From WNY To The Moon: How do astronauts breathe in space?

Jul 16, 2019

The 50th Anniversary of the first Moon landing is coming up Saturday, July 20. WBFO's Chris Caya is taking a look at some of the local companies that played critical roles in the success of the Apollo program.


"Houston. Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed." 

Astronaut Neil Armstrong was able to say those words after landing the Lunar Module on the Moon because of the work done by a local company.

The lobby at Cobham Mission Systems Orchard Park includes a display of one style of oxygen regulator used by astronauts.
Credit Chris Caya WBFO News

"Our contribution was primarily providing oxygen so the crew members could breathe," said Howie Bradt, a project engineer with Cobham Mission Systems Orchard Park. In 1969, the company was located in East Aurora and called Carleton Technologies. The company made state-of-the-art oxygen regulators and other equipment needed to pressurize the astronauts' suits and the Command/Service Module and the Lunar Module. Bradt says pure oxygen was stored in small bottles under very high pressure.
    
"The purpose of the regulator is to reduce that pressure to a very low pressure at which the crew member could breathe," Bradt said.   

But the gas is highly flammable. As Jules Bergman reported for ABC News, in January 1967, Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in a fire, on the launch pad, in pre-flight testing aboard Apollo 1.  
    
"An electrical spark apparently shot out and ignited the 100% oxygen in the cabin that they were breathing as in a real space flight," Bergman said.  

Cobham Engineering Manager Gary Thomasulo says in a hundred percent oxygen atmosphere everything becomes fuel.

Apollo 1 cabin after the tragic fire
Credit NASA

"When we think of fuel typically we think of paper, wood, things along those lines, gasoline in a car engine. But in a high pressure oxygen system everything the aluminum, the steel, all the O-rings, any plastics that might be used, non-metals, those all become fuel," Thomasulo said.   

So to prevent fires, Thomasulo says, the oxygen regulators had to be made out of the right combination of materials and engineers had to limit sources of ignition.

"Ignition mechanisms can be anything from particle impingement at high velocity, say a hundred feet per second or greater - small particulate. Could be friction. Could be static discharge. There's a number of mechanical impact. And so we became very, very accomplished at reducing ignition mechanisms and choosing materials that were very compatible for these types of systems," Thomasulo said.  

The company's design was also cutting-edge, Bradt says, in that its regulators were small and lightweight. 

Astronaut Neil Armstrong working at the Lunar Module
Credit NASA

"In order for a rocket to put a capsule with a human into Earth orbit it required a tremendous amount of fuel and the lighter you could make that capsule the easier the mission and the more flexibility there was," Bradt said.  

"That's really and truly how a small operation at the time got selected for such a important project," Thomasulo said. 
    
"That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind," said astronaut Neil Armstrong.

"When Neil Armstrong first walked on the Moon they had left the Command Module in their suits and were breathing on our primary regulator," Bradt said.  
    
"It makes one feel really good to know that we were a part of American history. It's a wonderful feeling, actually," Thomasulo said.