How the Bay Area Helped Apollo 11 Get Home Safely

6 min
Astronaut Edwin Aldrin prepares to deploy scientific experiments during the Apollo 11 moonwalk.  (Johnson Space Center/NASA)

In the hit parade of NASA locations on Earth, there's Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Mission Control in Houston, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

But, nestled right in the Bay Area's backyard is an innovation powerhouse: NASA Ames Research Center, without which space exploration as it looks today would not exist.

Ames researchers brought the world near-magical coatings and shields to protect humans and machines from the fiery inferno of re-entry.  And its researchers had the insight that the best spacecraft wasn't a pointy, sleek vehicle with wide wings cutting through the air. It was an almost humorously dumpy, vaguely pear-shaped vehicle. But this pear keeps people alive.

NASA Ames scientists and the equipment they invented out of imagination, engineering, and research helped get astronauts to and from the moon 50 years ago, and today they're doing it again, as NASA sets its sights on our lunar neighbor once again.

Returning Home

As Apollo 11 fell toward Earth, cruising at more than 5,000 feet per second, astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins received news updates via Mission Control in Houston: The first super highway in South Korea would be named 'Apollo Highway' to commemorate their trip. And a newborn baby girl in Tennessee had been named 'Module' (as in 'Lunar Module').

President Nixon was on his way to meet them and cities along the West Coast – from Vancouver to San Francisco – would be turning on their porch lights at night to create a luminous welcome mat under their flight path.

One of the most dangerous phases of their journey lay ahead of them: re-entering the atmosphere. If the angle of entry was too shallow, they would bounce off the atmosphere like a rock skipping on a lake. If the angle was too steep, the force of impact could injure or kill them. As the Command Module screamed through the atmosphere, the temperature on the outside surface would climb to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

H. Julian 'Harvey' Allen in front of a blunt body model mounted in a wind tunnel at Ames for testing. The 'blunt body' concept is one of the clearest contributions scientists at NASA Ames Research Center made to the Apollo program. (NASA Ames)

The 'Blunt Body Concept'

That pear-shaped blunt body was the brainchild of “Harvey” Julian Allen, who joined Ames in 1940 when it was known as Ames Aeronautical Laboratory. (NASA was founded in 1958.) He developed it while working on the re-entry problem for long-range ballistic missiles.

Allen had the insight that a craft entering the atmosphere at very high speeds, needed to be blunt, rather than sharp or complex. This is so that a shock layer, a section of compressed air that travels in front of the craft, is thick. The thick layer minimizes the heating on the craft, encouraging heat to flow around, and helps the craft slow down.

It was at Ames in the 1960s that Allen and his colleague Dean Chapman were able "to really prove that the blunt body concept would be the best way to build a re-entry body like Apollo," says longtime Ames employee and Apollo-era veteran Howard Goldstein. "It was adopted all over the world."

This shape is now a staple of spaceflight, and one of Ames' crowning innovations. The Orion spacecraft, designed to send humans deep into space to an asteroid or even to Mars, will fly with this shape.

A Protective Cloak  

Howard Goldstein’s specialty is heat shields – cloaks built to protect the soft bodies of astronauts from the terrors of re-entry. Goldstein started at Ames in 1967, and officially retired in 2000, but stuck around consulting and still has an office there.

"I came into the space industry just having a degree in chemical engineering," said Goldstein, "and never expected that I would end up helping to design spacecraft and come up with heat shield materials that would be used on spacecraft that the whole world would watch."

The Apollo 11 spacecraft Command Module is loaded for shipment to the North American Rockwell Corporation at Downey, California, after its release from post-flight quarantine in August 1969. Note the darkened coloring on the bottom of the module caused by extreme heat of Earth reentry. (Johnson Space Center/NASA)

In the early days of the space missions, NASA relied on commercially built materials for heat shields. Generally, the companies manufacturing the materials were cagey about what the materials were made of and how they were manufactured.

"They gave us materials to test, but they did not tell us exactly what these materials were," says Goldstein, adding that this made it hard to interpret the results of tests.

"So we decided to make some of our own materials, and then we could understand better why they performed the way they did. And pretty soon, we were making materials that were comparable or better than what the contractors were providing to us. And that's really how we got into the heat shield material business."

Today, heat shield technologies developed at Ames are used all over the world, including by commercial companies like SpaceX.

To the Moon and On to Mars

In March, the Trump administration announced plans to return people to the moon by 2024 – four years earlier than the previous plan. To meet that timeline NASA will need extra funding, something Congress has not yet approved.

Engineer Robin Beck holds a sample material designed at NASA Ames for heat shields. Beck is responsible for thermal protection for the Mars 2020 mission. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

NASA also has ambitions to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. Robin Beck is an aerospace engineer who’s working on how to get missions to Mars and back. When bring astronauts back from a Mars mission they’ll travel a lot faster than the Apollo crews, which means they need more help in slowing down. And the spacecraft will get hotter on re-entry so they need more advanced heat shields.

"And we have new ideas that are amazing for ways to fly bigger heat shields," says Beck. "How do we get more drag?"

One design they’re working on looks like a sort of expandable umbrella, made of flexible woven carbon. This design, known as ADEPT could make it possible to land heavier loads. The shield flew on its first test flight last September and will fly on future test flights.

Changing the World

Astronauts get all the glory. Escape Earth's gravity and instantly you receive hero status. To be sure, the men and women who go through astronaut training are extraordinarily dedicated and brave. But theirs is not the whole story.

In their final televised address from Apollo 11, delivered as they were returning to Earth, the astronauts took the time to thank everyone who had got them there.

"This trip of ours to the Moon may have looked, to you, simple or easy. I'd like to assure you that has not been the case," said Mike Collins.

He praised the Saturn V rocket that had put them into space, the Command Module and its computer with its 38,000-word vocabulary, the Service Module, and the parachutes which would be deployed during their descent to Earth to slow them down.

"We have always had confidence that all this equipment will work, and work properly, and we continue to have confidence that it will do so for the remainder of the flight. All this is possible only through the blood, sweat and tears of a number of people."

NASA estimates it took more than 400,000 engineers, scientists and technicians to accomplish the moon landings.

Howard Goldstein says during his long career, one of the things that made Ames special was the freedom and innovation it fostered.

"I came into the space industry just having a degree in chemical engineering," says Goldstein, "and never expected that I would end up helping to design spacecraft, and come up with heat shield materials that would be used on spacecraft that the whole world would watch."

When you are involved in the space program, he says, "you are involved with things that change the world. It's really been an extraordinary life."

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