Editor’s note: The following was written by Louisiana journalist, public relations officer and historian Brent Engel. He is the author of four books and is writing a fifth scheduled for publication later this year.
Without significant Louisiana connections, America might not have gotten to the moon 50 years ago — and two astronauts might still be there.
A relative of a Louisiana pioneer and a local company played key roles in the Apollo 11 lunar mission that drew the eyes of the world in July 1969.
Charles Stark Draper designed the guidance system that Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins used in rocketing to and from the earth’s lone enduring satellite.
Meanwhile, it was Hercules Inc. that came up with the chemical compound which allowed the lunar module carrying Armstrong and Aldrin to take off from the moon’s surface and link up with Collins in the orbiter for the return trip.
What’s up, Doc?
Draper was a cousin of former Missouri Gov. Lloyd Crow Stark and a descendant of James Hart Stark, who founded Louisiana’s Stark Brothers Nurseries in 1816.
Known as "Doc," he was born on Oct. 2, 1901, the son of a dentist in the small West-Central Missouri town of Windsor. He described himself as a "greasy thumb mechanic" who had an unlimited curiosity.
At age 15, Doc attended the University of Missouri at Rolla for two years before earning a bachelor’s in psychology from Stanford University in California in 1922. From there, he hitched a ride across the country to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While friends went to Harvard, Doc earned a bachelor’s in electro-chemical engineering, followed by a master’s and a doctorate in physics.
"Legend has it that he took more courses at MIT than anyone else has ever taken," wrote biographer Robert A. Duffy.
Thanks to a fellowship, Doc became a MIT research associate. One of his first inventions was a device to measure detonation in airplane engine cylinders. The technology helped crews conserve fuel and regulate engine temperature, which were especially welcomed in cross-ocean flights.
By 1939, Doc was a full professor at MIT. After becoming a pilot, he was determined to improve aircraft instrumentation. He took future MIT President Jay Stratton out for a ride over Boston harbor, spinning out and stalling several times to prove his points.
Stratton was "duly impressed," but "did not fly again with Draper," Duffy noted.
Doc founded MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. Its first big achievement was a gyroscopic gunsight used by the Navy in World War II. "Doc’s Shoebox," as it was nicknamed, was a huge improvement over earlier models. It helped anti-aircraft gunners take better aim at targets and was credited with helping to turn the tide of war in the Pacific.
Designs engineered by the laboratory led to work on inertial navigation, which would be critical to the Apollo program.
"Inertial guidance is based on the familiar principle that keeps a child’s gyroscope top from falling: a rapidly spinning wheel will resist forces working to twist it from the plan in which it is revolving," The New York Times explained. "For his guidance systems, Dr. Draper used three spinning gyros, each responsive to only one direction of motion — up and down, right and left and rolling. These gyros formed a basis for a self-contained system that remembers an object’s course of flight and can measure changes in that course."
Doc kept tinkering with the system throughout the 1940s and 1950s. After President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation in 1961 to successfully go to the moon and back by the end of the decade, the Instrumentation Lab won without competition the guidance design bid.
NASA Administrator James Webb was a good friend of Doc’s, and the scientist is thought to have used his powers of persuasion — he was what The Times called a "stocky man with a fighter's broken nose and a scrappy temperament to match" — in securing the money.
"Doc used to tell us that he got the funds for the NASA program (on) third generation instruments from Jim Webb…in a bar, I think in Germany," remembered colleague and author William G. Denhard.
Doc’s computerized system included telescopes and a sextant. It "told the astronauts where they were in space, where they were headed and how fast," The Times reported. "Such data were used to direct all the spacecraft’s propulsion systems."
The man Time magazine called "the nation’s leading authority on inertial guidance" also had a sense of humor.
"Asked by NASA officials how they could be sure his system worked, Draper replied that he was so sure he would go along and run it himself," the Louisiana Press-Journal reported on July 17, 1969.
