Next week marks the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. Looking back on this amazing feat of engineering four decades later provides plenty of opportunity to grasp its significance and appreciate its impact on manufacturing.
The other day, while flipping through some old copies of Life magazine that my Mom kept for me, I recalled how the moon landing affected me personally. All the nostalgic ads for big old American station wagons, in addition to newfangled things such as color TV and microwave ovens, brought back fond memories.
I remember playing astronaut with some other kids in my quiet suburban neighborhood north of Chicago. We each took turns being Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (and Michael Collins back in the command module, of course). We repeated the famous “one small step” line and practiced planting a foot firmly on the ground, using a stick as our flagpole.
One thing I didn’t grasp at the time was the fact that the moon landing on July 20, 1969, didn’t just happen overnight. It required a decade of determination, a national focus and thousands of audacious engineers.
I salute all the men and women who made the breathtaking events of 40 years ago possible. They worked with pencils, paper, slide rules and blueprints. There were no laptops, digital calculators, CAD/CAM workstations, virtual reality software, GPS systems, paperless work instructions and other tools that we take for granted today.
Throughout the 1960s, ASSEMBLY Magazine chronicled many of the manufacturing challenges and triumphs that confronted the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. Every issue from that era contains feature articles and news briefs that refer to different breakthroughs and triumphs in aerospace engineering, such as new processes for joining aluminum, stainless steel and titanium. Many of the vintage advertisements also mention the race to the moon.
One of the most complex subassemblies of Apollo 11 was the Saturn instrument unit, which was the onboard control center of the launch vehicle. The massive ring contained all the electronic, electrical and mechanical equipment required for guidance, navigation and control. To ensure the accuracy and reliability of information, the unit contained triple modular redundancy.
The 21.7-foot diameter structure consisted of three 120-degree sections of thin-walled aluminum alloy sheets that were bonded over sections of 1-inch thick aluminum honeycomb. Believe it or not, I was the proud owner of a chunk of that honeycomb material. My best friend gave it to me (he received it from his aunt, who worked at the White House).
When the three-foot-tall ring was assembled, it weighed 4,400 pounds and contained 57 different instruments and components, such as gyros, digital computers, telemetry equipment and an environmental control system. A team of engineers from IBM Corp. assembled the instrument unit in a clean room at the company’s space systems center in Huntsville, AL.
The lunar module appeared on ASSEMBLY’s August 1969 cover and an editorial applauded the manufacturing and engineering community for the massive effort that made the Apollo 11 mission a reality.
“In all, some 15 million parts had to perform their intended functions flawlessly under the most rigorous conditions,” ASSEMBLY proclaimed. “But, we are only at the doorstep in the exploration of outer space and interplanetary travel-there are many discoveries as well as accomplishments to be made.”
Other great engineering achievements of the past century, such as the transcontinental railroad, the Panama Canal, hydroelectric dams and the Interstate highway system also required a decade of intense planning and manufacturing activity.
In 40 years, perhaps we’ll look back on green energy with the same kind of awe and amazement as the first moon landing. I believe it’s time to take another “giant leap for mankind” and pursue bold new frontiers of energy, including batteries, fuel cells, geothermal, hydro, solar, wave and wind power.
For more details on Apollo 11, check out NASA’s 40th anniversary Web site