Getting the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon in July 1969 required the development of an incredible array of innovative high technology, created at a furious pace: the world’s biggest rocket; the world’s smallest, fastest, most nimble computer; the first worldwide, high-speed data network; spacesuits and space food and a moon-ready dune buggy.
Problem was, in the late 1960s much of the visionary technology the moon missions required exceeded our ability to manufacture it in an equally advanced way. So a surprising number of the Apollo spacecraft’s critical parts ended up being crafted and assembled by hand, by a vast battalion of little-known and little-heralded workers back on earth.
Such ingenuity was mandatory during the Cold War era. As the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a tense battle for global supremacy, the goal of being the first superpower to plant a flag on the moon gave the Apollo mission added geopolitical urgency. The Soviets had made the first big splash in space with Sputnik, and then launching the first astronaut Yuri Gagarin. President John F. Kennedy wanted America to re-establish its reputation for leadership in science, technology and engineering. The fact that something wasn’t easily manufactured didn’t slow anyone down.
Herein, some of the more vivid examples of cutting-edge spaceflight equipment, painstaking fabricated by hand, that made possible what was arguably the most ambitious, and fantastical, voyage in history.
The Apollo spacesuits were high-tech marvels: 21 layers of nested fabric, strong enough to stop a micrometeorite, yet flexible enough to allow the astronauts to do all the work they needed to do on the moon.
The spacesuits were the work of Playtex, the company that gave America the “Cross Your Heart” bra in the 1960s. Playtex had sold itself to NASA with the somewhat cheeky observation that the company was very familiar with garments that had to be both form-fitting and flexible.
In fact, Playtex’s industrial division proved to be an inspired choice. Some of the layers of fabric in the suits were adapted directly from materials Playtex used in its bras and girdles.
But assembling the spacesuits was considered such delicate and critical work that it was done by hand, each layer sewn by women, brought over to Playtex’s industrial division from its consumer-product side. Every stitch had to be perfect if the spacesuits were to perform correctly—and protect the astronauts—in the unforgiving environment of the moon.
That division of Playtex is now an independent company called ILC Dover. Fifty years later, it still makes all NASA’s spacesuits.
The lunar rover
The U.S. sent three electric cars to the moon during the Apollo missions, and those ingenious moon vehicles transformed the experience of lunar exploration. They dramatically expanded the range the astronauts could cover—allowing them to venture many miles from the landing sites, to chase down the most interesting moon features and geology they could find. And the astronauts got a great sense of exuberance from zooming along in their lunar rovers across the hilly, sometimes dune-like surface—often laughing out loud at the experience of driving on the moon.
But the rovers’ wheels posed a significant challenge: how to provide traction and stability, without getting mired in the gritty lunar dirt.
The answer came from tire maker Goodyear: a sophisticated design to cope with the very fine, very abrasive lunar surface. The outer wheel was made of a woven wire mesh, in the shape of a tire, which gave the rover traction, and allowed some of the dirt to slip inside. As the wheels turned, the mesh flexed open, the dirt dropped back out and the wheels returned to their tire shape.
The mesh, made of piano wire for durability, flexibility and stability, had no parallel in other vehicles. The zinc-coated piano wire was hand-cut and hand-woven into a mesh, on a specially designed loom, and then shaped into what looked like a mesh version of an inflatable tire. Despite the tires’ mesh being able to flex open and closed, it was remarkably dense: Each tire required 3,000 feet of piano wire.
The Apollo space capsules relied on parachutes to slow their fall back to earth after going to the moon, and the three main parachutes were huge, each 83.5 feet across. Each one contained 7,200 square feet of fabric—enough to cover all the floor space in three typical U.S. homes.
The parachutes were made of fabric strong enough to slow the plunge of the capsule from 160 m.p.h. and float it gently to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean—and yet a square yard of parachute material weighed just one ounce.
Each parachute was assembled from panels of material, sewn together with 3.5 miles of thread—2 million individual stitches per parachute, the seams run through black Singer sewing machines by hand. And then, because even a single flawed stitched could cause disaster, the parachutes were placed on a light table, and every inch of every seam was inspected.
