Sunday, July 21st was the 50th Anniversary of Man’s first DEPARTURE from the Moon as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin completed their historic moon walks, loaded their moon rocks and soil samples and launched themselves back into space. NASA was so worried about the potential for Armstrong and Aldrin to be marooned that President Nixon reportedly had a speech of condolence prepared, just in case. That proved unnecessary as the astronauts successfully fired the Ascent Engine of their Lunar Module (LM) “Eagle” leaving the Moon’s surface and rendezvousing with Apollo 11’s Command Module, “Columbia,” which was orbiting the Moon. What you may not know is that the Lunar Module Ascent Engine (LMAE), that critical technology for the successful return of the astronauts, was manufactured by Bell Aerosystems, a WNY company, in Wheatfield, NY which is now owned by Moog.
The story begins in the late 1950’s when Bell designed engines for the upper stages of Lockheed’s Agena rockets. The program was very successful with 365 Agena rockets launched by NASA and the U.S. Air Force from 1958-1987. In 1963, six years before Apollo 11, Grumman Aerospace Corporation, which designed and built the LM, hired Bell to develop the LMAE based on this earlier Agena engine technology. Reliability was the key concern and all parties wanted a simple design to ensure success since the LM, designed purely for space flight, could never be flight tested. The resulting engine was very compact, only 47 inches high by 34 inches in diameter and weighing just 180 pounds, but it delivered 3,500 pounds of thrust producing a velocity of 2,000 meters/second. No LMAE ever failed and, indeed, Rocketdyne would later bring the LMAE out of retirement after 36 years for a NASA Exploration Systems study.
Another Bell contribution to the space program was also critically important, but not quite as reliable. Since the LM could not be flight tested, Bell was hired to develop a Lunar Lander Research Vehicle (LLRV) and later a Lunar Lander Training Vehicle (LLTV), to simulate the LM. One of the two LLRVs and two of the three LLTVs built were destroyed in crashes. Luckily, their ejection seats ensured that all of the astronauts involved survived, including Neil Armstrong, who was at the controls of LLTV #1 on May 6, 1968 when it crashed due to high winds and other factors. Nevertheless, the LLTVs were very successful in preparing the astronauts to fly the LM. Astronaut Bill Anders called the LLTV “a much unsung hero of the Apollo Program” and Armstrong himself credited his LLTV training with helping him fly “Eagle” beyond its original boulder-strewn landing area to a safer spot on the Sea of Tranquility.
Other WNY companies contributed to Apollo and the space program, too, including Moog in Elma, CALSPAN (the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory) in Buffalo, Taylor Devices in North Tonawanda, Carleton in Orchard Park and SKF in Falconer which made bearings used on the Mars Curiosity Rover. After Apollo, Bell made other important space contributions, including instrument packages for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Deep Impact probe which successfully launched an “impactor” that crashed in comet Tempel 1 and the Kepler Space Observatory. It’s all just another proud chapter in WNY’s industrial and aeronautical legacy.