Now with video -- Apollo 11 made history 50 years ago
“Nervous” could hardly describe Homer Reihm’s state of mind on a particular summer night 50 years ago. “Anxious,” “concerned,” “uneasy,” and a few dozen other adjectives would have filled the bill nicely.
It was 10:56 p.m. Sunday, July 20, 1969, and Reihm, like millions of other Earthlings, was watching Neil Armstrong as the Apollo 11 astronaut took humanity’s first steps onto the moon.
Reihm had a big reason to be fixated on Armstrong’s movements. As chief engineer for Dover’s ILC Industries, he led the team that designed and manufactured the astronaut’s space suit. He knew that a failure in could be fatal for Armstrong or fellow moonwalker Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.
“All I wanted was for them to get that mission over and get back in the [lunar module],” Reihm said. “Millions of people were watching and, while we were confident, we realized how high-risk it was.
“I can’t say I sat there basking in my glory with all the confidence in the world.”
But Reihm need not have worried. The suits did their job, as did all 45 ILC space suits flown between 1968 and 1975.
The company went on to build suits worn during the space shuttle program. At its plant in Frederica, today it manufactures advanced suits used aboard the International Space Station.
It was quite an achievement for a company that, only a decade earlier, was known mostly for making brassieres and girdles.
‘. . . before this decade is out.’
President John F. Kennedy had set the United States on the path to the moon in 1961, declaring astronauts would set foot there before 1970.
Kennedy’s words caught many in American industry unprepared. A moon landing would require advances in technology barely dreamed of, and that included the means of keeping an astronaut alive while in space.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, ILC had garnered some experience with pressure helmets and high-altitude flight suits. According to Reihm, George Durney, head of the company’s Industrial Products Division, felt the company had the chops to shoot for a NASA contract.
After several fits and starts, including NASA cancelling ILC’s contract, Durney came up with the design that in Reihm’s opinion gives him the distinction of being the father of the Apollo space suit.
Tiny screws, hand-drawn plans
Reihm and Durney were just two members of a large team, according to Camden resident Frank Napolitano.
“They were the guys who put all of this together and it was an honor to work with them,” he said. “That relationship is still there.”
Napolitano, 77, joined the company in 1965, shortly after his discharge from the Air Force. His primary job was to ensure the metal connectors in each Apollo suit were manufactured and installed properly. These ports plugged into hoses and wiring that brought air, water, electrical power and communications into the suits.
The work was exacting. For the hardware that connected an astronaut’s glove, each was fastened with a tiny Phillips-head screw. Each had to be set to a specific torque and each was retorqued every five hours for a full day. Each connector took 24 hours to complete.
By the mid- to late-1960s, the workforce had expanded from several dozen to more than 700. One was draftsman Sid Williams.
Unlike Napolitano, Williams didn’t work on the physical suits. As a draftsman, he was responsible for creating all the detailed hand drawings and patterns for every part of every suit. These were sent to the seamstresses and other specialists who created three suits for each member of an Apollo mission’s three-man crew, almost 100 space suits for the entire Apollo program.
Each astronaut’s suit required 77 measurements.
“The pace was almost nonstop,” Williams recalled, and almost everyone worked a 60-hour week.
“Everyone at ILC had the common goal the suits had to be ready for testing and eventually ready for the lunar landing by the end of the decade,” he said. “We knew we had our work cut out for us.”
Beginning in 1967, Pittsburgh, Pa., native Tom Pribanic, now 78, brought his expertise with managing the construction of nuclear reactors to the job of ILC space suit assembly. The concept, dubbed configuration management, required every part and replacement part of each suit to be identified and cataloged and able to be tracked back to its origin.
“If you had a failure during the suit build or the suit operation, you could trace it back to make sure the failure would not be reproduced in the next batch of material,” he said. Each suit consisted of several thousand parts, and the manuals to track them were hundreds of pages thick.
Celebrating at Sambo’s
Everyone working the Apollo program at ILC was caught up in the whirlwind of moon fever, working incredibly long hours and sometimes sacrificing home and family time, all in pursuit of Kennedy’s goal.
In a 2009 interview the late Ellie Foraker recalled it wasn’t unusual to see the lights at ILC’s plant burning 24 hours a day.
A seamstress working on the Apollo suits, Foraker sometimes spent more time each day at the Pear Street plant in Dover than with her family. She’d leave after working all day and then be called back to her sewing machine.
“You just never knew when a problem would come up,” she said at the time.
Napolitano couldn’t help but agree.
“There were times I’d go in one morning and not go home until quitting time the next day,” Napolitano said. “We had to meet schedules so the astronauts could meet their deadlines.”
Back to back assignments were common. In one instance, Napolitano had returned from a two-week trip to the Kennedy Space Center when he got a call saying he was needed again. He was on a Florida-bound plane the next morning.
“I’d call it controlled frenzy,” he said.
The schedules were crazy, almost impossible to meet, but they were met, Pribanic said. “The seamstresses would work 12 hours, go home and make dinner for their families, then go back to work,” he said. “Some worked overnight when we had to have a suit ready for a certain flight.”
On July 20, as Williams watched Armstrong and Aldrin sometimes awkwardly walking or bouncing across the dusty lunar soil, he knew where everyone’s attention would be if something went wrong.
“There were hundreds of companies involved in the Apollo program, but the space suit was the focal point while the astronauts were on the lunar surface and while millions watched,” he said.
Like Reihm, Williams breathed a sigh of relief when men climbed back inside the lunar module named Eagle.
“I was so glad when they made it back into the lunar module and closed the hatch. Every second that Neil and Buzz spent outside felt more like hours,” Williams said. “After all of the testing and re-testing of every suit part and every system, everything worked just as required.”
When Apollo 11 returned to Earth July 24, many of ILC’s workers were in Leipsic, celebrating over beer and crabs at Sambo’s Tavern.
“It was one of the highlights we had,” he said. “We’d do the same for many of the launches and splashdowns. Sambo’s was our stress reliever.”
‘It is quite amazing’
After Armstrong and Aldrin had fulfilled Kennedy’s challenge, work at ILC continued. Nine more moon landings were planned, eventually cut to six. Apollo was followed by three Skylab missions, each of which used modified lunar suits for work outside the orbiting space laboratory. Modified Apollo suits were used in a flight to meet up with two Soviet cosmonauts, the Apollo/Soyuz Test Project, which closed out the Apollo program in 1975.
The Apollo program brought together the best of American technology and resources, much as the Manhattan Project to harness atomic power had done two decades earlier.
That such an integral part of the Apollo program originated in Delaware is not lost on Napolitano.
“It’s really important that all of this was done in a little city like Dover,” he said. “We were in the right place at the right time. I have to believe I was really privileged to find a job like this without any planning or foresight.”
Today, a half-century after Apollo 11, Napolitano can look at the moon in a Kent County sky and realize it was his work that helped put the footprints of 10 men on its surface.
“It is quite amazing to think about it,” he said.