Astronaut Neil Armstrong made history July 20, 1969, as the first man to walk on the moon: “One giant step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”
Timothy Walters, FLORIDA TODAY
We had slide rules instead of computers and were educated on the G.I. Bill, but we learned along on the way and managed to put Americans on the moon.
Many of us were not even born on July 20, 1969, when America first landed two men on the moon. It was a magical time, and this feat was a marvel of organization, dedication and innovation that brought together the efforts of NASA centers, prime contractors and thousands of suppliers/subcontractors across the country.
Engineers and technicians (many of whom were educated on the G.I. Bill following World War II) neglected their families and enthusiastically worked long hours. Using existing technology where possible, new materials, methods and procedures also had to be developed to accomplish the mission. We had slide rulesinstead of desktop computers. For complex analyses, we carried punched cards to program separately located mainframe computers.
Learning as we went
Using both celestial (stars) and inertial (gyroscopes) navigation, we were able to accurately guide the vehicle with the aid of computers having less capability than today’s cell phones and with a memory built of tiny magnetic cores mounted in a matrix of wires.
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By distributing the weight of equipment in the Command Module (that carried the astronauts), we were able to locate the vehicle’s center of gravity sufficiently ahead of the center of pressure so that the vehicle acted like a lifting body during the high speed of atmospheric entry and could “fly” by rolling about its center line.
We developed a new material for the Command Module heat shield that would ablate (turn to gas with heat rather than melting) during entry and absorb enough heat to prevent the structure from getting too hot. We developed powerful rocket engines for the boosters and small rocket engines for maneuvering in space.
Innovation quickly became an everyday routine.
But the secret to success was realizing that, in vehicles as complex as Apollo, things are going to fail no matter how well designed and built. So, we adopted a policy of fail operational, fail operational, fail safe, which meant that we could withstand two failures in any one system and still complete the mission, and we could return safely to Earth even with a third failure.
Perhaps the best accomplishment was not technical: the Apollo program united our entire country and much of the rest of the world. The U.S. was admired and respected. After the lunar landing, I know Americans who were not even associated with Apollo went abroad were congratulated for being from the country that first landed men on the moon.
Many ‘heroes’ created this story
Today, when we think of Apollo (if we do at all), we think of astronauts and adventure, but there were heroes, now mostly passed on, that we rarely hear about.
We recognize Werner Von Braun as the NASA leader of the booster development, but there was James Webb, the head of NASA, who was a politician who knew how to work with Congress to get things done. There was Bob Gilruth, the head of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) at Houston who managed all of the crew-related elements. There was Max Faget, the brilliant MSC chief engineer who conceived the hardware to do the job. There was Harrison “Stormy” Storms who headed North American Aviation’s Space Division that developed and built the key crew-related modules. There was Charlie “Stark” Draper of MIT, who developed the guidance and navigation systems. There was Chris Kraft of NASA, who planned and controlled the lunar flights from Houston. And many more …
Although we are celebrating the past, we mustn’t live in it. We need to learn the lessons of Apollo and apply them to the future: That we can accomplish great things if we set our goals high, stick with the plan and unite people to work together as a team.
Let us hope that the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing will inspire young people all over the world to “reach for the moon” in whatever paths they choose.
David Levine, a Navy veteran, began his career with North American Aviation in 1953 and was the manager for Electrical and Electronics Systems for the Apollo command and service module through its development. He led the team of engineers in Downey, California, who provided backup for NASA Mission Control in Houston during Apollo flights. He also worked later in the Space Shuttle Orbiter program. This column originally appeared in the Desert Sun.
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