From WNY To The Moon: How Moog steered Apollo

Jul 15, 2019

Saturday, July 20, marks the 50th Anniversary of the first Moon landing. All this week, WBFO is taking a look at some of the local companies that played critical roles in the success of the Apollo program.


"I believe 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," said President John F. Kennedy. Speaking to a joint session of Congress in May 1961, Kennedy went on to rally the public. 

President John F. Kennedy speaking to Congress and the Nation at the joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961
Credit NASA

"But in a very real sense it will not be one man going to the Moon. If we make this judgment affirmatively it will be an entire nation, for all of us must work to put him there," Kennedy said.   
    
In fact, hundreds of workers at several local companies made critical components for the space program, which are showcased at the Niagara Aerospace Museum. Its president, Walter Gordon, says Moog, in East Aurora, produced the state-of-the-art servovalves that steered all three stages of the massive Saturn V rocket.
    

"For those who aren't too familiar with the vehicle, it's 360 feet tall, taller than a football field is long. It weighed 6.1 million pounds and upon takeoff, the five F-1 engines on the first stage, in total, generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust," Gordon said.  

A cutaway diagram of the Saturn V launch vehicle showing the three stages, the instrument unit, and the Apollo spacecraft.
Credit NASA

The historic journey began on July 16, 1969.

"If you've ever watched a large space booster take off, you'd wonder why does that thing not tip over as it's going up? It doesn't seem like it would be stable. And the reason it goes so straight is because these Moog actuators, two per engine, are steering them very quickly and very precisely to keep that rocket going straight and then to gradually point it in whatever direction it wants to go," Gordon said.  
       
An aerospace engineer, Gordong likens Moog's actuators to large pistons on a bulldozer.
    
"On a bulldozer, the hydraulic fluid that lifts that blade up and down is ported by a man moving a big lever. But Bill Moog's invention of the modern servovalve enabled that hydraulic fluid to be ported, very accurately, by a very small electrical current, because obviously you couldn't have the astronauts at the top of the Saturn Five manhandling a big lever to keep the rocket going straight," Gordon said.

Credit NASA

Moog's former CEO, Robert Brady, started at the company in 1966 as a production manager.
    
"The funny thing is, at the time, hardly anybody in Western New York had any idea that the company existed, much less what it did. The company had a water tower in East Aurora, off Seneca Street, with the name on it and there were people that thought the company made water towers," Brady said.

In 1969, Brady says about a quarter of Moog's 800 employees were making hardware for Apollo. He says many of the company's workers, back then, got their start in local steel mills.   

"So the company had quite a capable manufacturing staff," Brady said.

But it was stressful work.
    
"Our concern, and the pressure we felt, was getting our job done correctly enough so that we would achieve the desired result of the specification. We took for granted that if we built equipment that would meet the specification and built it reliably that everything else would work. And you could send a guy to the Moon and get him back. But you had to build equipment that achieved results that were very technically challenging," Brady said.

"It's a remarkable piece of history."