David Vuich was among those who participated in the mission to send a man to the Moon 50 years ago. In this account, he reveals interesting details of his origins, upbringing, working life and the great success that he achieved.!
He’s a Serb born in America who achieved the ‘American Dream’. He almost touched the Moon. An engineer who was actively engaged in the area of military aviation and flights into the cosmos, David Vuich was an official spokesman of NASA and the Apollo 11 programme that enabled Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon. He is now 84 and rich with lucidity.
When did you first become aware of your Serbian roots?
My parents immigrated to the United States before and after World War I. My father was from the village of Okučani, Slavonija, and was an officer in the Serbian military who fought in the two Balkan wars prior to relocating to the U.S. My mother was of the Todorović family from the Lika village of Glina. My parents, like a number of other Eastern European immigrants, found solace and a home in Midland, Pennsylvania, which was a steel-producing town.
I was born and raised in that small community to the north-west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There were many others in Midland from places Lika, Kordun and the Banija region of the former Yugoslavia. My family spoke Serbian in our home, as well as with friends and relatives, as well as with close neighbours who also came from the same region.
My father spent many hours telling me and making sure I was aware of my Serbian heritage, about Serbia’s heroes, customs, traditions, folklore and faith. So, we prepared for our slavas with žito and kolač. Christmas included pečenica, pogača, sarma and česnica, and at Easter, we had jagnjetina [lamb].
My father always reminded me that I was most fortunate to have been born an American, but that I should never forget the place of our ancestors. And that, because of my Serbian heart, I had to be prepared to share whatever I had with our people, with our fellow Serbian-Americans, if they were in need.
The Serbian community of Midland had established a social club, the Serbian-American Club, which was the focal point of all of our activities, serving initially as our Serbian Orthodox Chapel where we also held wedding receptions, slavas, celebrations of Christmas and Easter, choral concerts, dramatic performances, folk dancing, music festivals and, most importantly, fundraising events designed to raise the capital necessary to build a new church.
My father spent many hours telling me and ensuring I was aware of my Serbian heritage, about Serbia’s heroes, customs, traditions, folklore and faith. So, we prepared for our slavas with žito and kolač
My father was one of the original benefactors of our church, the St. George Serbian Orthodox Church of Midland, from its embryonic stages until its final construction and consecration. It was finally completed in the late 1940s and our very first parish priest, Father Milorad Dobrota, was from Šibenik. He established a very strict church and a school programme that further emphasised the importance of our Orthodox faith and Serbian heritage, conducting weekly classes on Serbian history, customs, traditions, folklore and language.
I became one of his first altar boys and assisted him in the celebration of many slavas throughout our community. I was also a member of our church choir, named in honour of Dr Laza Kostić, which not only sang the responses to our liturgy but also performed the compositions and rukoveti of Bošnjaković and Stevan Mokranjac at various concerts. Those were complicated pieces, but exciting to perform.
In addition to community and church activities, my family was a member of the Serbian National Federation, which was established in the early 1900s to provide insurance support to early immigrants throughout the U.S. We received Srbobran, the organisation’s monthly newsletter, which provided information on Serbian activities both in the U.S. and back in the homeland.
The Federation also organised many social and sporting events that included the Serbian Singing Society, as well basketball, golf and softball tournaments in various communities with a large Serbian population that brought together many members of our ethnic group on an annual basis. As you may well appreciate, my Serbian roots were well established at a very young age, which is something for which I am most grateful.
When did you first visit Yugoslavia? Which places did you see? And what were your first impressions of the land of your ancestors?
My first visit to Yugoslavia was in the late 1960s, shortly after the successful Apollo moon landing. Many of my colleagues and I were finally granted extended leave, a nice break after the intense schedule commitment required by the Apollo Programme.
I was travelling with a close personal friend and colleague, Don Erjavec, who was a music professor and jazz trumpeter, and who had agreed to visit Yugoslavia, where we would meet for the very first time with relatives in Belgrade, Okučani and Ljubljana. We spent several days enjoying the sights of Belgrade, then rented a car to drive to Okučani and Ljubljana, in order to visit with family.
I cannot tell you how proud I am of the efforts of Mike Vučelić and my other American-Serbian colleagues who have since, unfortunately, passed away. They helped the Eagle lander make it to the surface of the moon
We continued our travels down the Adriatic Coast, beginning with the ancient city of Pula and its Roman Colosseum, to the city of Split and the Mausoleum of Augustus Caesar, Dubrovnik and finally to Kotor, to participate in the jazz festival. On our return journey to Belgrade, we travelled via Sarajevo, stopping along the road on many occasions to enjoy freshly roasted jagnjetina and walk through the Baščaršija bazaar to engage in a bit of shopping. We were amazed at the beautiful and variable landscapes throughout our driving experience, from gentle plains to rolling hills, mountains, and even a small desert, all of which represented a miniature topographical version of the U.S. The people were so pleasant, accommodating and hospitable, and it was a great pleasure to visit many of the ancient and historical regions that my father had mentioned to me on several occasions.
