Fifty years ago this month a human being stepped down onto the surface of the moon for the first time. July 20, 1969, is one of the most recognizable dates in American history, and Neil Armstrong, who took that one small step for man, is one of our most iconic Americans. But it was the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people back on Earth that made one giant leap for mankind possible.
Two of those people are former Greenwich First Selectmen Jim Lash and Richard Bergstresser.
As an undergrad at MIT in the mid-1960s, Lash worked on the design of the navigation system for the Apollo command module, which would orbit the moon while the lunar lander descended into history. “There was a complete clarity about what the objective was, and a deadline, which, while challenging, seemed to be possible,” says Lash, 75. “What made it challenging was that many new technologies had to be created in order for the project to succeed.”
Bergstresser knows a thing or two about new technologies. “I started with IBM in 1956. I was hired as an applied scientist,” says Bergstresser, 85. “I took a survey course in the new computer technologies at the time, and I had two weeks on the IBM 650 [the world’s first mass-produced computer]. So I could walk into the director of scientific marketing and say, ‘I can program your 650.’ And he said, ‘You’re hired.’ ”
In addition to his work at IBM, Bergstresser was on the support team for NASA in Houston and spent three years at the Ames Research Center in California, where he worked on trajectory calculations for hitting celestial bodies. “It was a combined effort,” Bergstresser says. “I’m talking about the mid-’60s, where everybody was working with a common goal. And then there were all these side breakthroughs. It was a tremendous time in terms of an effort that focused creative support. It focused people to create solutions to problems that we’re facing constantly.”
President Kennedy’s 1961 speech announcing the goal of putting a man on the moon and Armstrong’s small step eight years later are two of the most enduring memories of the Apollo program. The work was done in the space between. And everyone knew what was at stake. “When we were testing the guidance computer at MIT, they would send us an astronaut, and we would put him in a spacesuit, and put him in the mockup of the command module and run tests with him,” Lash says. “It was a very personal business. People knew whose lives were going to depend on it.”
Lash’s second job after graduating from MIT was working for Boeing on the first-stage booster, which was built in New Orleans because of its size. The only way to transport it to the Kennedy Space Center was by barge. But before it arrived in Florida for launch, it would stop at a Mississippi test facility. Lash says concrete was poured into a swamp so they could erect the booster, tie it down, and fire it for two minutes. The booster would then be lowered onto the barge and head back to New Orleans for review and analysis.
These were the days prior to environmental impact studies. No thought was given to the swamp life. Terrified by the immense light and sound, the inhabitants scurried out of the swamp and into surrounding neighborhoods. “The first time we fired the booster, [people] woke up in the morning to discover alligators and snakes in their front yards. So, they objected to this,” Lash says, laughing. “The guy who had lobbied for it was the United States senator from Mississippi, so they were angry at him. So he told NASA they couldn’t do that anymore. And NASA said, ‘Sorry, we have a couple hundred million dollars invested in that facility, and we are going to be using it every once in a while.’ And they did. And people got used to it.”
After years of research, development and testing, all anyone could do on July 20, 1969 — outside of those directly involved with the Apollo 11 mission — was watch. “We were, at that point, residents in Greenwich and had a party to watch it,” Bergstresser says. “It was an incredible sight to watch live TV of somebody landing on the moon.”
Lash had a different perspective, at least in the early moments. “Because I worked on the first-stage booster, I was primarily focused on that two minutes, from the time you count down from 10, when that two-minute clock starts running, those rocket motors are running and you want that thing to work,” Lash says. “From my personal point of view, after those two minutes are up and that booster broke away from the next stage, my part had worked and I’d done everything I could do to keep everybody safe and have the mission be successful. But if you ask me what’s the thing you remember, everybody remembers sitting in front of the television watching that grainy picture of Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon. What else can it be, right?”
Remember those bulky “backpacks” or the “bubble” helmets worn by the Apollo 11 astronauts? How about the helicopter that picked up the lunar pioneers after their command module splashed down in the Pacific?
More than 50 Connecticut-based companies made those and many other parts and equipment for the Apollo mission a half-century ago. Dozens of subcontractors in the state worked on the program, producing parts large and small. Many were modest machine shops that turned out thousands of small parts, some of which never made it to the moon and some that are still on the lunar surface.
Here are a some examples:
Spacesuit life support “backpack” — Hamilton Standard (now Hamilton Sundstrand), Windsor Locks
SH-3 Sea King recovery helicopter — Sikorsky Aircraft, Stratford
Polycarbonate “bubble” helmet and airtight spacesuit fittings — Air-Lock Inc., Milford
Lunar module abort guidance system — United Aircraft (now United Technologies), Farmington
Assorted power supplies and power inverters used in the lunar module and the Saturn V’s second stage — Hamilton Standard
Pre-flight space suit “suitcase” cooler — Hamilton Standard
Gas turbine engine for lunar module training craft — General Electric, then based in Fairfield
Spacesuit ground support testing equipment — United Aircraft
Miniature plugs, nozzles and other machined flow-control devices — Lee Co., Westbrook
Porous plate sublimator, used to cool guidance and telemetry equipment — Hamilton Standard