Pittsburgh Goes to the Moon

Innovation often occurs in response to specific challenges. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth within the decade. Ultimately, more than 400,000 Americans contributed to the Apollo 11 mission that achieved that goal. People born or trained in Western Pennsylvania, as well as corporations based here, played major roles in the generation of new ideas for the materials, systems, and technologies that contributed to the success of the space program. 

President Kennedy signs National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Authorizations (July 21, 1961)Senator John Heinz History Center

Advocate for Space Technology

The Cold War encouraged Dormont, Pa. native, James G. Fulton, to become a key advocate in Congress for funding space exploration. While serving in the House from 1945 until his death in 1971, he rose to be the ranking Republican on the Committee on Science and Astronautics and a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Fulton saw the space race as key to international relations. Fulton argued for support for manned flight, urging Congress to fund the mission to be first to the Moon stating, “We are in a competitive race with Russia.” He feared that if the Russians conquered space, they would have a platform to wage nuclear war against the U.S. Later Fulton advocated for government spending to support Kennedy’s vision and helped negotiate a treaty aimed at preventing nuclear weapons in space.

Pen used to sign the Treaty for Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, October 10, 1967, Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections
Show lessRead more

Allegheny Ludlum Steel Oxygen Converter (1967)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Mobilizing the Nation

It took an incredible amount of resources and manpower to get a man to the Moon and more than 400,000 people and 20,000 corporations met Kennedy’s challenge. Experts at NASA had to discern the best way to get to the Moon, they also had to create all the facilities to build, house, move, and communicate with the spacecraft to complete a successful mission. Long a center of industry and innovation, Western Pennsylvania industries played a role in all these aspects of the Apollo program. Area mills churned out specialty steel and metal alloys for the aerospace industry, while research and development departments at places such as Westinghouse Electric and Alcoa created innovative technologies that could withstand the rigors of space travel. Many local companies provided crucial components to NASA during the Apollo era. 

Lunar Module Descent Monitoring Chart (1960s)Senator John Heinz History Center

Mapping the Moon

For the Apollo 11 astronauts to land safely on the Moon and return home, NASA needed detailed information about the lunar surface. In August 1960, NASA requested proposals for a system that could take and transmit images of the lunar surface to Earth. In less than six months, Eastman Kodak successfully submitted this proposal. Once Orbiter missions captured images of the lunar surface, other experts began to assemble and interpret the data to map it. Carnegie Tech graduate and Braddock, Pa. native Alex Valentine became part of the team that identified potential landing sites for the Apollo 11 astronauts. Working for Raytheon in the Mapping Science Laboratory in Houston, Texas, their goal became, “to find the flattest spot with absolutely no craters and no rocks of any kind.”

Slide rule and case, made by Keuffel and Esser Co., c. 1960, Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections
Show lessRead more

Alex Valentine (1960)Senator John Heinz History Center

Using fairly basic technology and with almost no computer support, Valentine and others in his group took the scanned images gathered by the lunar orbiters and began developing maps. Valentine stayed for six years, providing data for the Apollo program from its beginning up to Apollo 17. The data his group generated proved useful for targeting three potential landing sites for the Apollo 11 astronauts. In the end however a computer glitch onboard the Lunar Module meant that astronaut Neil Armstrong had to take the lander off autopilot and pilot it to a new site. Almost immediately an order came from Mission Control for the group in the lab to figure out where the Module had landed. Valentine recalled, "Give me the photography. Let's see what we know, what we can find out. We just went to work, that was it. We never did figure it out."

Sample of Satelloon skin for NASA Project Echo (c. 1962) by Alcoa CorporationOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Pittsburgh companies made major contributions to the support systems NASA required for the Apollo program. New ideas for communication with the spacecraft, housing the spacecraft, and delivering it to the launch pad were all developed locally.

