Reflections from the moon and Iowa's role in getting there

Collins Radio and University of Iowa help make historic day happen

University of Iowa astrophysicist Don Gurnett poses June 7 with a model of the Voyager I spacecraft in his office in Van
University of Iowa astrophysicist Don Gurnett poses June 7 with a model of the Voyager I spacecraft in his office in Van Allen Hall. HE started on campus at age 17 and worked with UI professor James Van Allen, giving him a clear view to the space race between the United Stats and the Soviet Union. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Crash after crash after crash characterized the U.S. space program in the 1950s.

With the space race in full swing in 1957 and the Soviet Union off to a decisive lead with twin launches of its Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 satellites, the United States responded with a grapefruit-sized Vanguard satellite.

“On television, they showed in real time with the nation watching the first launch of the Vanguard rocket,” University of Iowa astrophysicist Don Gurnett said, recalling his experience as a 17-year-old undergraduate new to the campus.

That was Dec. 6, 1957.

“And it just blew up,” Gurnett said. “It was just a huge disappointment.”

A few months later, the United States reversed that failure — with help from Iowa’s James Van Allen — and successfully launched into orbit Explorer I, which discovered what became known as the Van Allen radiation belt.

But the success was short-lived, and evasive for more than a decade — until the United States finally put the first man on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.

On the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest achievements in human history, Gurnett and others across Eastern Iowa are reflecting not only on lessons learned from the feat and the process of achieving it but on this region’s contributions.

“Landing a man on the moon was a tremendous achievement, a milestone in human history, one that I shall never forget,” said Gurnett, now 79.


PHOTOS:†Flip through†iconic images from NASA from the July 1969 moon landing

‘It was really bad’

But in 1957, it seemed far-fetched at best. Of the 11 spacecraft the United States launched after Explorer, four failed.

“That is just spectacular,” Gurnett said. “I remember going down to Cape Kennedy … and they were testing Atlas rockets down there. And once you got to watching them, it was like one explosion after another.”

The failure rate was nearing 50 percent.

“It was really bad,” he said. “We were trying to catch up with the Russians, and the rockets weren’t working.”

Rubbing salt in America’s wounds were the continued successes of the Soviet Union, which in April 1961 put the first man into orbit. The United States aimed to do the same not even a month later, when Alan Shepard became the first American to enter space — although he didn’t achieve orbit.

Nothing the United States did seemed to match the Soviet Union. President John F. Kennedy later that year said — essentially — enough is enough. Before a joint session of Congress, Kennedy set the ambitious goal of landing an American on the moon before the end of the decade of the Sixties, propelling an intense interest to study the lunar orb.

And still, Gurnett said, the nation’s space program was in “disarray.”

“We were desperately trying to catch up with the Soviet Union, and that was forcing very short time schedules and not enough consideration of reliability and design studies to make sure the things would work,” Gurnett said.

Even at the UI, Gurnett said, engineers commonly operated with a “that looks about right” mentality.


Too little focus was placed on stress analysis and computations, until Congress held a hearing into the efforts. What emerged, according to Gurnett, was the feeling that “if we are going to land someone on the moon, things had to change.”

And they did, he said, including ramped up resources and an emphasis on “reliability and quality control” — enabled by developing digital tools and computation capabilities. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory adopted the “gold-plated approach” that has come to characterize the U.S. space program — including the UI contributions, which are abundant.

“It became an attitude of not doing things as fast as possible, but doing them in such a way that everything works,” Gurnett said. “That comes from this era.”

But even with that shift toward quality-control and accuracy, Gurnett recalled watching Apollo 11 on the launchpad warily.

“I was seriously worried about that.”

SEE THE HEADLINES:†The Gazette chronicled the moon landing from start to finish on the front pages in†July 1969

‘Collins talked NASA into doing it’

One person who wasn’t concerned on July 20, 1969, was Myron “Mike” Wilson, who more than 50 years ago directed quality assurance for Cedar Rapids-based Collins Radio.

Thanks to its aerospace experience, Collins won the Apollo mission communication package — meaning Wilson and his team were responsible for ensuring the astronauts could communicate with the Houston Command Center and the public tuning in.

The day of the landing, Wilson was in his Cedar Rapids home on Ridgemore Drive watching the historic event unfold on TV — like more than 600 million others worldwide. He knew well the risks involved in landing the Lunar Module and taking off again. But as far as communications went, he had no doubts.


“We had full confidence it was going to work,” he said. “We sure expected it to.”

Still, when Wilson watched Neil Armstrong hop down the Lunar Module ladder, imprint his boot on the virgin moon soil, and make his now-famous assessment of the feat as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Wilson said he felt the gravity of the moment and his involvement in it.

“It was really something that those messages did come from the moon, and that they were actually there,” Wilson, now 94 and living in Cedar Rapids, told The Gazette.

In providing transmission equipment to enable images and video to make the 238,855-mile voyage from the moon to Earth, Collins developed a worldwide network of 15 tracking stations. And it was Collins that convinced NASA its equipment was capable of the television broadcast that brought the epic achievement into so many living rooms, Wilson said.

“NASA had not planned on TV, but Collins said the radio technicalities were such that they could handle TV,” he said. “So Collins talked NASA into doing it.”

