From WNY To The Moon: Returning the astronauts safely to the Earth

Jul 18, 2019

Inventions made within view of the Niagara Falls Airport not only helped the Apollo 11 astronauts land on the moon 50 years ago - but they also played a vital role in bringing the astronauts home. WBFO's Chris Caya has more on what some call the region's most important contributions to the Apollo program.

Shortly after Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon for the first time - Armstrong read the inscription on a plaque that would be left behind with the Descent Stage of the Lunar Module.

An image of the plaque attached to the Descent Stage of the Lunar Module.
Credit NASA

"Here Man from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind," Armstrong said.

To get the astronauts back to the Command Module - in orbit around the Moon - the top section of the Lunar Module was designed to blast off from the Descent Stage that remains at the landing site. The Ascent Stage as it's called was powered by a rocket engine made by Bell Aerospace in Niagara Falls.

The Niagara Aerospace Museum's collection includes an Ascent Rocket Engine made by Bell Aerospace.
Credit Chris Caya WBFO News

"And when it was time to go - if they said five, four, three, two, one and pressed the button for that Bell engine to fire - if it didn't fire - they'd still be there. There was absolutely no back up. It was one of the most critical items in the entire Saturn V stack," said aeronautical engineer Walter Gordon. He's also President of the Niagara Aerospace Museum - located near the old Bell plant. Years later it was revealed that President Nixon had a speech prepared in case the astronauts were stranded.

"I don't want to say it was incredibly risky but there was a lot of risk to fulfill President Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth by the end of the decade was an incredible thing to accomplish in the 8 and a half years after he made that speech," Gordon said.  

He says Bell's "other extremely significant contribution" was the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle. Compared to Earth - the Moon has very low gravity. And the LLTV was designed so astronauts could practice flying and landing the Lunar Module before they left home.

Bell Aerospace made the LLTV used by Apollo astronauts to practice landing the Lunar Module on the Moon.
Credit NASA

"At the time it was called the flying the bed stead - because that's what it kind of looks like - is a gigantic bead frame with jet and rocket engines and an astronaut sitting on top of it. They would take off and fly to a certain point and then they would turn on the landing mode where this center engine would automatically cancel most of the weight and then the astronauts would actually control smaller rocket engines simulating the engines on the lunar module and they would fly this thing to a landing," Gordon said.    
 
Neil Armstrong highlighted the LLTV's vital role in a 2007 speech to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. Armstrong says, if the United States ever returns to the Moon:
    
"I hope that the person at the controls has a simulation experience that is at least as good as the LLTV provided the Apollo crews," Armstrong said.
 
The company also made other important contributions. Former Bell Aerospace Vice President Hugh Neeson says, Bell engineers invented Positive Expulsion Tanks for transporting liquids needed to make the journey.

"When you're in space and you have zero-gs, and you're just floating there, it's not like the gasoline in your car which settles to the bottom because of gravity. When you're in space and you have liquids - water, fuel, oxidizer, whatever - it'll float around on you. So you have to have techniques for positively being able to control it - hence the term Positive Expulsion Tanks," Neeson said. 

The Niagara Aerospace Museum's collection includes examples of the the Positive Expulsion Tanks made by Bell for the Apollo program.
Credit Chris Caya WBFO News

A bladder inside compresses when the tank's filled. And it's pressurized so the bladder expands to push the liquid out.
    
"Apollo had 27 to 30 tanks spread all over the various stages. Big business for us," Neeson said.  

He points out - that after the first Moon landing - Apollo missions continued through 1972.
    
"All together we've landed 12 men on the Moon and brought them back. Western New York had a lot to do with it." And Neeson says, mankind learned a great deal.  

"We brought almost a ton of stuff back from the Moon which is still being analyzed. So Apollo gave us direct insight into the origins of where we live and how we live. Phenomenal. God bless America," Neeson said.