Jardine: Moon landing date especially poignant for Modesto couple

July 19, 2013 

— Today marks 44 years since Neil Armstrong became the first man to moonwalk (beating Michael Jackson by 14 years).

For more than two decades after Armstrong uttered his famous "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," Modesto resident Christine Tinkey wasn't buying.

Indeed, folks will believe — or not believe — what they choose. There are a few among the latter who remain convinced the entire space program was never anything but an elaborate, money-sucking government hoax.

"I was one of those nonbelievers," she said.

Then, one day in the early 1990s, Christine and her fiancé were driving in Southern California.

He suddenly pulled off the freeway, pointed to the sky and proclaimed, "It's going to come in right there!"

"It" being one of the space shuttles preparing to land at Edwards Air Force Base.

"And zoom! It went over," Christine said.

OK, so the space program really did exist, she admitted. But Robert Tinkey, who became her husband a few years later, already knew that. He spent 34 years as a mechanic and later an aeronautics inspector for NASA, most of it at the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in Mountain View.

And he counted Armstrong, who died in August, among his best friends.

"Bob was an only child," Christine said. "Neil was like a brother to him."

Bob Tinkey is 84 and hobbled by a fall he took recently at home. His memory sometimes needs a bit of jogging, but usually kicks in. Christine is more than just his wife. She's his personal historian, filling in the blanks when he can't.

He served in the Army Air Corps and was on Okinawa when World War II ended. He mustered out in 1948 and went to work for the government's aeronautics and rocketry program. Test pilots including the famed Chuck Yeager began their assault on the sound barrier. Space beckoned, and when NASA was launched in 1958, Tinkey climbed aboard.

Astronauts who manned the solo Mercury flights, dual Geminis and the three-man Apollo flights had aircraft backgrounds, and Armstrong was no different.

Based at Edwards, Armstrong first flew into Moffett Field in 1965 or so, and that's where he met Tinkey, who inspected and maintained various types of helicopters and planes. Tinkey was instrumental in converting a C-141 cargo plane into a soaring laboratory. Scientists aboard used their telescope gear to discover a new planet. He also worked on projects involving Minuteman III rocket launches.

Armstrong and Tinkey became close friends.

"Every time he would come in, Neil would look me up," Tinkey said. "We'd go out to lunch. He was a very nice guy. He had a very calm demeanor. But when you shook his hand, you knew he was of strong character."

Armstrong was quiet, unassuming and at first somewhat hesitant when chosen for the Apollo 11 mission that made him a household name in America and possibly worldwide.

"Neil was a very private person," Tinkey said. "He didn't like the notoriety. He didn't want to be appointed to be the first man on the moon."

Duty called, and the rest is history. Tinkey, though, never asked Armstrong what it was like to be in space, the first man to set foot on the moon or be a genuine American hero.

After all, the networks televised the moonwalk for all to see on July 20, 1969.

"I knew pretty much what he'd done," Tinkey said. "I didn't have to quiz him."

Tinkey had his own challenges, including inspecting roughly two dozen kinds of NASA aircraft. He shook hands and howdy'd with then-Vice President Johnson during a 1961 visit to Moffett. Tinkey met Armstrong's Apollo 11 comrades, Gus Grissom and Buzz Aldrin, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

He also met celebrities who came to tour the facility, Frank Sinatra among them.

In the 1970s, Tinkey was assigned to a project at NASA's facility at the Crows Landing Naval Air Station. He bought a home in Modesto.

"I commuted out there every day," he said. "Sometimes, it was so damned hot you couldn't hardly breathe."

Tinkey retired in 1983 and met Christine several years later. Both had been married previously. They were married in 1997 following a six-year courtship. They chose a wedding date that would be easy to remember: July 20, as in today.

It's also the anniversary of his old friend's walk on the moon which, by the way, was no government hoax.

One giant leap for mankind — and for Tinkeykind, too.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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