Loose Ends 3/22: Former Princeton Township Mayor connects with Apollo 11

B: Pam Hersh

It was serendipity, not Legacy.com that showed me the relationship between Apollo 11 and former Princeton Township Mayor Bernie Miller.

Apollo 11 and Bernie are both celebrating big milestones. The Apollo 11 spaceflight that landed the first two people on the moon occurred 50 years ago (July 20-21, 1969). The accomplishment is as awesome and beautiful to behold today as it was decades ago.

Bernie, who has been working to benefit his Princeton community since the 1980s, will be 90 years-old on April 19, and also falls into that forever-awesome category. But the link between the two is deeper than an appreciation of stars in outer and local space.

Coincidently, on the same day I saw “Apollo 11” at the Princeton Garden Theatre, I received an email from a West Windsor resident George Martch, who enlightened me about the Bernie’s connection to the U.S. space program. That email led to a conversation with Bernie that had nothing to do with Princeton’s sewers, taxes or parking.

I was familiar with and most appreciative of Bernie’s decades of public service, but was clueless about his service to the country in his professional life.

In June 1957, Bernie, an aeronautical engineer who had served as an Air Force officer managing research and development programs, joined the staff of the RCA Laboratories in West Windsor.

Hired as a systems engineer, he then went on to manage the NASA Ranger project, a series of satellites that took the first high-resolution pictures of the moon in support of the Apollo program. It was his work that helped verify the fact that the moon’s surface was hard and stable, not “fairy” dust.

Bernie “worked on finding potential landing sites for the moon landing, provided very detailed images of the landing sites and proving that the moon’s surface was solid, not just fairy dust, as some believed,” he said.

In 1964 he received the NASA Public Service Award for the management of the Ranger Project.

I actually read the recently published chapter, authored by Bernie in the online “Encyclopedia of Lunar Science.” Even though I understood none of the technical aspects of the article, the historical aspects of the Ranger program were fascinating in the explanation of how the program was converted from one aimed at increasing scientific knowledge about the environment between the moon and earth to one supporting the selection of landing sites for the Apollo program.

A small number of Bernie’s co-workers from RCA labs were familiar with the significance of Bernie’s role in the RCA satellite surveillance work, but it was a role about which the Princeton community activist Bernie rarely talked or bragged.

“Sure, I am very proud of what we accomplished at RCA, but equally proud of my other teamwork accomplishments – helping to raise six kids and serving in public office,” he said.

Even though I tried to avoid talking about local politics, I had to ask him what he considered his “one-small-step” accomplishment during his 15 years as a Princeton elected official (2002-2017).

“I am particularly pleased about working with the Princeton engineering staff on the construction of the $7 million Community Park Pool complex…. It is such a great asset for the town – used by all demographics, with no socioeconomic stratification,” said Bernie.

The number of his other accomplishments over the decades is as overwhelming as a satellite instruction manual. They include being a key player in: a “landmark” seven-year voluntary payment agreement with Princeton University; the consolidation of the two Princetons (he served on the Consolidation Study Commission); the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Mountain Lakes Park dams; the improvement of Princeton’s ability to respond to severe weather events, such as hurricane Irene and super storm Sandy; the construction of Princeton’s first municipal solar power plant on the closed landfill site on River Road. The solar power plant, by the way, delivers about 30 percent of the peak power demands of the adjacent Stony Brook regional sewage processing facility at a lower cost than electricity purchased from PSE&G.

Before he got elected, Bernie was highly visible in his volunteer roles of serving on the Princeton Township Housing Board during the construction of Griggs Farm (mixed affordable and market rate housing project) and chairing the Princeton Cable TV Committee that negotiated Princeton’s cable TV franchise.

His commitment to the health and well being of his community has continued since his retirement from Princeton Council. A particular focus of his post-retirement community service activity is Princeton’s Climate Action Plan (PCAP), which is developing strategies focused on the two goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making the community more resilient to the impacts of climate change. He serves on the PCAP steering committee, while also being involved in new and creative strategies for Princeton’s economic development and continuing his earlier work on the community’s disaster response protocols.

Concerning the current primary fight among four Princeton Democrats for two open seats on Council, Bernie had no comment – other than the fact that being a rocket scientist is a wonderful career, but not necessarily what you need to be an effective local government official.The fuel to launch a political public service career, in his opinion, is hard work, focus, and a selfless commitment to improving the welfare of one’s fellow citizens.