Seattle’s fingerprints are all over the first moon landing. The reverse is also true.
Fifty years after Apollo 11, this region’s contribution to the mission and all the technological achievements that have sprouted from it over the decades still resonate in the Pacific Northwest in profound ways.
With another great race to space under way — again a sprint, this time fueled by rival capitalists rather than rivalry with the Soviet Union — companies such as Blue Origin, SpaceX and many others with headquarters or divisions here are vying for a piece of the moon, Mars and beyond.
It begins, of course, with Boeing.
“What’s in the water?” Boeing historian and archivist Michael Lombardi joked. “Really, it’s because of Boeing. Boeing created that foundation.”
Already a trusted partner after its stewardship of the military’s Minuteman missile project, Boeing was tasked by NASA with a few premium pieces of the Apollo program that was spread across thousands of companies.
The lunar orbiter mission, for instance, made the first detailed photographic survey of the moon’s surface. The five spacecraft, built for around $500 million, also captured the original black-and-white “Earthrise” photo of the planet peeking over the moon’s horizon, later created in color by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, who lives in Anacortes.
“Everything we knew about the moon at the time we gathered by standing here on Earth and looking at it,” says Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator at the Museum of Flight, who spent three years studying Seattle’s role in the moon missions.
Early on, some thought astronauts and their craft might even fall through the crust of the moon. The lunar orbiter helped convince officials a moon landing was possible and helped point the way.
The project arose from a partnership between Boeing and Eastman Kodak, and was an ingenious mix of old and new technologies.
The film was developed aboard the orbiter and scanned. Those scans were transmitted to Earth and used to make important decisions about potential landing spots, as well as countless improvements in our understanding of the moon. “The lunar orbiter story is huge,” says Nunn.
Boeing also built the first stage of the Saturn V rocket. The first stage was the business end of the megalithic, 363-foot booster rocket, lifting the entire apparatus to the edge of space, where other stages took over. The first stage, which generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust from five engines developed for the system, was built at Boeing’s Michoud, Louisiana, facility and barged to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA estimates it spent more than $6.4 billion on the total Saturn V project, with each rocket costing about $110 million to build.
“These engines, known as the F-1, were some of the most significant engineering accomplishments of the program, requiring the development of new alloys and different construction techniques to withstand the extreme heat and shock of firing,” the official NASA history of the Apollo program reads.
And then there was the lunar rover, the so-called moon buggy, perhaps the coolest all-terrain vehicle ever built despite its top speed of 8 mph. Designed by GM and built by Boeing, the rover program cost $38 million (twice the initial contract) and resulted in four vehicles.
They didn’t make an appearance on the moon till the final three missions in 1971-72, but “it changed the whole experience of being on the moon,” says Apollo historian Charles Fishman, author of “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon.”
“In 15 minutes with that … Boeing-built lunar rover, those first two astronauts, Dave Scott and Jim Irwin on Apollo 15, went further than all the other astronauts combined had been able to go walking.”
These were important pieces of the Apollo program. (Boeing also eventually absorbed many of its rival companies, increasing its moon-landing footprint over the years.) For the future of Seattle, however, Boeing would make an even more significant contribution to the mission: oversight.
When a fire broke out aboard the Apollo I in 1967 during ground testing, astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger B. Chaffee were killed and the program was thrown into chaos. A central source for oversight was needed.
In stepped Boeing. The company signed a $73 million contract to oversee technological integration and evaluation. The Boeing-TIE contract, NASA’s history says, was controversial because it allowed Boeing employees to police themselves while dipping into the proprietary work of others.
Boeing completed the Kent Space Center and worked with government and industry scientists to build a cutting-edge communications system to connect Seattle with the Kennedy Space Center and personnel in Washington, D.C., Houston and Huntsville, Alabama. The company assigned more than 2,000 employees to the $73 million program.
“You get the big screen and people joining in across the country by television and teletype,” says Lombardi. “They could share information instantly. … Some people think this has something to do with the start of networking computers.”
As Fishman writes in “One Giant Leap”: “The race to the moon helped unleash all the forces of the technological age in which we live, the culture of technology which is the hallmark of late 20th-century and early 21st-century America.”
The Apollo-TIE experience led Boeing to begin developing software and hardware, foreshadowing today’s tech industry in the Pacific Northwest.
“Boeing was the first IT business on the Eastside,” Lombardi said.
Around the same time, in a search for more competent engineers, Boeing was increasing its investment in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the University of Washington, where it funded the Aerospace Research Laboratory building in 1969.
This and Boeing’s continued work on the space shuttle, Skylab and International Space Station helped Seattle become known as a hub for innovation and expertise. Companies dabbling in new aeronautics and computer technologies began to aggregate in the Pacific Northwest. Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved their company north from Albuquerque, New Mexico, back to their hometown, in part because they felt it would be easier to hire top engineering talent here.
“The fact that Seattle grew into this combined nexus of software engineering and aerospace engineering talent is a lot of the reason the new space companies are here today,” says Nunn. “They need people who know software because so many of the systems they’re designing, from the recoverable landing systems to the miniaturization of satellites, all of that is relying on people who know programming and have the computer talent to make all that stuff work.”
If Boeing was the foundation for Seattle’s aeronautics future, Seattle will likely be part of the bedrock of humanity’s future in space.
Kent-based Blue Origin, launched by billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos with the goal of being the first private entity on the moon, unveiled plans for its Blue Moon lander recently and test-fired its BE-7 lander rocket for the first time last month.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has its satellite division in Redmond, aiming to send 12,000 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit to build a worldwide broadband network; the first 60 were put into orbit in May. Those satellites are being built here, as well. SpaceX completed its third successful launch of its most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, in late June with 24 satellites, a number of experiments and the remains of 152 cremated people aboard.
Both companies have been pioneering in reusable components that can be steered back to earth and flown again. No more throwaway $110 million rockets. This potentially reduces the cost of spaceflight and increases the opportunity for the private and scientific sectors to find routes to space.
Other, lesser-known companies here are also aiming to participate. Spaceflight, a Seattle company backed by money from Paul Allen and other investors, provides rideshare opportunities to satellite builders. Bothell-based Tethers Unlimited sees a future where space tethers and elevators replace some of the need for rockets and spacecraft. And the folks at Olympia’s Off Planet Research are making “regolith simulant,” also known as moon dirt, so companies can test their components in moon-like conditions.
Those companies and many others hope they’re as successful as Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Washington operation. As it has been for decades, the Redmond company — founded as Rocket Research Corp. — is turning out small thrusters that guide satellites, with some components largely unchanged since the Apollo era.
“Pretty much every single U.S. planetary probe, including the Voyager spacecraft which are now at the edge of the solar system, is guided by thrusters built here in Redmond, Washington,” says Nunn. “Mars Curiosity, New Horizons, which flew past Pluto, all of those planetary missions, at least some aspect of that was built here in Washington.”