85-foot Antenna Station built by Blaw-Knox Company (c. 1965)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Alcoa and Blaw-Knox Company played an important role in the communications process. The system developed and run by the Manned Space Flight Network, called the Unified S-Band System, relied on a series of 14 ground stations spread across the globe in order to be in constant communication with the astronauts. Although the Collins Radio Company had the primary contract for the stations, the three large 85-foot Antenna Stations were built by Blaw-Knox Steel Company of Blawnox, Pa., located on the Allegheny River just north of Aspinwall. These antennas not only provided critical communication during the mission, they also beamed back the images taken by Lunar Orbiters I to V that allowed NASA to accurately map the moon and decide on the best landing sites.

This Canberra, Australia antenna is one of three 85-foot structures built by the Blaw-Knox Company of Blawnox, Pa. The other two were in Madrid, Spain and Goldstone, California. Placed at approximately 120-degree intervals around the Earth, they ensured that Mission Control always had contact with the spacecraft despite the Earth’s rotation and the Moon’s movement around the Earth.

North American Rockwell advertisement (1969) by Pittsburgh Press ROTOSenator John Heinz History Center

Pittsburgh Companies

Pittsburgh-based companies contributed much to the creation of the spacecraft that would eventually take us to the Moon: the Saturn V. North American Rockwell built major pieces of the spacecraft, aluminum and steel alloys created in Western PA factories and mills covered the Saturn V, the Command Module Columbia, and the Lunar Module Eagle. Smaller local companies were subcontractors for North American Rockwell, contributing vital components that made the mission a success.

Edwin L. Wiegand Company, now Chromalox, strip heater (1960s) by ChromaloxOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Edwin Wiegand founded his Pittsburgh company in 1917, based on his 1915 patent for an insulated heating device. In the 1960s, his company developed a strip heater that kept the electronic control box on the Lunar Module Eagle at a temperature that insured the crucial fuel triggering device would function.

J.P. Devine Manufacturing Company workers hold a piece of the heat shield they helped to manufacture (1969) by Pittsburgh Post-GazetteSenator John Heinz History Center

J. P. Devine in Lawrenceville made industrial autoclaves that were essential to producing the heat shield on the Command and Service Module. This large pressure cooker tempered the metal to ready it for the extreme temperatures in space.

Apollo Xi (1969-07) by NasaLIFE Photo Collection

The Mission

At 4:18 P.M. (EST) on July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon at the Sea of Tranquility. About 6 ½ hours later Armstrong stepped out of Eagle and became the first human to step foot on the lunar surface. Aldrin joined him shortly after and the two astronauts spent roughly 2 ½ hours on the Moon completing a checklist of tasks that included gathering lunar samples, setting up experiments, testing their suits and equipment and planting the American flag for the benefit of humankind. All of the Apollo missions leading up the Moon landing had tested various aspects of the mission, with the Apollo 10 Lunar Module pilots flying within 10 nautical miles of the lunar surface. The landing of the Lunar Module was one of the last untested aspects of the mission and therefore one of the most dangerous. After finding that the automated guidance system steered them towards a crater, Armstrong took over manual control and landed the spacecraft with only 30 seconds of propellant left.

Alcoa aluminum honeycomb shock absorbers compressed and uncompressed (1960s) by Alcoa CorporationOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Each Lunar Module contained this aluminum honeycomb structure, developed by Pittsburgh’s Alcoa company, in the legs to absorb the shock of landing on the Moon. During the first Moon landing, Armstrong and Aldrin cut the engine so late that they had a very soft landing and hardly compressed the aluminum shock absorbers. As a result, they had a much higher jump from the ladder to the Moon’s surface than later landings.

Alcoa bulkhead prototype from Lunar Module (c. 1969) by Alcoa CorporationOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

The three cameras developed by Westinghouse for NASA (1960s) by Westinghouse Electric CorporationOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Westinghouse developed three cameras for the Apollo Program that flew on Apollo missions 9 through 14. The Apollo 11 lunar surface camera is on top, the center color camera flew on Apollo 10 and 11, but stayed on the Command Module, and the bottom camera, a modification of the Apollo 10 color camera, recorded images on the Moon during Apollo 12 and 14.

