Hail Columbia! Hail Eastern Iowa! The third week of July marks the 50th anniversary of mankind’s first step on the moon. This was a feat accomplished not just by two people leaving footprints in the lunar dust, but achieved through the combined work of more than 400,000 engineers, tailors, chemists, welders, and, yes, pilots, from coast to coast who contributed their talents and skills to make the moon landing possible. Among these indispensable contributions were those from Eastern Iowa, without which, the U.S. space program would not have gotten off the ground.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. It was only a 23-inch diameter ball, but it transmitted a pulsating beep to Earth continuously as it circled the planet every 96 minutes.
Listening intently to its 20.005 and 40.01 Megahertz signals, was Cedar Rapids radio pioneer, Arthur Collins. At the same time, following its daily track, was University of Iowa Physics professor, James Van Allen. In the Quad Cities, at the Alcoa aluminum plant at Riverdale, a new alloy simply known as 2219, was being perfected.
The United States desperately needed to catch up with Soviet breakthroughs. Conceiving of a time when humans would fly into space, Van Allen developed a special instrument that could capture cosmic rays and count whether they were intense enough to threaten human life. He had launched several similar devices from the Iowa City Airport into the stratosphere through a combination of balloons and a small rocket, but was unable to reach the altitude necessary for spaceflight.
When the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, along with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., designed a rocket powerful enough to escape Earth’s gravity, they contracted Van Allen to install a cosmic ray detector as payload at the top of the rocket. The satellite, containing what came to be known as “the Iowa Geiger counter,” was titled Explorer I, and launched successfully into orbit January 31, 1958. By processing cosmic rays and transmitting the data back to Iowa City, it verified the level of radiation in space so that future manned missions could be planned and protected from the dangers of exposure to excessive dosages of gamma and beta rays.
Forty miles north, in Cedar Rapids, Collins was working with what had become NASA on designing and building communications equipment for the X-15 rocketplane, which, at 4,000 miles per hour and reaching altitudes of 350,000 feet, was the fastest aircraft ever to fly. One of its prolific pilots was a Korean War veteran fighter “jockey,” Neil Armstrong. After NASA selected the first group of seven astronauts in April 1959 for the Mercury space program, McDonnell Aircraft, based on the success of the X-15 project, remained with Collins, and it was Collins Radio equipment from the later Lunar Module of the Apollo program that broadcast the voice and image of Neil Armstrong as he stepped off the ladder and became the first man on the moon.
None of them would have made it into space, however, without a rocket to take them there. Following World War II, Alcoa, the Aluminum Company of America, erected the largest roller mill for aluminum in the world along the Mississippi River at Riverdale, near Davenport. The Second World War, and the Korean War, had proved the need for more resilient, but lighter weight, metals, specifically in aircraft production. As the space race heated up in the 1950s, so did Alcoa. Their metallurgists and engineers determined that if they heat treated aluminum at 350 degrees for nearly 20 hours, it could be stretched thinner than before, yet retain its rigidity. Most importantly, it could be used without damage in temperatures from minus-400 to 600 degrees.
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It was a revolution that transformed aircraft production. When NASA and its contractors, North American Rocketdyne, McDonnell, and Boeing, were assigned to build rockets as lightweight as possible, yet durable enough to hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of kerosene and liquid oxygen and hydrogen, they turned to Alcoa and to the manufacturing plant at Riverdale.
The Saturn V rocket, the largest rocket that would lift astronauts to the moon, was composed of three stages, or sections. Each one was built separately and then shipped to Florida where they would be stacked on top of one another in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral. The structure, and rockets, were huge. The Saturn V itself stood 363 feet tall (with the command module on top). Nearly three quarters of a million pounds of aluminum was necessary to form the tanks holding the fuel and the skin which formed the tube surrounding them.
The first stage contained 400,000 pounds and the second, 100,000 pounds of sheet metal plus 15,000 pounds of thicker “Y” rings to which the rocket’s skin is attached. All this to hold 950,000 gallons of fuel and burn it at a quarter million gallons per minute to achieve the ultimate speed of 25,000 miles per hour. The sheet aluminum which contained every ounce, along with the astronauts’ supplies in the command service module, and, eventually, the Lunar Rover, or Moon Buggy, with which they explored the surface of the moon, was founded, rolled, and heated at Riverdale.
On July 16, 1969, the three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins, launched into the barren extremes of space in their command module “Columbia” atop a blazing Saturn V rocket. The levels of radiation from which they would need to be protected, the communications electronics through which they broadcast their historic step, and the lift to get them to the moon, would not have been possible without Iowa’s contributions to the 400,000 men and women who put mankind on the moon.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of mankind’s greatest adventure, let us remember them all. Hail Columbia! Hail Eastern Iowa!
• David V. Wendell is a Marion historian and will be delivering the keynote address, “The Apollo Space Program in Iowa,” for the Apollo XI 50th Anniversary Celebration July 20 at the Pal Dows Eastern Iowa Observatory, 1365 Ivanhoe Road, in Ely. The event begins at 3 p.m. with dedication of the exhibit “Giant Leaps: A History of the Apollo Space Program” followed by lecture at 8:30 p.m. and celestial viewing through the Cedar Astronomers’ Boller and Chivens telescope.