50 years ago, Amer­ica won the race to the moon

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - Charles Fish­man is a jour­nal­ist and the au­thor of “One Gi­ant Leap: The Im­pos­si­ble Mis­sion that Flew Us to the Moon.”

One of the marvels of the race to the moon in the 1960s were the Apollo space­suits — blaz­ing, iconic white on the out­side and com­posed of 21 lay­ers of nested fab­ric. Imag­ine putting on that many Tshirts and try­ing to do any­thing.

Those 21 lay­ers were tough enough to stop a mi­crom­e­te­orite, but flex­i­ble enough to al­low the as­tro­nauts to romp around on the moon and do the work that needed to get done.

Each space­suit was a minia­ture space­ship, with room just for one.

They were de­signed and as­sem­bled by Play­tex, the peo­ple who brought Amer­ica the “Cross Your Heart” bra in the 1960s. Key parts of the space­suits — where the fab­ric had to be snug but also flex­i­ble — were adapted di­rectly from the fab­rics and tech­nol­ogy used to make Play­tex bras and gir­dles.

Just as im­por­tant, the 21 lay­ers had to be metic­u­lously as­sem­bled — ev­ery stitch of ev­ery layer had to be per­fect if the suits were to per­form in the moon’s un­for­giv­ing en­vi­ron­ment and keep the as­tro­nauts safe. The sewing was done in Delaware by highly skilled teams of women, many of whom moved over from sewing un­der­gar­ments for Play­tex to the in­dus­trial divi­sion that cre­ated the space­suits.

That divi­sion of Play­tex, now an in­de­pen­dent com­pany, still makes NASA’s space­suits.

July 20 marks the 50th an­niver­sary of one of humanity’s, and Amer­ica’s, great­est ac­com­plish­ments — putting the first peo­ple safely on the moon. We would visit five more times, and in the last three, we would ship a moon dune buggy along, to give the as­tro­nauts a way to ex­plore with both am­bi­tion and ex­u­ber­ance.

The story of the race to the moon is al­most with­out ex­cep­tion told from the per­spec­tive of the as­tro­nauts — they were de­ter­mined and bold and coura­geous. They pro­vide a nar­ra­tive that is both har­row­ing and ad­ven­tur­ous.

But back on Earth, a vast bat­tal­ion of or­di­nary Amer­i­cans had made the moon landings pos­si­ble. Dur­ing the 1960s, more than 410,000 Amer­i­cans worked on the Apollo mis­sions — more than fought in Viet­nam for three years

of the war.

As Apollo has re­treated into history, the role of those le­gions of ev­ery­day peo­ple has largely been for­got­ten.

We were able to send a car to the moon — the lu­nar rover — be­cause of the de­ter­mi­na­tion of two Gen­eral Mo­tors en­gi­neers. In the mid-1960s, NASA can­celed ef­forts to cre­ate a lu­nar rover. But GM’s Sam Ro­mano and Ferenc Pavlics thought the as­tro­nauts should have a car and kept work­ing on it us­ing GM’s money.

Their in­ge­nious de­sign — the lu­nar rover folded up like origami — was pitched just weeks be­fore the first moon land­ing. NASA rocket pi­o­neer Wern­her von Braun was so cap­ti­vated, he made sure three of those lu­nar rovers ul­ti­mately flew to the moon.

The Apollo mis­sions of­ten ended up be­ing a sur­pris­ing blend of cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy com­bined with old-fash­ioned hand-crafts­man­ship.

A wholly new sub­stance had to be cre­ated to pro­tect the Apollo cap­sules as they came blaz­ing home from the moon, en­ter­ing Earth’s at­mos­phere go­ing 25,000 mph — and cre­at­ing tem­per­a­tures of 5,000 de­grees Fahren­heit.

The com­pany Avco de­vel­oped an epoxy that could pro­tect the cap­sule and the as­tro­nauts. To keep it in place on the cap­sule a hon­ey­comb frame­work was de­vel­oped, with in­di­vid­ual cells for the epoxy. Each of the 370,000 cells was filled, one at a time, by a worker us­ing a so­phis­ti­cated caulk gun in a fac­tory in Low­ell, Mass. Fill­ing those cells was so de­mand­ing that each “gun­ner” trained for two weeks be­fore be­ing per­mit­ted to work on a space­craft heat shield.

Apollo’s para­chutes were sewn by hand at a Northrop fac­tory in New­bury Park, then folded by hand. Only three peo­ple in the coun­try were li­censed by the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion to fold Apollo para­chutes; the trio were con­sid­ered so es­sen­tial that NASA for­bade them to ride in the same car to­gether to avoid all three be­ing in­jured in an accident.

The Apollo space­ships — both the com­mand mo­d­ule and lu­nar mo­d­ule — each con­tained a flight com­puter that nav­i­gated and flew the as­tro­nauts to the moon. Those com­put­ers, de­signed and pro­grammed by MIT, were pi­o­neer­ing marvels of the era — the small­est, fastest, most nim­ble com­put­ers cre­ated up to that point. They were the first com­put­ers given re­spon­si­bil­ity for safe­guard­ing hu­man lives.

But at the mo­ment they were needed, our abil­ity to make them was prim­i­tive. So their in­te­rior cir­cuitry was wo­ven by hand, by women sit­ting at spe­cially de­signed looms in a Raytheon fac­tory in Waltham, Mass. Ev­ery sin­gle one and zero in the com­put­ers’ cod­ing was the re­sult of a wire be­ing po­si­tioned, with ab­so­lute pre­ci­sion, by one of those women, many of whom were for­mer tex­tile work­ers.

It took eight weeks to weave the pro­gram­ming for a sin­gle space­ship com­puter. Even a sin­gle wire mis­placed could have caused dis­as­ter in space.

The in­ten­sity of the work back on Earth is al­most mythic. In re­search­ing the moon mis­sions, I added up all of the hours of work re­quired to get the as­tro­nauts to the moon.

There were 2,500 hours of Apollo space­flights — the as­tro­nauts spent a lit­tle more than 100 days trav­el­ing to the moon, on the moon and com­ing home, across 11 flights be­tween 1968 and 1972.

For each hour of Apollo space­flight, a mil­lion hours of prepa­ra­tion and work was re­quired on Earth.

What does a mil­lion hours of work look like?

The typ­i­cal Amer­i­can works 100,000 hours in a life­time.

So each hour of Apollo space­flight re­quired the equiv­a­lent work of 10 life­times back on Earth.

That’s a hard fig­ure to ab­sorb. So imag­ine be­ing al­lowed to do some­thing for an hour that 10 peo­ple had de­voted their en­tire ca­reers to — just so you could do it for one hour. And then, imag­ine that sec­ond hour, which had also re­quired the en­tire life­time’s work of 10 more peo­ple. And so on.

That’s what it took to send peo­ple to the moon.

As the heat shield gun­ners, space­suit seam­stresses and com­puter mem­ory weavers knew, their all-but-in­vis­i­ble per­for­mance had to be per­fect if the as­tro­nauts were go­ing to make it the half-mil­lion miles to the moon and back.

And it was.

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