Buzz Aldrin Standing By Flag On The Moon, 1969 (1969-07)LIFE Photo Collection

Fly the Flag

In addition to the technical challenges posed by the Apollo 11 mission, there were symbolic and political issues to resolve. One such issue became how to signify the historic nature of the Moon landing without violating the United Nations Treaty of 1967 that stated that outer space could not be claimed or occupied by any national body. Eventually NASA, with the approval of Congress, determined that a U.S. flag would be planted on the Moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts, not to "claim" the Moon, but to symbolize for all mankind the importance of reaching the Moon. It fell to a Pittsburgher, Jack Kinzler, to figure out how to make a flag "fly" on the Moon in the weightless atmosphere of space. The Chief of the Technical Services Division at NASA in Houston, Kinzler became known as "Mr. Fix It," for finding inexpensive and ingenious ways to solve problems.

Preparing the American Flag for the Apollo 11 mission (1969) by NASASenator John Heinz History Center

Billy Drummond and Jack Kinzler (right) carefully folded the flag using a 12-step procedure. Then they packed the flag in a thermal blanket of insulation to protect it from temperatures that reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit during the 13 seconds of touchdown on the Moon. Packed in a metal shroud, the entire assembly then mounted on the left side of the Lunar Module’s ladder.

Union Switch and Signal advertisementSenator John Heinz History Center

Launch Off the Moon 

Besides landing on the Moon, the other untested part of the Apollo 11 mission was launching back off of the Moon to reunite with the Command Module. At 1:54 P.M. (EST) on July 21, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin successfully launched off of the lunar surface and docked with the Command Module Columbia. After jettisoning the Eagle ascent stage the Columbia began its journey home. 

Commemorative M1 hatchet/saw made by W.R. Case & Sons Cutlery for NASA (c. 1970)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

A Bradford, Pa. company received a NASA contract to make the combination hatchet and saw for the astronaut survival kit. The kit, stored on the Command Module, provided the necessary tools for survival if the astronauts missed their intended landing site and ended up in a desert or jungle terrain.

Apollo 12 astronauts wearing their MSA respirators as they enter the mobile quarantine facility (1969) by NASASenator John Heinz History Center

Apollo astronauts donned MSA’s Comfo® brand respirators, which had a reversed valve system to filter the astronauts’ exhaled air instead of the usual filtering of inhaled air, during their quarantine period. MSA had also designed canisters that absorbed carbon dioxide in the spacecraft and a sterilization filtering system for the Apollo spacecraft to keep earthbound contaminants from polluting the Moon.

Astrobotic team (c. 2018) by AstroboticSenator John Heinz History Center

Innovation Today

Pittsburgh has continued to innovate for space. For more than 20 years Red Whitaker and his team at Carnegie Mellon University have been pioneers in the field of space robotics, conducting research which has evolved into the development of autonomous vehicles and drones. Beginning with Nomad, Whitaker has designed and built a series of planetary rovers. Additional research to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize led to the 2007 spin off of Astrobotic, a private space robotic exploration company based in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. 

Andy lunar rover (2014) by Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon UniversitySenator John Heinz History Center

Designed by about 50 students at Carnegie Mellon University, the solar-powered Andy rover can traverse rough landscape and survive the radiation and extreme temperatures of the Moon while exploring pits and caves for potential resources and future habitation. Andy has the ability to negotiate terrain, host payloads, endure lunar conditions, and convey awareness to Earth. The robot exhibits superb mobility and stability due to a low center-of-gravity, rocker suspension, high torque, aggressive treads, and extremely low soil contact pressure.

In 2014, the Andy rover won Google’s Lunar XPRIZE Milestone Prize in the mobility and imaging subsystem categories. Andy is named for CMU founders Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon.

Peregrine Lunar Lander prototype (2016) by AstroboticSenator John Heinz History Center

This configuration of Peregrine will fly on Mission One, launching as a secondary payload onboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch vehicle. Future missions will incorporate technology to make precision landings at sites of interest, allow for operations on the far side of the Moon, and make lunar night survival feasible.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps