Ohioan Neil Armstrong may not have become the first man to step foot on the moon if it were not for the work of scientists at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Technology developed by people at Wright-Patt’s Air Force Research Laboratory gave NASA a head start when it came to the space race, said Kevin M. Rusnak, senior historian at AFRL.
Without the work of people at Wright-Patt, Rusnak said it would have been nearly impossible for NASA to meet president John F. Kennedy’s deadline of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
“We were developing these ideas for technologies, the systems, improving the science to to get us into space at first and then eventually to the moon,” Rusnak said. “If we hadn’t broken that ground…they wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. landed on the moon July 20, 1969. To get there, they used equipment that originated at Wright-Patt.
That tech included the rocket that lifted Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins off the ground during the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969. AFRL started experimenting with rockets in the 1930s and the science behind the Saturn V rocket used on the Apollo 11 mission was first developed at the base.
“That started as an Air Force project based on an idea that we had right here at Wright-Patt,” Rusnak said.
Challenges, such as figuring out how to successfully re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, had been pondered by Air Force scientists years earlier.
The multi-parachute system that allowed astronauts to safely arrive back on earth was first developed by workers at Wright-Patt’s AFRL. The cascading parachutes allowed Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew to land in the Pacific Ocean just off the shores of Hawaii on July 24, 1969.
The pressurized space suits worn by Armstrong and Aldrin as they roved the lunar surface are also linked to work first conducted at Wright-Patt.
Before pressurized cabins existed, the Air Force needed to find a way to allow pilots to continue breathing even at higher altitudes. To solve that issue, the Air Force started experimenting with rubber suits that would eventually become the basis for modern space suits.
Many of the priorities of the Air Force and NASA overlapped in the space program’s early days. Before NASA was created by president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958, the Air Force had already been exploring the possibility of putting a man in space, Rusnak said.
“The Air Force was one of several agencies that were looking at a manned space program,” Rusnak said. “In fact, right here at Wright-Patterson, we had started a program…and if you look at the the proposals that we were talking about, it’s nearly identical to the Mercury program.”
Ohio in space
Beyond Wright-Patt, the Buckeye State has a long legacy in outer space.
There are 25 astronauts from Ohio, according to NASA. They include Armstrong and John Glenn, who became the first man to orbit earth in 1962.
Former astronaut Bob Springer, a native of Ashland, Ohio, has a theory as to why there are so many astronauts from the Buckeye State.
Several are from small towns and most have a military background, said Springer, who served in the Marine Corp. Being that Ohio has several small towns and a strong military connection, it would make sense if that’s how Armstrong and others were first attracted to aviation and eventually space travel, he said.
“If you look at the backgrounds of astronauts, it’s incredible how many are from Ohio,” Springer said. “I think there’s something to that.”
The Air Force’s graduate school at Wright-Patt may also have something to do with Ohio’s high quotient of astronauts.
Aldrin's father, 1st Lt. Edwin Aldrin Sr., was one of the founders of the the Air School of Application in 1919. The school would eventually become known as the Air Force Institute of Technology, which is today based at Wright-Patt.
Aldrin himself is considered a graduate of AFIT, though at the time the program he studied in was located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because it wasn’t offered at Wright-Patt.
At least a dozen astronauts were graduates of AFIT. Col. Guy Bluford, the first African-American in space, was an AFIT graduate as were two of NASA’s original seven Mercury astronauts Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper, according to Wright-Patt.
Ohio’s high number of astronaut natives may be due to the state’s ties with early aviation and Dayton being the birthplace of flight, Rusnak said. Wilbur and Orville Wright first started working on creating a flying machine in Dayton before they successfully launched their first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.
“The people who were from Ohio, were particularly inspired by the Wright brothers,” Rusnak said. “(For them) it was just kind of an aviation thing and Ohio has been proud of those contributions.”
The new space race
The business of space exploration and research continues to be important to the Dayton region in the five decades since the moon landing.
The military is focusing more on what the Department of Defense needs to protect American assets in space. Last year, president Donald Trump took things a step further when he began pushing for the creation of a new branch of the armed forces: the Space Force.
Wright-Patt will likely be impacted by shifts in the nation’s space strategy, experts have said. The base is home to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, which is responsible for keeping an eye on what U.S. adversaries are doing within and above earth’s atmosphere.
“NASIC is a very large player when it comes to what our nation is doing,” said Maurice “Mo” McDonald, executive vice president of aerospace and defense for the Dayton Development Coalition said last month. “It sets a course for the future of what the United States needs to do…from a space perspective.”
As the number of objects in space increases, particularly in low Earth orbit, the risk of collisions will grow, according to a NASIC report released in January. Amid the growing popularity of smaller satellites, monitoring capabilities that help prevent collisions in space, may struggle to track objects and discriminate between threats and non-threats, NASIC predicts.
New challenges in space will be a good thing for Wright-Patt and the defense industry because Dayton-area businesses will be ready to take them on, McDonald said. One of those areas could be the concept of unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly referred to as drones, McDonald said.
“I see opportunity on the horizon,” McDonald said. “As the Department of Defense grows in this area and matures in the area that’s going to create opportunities for local businesses.”
In the meantime, Wright-Patt has kept up its ties with the space program.
A little more than two weeks ago, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launched and was carrying a satellite using an experimental type of fuel made by AFRL at the base, according to Wright-Patterson.
A $34.4-million centrifuge started spinning at Wright-Patt last spring after five years of delays. It has already been used by NASA astronauts for training.
It’s the continuing work of Wright-Patt and others, Springer said, that will likely keep Ohio’s space legacy high in the sky for the foreseeable future.
“I think that’s definitely going to be the case in the years ahead,” Springer said. “You still have a NASA center up there in Cleveland, you’ve got Wright-Patterson and they do a lot of basic research that supports the space program. So, there’s still a good basis for all of that in Ohio.”
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