Race to Moon Was a Giant Leap for Engineers Too


Bud Benner, 74, had worked on tough jobs before the Apollo moon project, helping to design the X-15 rocket plane that flew at six times the speed of sound. But the race to the moon was at another level of human endeavor.

Assistant chief engineer at North American Aviation in Downey, Benner was grappling with one of the smallest pieces of the Apollo project and perhaps the most complex: the command module.

The little bucket with an interior somewhat bigger than a minivan's would carry three astronauts to the moon and back. With 2 million working parts and 15 miles of wires, it took seven years and 12,000 engineers--about half in Downey--to create. Behind schedule and over budget, they were working with an intensity that made an indelible mark on their lives.

"I didn't see a lot of my family," Benner remembers. "I'd get home at night. Kids all put to bed. My wife left a glass of gin in the refrigerator." On weekends Benner sat in his office wondering, "How the heck do we get there? . . . Sometimes I'd sit down at my desk and cry."

Benner was working on the deadline set in May 1961 by President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, the most audacious challenge in the Cold War rivalry with the Soviets.

Tuesday is the 30th anniversary of astronauts Neil Armstrong's and Buzz Aldrin's moonwalk, televised to a world dumbstruck and humbled by the accomplishment; 528 million people watched.

The Apollo program cost some $25 billion (about $150 billion in today's dollars) and employed 400,000 workers at 20,000 companies. At risk was the supremacy of capitalism versus communism in the eyes of the world, not to mention the lives of astronauts who had been elevated to heroes.

There was no blueprint for a moon ship. The Apollo project called for a dizzying feat of engineering at a time when computers were of relatively modest use and engineers relied on slide rules, calculators and carbon paper.

They borrowed technology from secret fighter planes and from drive-in movie theaters, but mostly they invented things from scratch. It took mastery of a dangerous new fuel, liquid hydrogen, and construction of the giant Saturn 5 rocket--which made more noise than anything ever built by man except a nuclear weapon--to propel men to the moon.

Southern California, which was solidifying itself in the 1960s as a mecca of offbeat culture, was at the vanguard of this monstrous technological feat.

North American in Seal Beach built the second stage of the Saturn rocket, Douglas Aircraft in Huntington Beach built the third, North American's Rocketdyne division in Canoga Park made the rocket engines, while North American's Downey plant designed the Apollo spacecraft.

In all, 12 astronauts walked on the moon, the last in 1972. They drove lunar range rovers, carried back 1,000 pounds of moon rocks and met the dead president's deadline. And Alan Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon.

As the nation's interest in space faded, NASA's budget shrank and the aerospace industry changed. McDonnell merged with Douglas; Rockwell bought North American. Later, Boeing bought McDonnell Douglas and took over Rockwell's aerospace business.

Hundreds of Apollo veterans are still in aerospace jobs in Southern California, but for many this will be their last major moon landing anniversary in their field, given their age and the shrinking industry.

Today, Boeing's plant in Downey has 3,000 workers, down from 25,000 during Apollo. Four-foot-tall weeds grow in some vacant parking lots. By year's end most of the Downey staff will be scattered to four different offices. At Boeing's Rocketdyne plant in Canoga Park, the staff is about 5,000, compared to 22,000 during Apollo's go-go years.

One of the many unsung figures is Jerry Blackburn, 54, who tested parts for the Apollo spacecraft in Downey and is now a project manager there for Boeing. "Any time that I see the full moon it gives me this strange sense of accomplishment to know there is hardware up there that I touched and worked on," he said.

About half our nation's 272 million residents are too young to remember the moon landing, but George Jeffs doesn't need a history book. Jeffs, 74, lives in Pacific Palisades and was chief program engineer in Downey for the Apollo spacecraft.

"Apollo had daring as its motivator. People were captivated by going to the moon. It's a little startling, the cultural devotion that transcended individuals. I had a number of guys who died in the process. And they wouldn't have mourned me too long if I had. We kept going," Jeffs said.

