50 Years After Apollo 11, Ohio’s Aerospace Contributions are Still Mission Critical
The extraordinary environment for aerospace technology that put Armstrong on the moon continues today
Glenn Richardson, managing director, advanced manufacturing, aerospace and aviation•Published: Fri Oct 25 2019
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module and onto the surface of the moon. It was a remarkable day in the history of mankind, and as it happens, for Ohio as well.
That first step was the payoff from years of hard work, started long before President John F. Kennedy’s bold declaration that the U.S. would put a man on the moon. That first step, and the giant leap in innovation it represented was made possible with contributions from Armstrong’s home state of Ohio.
As early as the late 1940s, the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland (now the NASA Glenn Research Center) studied the propulsion technology used to make a trip to the moon possible. The initial test was small, but eventually grew and laid the groundwork for the second stage of the Saturn V rocket, which would carry the Apollo missions from Earth. Even the name “Apollo” can claim origins in Ohio.
In 1958, Dr. Abe Silverstein, associate director of the Lewis Research Center, was called to Washington D.C. to help organize the beginnings of NASA. Silverstein was ultimately appointed Headquarters Director of Space Flight programs and led the development of the Ranger and Mercury programs, among others. And sitting at home one evening in 1960, he set out to choose a name for a planned mission to the moon. He landed on the Greek god Apollo, whose “chariot riding across the sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program.”
Nine years later, mankind reached the moon.
Along the way, the Lewis Research Center contributed vast amounts of new research and technology that made the mission possible. Wind tunnel tests of the Saturn V and launch escape subsystem were conducted there. Its Plum Brook Station Zero Gravity Research Facility in Sandusky, Ohio, studied the impact of space on propellants in fuel tanks.
Aeronca (now named Magellan Aerospace) played an equally important role in the mission. Its employees helped develop braised honeycomb panels use on the command module. These lightweight, strong panels helped protect the astronauts against the intense temperatures of outer space.
Plum Brook Station continues to serve space vehicle and subsystems companies with the world’s largest and most capable space environment simulation facilities. Here, companies can put their satellite, rover, engine or launch modules to the test. Plum Brook Station is also home to the world’s largest vacuum chamber and the only in-space propulsion facility capable of testing full-scale, upper-stage vehicles and rocket engines under simulated high-altitude conditions.
Private aviation and aerospace continue to advance here as well, with more than 540 companies in this industry calling Ohio home. The state is the leading supplier to both Airbus and Boeing. Companies like L3Harris Technologies, Inc. provide critical deep space communication links from commercial space vehicles, the International Space Station and Martian rover missions. Ohio is also a leader in advanced aerospace materials, including composites, metals and 3D printing of “hot” engine parts.
What also sets Ohio apart are the state’s defense installations. While some states only have one or two defense installations, Ohio has multiple. This unique presence provides ample access to R&D and advanced technology and acquisition-related installations.
Ohio’s ZIN Technologies, meanwhile, is helping to push us farther into the cosmos. The company is working on the next iteration of NASA’s Solar Electric Propulsion project, with the goal of delivering an engine that could power a mission to Mars by improving spaceflight fuel efficiency by up to a factor of 10.
Moreover, Ohio’s colleges and universities collectively graduate more than 13,000 engineers and engineering technicians each year who fuel the growth of these companies. In all, the state is home to more than 38,000 private aerospace and aviation professionals, as well as the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Battelle and the Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center at the AFRL, which is pioneering innovative technologies to allow drones to fly safely beyond the visual line of sight. The partnerships between public, private and academic resources that fuel this productive environment show no signs of stopping.
Humanity succeeded in putting a man on the moon, and continues to push the limits of space exploration to achieve amazing breakthroughs. For NASA, the next great voyage is back to the moon with Artemis. Named after the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology, Artemis is a program to return astronauts to the lunar surface, including the first woman and the next man, and bring NASA closer to establishing a sustainable human presence on the moon.
With Ohio’s aerospace and aviation infrastructure, skilled workforce and research resources, the state will certainly be a part of the next “giant leap” in space exploration.