The offer apparently had been made as many as eight years earlier in a letter Doc sent to NASA. In part, it reads "I realize my age of 60 years is a negative factor in considering my request."
Apollo 11 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. The lunar module landed on the moon four days later and on July 21, Armstrong took his famous first steps followed by Aldrin.
The Press-Journal article said the navigation systems were so accurate that the astronauts could have flown to and from the moon "without help from ground controllers." Doc apparently never doubted the mission would be a success.
"We used to give lunar navigation problems as thesis work for our students, and I knew it could be done," he recalled, adding that he once told Webb "It’ll be ready before you need it, and, I might add, it is."
Doc continued his work at MIT despite protests over the Vietnam War. In 1966, he travelled to Louisiana and gave a speech during the 150th anniversary of Stark Brothers.
The Instrumentation Lab split from MIT in 1973, but is still run as a not-for-profit research and development organization. Its work led to a host of modern technology, including guidance systems for aircraft, submarines and missiles.
Among more than 70 honors, Draper was inducted into the inaugural class of the International Space Hall of Fame. He died at age 85 on July 25, 1987, in Cambridge, Mass, and is buried in nearby Newton.
Landing on the moon was one thing, but leaving it in zero gravity with no oxygen was quite another.
The solution developed by Hercules Inc. would play "a critical phase in the Apollo 11 flight," the Press-Journal reported.
The company had been interested in rocketry almost since its founding in 1912. Robert Goddard, an American engineer credited with developing the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, chose Hercules smokeless powder in early experiments.
After helping to win World War II with its products for the military, Hercules diversified into other areas, including rocket motors. By 1969, a company brainchild ensured Armstrong and Aldrin got off the moon’s surface to rendezvous with Collins.
It was called "nitrogen tetroxide." Hercules was the exclusive supplier of the malodorous, hazardous, reddish brown liquid to NASA. Brian Nufer, an engineer with the agency, said the chemical was "accepted as the rocket propellant oxidizer of choice" in space flights.
Since there’s no oxygen in space, an oxidizer was required to mix with fuel and ignite propulsion. The answer was nitrogen tetroxide, made primarily at a Hercules plant in California.
"The oxidizer was called upon during the few minutes when the lunar module ascent engine was fired to return the two astronauts…back to the safety of their command ship," the Press-Journal said. The "ascent engine is hypergolic, with the fuel igniting immediately upon contact with the oxidizer. This characteristic eliminates a requirement for a separate ignition system."
NASA Mission Director George Hage said that had the nitrogen tetroxide not worked, Armstrong and Aldrin would have been stranded "with only 48 hours of oxygen" in their capsule with no hope of rescue.
In addition, Hercules subsidiary Haveg Industries of Vermont made untold miles of space-conditioned wire "used to connect the myriad Apollo communications, navigation and electro-mechanical systems in both the command module and the lunar module," the newspaper said.
The Apollo crew splashed down on July 24. Armstrong died at 82 in 2012. Aldrin is 89 and Collins will turn 89 next October.
One more thing
The moon landing obviously was a milestone in American history.
In Louisiana, as around the world, people were glued to their televisions to watch coverage. There were no Internet sites, cell phones or streaming devices.
In July 1969, Pike County was trying to recover from $6 million in Mississippi River flood damage (the equivalent of almost $41 million now). Preliminary work was under way on construction of a new hospital in Louisiana. Men’s sport coats were on sale at Arcade Clothing for $29.95 (a little over $200 today). A box of Wheaties cereal cost 35 cents at J & M Food Market on the corner of Main and South Carolina. And the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the involuntary manslaughter conviction of Helen Sutton Root, who had killed her husband, Lonnie Sutton, on July 22, 1967.
One family that didn’t have to view the July 16 launch on television was that of Harry, Thelma, Jaqueline, Kevin and Bradley Kingery of Louisiana. They watched in person with thousands of others about 11 miles from the launch pad as Apollo 11 bolted into the sky.
"The launch was really thrilling and made you glad and proud to be an American," Harry Kingery said.