Jeffs remembers working 11-hour days, sometimes seven days a week. "That doesn't leave a lot of time at home. And your mind is still cranked up about problems you didn't solve. Other things suffered. Time spent with my children and with my wife suffered." His late wife had polio. "It's hard to catch up with that later."

The Heaviest Thing That Ever Flew

In the early 1960s some scientists bet their reputation on a theory that the moon was covered by a dangerously thick layer of fine dust and that any manned spacecraft landing there would sink into the lunar equivalent of talcum powder.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena set out to solve that mystery by firing unmanned Ranger rockets at the moon to transmit back our first close-up pictures of what the lunar surface looked like on a human scale. Jurrie van der Woude, 64, worked at Caltech's lunar photo lab then as part of the Ranger project. He remembers how, in the final minutes at JPL before a Ranger craft hit the moon, scientists stared at monitors, hoping for a signal from deep space. "When the signal came in, everyone shouted, 'Yeah! It worked,' " he recalled.

Clacking machines recorded the precious digital images, transmitted in 256 shades of gray, then converted into black-and-white photos. The pictures made it clear that astronauts could walk on the moon. How to get them there--and back--was still being worked out.

Until the Apollo program, kerosene was the primary rocket fuel. But scientists were arguing over whether it was possible to build a kerosene rocket big enough.

By 1961 NASA decided that Apollo needed a three-stage Saturn rocket: the first powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen, with the second and third stages propelled by the more potent combo of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The Saturn 5 stood 363 feet high, weighed 6 million pounds and produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust at takeoff, the heaviest thing that ever flew.

Byron Wood, 59, was a young Rocketdyne engineer on a $6,000 salary helping to develop the J-2 engines for the second and third Saturn stages. "A pesky but exciting fluid" is how Wood describes liquid hydrogen. Stored at minus 425 degrees, it could also turn into a disastrous gas, as Wood discovered during engine tests in the Santa Susana Mountains.

The new rocket engines were supposed to fire for 250 seconds, but things went bad "in a few milliseconds," he recalled. If he saw a white-hot flash, it meant liquid hydrogen had turned into gas, temperatures soared to 8,000 degrees and the steel engines dissolved into liquid metal.

Rocketdyne's engineers were worried because the lone J-2 engine on the third Saturn stage was required to restart at 120 miles above Earth and slingshot the capsule toward the moon.

When the J-2 engines burned up during the tests, water from the cooling tower scattered parts far into the countryside. "Some of those nights we'd spend crawling in a swamp . . . looking for pieces, looking for clues," Wood said.

Many observers like to hide behind sound buffers during rocket tests. But Wood, then as now--he runs Rocketdyne today--prefers to stand outside to hear the full engine roar. "Got me pumped up again," he said. Rocketdyne's team kept tinkering with the fuel pump, adjusting the flow of liquid hydrogen. By early 1967 they seemed to have mastered it.

Meanwhile, others at North American were trying to figure out how to keep liquid hydrogen under control. They needed to invent a cryogenic foam insulation for the outside of the tanks. "We didn't have a lot of the technology tools we have today, so you had to rely on physical tests," Blackburn said.

The Downey plant had elaborate indoor test chambers to simulate the cold environment of space, but sometimes old-fashioned rooftop science was the answer. Blackburn hauled 2-foot sections of aluminum, covered with insulation, and set them on Seal Beach rooftops to simulate the moist salt air at Cape Kennedy--now known as Cape Canaveral. A couple of months later, he'd carry the metal back to the labs.

Other companies played important roles in Apollo: Boeing built the first Saturn rocket stage, Grumman Aircraft built the lunar landing craft, MIT and IBM turned out various navigation and computer systems. But North American Aviation was the star contractor--building the X-15 helped it win the big Apollo jobs. Local rival Douglas Aircraft had been in business just as long, and there was some jealousy.

"We certainly weren't happy to lose business to North American," said Duane Kasulka, 61, now retired but then a young engineer working on Douglas' third stage of the Saturn rocket.

