Edward Bryant Jr. took his own giant leap in 1969

Edward J. Bryant

Edward Bryant Jr. retired this month from United Space Alliance, after 41 years of work in the space program. (COURTESY OF HENRY ABELS / June 18, 2010)

Five months before Neil Armstrong took that famous giant step, Edward Bryant Jr. made an impressive leap of his own.

Feb. 10, 1969, marked his first day on the job with Trans World Airlines. And the moment he first set foot in Kennedy Space Center, he boosted the contractor's population of black electricians 100 percent.

A giant leap, indeed.

Not that his trailblazing was greeted with the sort of fanfare Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 enjoyed.

Back then, employers "had problems getting blacks and whites to work together — we were always thought to be inferior," says Bryant, 70, of Cocoa. "But once you work together, that erases a lot of things that were said in the past. A lot of times, people listen to the words of others — which is not necessarily good. You should rely on experiences with people."

Chat with Bryant for a few moments, as I did Friday, and you realize his experiences are instructive for the present.

TWA, responding to the federal affirmative-action push, lured Bryant from his job with United Electric.

At various points, Bryant says, coworkers tried to get him fired by telling superiors that he flouted safety protocols. Others circulated a letter urging management give him the boot. And someone used the N-word once.

Once.

"I jumped up and told him, 'I don't want to hear that word said around me anymore,'" Bryant recalls. And he never did.

"I knew what I was up against, but I was determined to be the electrician I was supposed to be. I didn't come down with a chip on my shoulder; I came down with a confidence in myself. I felt like it was my mission."

Yet, his personal challenges didn't obscure the greater mission unfolding around him. Bryant was part of the TWA Apollo 11 Support Team.

He was tasked with installing lights around the Saturn V rocket and ensuring electrical grounding was intact.

"I could have touched the bird," he says, of the lunar module, Eagle.

So Bryant felt Armstrong's exhilaration and could almost feel the crunch beneath his own feet as he watched the astronaut's boot touch the lunar dust.

"In order for it [Apollo 11] to get where it did, every man in this shop had to play a part," he says. "This is what John Kennedy said, he'd like to see a man on the moon, and we accomplished the goal."

That sense of we grew over time, he says, as both he and his colleagues experienced teachable moments while partnering up.

"We realized they we had to look out for each other — that you've got to work together. This is how the racial problem began to change a little bit. People began to realize no man is an island. We can't make it to the other world by being separate."

That other world of which he speaks is heaven. For a man who speaks in parables, the deep, abiding faith that sustained him through seismic social change flows from him and touched his colleagues like static shock.

"He always tried to find the positive in every situation," says Robert Mann, 42, an electrical engineer. "Even right now, when we've got layoffs on the horizon, he always says things may look bad, but God's in control and he has a better plan for us."

Through the years, Bryant was lunch-pail guy, punching in for TWA, Lockheed Martin and finally United Space Alliance, from where he retired this month.

Forty-one years ago, Bryant shattered barriers as NASA exploded the notion of the impossible. Now, he plans to shuttle off into his golden years as the retirement of the shuttle looms.

Not surprisingly, he sees biblical parallels — going all King Solomon on his colleagues: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

"Christ came and served a purpose and had to go," says Henry Abel, 26, who worked with Bryant the past three years. "That's the way he felt — that he served his purpose, and now it's time to let the younger generation take over."

A younger generation who say the faces of electricians and engineers is a more colorful palette thanks to their own Jackie Robinson.

"He paved the way for us," Mann says.

Darryl E. Owens can be reached at dowens@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5095.

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