Finally, the parachutes were folded and packed by hand. During the Apollo missions in the 1960s and early 1970s, only three people in the country were trained, and then licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, to fold Apollo parachutes—Norma Cretal, Buzz Corey and Jimmy Calunga —and they handled all 11 Apollo missions.
Their skills were considered so essential that NASA forbade them from ever riding in the same car together. The agency couldn’t afford to chance that all three would be injured in a single accident.
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The heat shield
To get back home from the moon, the Apollo astronauts and their capsule had to come blazing back through the earth’s atmosphere. The capsule was traveling 25,000 m.p.h. as it re-entered the atmosphere, and the friction quickly created temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The problem: How do you protect the capsule and the astronauts from temperatures high enough to vaporize metal? Massachusetts company Avco came up with an all-new material, a kind of resin, that would shield the capsule from that heat, and its own surface gradually burned away, to help dissipate the heat of re-entry.
But the new material itself posed a challenge: how to fasten it in place on the capsule. A honeycomb framework was developed to hold the heat shield resin—the framework’s thickness varying at every point along the curves of the spaceship to provide the protection necessary at that point.
The honeycomb contained 370,000 individual cells. The only way to fill those cells properly in the late 1960s? By hand, one cell at a time. Avco staff—mostly women—used slightly modified caulk guns to fill each cell with the resin, and they came to be called “gunners.” The work was considered so critical, and also so delicate, that each gunner trained for two weeks before being allowed to work on the heat shield for a capsule.
And nothing was left to chance: Avco X-rayed the honeycomb finished sections to make sure each cell had been filled.
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The onboard computers for Apollo—one that flew the command module to the moon and back to earth, and another that flew the lunar module from orbit around the moon to a safe landing, then back up into orbit—were the smallest, fastest, most nimble computers ever created for their era.
Designed and programmed by scientists, engineers and programmers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the computers were marvels of their time—and a view into the computing future. In an era when a small computer was the size of three refrigerators, lined up next to each other, the Apollo flight computer was the size of a briefcase. At a time when computers on earth required punch cards to work, and hours to get results back, the Apollo flight computer had a keyboard and worked instantly. In an era when people using the computers simply submitted their punch cards, and waited for the results from computer operators, the astronauts ran the Apollo flight computers themselves.
But in the mid- and late-1960s, when the Apollo computers were designed, programmed and built, they were in fact just a few years ahead of our ability to manufacture their circuitry. Computer chips and computer memory were in their infancy—indeed, the Apollo computer was the first computer of any significance to use integrated circuits, computer chips.
The Apollo computers were designed with a kind of memory called “core rope memory.” It was the densest computer memory available at that moment in time—between 10 and 100 times more efficient, in terms of weight and space, of any other memory available, absolutely essential on spacecraft where weight and space were always at a premium.
But core rope memory suffered from one small problem: It had to be made by hand.
Each wire representing a 1 or a 0 in the computer program had to be positioned with absolute precision, by a person, using a needle, and wire instead of thread. A wire threaded through the center of a tiny ring-shaped magnet was a one. A wire threaded to the outside of that magnet was a zero.
And so the most remarkable computer of its era—not just a space-age computer, but a spaceship flight computer—had circuitry that was hand-woven, by women, many of them former textile workers, in a Raytheon factory in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The Apollo guidance computer contained just 73 kilobytes of memory—far less computing power than a typical microwave oven today. In all, it contained 589,824 ones and zeros of computer programming—and every single one and zero, every single wire, had to be positioned exactly correctly, or some part of the computer’s sophisticated flight program wouldn’t work right.
Because the women in Waltham weren’t just weaving the memory of the computer, but literally weaving the programming instructions directly—almost all of the Apollo computer’s memory was fixed—and woven by those women. For Apollo, the software was in fact hardware.
It took eight weeks to weave the memory for a single flight computer. The computers in the command module and the lunar module were identical, but their programming was different, and the programs for each Apollo flight were also different.
While tedious, the work demanded attention, skill and experience. Raytheon found that out during Apollo when there was a brief strike in the mid-1960s that included the Waltham factory.
Managers and supervisors attempted to keep the Apollo computer assembly line going by sitting down to do the weaving themselves. According to Ed Blondin, a senior manager at the facility, “Everything they made was scrap.”
Award-winning journalist Charles Fishman is the New York Times-bestselling author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.
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