One night when he was 14 years old, Milton A. Silveira was standing in the yard of his family’s Mattapoisett home with his mother and sisters, gazing at the bright moon overhead.
Turning to his mother, he said, ‘You know, Mom, some day they are going to put a man on the moon,” his sister, Evelyn Pursley, recalls.
Silveira, who died at 84 in July 2013, helped realize that prediction. As a prominent aerospace engineer at NASA, the Mattapoisett native played a key role in the manned space missions of the 1960s, including the 1969 Apollo mission that landed the first astronauts on the moon.
Now, an 11-year-old Mattapoisett boy with a keen interest in science and space is helping to honor the accomplishments of Silveira by spearheading the creation of a memorial to the man who also helped oversee the Space Shuttle and eventually rose to become NASA’s chief engineer.
Alex Craig, who just completed fifth grade at Old Hammondtown School, is spearheading the creation of a memorial to Silveira. He led a successful fund drive and is overseeing other details of the project.
The memorial — a rock with a plaque on it, a bench, and a cherry tree — will be installed at Ned’s Point, a harborfront park officially known as Veterans Park, that Silveira enjoyed visiting. A dedication ceremony is planned for Friday.
“I’m glad because people need to know who he is and that he was from Mattapoisett,” said Craig.
“It’s great someone of his age is so interested in Mr. Silveira and his contributions to America’s space program because the work NASA is doing today is setting the stage so Alex’s generation will be the one taking that next giant leap in space exploration by walking on Mars,” said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, in an e-mail.
Craig’s involvement in the memorial project stems from an unusual long-distance friendship he forged with the retired space engineer in 2011.
For a third-grade project, Craig was assigned to write about and act the part of a famous person from Massachusetts. He chose Silveira, whom his mother had learned about from a local newspaper article.
“He was born in Mattapoisett. I’m interested in NASA and rockets and all that stuff, so I thought he would be a good person,” said Craig, who lives with his parents, Julie and Jonathan Craig, and his brother, Ian, 14, on the family’s 4-acre farm on Aucoot Road.
As part of his research for the project, Craig contacted Silveira by phone at his home in Virginia. In two 45-minute calls, Silveira spoke to the boy about his life in the space program. Even after the project was done, the two continued to speak periodically by phone.
“Here is a man who helped change our world,’’ said Julie Craig. He was one of the big reasons we landed on the moon successfully. Most people don’t know who he is. I think it meant a lot to Milton to have someone appreciate him.”
Alex Craig, who aspires to be a robotics engineer or a video game developer, said Silveira encouraged him to “work hard on math and science.”
After Silveira died, his daughter, Carolyn Krumrey was going through some of her father’s papers when she came across a letter from Craig that contained pictures of the boy presenting his project on Silveira to his third-grade class in costume as a NASA engineer.
“He was so cute. He had on a typical white engineering shirt — they all wore white shirts with crew cuts and little skinny black ties. Alex dressed just like that,” said Krumrey, herself a NASA engineer who works as manager of flight planning integration and operations for the International Space Station program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where her father spent much of his career. Her brother, Lee Silveira, also works for NASA as an engineer.
Krumrey contacted Craig to tell him she was impressed by his project. At about that time, Craig and his mother had been talking about the idea of erecting a memorial for Silveira in town. Craig mentioned the idea to Krumrey, and she offered to help.
When Craig presented his plan to selectmen, they gave him an enthusiastic green light.
“We’re very receptive to a lot of things like that. You’re talking about a young boy that took it on his own initiative. He came in with a laid-out plan,” said Selectman Tyler Macallister, who later went to Ned’s Point with Craig and his mother to choose a spot for the memorial.
“I have high regards for him for his effort,” Macallister said, noting, “All we’ve done is more or less let him run, and offer assistance as necessary.”
Craig opted to fund the project entirely through private dollars, in part because he felt it would help educate people about Silveira. Krumney and Pursley got the drive off to a good start by each donating $1,000.
With the help of a neighbor, Brad Hathaway, who wrote a letter to the local paper, Craig succeeded in raising another $1,500, enough to meet the remaining costs of the project and to provide $500 for future maintenance of the memorial.
Krumrey said she was thrilled that her father will be honored in his hometown, and impressed by the initiative shown by Craig.
“It’s so touching that a young man would do something like that,” said Krumrey, who with Pursley and other family members plans to be on hand for the dedication. “It’s just a testament to what impact my dad had on him.” Noting Alex’s interest in technology, she added, “I’m excited to see him grow up and go off to college and do amazing things for our country.”
Growing up, Silveira attended Mattapoisett Center School and later Fairhaven High School. From an early age, he was fascinated with planes, recalled Pursley, 92, who still lives in Mattapoisett; another sister, Alberta, 82, lives in Florida.
“He made a model of every plane that existed,” she said, remembering also that every night “he would fall asleep with a book about airplanes on his chest. You’d take the book off his chest and turn out the light. He was plane happy.”
After graduating from the University of Vermont, Silveira began his space career in 1951 as a research intern with the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor agency, at Langley Field in Virginia. Later that year, he began a four-year stint as an aviator in the Army’s Aviation Engineering Office, flying experimental helicopters.
He resumed his career at the aeronautics agency at Langley in 1955, and in 1961 was relocated by NASA to the Johnson Space Center. In the ensuing years, he worked on all the manned space vehicle programs, including Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. For the original moon walk mission, Apollo 11, he was in charge of the structure of the spacecraft.
From 1973 to 1981, Silveira worked as manager of the Space Shuttle’s engineering office and then deputy manager of its orbiter project office. He left Houston in 1981 to work at NASA Washington headquarters as assistant to the NASA deputy director and later chief engineer.
After retiring from NASA in 1987, Silveira worked as a vice president for Ford Aerospace Corp. in Washington and then as a Defense Department consultant on missile defense. He returned to NASA in 2005 for a four-year stint as a consultant in the development of its Orion spacecraft.
Krumrey, who has two other brothers, Doug and Scott Silveira, said she is not surprised to hear of her father’s lengthy phone chats with Craig.
“He was so passionate about the space program — it really was his life,” she said, adding that another of his passions was “encouraging people to go into science and engineering. He really thought that was important to the success of our country.”
Milton A. Silveira’s legacy
Silveira was born and grew up in a house on Marion Road (Route 6) in Mattapoisett, the son of Antonne and Carolinda Silveira. His father and his maternal grandparents were immigrants from the Azores.
Silveira was an avid airplane buff. He built numerous model planes, read books about planes, and during World War II helped his father serve as a volunteer spotter, watching for enemy aircraft. He earned his pilot’s license at age 16.
As an aerospace engineer at NASA, Silveira was involved in all of the manned space missions of the 1960s, including the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. He was in charge of the structure of the Apollo 11 spacecraft from which astronauts first walked on the moon.
Silveira played a key role in the Space Shuttle, heading the program’s engineering office and serving as deputy manager of the orbiter office. His later positions with NASA included chief engineer and assistant to the deputy director.
Two of Silveira’s children followed in his footsteps at NASA. His daughter, Carolyn Krumrey, and his son, Lee, are both engineers who work at the Johnson Space Center.
Sources: Silveira family; NASAJohn Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.