Delaware’s vast and lasting contribution to NASA’s 1969 moon landing
By Michael Bradley
If you happened to drive past the Dover High School football field in 1962, you might have noticed a man dressed in a spacesuit running and throwing a football, while a collection of scientists looked on and scribbled notes.
This wasn’t some kind of prank. It was a test by engineers at ILC Dover to determine whether its prototype spacesuit was flexible and durable enough for NASA. The race to the moon was heating up, and so was the competition for the government contract to produce what the astronauts would wear.
“Our mobility joints really cinched the deal,” said Janet “Jinny” Ferl, engineering manager at ILC. “We had an employee in the suit at Dover High School, filmed it and convinced NASA. All of a sudden, this little company in Delaware gets this huge contract.”
As the nation prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s lunar landing, Delawareans should feel a special sense of pride about the state’s role in the first manned flight to earth’s lone satellite. Products created by ILC, DuPont and W.L. Gore and Associates made the goal set forth by President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 speech to Congress a reality.
“It’s a testament to the innovators we had at the company and continue to have,” said Cathy Andriadis, international communications leader at DuPont. “The scientists and engineers came up with incredible marvels.”
Ferl said the key to the ILC suit was “mobility.” There is some gravity on the moon, which is why any film of astronauts moving there reveals a loping gait. But in order to be able to bend and grab — and later hit golf balls — the suit needed to be flexible. It also had to handle the extreme temperatures that prevailed on the moon. It could get as hot as 260 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and minus-280 Fahrenheit at night. ILC created everything but the “backpack” that contained the concentrated oxygen, electronic controls and communications apparatus. It was grueling work, accomplished in a short time period, that required a remarkable commitment.
“I worked with a lot of those who were part of the project when I first came to ILC in ,” Ferl said. “They were still filled with a huge sense of pride about what they did and were doing for the space program. They worked round-the-clock. It never left their minds.
“Everybody was willing to do whatever they had to, because they knew what a big part they were playing. They had to get it right,” she added.
It wasn’t always easy. Dr. Douglas Lantry, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Delaware, is the museum curator and historian at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton. Lantry says government regulations required companies to document every single ingredient.
“It was like a dragon chasing its tail,” Lantry said. “Keeping up with the changes in regulations and making sure the paperwork was right at all times was really, really difficult.”
There were 21 different fabric layers to the suit Apollo 11 astronauts wore, and 20 of them were made with compounds invented at DuPont, including Nomex fiber and Kapton polyimide film. When the lunar module touched down on the moon’s surface for the first time, its “feet” were covered with Kapton film. The flag planted on the moon was composed of DuPont nylon.
DuPont began its research and development department in 1902, and many of the materials used in the Apollo 11 mission had already been created in the company’s labs.
“A lot of people think the products used for space were adapted for use on earth,” Andriadis said. “Most were already in use [before Apollo 11].”
Just as DuPont and ILC teamed up, so did DuPont and Newark’s W.L. Gore. They worked together on some of the cabling that helped make Apollo 11 a success. Delaware-made products were literally weaved together: Gore’s flat copper conductor cables, which connected the lunar lander to the seismographic equipment astronauts used while walking on the moon’s surface, were covered with Kapton.
Gore’s relationship with NASA began almost at its 1958 outset, in Bill Gore’s garage. By 1962, Gore was providing cabling for the Telstar satellite, and in 1966 the company used polytetrafluorethylene to create wiring for the unmanned moon landing.
When Apollo 11 sent three astronauts to the moon, Gore cabling was used in guidance computers in the command and lunar modules, as well as at the command center in Houston. Gore products also played roles in communications with the astronauts. It was part of the shovel the astronauts used to scoop up samples from the surface.
“Early on, everything was going into reaching the goal,” said Jenn Haupt, who handles marketing and communication for airspace and defense at Gore. “People kept their eyes on the prize and worked well together.”
Lantry calls the accomplishment an “ages-old dream” for the U.S.
“I suppose you could say, that if you were back in the middle 1960s, and you didn’t know the outcome of the mission, and someone suggested to you that all this industrial expertise would be coming out of Delaware, you would think the state was punching above its weight,” Lantry said. “But that’s where the talent was.”