6 ways North Carolina helped us get to the moon

North Carolinians had a role in getting Americans to the moon. Here's how we contributed

July 19, 2019 

North Carolina and the Race to the Moon

50 years ago, in July 1969, more than 600 million people around the world were mesmerized in front of television sets, watching live pictures beamed from the surface of the moon. Yes they were black and white and fuzzy, but they were images from the moon’s surface of two American astronauts. Neil Armstrong and Ed Aldrin were in the midst of humanity’s greatest adventure. And it turns out in ways large and small, North Carolinians helped get them there. Here are some of the ways:

1. Astronaut training

NASA is well known for its requirement that there be back-up systems to back-up the back-up system in case something fails. Triple redundancy is the norm. But what happens if the navigation system fails? It turns out the astronauts were trained to go “old school.” 62 astronauts trained at Morehead Planetarium from 1960-1975 in celestial navigation, that is, knowing where the spacecraft is and how to get from here to there using the stars. It’s just like the sailing ships of old. The trainees included 11 of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon. The astronauts sat in a console designed to replicate the windows of their spacecraft and looked at the stars projected on the planetarium dome. Three flight used the technique to get back to Earth.

2. Moon Geology

Not all rocks are the same and Joel Watkins was the person who taught the astronauts that fact. Watkins dreamed of being an astronaut when he graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1964. NASA turned him down because of a medical condition. But he still wanted to do something for the space program. So he and colleagues from the Astro-Geology branch of the US Geological Survey ran a geological field school at the Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico. They taught the Apollo astronauts how to use magnetometers, gravimeters and seismometers to study the moon’s subsurface structures. In addition, the Apollo 14,16, and 17 astronauts deployed geologic instruments developed by Watkins to study moonquakes.

3. Engines

Just like in a car, you can’t just attach an engine to a rocket and watch it go. It’s got to be tuned and aimed and balanced. Sam Beddingfield knew how to do that. He graduated with an engineering degree from NC State. He worked as a flight test engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. While there, he met a fellow named Gus Grissom. Grissom was later picked as one of the first Mercury astronauts. After Beddingfield had returned to his NC farm, Grissom called him and suggested he join this new project called the space program. Beddingfield took him up on the offer. He worked on the engines for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo spacecraft. Beddingfield retired as Deputy Director of the Space Shuttle program in 1985.

4. Patches and Logos

Every organization needs a logo, something that is easily recognizable to built identity and a sense of pride amongst the team. NASA’s logo does just that, but did you know that NASA’s logo is affectionately known as “The Meatball?” E. Henry Conrad and his AB Emblem Company in Weaverville, NC made the first official NASA patch in 1962. The sphere represents a planet, the stars represent space, the red v-shaped vector represents, and there is an orbiting spacecraft going around the wing. In addition, AB Emblem became the sole contractor for all space mission patches with the launch of Apollo 11. The patches incorporate design concepts provided by the astronauts.

5. Flags and Fabrics

You could say the fabrics made at the Burlington Mill in Rhodhiss are out of this world. A lot of the fabrics ended up in space, in the heat shields of returning space capsules and space shuttles. But the most famous fabric ever woven at the mill might be the Apollo mission moon flags. Burlington Mill was the world’s largest textile company. The flag was assembled elsewhere but the nylon material was woven in Rhodhiss. It was not a special order. The flag was designed by a NASA engineer, who only had a few months to create something that could be easily set up by two men wearing space suits with limited range of motion. Neil Armstrong saw the Apollo 11 flag fall over from the exhaust from liftoff. Satellite photos in 2012 confirmed the flags from the other Apollo missions are still standing.

6. Astronaut/spacecraft recovery

Soviet spacecraft land in the desert steppes of the remote areas of the Soviet Union. Even with parachutes it’s a rough landing. Because of that and a lot of other safety reasons, NASA decided it’s spacecraft would splash down in the ocean. But after Alan Shepard almost drowned and his spacecraft almost sank, NASA was trying to decide what to do. Lt. Richard Barrett, who grew up in Canton and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, had an idea. He was part of Navy Anti-Submarine Squadron 4 and rewrote NASA’s recovery plans for astronaut and spacecraft recovery protocols. The astronauts were to be put into baskets and recovered by helicopter. The spacecraft was to be winched aboard ship. Barrett helped recover the crews of Apollo 8, 10, and 11. Barrett was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal.


6. Astronaut/spacecraft recovery