Collins, in addition to its communications contributions, also provided equipment to transmit data from sensors monitoring the Apollo spacecraft, the astronauts and the space environment.

And Connecticut-based Hamilton Standard — which later became UTC Aerospace Systems and eventually Collins Aerospace — provided the “portable life support system” for the Apollo spacesuit.

That system pressurized the suit, provided oxygen and removed carbon dioxide while also cooling it and controlling its humidity.


For the Lunar Module, Hamilton Standard developed an environmental control system “to provide the life-sustaining atmosphere onboard the spacecraft.”

“It took a lot of hands, but when you dedicate a group of people, you can do something that on the face of it looked impossible,” Wilson said.

‘The biggest challenge’

Cedar Rapids-native Richard Morningstar, 83, knows something about the extraordinary lengths engineers took to make the moon landing possible.

After earning a UI engineering degree in 1959, Morningstar in the 1960s went to work for a California company called Space Technology Laboratories — today, TRW Space and Defense — in Los Angeles County.

Landing the contract to build the descent engine for the Apollo 11 lunar lander, the lab assigned Morningstar as lead design engineer on the project. He managed a team of 35, who worked long hours on the engine that had to be capable of throttling from a low thrust to a high thrust — depending on surprises the astronauts might encounter on the never-before navigated lunar landscape.

“We didn’t want it to crash; it had to be slowed” for landing, Morningstar said. “On the other hand, if Armstrong was approaching a rock formation, he had to be able to up the thrust and move the module.”

NASA later characterized the Lunar Module descent engine as likely “the biggest challenge and the most outstanding technical development of Apollo.”

“It was a very unique engine,” Morningstar told The Gazette. “The only one in the world that we were aware of.”


On the day of the moon landing, Morningstar had gone camping with his family in Yosemite Valley and was able to only listen in on the radio in the car. After many Friday-afternoon panics and weekends spent making corrections and adjustments, Morningstar said he was anxious to see if the engine would rise to the unprecedented occasion.

It did.

“I was somewhat relieved,” he said. “It was quite an effort on our part.”

Lessons learned

Being part of the project has been a point of pride for Morningstar, who moved back to Cedar Rapids in 2000. It represented a united nation focused on a common goal, and it propelled decades of scientific studies, technical advancements and philosophical lessons that remain relevant now.

“It was a special time,” Morningstar said. “There was a tremendous sense of nationalism associated with it. And I was fortunate to be a part of it.”

Wilson cited unity among the lessons Apollo imparted to the nation and the world.

“The whole country was working together,” he said. “So many people were dedicated to it and feeling it was going to work. It was a coming together of the country in a lot of ways.”

It was a similar time to World War II, Wilson said.

“Since that we’ve drifted apart,” he said.

Part of the national commitment involved funding. In the mid-1960s, when it was consumed with the moon mission, NASA’s budget peaked as a percent of the federal budget at 4.4 percent, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

Today, NASA receives about 0.4 percent of the $4.7 trillion federal budget — compared with 16 percent for the Department of Defense, for example. That 0.4 percent is the smallest slice since the 1950s, according to the federal budget office.

A lesson the moon landing taught is that such grand achievements in science and exploration require financial commitment, according to Cornelia Lang, UI associate professor and associate chair of its Department of Physics and Astronomy.


“If we as a nation value this exploration, we would have to have a budget that reflects that,” she said. “This was an era in which the United States decided very purposefully to make that a national priority, and we haven’t ever returned to that level of spending on science and discovery.”

The first Apollo landing — and others that followed — produced scientific advancements and furthered space exploration, including an ongoing “laser ranging retroreflector experiment,” said Caroline Roberts, UI astronomy laboratory coordinator and Van Allen Observatory manager.

That experiment aims a laser at reflectors left on the moon by Apollo astronauts to, among other things, measure the distance between Earth and the moon, which is increasing at a slow rate.

The moon landings also returned 842 pounds of lunar rocks, dust and other materials in the form of 2,200 samples — which have been circulated worldwide, including on the UI campus.

Lessons of precision and scientific testing established during the Apollo run-up have persisted, according to UI professor Gurnett. But he questions whether the United States will ever send humans to Mars — a stated goal of President George H.W. Bush back in 1989.

The technology to do so might be within reach, Lang said, or still five to 10 years out.

“But we don’t have enough enthusiasm to have people ready to give their tax dollars to it,” she said.

The endeavor could produce important scientific discoveries, Roberts said, including related to the red planet’s climate history — which could tell scientists a lot about Earth’s future.

Putting astronauts on Mars also could resurrect one of the most important lessons from the Apollo landing, Roberts said. One, she fears, that has been forgotten.


“It gave us this privilege to see this planet from such a removed way and to realize we really are all in this together,” Roberts said. “You have to leave the Earth to realize how rare it is, and Apollo gave us that perspective.”

One would hope, she said, that decades after the landing, humans would be compelled to take great care of the planet.

“But, on the 50th anniversary, I’m worried we haven’t really done that,” Roberts said. “And I absolutely do believe human space flight can give us a unique perspective on how incredible and rare the Earth is.”

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