XIX: Science, Technology, Health and Medicine

Space Exploration Technology

The Space Power Facility, used for study of space propulsion, at the NASA Lewis Research Center (now Glenn Research Center), Ohio. 
Photo by Paul Riedel/Martin Brown, NASA GRIN Images Database, GPN-2000-001462.


    Without the contributions of the Midwest, the United States would not have been able to send people or machines into space. From the opening of the Space Age in 1957, the highly skilled manpower, scientific and research capabilities, and precision manufacturing resources of the industrial heartland of the nation were mobilized to land a man on the Moon and send robotic explorers throughout the Solar System. This should not be a surprise, since the Midwest gave birth to the Age of Flight, and the mobilization of industry during World War II depended upon the Midwest, where the production of planes, such as B-24 bombers in Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run factory, helped win that War.

            In 1941, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics established a research laboratory in Cleveland to develop innovations in aircraft engine technology. George Lewis, for whom the laboratory was later named, remarked that this was appropriate, because it was only an hour’s flight from where the Wright Brother’s had built the first airplane in Dayton, Ohio. By the end of the War, the Lewis Laboratory (renamed in 1999 for John Glenn) was developing rocket engines for guided missiles and high-energy liquid propellants. When President Eisenhower announced that the United States would send astronauts into Earth orbit, the Lewis Laboratory began applying its knowledge of aviation to space flight. The Laboratory designed the instrumentation for the Mercury capsule and retrorockets to allow the spacecraft to reenter the atmosphere. The automatic control systems, to stabilize the Mercury capsule after it separated from its booster rocket, were designed at Lewis, with the help of the Minneapolis-Honeywell Company. Each of the seven Mercury astronauts came to Cleveland for training to practice stabilizing a tumbling spacecraft. And astronauts trained at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in a simulated zero-gravity chamber produced by the Guardite Company of Chicago.
            Meanwhile, the Mercury spacecraft itself was being built in St. Louis by the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, which later also built the ten Gemini spacecraft used for missions with pairs of astronauts. Every corner of the Midwest was involved in manned space flight throughout the 1960s. In 1934, an engineer at the B.F. Goodrich Company in Akron, Ohio, Russ Colley, developed the first pressure suit, which allowed pilots to fly above 30,000 feet. In 1961, he helped design the Mercury spacesuit to protect the astronauts. The Cincinnati Testing and Research Laboratory built the heat shield for the Mercury capsule so the crew could safely come through the atmosphere. And Motorola, Incorporated in Franklin Park, Illinois, provided components for the on-board communications system that allowed contact between the astronauts and Mission Control.
            At the same time that industry was focused on solving the technical problems of manned space flight, the Lewis Research Center, now part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was preparing the technology to take explorers throughout the Solar System. Scientists at NASA Lewis had been studying how to make use of advanced propulsion techniques, such as liquid hydrogen and nuclear energy, to launch spacecraft long distances. The Apollo astronauts would not have reached the Moon were it not for the liquid hydrogen Centaur rocket engines developed at Lewis, which were used for the two upper stages of the massive Saturn V Moon rocket.
            The rocket engine and propulsion research conducted at the Lewis was also the foundation for the unmanned spacecraft the United States would launch to explore the nearby planets. Before astronauts could venture to the Moon, robotic explorers had to be sent first to make sure it would be safe and to scout potential landing sites. Agena upper stage rockets, managed at NASA Lewis, sent the unmanned Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft to the Moon to prepare the way for astronauts. In 1964, a Mariner spacecraft was launched to Mars aboard an Atlas rocket, using an Agena upper stage, and in 1967, an Atlas-Agena sent Mariner V on its way to Venus. The Solar System was open for exploration.
            From the earliest history of the space program, the universities and educational institutions of the Midwest have contributed scientific manpower and carried out studies for the new aerospace endeavor. In 2003, several Midwest educational institutions--the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison, Minnesota, and Michigan, Case Western Reserve University,and Battelle Memorial Institute--each received grants ofover $5 million from NASA for space-related studies. They are providing the talented people who will create the space programs of the future.
            The Midwest has continued to contribute to manned space flight. Each Space Shuttle orbiter lands back on Earth on the tires, brake assemblies, wheels, and landing gear produced by the Goodrich Corporation's plants in Cleveland and Troy, Ohio.  The 3M Company in St. Paul produces the fibers for the critical thermal protection tiles, which protect the orbiter on its firey reentry through the Earth’s atmosphere. McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis produces the orbital engines that allow the Space Shuttle crews to maneuver the spaceplane in orbit, and Honeywell South Bend (formerly the Bendix Corporation) in Indiana contributes components to distribute electrical power aboard the orbiters. Today’s most exciting planetary exploration programs also benefit from the contributions of the Midwest. In its 245,000 square-foot research facility in Canton, Ohio, The Timken Company designed the precision ball bearings that have allowed the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, to wander about the surface of Mars since the beginning of 2004, rewriting the textbooks on planetary science.
Marsha Freeman
21st Century Science & Technology
Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn (1980); Joan Lisa Bromberg, NASA and the Space Industry (1999); Virginia P. Dawson, Engines and Innovation (1991); Lloyd Swenson, Jr., James Grimwood, and Charles Alexander, This New Ocean (1966).