Tell us about your visit to the places where your parents came from. Do you have any extended family members still living in the region?
My first visit to Okučani-Trnakovac was among the most enlightening and emotional experiences that I’ve ever had. For the very first time in my life, I had the great pleasure of meeting the Vujić family. My family included my father’s only sister, my Aunt Natalija, who was a gorgeous woman with deep and penetrating blue eyes identical to my late father’s. Rest assured that there were many tears.
I guess there had been some concern that, as an American, I might not be able to communicate with them, so they were immediately surprised when they saw that I spoke Serbian reasonably well and were happy when they realised I could respond to their questions. I remember a resounding chorus of “Hvala Bogu” [Thank God]. They celebrated our common slava, of course, and continued celebrating all our Serbian traditions as my father had taught me. As a result of the many unfortunate crises that have occurred in the region, many of my relatives have since relocated to Banja Luka and Belgrade.
On my trip to Serbia in July, I had the great pleasure of reuniting with members of the family. The majority currently live in Belgrade, but others travelled from Germany, France, Banja Luka and Senj. I look forward to meeting with them again in the very near future.
What was your childhood like? How were you raised? What’s the most precious thing that your parents instilled in you during your upbringing?
It’s probably already clear to you how my family instilled in me such a deep pride in being Serbian and honouring our culture and traditions. Beyond that, I was always taught that you should be kind and respectful to your elders, to care for your immediate family, to study with intensity, to prepare yourself for an advanced education at a college or university, to strive to become a respected and productive professional, to avoid insignificant controversy in your life, and to give something back to your community and your country.
You know, my father could be a strict disciplinarian, but he was also a kind and charismatic gentleman who not only provided for his family but also assisted many of the immigrants from his region in gaining employment in the steel factory. From time to time, he even provided shelter for a number of them, giving them a place to live in our home. That was a good lesson for me about the sense of community among Serbian Americans, and the responsibility we felt for each other.
What kind of student were you?
To be honest, I was just an average student in high school and college. I was committed, maybe overwhelmingly, to music and sports. And I worked on many odd jobs in order to have enough money to complete my education.
What were your favourite games or toys? Did you have a favourite book that made a big impression on you when you were younger?
My favourite games included football, basketball, baseball and swimming. Toys were not affordable, so they were not an important part of my early life. However, like a newspaper delivery boy, I saved some money and became a bit resourceful. I invested in a bicycle, a snow sledge and even a wagon, which made it easier to haul my newspapers.
There were several books that I found of tremendous interest when I was a young man, including The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, Old Soldier’s Never Die, and Petrović’s Hero Tales and Legends of the Serbians, plus a collection of Shakespeare’s plays – I especially enjoyed King Lear, Macbeth and Othello. I also read extensively about the Wright Brothers and General Douglas MacArthur. I remember a book about the court-martial of WW1-era Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, which also had a major impact on me.
When did you start practising music? Which instrument/s did you play?
I was fortunate to have been introduced to musical instruments at a very young age, as a result of my family having a piano in our home. I studied piano, then guitar, and later became interested in percussion as a result of our high school band director, who was also the principal percussionist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Through his expert instruction, I became quite proficient at playing all percussion instruments, from the snare drum to the classical tympani.
What were your first interests when it comes to pursuing a vocation in life?
My musical training gave me the confidence to take up the serious study of Classical Composition and Music Education. However, when I was introduced to the subjects of Aviation and Aerospace Engineering while attending college, that led to an abrupt change in my career path and I went on to serve in the U.S. Air Force for a number of years.
I understand you met Milivoje Mića Marković and Duško Gojković. How did that happen? What do you recall of that meeting?
As I mentioned earlier, I visited Yugoslavia after the successful moon landing with my friend Don Erjavec. Since we were both jazz musicians, we were looking forward to meeting with Vojislav Simić and listening to his jazz orchestra at Radio-Television Belgrade.
We actually wound up meeting Duško Gojković, who was then already a famous jazz trumpeter in Europe, and he asked us to join his group as guest artists on his show entitled “Jazz at Studio Six.” That included Mića Marković on the saxophone, Vlade Vitas on piano, Jimmy Stanić on bass and vocals, “Nafta” Milisavljević on drums and Duško on the trumpet.
My colleague, Don, played the trumpet, of course, and I had the honour of filling in for Nafta on the drums. Duško was very pleased with our performance and invited us to join his group at a jazz festival in Kotor. Performing with these musicians was just a tremendous and rewarding experience.
I am honoured to have been associated and directly involved in one of the most pioneering accomplishments in the history humankind
What were your college studies like and how did you pay for them? Did you get a scholarship or pay your own way? Did you work while studying?
