'We did that, that boot print,' says Rolling Meadows designer of Apollo 11 spacesuits
This was no simple Sunday night dinner party.
"We were immersed," remembers Bob Davidson, a NASA engineer who helped design the spacesuits Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore to the moon on July 20, 1969. Davidson, his wife, Barbara, and NASA softgoods engineer Rob Bassett and his wife, Ginny, watched the moon landing that day on the black-and-white television in the Davidsons' apartment in Ogletown, Delaware.
Davidson and Bassett started working on those spacesuits shortly after President John F. Kennedy's 1961 proclamation that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." Eight years and thousands of hours of designing, testing, redesigning and retesting those suits with Armstrong and Aldrin had gone into the mission.
"When they landed on the moon … we were speechless, " Davidson says. Watching Armstong take that "small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" triggered something in the men, who hugged.
"When he went out on the moon, it was exhilaration," Davidson remembers. "We both had a tear in our eyes when we saw that footprint. We did that, that boot print. We made it."
Davidson says he thought of fellow engineers Bob Kohk, who designed that boot, and Dixie Rinehart, who designed the gloves.
"Leading up to it there wasn't a lot of emotion. We were too busy," Davidson says, adding that he didn't relax until the astronauts returned safely to Earth. "That was it. We did it. How did we do this? It's amazing."
About 400,000 people worked on the Apollo 11 mission, from physicists with doctorate degrees from MIT to the armies of engineers to the professional seamstresses sewing the suits.
"You were hired for the whole megillah," Davidson say, explaining how everyone's tasks fed into the ultimate goal. "We worked together. The testing we did was brutal. It was an elaborate challenge."
The suits had to withstand 220 degrees below zero and 280 degrees above zero, with 17 layers of new materials designed to handle "micrometeors zipping around at 2,000 miles per hour," while still being flexible enough for the astronauts to move around and push buttons and flip switches, Davidson says. The suits were tested in a 32-story water tower, in the desert and on a plane known as the "vomit comet" that soared and dipped to provide moments of weightlessness. Davidson met with astronauts at facilities in Texas, California, New York, Alabama, Florida, Arizona and Delaware.
"If that spacesuit fails, that's it," Davidson says. "This was the big deal, because this was going to keep them alive on the moon."
Retired and living in Rolling Meadows, Davidson, 77, says, "I look at the moon differently. How could you not? All those years, the labor."
Even with all the training, precautions and backups, the mission still had unexpected problems that required "workarounds" to find inventive solutions, Davidson remembers.
When Armstrong thought he saw a better landing spot, he manually took over the Lunar Module controls and touched down on the lunar surface with only 13 seconds of fuel left.
As Aldrin was crawling back into the Lunar Module after collecting rocks and dust samples, his bulky life support backpack broke off a circuit-breaker switch that activated the spacecraft's ascent engine to lift them off for their rendezvous with Michael Collins, who was in the Columbia Command Module orbiting overhead, Davidson remembers.
Having already jettisoned their tools to make the Lunar Module lighter, the astronauts and NASA were pondering the options when Aldrin jammed his felt pen into the hole, activating the switch inside to engage the circuit breaker and trigger the engine.
That sort of quick thinking abandoned Davidson when he reconnected with a man who had been on the moon.
"This is probably the stupidest thing I've said in my life," Davidson admits. Davidson and his team of engineers were on the first floor of the Johnson Space Center's Building 2 and the astronauts' offices were on the second floor. The Apollo 11 astronauts had just come out of quarantine.
"I'm coming from lunch," Davidson remembers. "The elevator door opens and it's Buzz Aldrin. I should say something witty, but I said, 'Buzz, how's the moon?'"
Aldrin stopped, leaned close to Davidson and said, "Really good."
Apollo 11 spacesuit designerspeaks at library, AdlerNASA engineer Bob Davidson of Rolling Meadows explains his role in designing Apollo 11 spacesuits
Session 1: 7 p.m. Thursday, July 18, at Rolling Meadows Library, 3110 Martin Lane, Rolling Meadows
Cost: Free, but reservations are requested through rmlib.org
Session 2: 11 a.m. Saturday, July 20, at Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago
Cost: Included in price of admission ticket. See adlerplanetarium.org for details