Carthage resident and former NASA engineer Manuel Rodriguez looks back at the run-up to the Apollo 11 moon landing and can see the historic implications.
But at the time, he said, the people working at NASA like himself didn’t think about the impossibility of it all.
“It’s strange, to put it mildly,” he said. “Who would think about it? Possibly going to the moon and what it meant. But we never doubted we could do it. There was no concern on our parts. We felt that we were capable of doing it and that we would succeed.”
July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his first steps and proclaimed “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The ambitious goal had been set in 1961 by then-President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon and return him safely before the decade was out. Rodriguez one of many NASA employees working to make that goal happen.
Building the Spacesuits
Rodriguez joined NASA as a systems engineer just after graduating from Texas A&M University. The department itself was still quite young.
“At that time, there wasn’t a lot to NASA,” Rodriguez said. “It had just recently started. It had done the Mercury program, which was a one-man shot straight up and down. They were in the middle of the Gemini program, which was two astronauts.”
His main focus was spacesuits. Figuring out how to integrate pieces manufactured by different companies, designing it to work like the human body and making sure everything was adaptable to the moon’s environment — keeping in mind no one had gone to the moon before and there was limited information about what it was like.
“In studying the moon from Earth through telescopes and such, there were certain things that scientists were able to establish,” Rodriguez said. “We knew for example that it had gravity. 1/6th of our gravity. We knew it had craters. We had some idea of what the landscape was like. It was kind of volcanic to dust.
We knew what the temperatures on the moon were and the daylight and the dark. So that started giving us the parameters for the requirements of what the equipment had to be able to sustain.”
The spacesuit itself is a pressure enclosure, Rodriguez said. But it has to have mobility, so the suit has shoulders, elbows, wrists, joints. It also has to manage heat and maintain a certain pressure.
“Then we had to design the backpack, which provides that environment,” Rodiguez said. “The suit provided all the mechanical needs, and the backpack provides the life-support needs.”
Gloves were the hardest part, Rodriguez said.
“Take a medical glove, a rubber glove,” he said. “If you blow it up, all the fingers go straight and they’re just straight. So if you make a glove that does that and you pressurize it and your hand goes like that, it’s going to be hard to do the functions.”
That meant designing finger functions and also making sure the palm of the glove wouldn’t blow up too big. They had to design for different hand sizes and accommodate things like thermal insulation. They had to make sure it wouldn’t tear open. It all had to have redundancies built in just in case.
The spacesuit itself has 17 layers, starting with a longjohn-like liquid cooling garment and ending with a white cloth that’s actually glass so it doesn’t burn.
“It was challenging,” Rodriguez said. “It was a tremendous opportunity to be involved in something that had never been done before. And it was leading the way, you know, making up the rules of what we needed.”
Rodriguez still has photos of himself testing out the suits.
“We practiced with astronauts walking and falling in the crater and what it would do to the equipment,” Rodriguez said. “So we did just all the things we could possibly imagine and designed for them.”
The Moon Landing
Rodriguez’s wife Jacqueline remembers watching the Apollo 11 rocket launch and the days that followed. She worked as a teacher at the time, with most of her students families’ working at NASA.
“As we were watching it take off, you just held your breath that it would not explode. Because several had,” she said. “Then the afternoon that they actually landed, he was at home and we watched it on TV, that little black and white TV.”
Rodriguez says his anxiety happened after the shuttle launch and moon landing.
“All my work was done beforehand, so the anxiety was ‘Is the equipment that I worked on going to do the job once everything else is done, they’ve landed and he steps out and starts walking on the moon?’” Rodriguez said. “Since that’s when the equipment I worked on had to function.”
When Armstrong stepped out onto the moon, Rodriguez said he just felt awe.
“It was just a magnificent moment,” he said.
The many NASA employees working to send men to the moon did most of the mathematical calculations by hand. The few computers that were in use were larger than some houses and had less technology than cell phones carry today. Everything was designed specifically for the space environment.
“Think about a hammer from Sears in space,” Rodriguez said. “It’s got a wooden hammer. First thing is the wooden handle is probably not going to be made to fit the glove. Secondly, what’s going to happen to that wood when you put it in a vacuum and it draws all the moisture and everything out of it? It’s going to crumble. What’s going to happen to the hammer itself that has a high carbon content when you strike it in the coldness of space? It’s going to shatter... All that had to be developed. The rules that we played by here on Earth didn’t apply.”
Looking back, Jacqueline Rodriguez said the sheer enormity of what they did was only understood in hindsight.
“None of us appreciated it then the way we can now,” she said. “We assumed it was going to happen and didn’t really understand the gravity of it at that time.”
“We didn’t realize the frontier that we were broaching, and it never occurred to us that we couldn’t do it,” he said. “We didn’t worry about how long it took. We didn’t worry about how many hours we worked or whether we got paid for it or not. Lot of times we worked hours we didn’t get paid for. Sometimes the job was urgent and you had vacation time that you had to use or lose and we lost it and never worried about that. It was never a consideration.”
Rodriguez says the entire NASA team’s mental attitude started with the astronauts who volunteered their lives.
“When they went to the moon, they had been told that there was a 50/50 chance that they would return,” Rodriguez said. “50/50. They were ready to go and lined up. I’m not sure how many people would be willing to work with those probabilities.”