Fifty years ago tomorrow, millions of people around the world sat glued to bulky cathode-ray tube television sets watching in awe as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the moon. As a young lad growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, I was captivated by the events unfolding on the TV in my parents’ home. Although my dad had recently purchased a new Sylvania color TV for the occasion, I recall that the actual coverage was in grainy black and white.
At the same time, thousands of engineers scattered across the United States were breathing a collective sigh of relief. That’s because the Apollo 11 spacecraft was built from millions of complex parts made by a wide variety of large and small companies.
The years leading up to the moon landing challenged American manufacturers like never before. Amazingly, those parts were designed, assembled and tested in an era when computers, robots and other devices we take for granted today were primitive or nonexistent.
Many of those efforts were featured in the pages of ASSEMBLY magazine, which debuted at the dawn of the space race in 1958. In fact, at the same time that the first issue of this magazine was being created on long-forgotten devices, such as typewriters and linotype machines, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created in response to Russia’s recent launch of a small satellite called Sputnik.
During the months that followed, U.S. engineers pioneered new materials, production tools, assembly processes and quality control standards. This unprecedented effort included everything from adhesive bonding and brazing to mechanical fastening and welding. Innovative clean room manufacturing methods were also developed to make electronics and other sensitive components.
Throughout the 1960s, ASSEMBLY chronicled many of those developments that played a critical role in the success of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. In fact, the lunar module itself triumphantly appeared on our August 1969 cover to celebrate the first moon landing.
An editorial in that issue applauded the manufacturing and engineering community for the massive effort that made the Apollo 11 mission possible. “In all, some 15 million parts had to perform their intended functions flawlessly under the most rigorous conditions,” it proclaimed.
Two years earlier, an ASSEMBLY article explained how the massive Saturn V launch vehicle was assembled. Among other things, engineers developed variable assembly sequencing technology to track more than 2,400 components used in the instrument unit that helped guide, navigate and control the rockets that took man to the moon.
Each ring-shaped unit was 3 feet tall and 21 feet in diameter. The hardware was sandwiched between the last Saturn propulsion stage and the command module that housed the three brave Apollo astronauts.
The production planning and scheduling system developed to meet this complex assembly operation was used by engineers to track the production status of 500 critical parts on a real-time basis. That’s just one example of countless manufacturing breakthroughs that made the age-old dream of flying to the moon possible in the pre-digital era.
Congratulations to all the men and women who worked behind the scenes on assembly lines stretching from Long Island to Los Angeles to make the first moon landing possible. When the centennial of this historic event is celebrated in 2069, let's hope that their efforts are not forgotten.