As I mentioned earlier, I initially was very involved in the study of music education, with a major in classical composition and a minor in business administration. My workload at college was taxing on me, and the subjects were complex, but I knew all that was necessary to prepare me for a good career.
I was awarded a partial scholarship for my studies and received some corporate grants, but the cost of the greater percentage of my higher education came as a result of pay I received for my musical performances and from odd jobs. That seems pretty typical to me.
You’ve had important jobs with great responsibility. What was the toughest assignment in your career and what has given you the greatest sense of satisfaction?
I actually have a number of examples of that, and – if you don’t mind – I’d like to look beyond the scope of the space programme. I enjoyed the challenges involved in several experiences in which I worked within a complex environment with limited resources and vague business development objectives (In comparison, the Apollo Programme’s goals were quite clear: Landing a man on the moon and bringing him and the crew back to earth safely).
For example, I remember helping one commercial aircraft company that had been unfamiliar with the defence industry procurement process. The firm really hadn’t realised what it had signed up for when it merged with another aviation company and was trying to get into the market for the development of maritime surveillance aircraft. With the support of many experts, working long hours under my supervision over the course of many months, I came up with a solid business plan. The firm finally made this leap in its understanding of the procurement process and figured out a way forward.
I am proud to say that, as a result, this aircraft company signed a major contract with the ‘Department of Defense’ and eventually became a primary contender in other big tender opportunities. In another case, as an executive for an aviation telecommunications firm, I leveraged my past experience working on environmental issues in the U.S. Congress to introduce company officials to military decision-makers, to bring them to military facilities and to develop an understanding of the Pentagon’s concerns.
I again worked on a business plan for the company, which ultimately secured an $18 million contract a year later. One final challenge that I found very rewarding was bringing company FEDEX to Canada. I was Vice President of a firm that was involved in the development of the strategic partnership that made that happen.
Throughout the years, I have figured out that good, sound working relationships with executive colleagues, fellow employees, sub-contractors and suppliers are vital in the processes of combining resources and focusing efforts that are key to achieving success. The ultimate objective always demands the recognition of the importance of well-defined personal and professional relationships.
Could you explain to us why it is only now, after so many decades, that there is talk in public about Apollo Serbian Seven, this group of people of Serbian origin who worked on sending a man to the Moon?
I’m not sure, but – as you know – I myself have tried to emphasise the importance and significant contributions to the success of the moon landing that was the ultimate goal of the Serbian-Americans working on the Apollo Space Launch Team. I cannot tell you how proud I am of the efforts of Mike Vučelić and my other American-Serbian colleagues who have since, unfortunately, passed away. They helped the Eagle lander make it to the surface of the moon. They were also responsible for decisions and innovations that reduced the risk to astronauts, whose lives always hung in the balance during these space missions. Mistakes on our part could have had catastrophic consequences.
Was there a kind of oath of silence among the experts who worked on this project?
No, not at all. However, naturally, security clearances were required for most people working on the project. Certain critical design characteristics, materials, methodologies and other things were classified. So, along those lines, I guess you could actually say that each of us took “an oath of silence,” but only on those specific parts of our work that were classified by the government. We were otherwise proud to talk about our work.
My recent visit to Belgrade was wrought with nostalgia, as I made my presentations on the Apollo moon landing to many audiences throughout the city
What are the realistic chances of a man returning to the Moon and what would be the objective of such a mission this time around?
NASA was recently given the approval to proceed with the design, development, testing and evaluation of technologies necessary to send the next team of astronauts to the Moon. The emphasis is on the planned construction of a lunar space station that would replace the current International Space Station. It would furthermore provide a base of operations to launch space exploration vehicles from the moon’s surface to other planets. The technologies involved are far more advanced than that of the Apollo programme. Some are already available and many are being designed and developed by commercial contractors. Several other countries are also very strongly considering similar space exploration programmes, including Russia, China and India. China recently successfully launched a satellite to the dark side of the Moon, which indicates their level of interest.
You participated in such a historic event. How conscious of that are you today? What kinds of emotions do you now feel when you think back to that extraordinary achievement?
I am honoured to have been associated and directly involved in one of the most pioneering accomplishments in the history humankind. My recent visit to Belgrade was wrought with nostalgia, as I made my presentations on the Apollo moon landing to many audiences throughout the city. I spoke about the evolution of the development of the Apollo Programme, basically starting from scratch, and emphasised recognition of the importance of my departed colleagues, the Serbo-7 Apollo Space Launch Team. My objective was to inspire my Serbian audiences, but I also wanted to convey to them that we American-Serbs have not forgotten who we are or where we came from. I think I can confidently state that they joined me in expressing mutual pride in our accomplishments, beginning with the likes of Nikola Tesla and Mihailo Pupin, and through the work of the Serbian Apollo Seven Team.