Akron ingenuity helped take astronauts to the moon and back.

Fifty years ago, Goodyear Aerospace Corp. was instrumental in the success of the Apollo 11 mission from launch to splashdown in July 1969.

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. subsidiary supplied six pieces of equipment for astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during the moon shot.

You almost had to be a rocket scientist to understand the complexities.

For starters, the aviation products division built the special disc brakes used to transport the Saturn V rocket and portable tower to the launch pad from the assembly building at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Sixteen disc brakes, each 32 inches in diameter, slowed the massive transporter as it carried 18 million pounds July 16, 1969.

Goodyear Aerospace also built a purge and conditioning system, a “large tubelike affair” that carried outside air into the engine compartment while removing potentially explosive concentrations of hydrogen and oxygen on the launch pad.

As the rocket blasted off, three Goodyear-produced micro modules controlled the guidance signals to the Saturn V, maintaining pitch, roll and yaw.

Astronauts hurtled toward the heavens and viewed the rapidly shrinking Earth and rapidly growing moon through window frames manufactured by Goodyear.

The lunar module’s instrument panel was mounted on a thin aluminum honeycomb of Goodyear-made paneling.

The Eagle landed on July 20. Armstrong walked on the moon, soon to be followed by Aldrin. It was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind and one never-to-be-forgotten moment for everyone watching on television.

But Goodyear’s biggest splash was yet to come.

After the astronauts lifted off from the moon, returned to Earth and parachuted into the Pacific Ocean, their safety was ensured by three flotation bags on the spacecraft.

When the Apollo 11 capsule tipped over in the water after splashdown, the crew pulled a switch and the orange balloons popped out of the forward hatch, inflated instantly and righted the craft until the Navy could retrieve the crew.

Goodyear Aerospace specialists Ronald Norris and Frank Stefan had hand-built the balloons at the company’s complex on U.S. Route 224 in Akron. The bags were made from Dacron fabric coated with polyurethane. Norris and Stefan pieced them together from 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons.

Only two balloons were needed. The third served as a backup. The bags had previously been used on Apollo 7 and Apollo 8 missions.

“The big challenge is in producing this equipment to the exact specifications that NASA requires,” Norris told the Beacon Journal in July 1969. “It’s something to know that you’ve hand-made a part that could be used to save the life of the first man ever to walk on the moon.”

Stefan said it was a thrill to take part in the moon launch.

“We all gather around the television or radio or whatever is handy when we know a shot is coming down,” he said. “It’s kind of disappointing when it comes down, lands upright and the balloons aren’t needed. But we always know that if they had been needed, they’d have done the job.”

Project engineer Donald Marco added: “It gives you a good feeling inside to know that you’re part of such a program. It’s like a fire extinguisher. You hope you don’t have to use it, but want it handy just in case.”

NASA recognized eight other Goodyear Aerospace employees with Apollo Achievement Awards “in appreciation of dedicated service to the nation as a member of the team which has advanced the nation’s capabilities in aeronautics and space and demonstrated them in many outstanding accomplishments culminating in Apollo 11’s successful achievement of man’s first landing on the moon, July 20, 1969.”

Among the honorees:

• Marketing representative Frank B. Baldwin of Akron supervised the corporate relationship with North American Rockwell, prime contractor on the Apollo 11 command module.

• Senior shipping and billing clerk Mary Jane Greenleaf of Akron oversaw the completion of paperwork and hardware shipments.

• Senior shipping and billing clerk Bertha Luoma of Akron cleared the paperwork to make shipments.

• Richard Mehring of Akron served as the first project engineer on the program.

• Senior designer Robert Messerly of Massillon designed the inflatable bags for splashdown.

• Dennis A. Neman of Copley served as contract administrator.

• Senior test engineer Robert Scoville of Akron supervised testing of the bags.

• Marie Weaver of Suffield processed the purchase orders in the materials division.

“All of them did a tremendous job in getting the Apollo balloons designed, built, tested and delivered within a very short time,” said Fred R. Nebiker, manager of recovery systems engineering at Goodyear Aerospace, said at the time. “Even though we produced some 300 of the bags on a crash program basis, there has never been a single hint of failure in their operation.”

The Akron balloons continued to be standard equipment on NASA spacecraft until the final lunar mission, Apollo 17, in 1972. One of the original Apollo 11 bags remains on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Fifty years later, the world pauses to remember the spirit of Apollo.

As Goodyear Chairman Russell DeYoung noted in 1969: “If a single nation can prepare with confidence and place a man on the moon, what could a world of nations united in the cause of common good accomplish if it would only make the effort?”

 

Mark J. Price can be reached at mprice@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3850.