Wichita lent helping hand in pushing man into space

This article originally appeared in the Eagle on Monday, May 27, 1985.

By Joe Earle
The Wichita Eagle

On Sunday, July 20, 1969, a 38-year-old man changed history by stepping
onto the moon.

That step by astronaut Neil Armstrong – who described it as “one small
step for a man; one giant leap for mankind” – followed years of work back on
Earth to push flight into space.

Armstrong’s walk on the moon was part of a change in the world of flying,
a change in which the aviation business began to be known as the aerospace

An industry that began by building machines to take people on short hops
through the air turned to developing monstrous machines to take people and
provisions and even a simulation of the air itself to places without
atmosphere or life.

For the most part, Wichita’s airplane-building companies didn’t move as
strongly into space as did other aerospace companies. But Wichita companies
provided important parts of the machine that took Armstrong and his fellow
astronauts to the moon.

“The local industry has been devoted to airplanes rather than space
vehicles and there was enough market for aircraft . . . that there wasn’t the
push to get into space stuff,” said Melvin Snyder, an aeronautical engineering
professor at Wichita State University.

” . . . They were doing great doing their thing and their thing was
turning out good general-aviation-type aircraft.”

The 1950s and 1960s were good years for Wichita’s plane-building
companies. Aviation employment generally stayed high from the Korean War years
through the late 1960s. Lightplane sales were strong, rising from about 3,000
units in 1952 to more than 10,000 a year from 1965 through 1969.

Wichita’s companies weren’t really set up to develop and build spacecraft.
“The space program at the time it was started was a little bigger than we
could do anything about,” said Frank Hedrick, former president of Beech
Aircraft Co. “Segments of it we could handle. We felt that was best for us to
do. We had a good subcontracting relationship with those people who were
handling the space program.”

So Beech worked as a subcontractor to develop a critical piece of the
Apollo machine – the tanks that held oxygen the astronauts used for breathing
and generating power.

Like Beech, Boeing-Wichita, now called Boeing Military Airplane Co.,
concentrated on developing and building planes, not spaceships. The branch of
the Boeing Co. that did aerospace development work was in Seattle.

“We have a company devoted exclusively to that,” a Boeing spokesman said.
“One thing we learned long ago was not to compete against ourselves in the
public marketplace.”

But Boeing’s Wichita facility did play a part – a large part, physically –
in space flight. During the mid-1960s, Wichita workers built 90 percent of the
first stage of the Saturn V rocket that blasted Armstrong’s Apollo capsule to
the moon.

The Wichita plant was chosen for the Saturn work because, after building
huge airplanes like the B-47 and B-52, it had machinery large enough to handle
the aluminum sheets needed to form the fuel and oxygen tanks and the outer
skin of the rocket, Boeing officials said.

“Boeing had the capacity here to build these parts,” said Jack Clark, who
was project manager for the Saturn work in Wichita.

The toughest part of the job was making the curved ends of the tanks, said
Ernie Ochel, who was Boeing’s plant manager at the time of the Saturn work.
The pie-shaped pieces were clamped down and curved by water pressure. That
work, he said, required the heaviest tool Boeing ever built.

The parts were made in Wichita and then shipped by rail to a suburb of New
Orleans, where they were assembled into the first stage of the rocket, Clark
said. By the time the first stage booster was completed, it was 33 feet in
diameter and 138 feet long, Clark said.

Once put together, the booster was too big to ship by rail, Clark said,
so it was moved by barge to Florida, where it joined other stages of the
rocket and was assembled into the 35-story machine that would blast into

If pieces Boeing built pushed the astronauts into space, it was equipment
Beech built that helped the astronauts stay alive once they were out there.

Beech got involved in the space program through the company’s work in
cryogenics, the science of working with very cold materials.

Beech began work in cryogenics through a secret project for the U.S. Air
Force during the 1950s that involved storage of hydrogen, said Perry Hardy,
now manager of product marketing for the company’s aerospace programs.

That cold-storage work led to the development of ground support systems
for the Gemini program and to an oxygen and hydrogen storage system used on
the Apollo moon shots and the space shuttle flights, company officials said.

“They became a critical part of the whole system,” Hedrick said. “If you
don’t breathe, you don’t last very long.”

Most of the work was done at Beech’s division in Boulder, Colo., Hardy
said, but “a lot of the back-shop work was done here in Wichita. . . . . You
had residents here in Wichita who were working on the space program just as
much as I was back in Boulder.”

Beech’s tanks worked well on most of the Apollo flights, both those that
circled the Earth and those that went to the moon.

But the oxygen system was involved in one of the biggest foulups in the
the space program – the crippled flight of Apollo 13 in 1970.

Apollo 13 was supposed to be the third spaceship to land on the moon. But
about 200,000 miles from Earth, heat-controlled switches in the oxygen tanks
failed, leading to an explosion. The Apollo crew had to circle the moon
without landing and return to Earth with power from the lunar lander, which
was joined nose-to-nose with the spaceship.

A national Aeronautics and Space Adminsitration investigation blamed NASA,
North American Rockwell and Beech for the explosion, saying the tank failure
was produced by “an unusual combination of mistakes” and “a somewhat deficient
and unforgiving design,” according to news reports at the time.

Parts of the system were redesigned for later flights.

Beech’s aerospace work also touched on missile construction. The company
has built more than 6,000 missiles for use by the armed services as drone
targets. It has been said that when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon,
it changed how people saw the sky: People looked at the moon and knew someone
had stood there looking back.

Armstrong’s step also changed the flying business. It meant machines could
be built that would take people into space and bring them back. It meant new
ways of approaching flying and new leaps in technology.

“If you’re going to attempt to do something like send men to the moon and
bring them back, you don’t want to fail,” Clark said. “You don’t want that
effort to fail because the eyes of the world are on you.

©The Wichita Eagle