing a man on the moon in the 1960s, Cooksey said, the space agency was looking to set the stage for deeper exploration of space.

"We were working on programs at that time where we were trying maybe to develop fuel to store out in space for any future flights that were going to Mars," according to Cooksey.

Still, as he sorts through his collection of posters from the moon-landing mission — posters that had been on display years ago at the Lewis Research Center — Cooksey clearly remains proud of the achievement, even if he didn't necessarily fully understand the role he and other young NASA engineers were playing at the time.

"To us, we were just doing our routine work of whatever NASA asked us to do and test. ... It was just part of my job," he said. "I didn't think much about it at the time. Of course, I wanted to do it successfully and not destroy anything on the way."

Like most other Americans, Cooksey and his team were glued to television as the Eagle, the name give to the Apollo 11 lunar module, touched down and Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. He and his team made their way from Plum Brook Station to the Lewis Research Center, where they watched that moment in history on a large TV screen.

Now, 50 years later, Cooksey is amazed at how fast his few years of working on the moon landing passed.

"It just seemed like it happened so quick and it was over with," he said. "I'd like to go back and redo that all over again."