Kasulka worked in Santa Monica at a converted Douglas factory that had turned out World War II bombers. Executives got the few offices--with the ultimate status symbol, metal desks--while the rest sat in an open room at oak desks. Cigarettes cost 20 cents a pack, and smoke drifted in clouds to the 25-foot ceiling.

At the Douglas plant, engineers had desktop calculators, noisy and big as a typewriter. Later, the company bought even noisier models that did square roots. "We still used a slide rule for anything serious," he said.

That is, unless he needed to test rocket trajectories on a mainframe computer, which required his boss' approval. He would then give pages of data to female typists, who would convert it to keypunch cards so the information could be run through computers overnight.

"There was a real pecking order of who got to run what and for how many minutes," Kasulka recalled. "The payroll department took dominance on Fridays. Otherwise we'd have a mutiny on Monday."

At North American's Downey plant, one of the never-ending worries was reducing weight on the Apollo spacecraft. Yet the capsule had to be packed with innovations for the long trip to the moon.

The main power for the spacecraft came from a new fuel cell design, not from batteries--they were too heavy. The cells were a mix of hydrogen and oxygen that jointly created electricity.

The Apollo spacecraft also had elaborate gyroscopes for an independent navigation source, a rare technique used then on polar submarines and now commonplace in airliners. The outer spacecraft shell was honeycomb stainless steel, an innovation used on North American's B-70 bomber, which made it stronger and lighter than conventional steel.

Another goal was maintaining a center of gravity in the capsule, critical for steering. But every time equipment was shifted to balance weight, the wiring had to be redone. There were so many spacecraft wires that Benner's crew adapted a system used by drive-in movie theaters to check speaker boxes. His team plugged in an Apollo wiring harness, then triggered a high-voltage jolt and watched sensors to see if there was any failure along the way.

Another design headache was inventing a compact, versatile parachute for the 13,000-pound Apollo space capsule. It had to pop out on cue at 25,000 feet, when the capsule returned to Earth, while hurtling at 275 mph.

To test early designs a cargo plane flew near the Salton Sea and dumped out a test vehicle. Three times the parachutes tore and the pretend spacecraft plowed into the desert. One vehicle crashed and buried itself 15 feet below ground and 50 feet sideways from its impact point. "It took us about two weeks to find it. We didn't expect it to go sideways," said Dick Thiel, 59, a junior engineer on the parachute team.

They finally replaced the parachute's nylon fabric with steel cables to connect with the Apollo capsule. They called it "the flowerpot."

Those who worked on Apollo talk about their jobs in two stages, before and after the fire. On Jan. 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died when fire erupted during tests of their Apollo 1 spacecraft.

"That was devastating," said George Merrick, 71, one of North American's chief spacecraft engineers. "You say, 'Are we ever going to recover?' . . . Then we went back in the trenches to fix it."

NASA's investigation spread the blame, but North American took most of it, which led to an exhaustive safety review and more design changes. Most Velcro patches, favored by astronauts, were removed--Velcro ignited like wildfire inside Grissom's spacecraft. The escape hatch was redesigned. Plaster of Paris was packed around wires to choke off fires.

Design changes added 1,200 pounds to the capsule. The team led by Wernher von Braun, former German rocket wizard, assured North American that Saturn could hoist the extra weight. "Everybody had a little something extra in their back pocket. We all tried to protect [ourselves]," Benner said.

'Noise Was Unlike Anything I'd Heard'

The Apollo project was so vast it was rare when more than one piece of machinery was tested at a time. But in November 1967 the full stack of the Saturn 5 rocket was assembled for an unmanned launch.

As the massive Saturn 5 lifted off, "the noise was unlike anything I'd heard before or since . . . a low-frequency rumbling noise that you could feel vibrating your ribs from three miles away," said Bob Biggs, 65, engineer for the first stage's 160-million-horsepower engines. "I burst into tears."

Today Van Der Woude, still working at JPL, can easily pick out spots on the moon where the astronauts once stood. He knew all 12 astronauts who walked on the moon, including Caltech grad Harrison Schmitt, a crew member on the last Apollo mission.

Yet with this familiarity, he said, "You realize the moon had lost something of its magic because my friends had walked there."

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