|For Immediate Release |
February 19, 1999
|Contact: Lois Anne DeLong |
Apollo 11, 30 Years Later:
Celebrating Engineerings Giant Leap...
New York--This July, America will mark the 30th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Although the public tends to classify the effort that put Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., on the Moon as an achievement of science, it was largely the work of multidisciplinary teams of engineers that allowed the U.S. to fulfill President Kennedys 1961 pledge, "before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
Pulling off such an amazing feat required marshaling some of the brightest technical minds at U.S. corporations and universities, as well as government personnel at a number of sites around the country. With this significant milestone in American history soon to be commemoratedand, with National Engineers Week just around the corner, February 21-27and here is a look at the contributions of one of those "technical minds," chemical engineer Max Sharpe, and the younger engineers who continue our efforts to explore the "final frontiers."
Engineering one small step
"It astounds me to know what can be done when a government, public, and an agency are focused on accomplishing a goal," says Patrick S. McRight, a propulsion systems engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations (NASAs) Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and, like all of the space industry workers quoted here, a chemical engineer by training. McRight, who was only six when Armstrong announced on July 20, 1969, that, "the Eagle has landed," remembers "being riveted to the television, amazed that the image on the black and white TV was the same moon I saw at night."
When interviewed five years ago on the silver anniversary of Apollo 11, Sharpe, then systems director, production, for the Materials and Processes Laboratory at Marshall, recalled his work on the Saturn V booster rocket and also on the Lunar Excursion Model, named the Eagle, that brought the astronauts to the moons surface. "We worked 12 hours a day during the week, 10 hours on Saturdays, and 8 on Sundays," he said, describing the days leading up to the launch. "Sometimes we didnt go home for two or three days."
A staff member at the Huntsville facility from 1957 till retirement in January of 1997, Sharpe joined the aerospace industry in its infancy, doing development work on the Redstone rocket, the forerunner of the Saturn boosters that launched the Apollo space capsules. (He even painted details on one of the first U.S. satellites.) When existing processes couldnt do the job, Sharpe and other members of the manufacturing team developed new ones, such as "chemical milling," in which chemicals were used to produce large components that couldnt be machined on existing equipment. During those early days, Sharpe worked directly with the manufacturing team headed by Wernher von Braun, the former chief designer of Germanys V-2 rocket and, later, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center.
From Metal Finishing to Life Support
A few chemical engineers have literally taken their skills "out of this world"as astronauts. They include Mae C. Jemison, a mission specialist on the Endeavor, launched September 12, 1992, and the first African-American woman in space; U.S. Navy Captain Dick N. Richards, who headed the crew of USML-1, the first United States Microgravity Laboratory, on the Space Shuttle Columbia; and Albert Sacco, Jr., the George A. Snell Chair in Engineering at Northeastern University in Boston, who flew as one of two payload specialists on USML-2, a 16-day Spacelab mission.
But Sharpes 40-year career, with assignments ranging from work on finishes to prepare metals for the harsh space environment, designing and finding applications for stronger, lighter composite materials, and the development of advanced manufacturing technologies that include robotics and artificial intelligence, offers a more common picture of the many ways chemical engineers have contributedand continue to contributeto space exploration. Recently, Sharpe cited finding ways to reuse space hardware as one of the programs current challenges, which, among other things, will require developing new, more resistant coatings.
The development of life support systemsprocesses to generate the needed water, air, and other elements essential to sustaining human life in spaceis one challenge tailor-made for chemical engineers. "Life support is an enabling technology that will have to be developed for us to go anywhere, and it is a chemical engineering problem," says John Finn, a research engineer at NASAs Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Finns current research is focused on "in-situ resource utilization," an "approach to planetary exploration, for example, missions to Mars," that relies on a "planets local resources, such as the atmosphere and soil, as raw material for consumables such as oxygen, buffer gas (nitrogen), and rocket fuel," he explained. "This is done so that these materials need not be launched from Earth which, because of launch costs, is an extremely expensive proposition. The transformation of raw material into valuable products is all about chemical engineering, and is an active area of research at Ames."
Doug May, a research chemical engineer in next-generation propulsion technologies at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, agreed that, as space missions grow longer in duration, chemical engineers ability to design processes that recycle and purify water, materials and other resources, will play an important role in the "habitability of...space."
Another challenge for tomorrow's space engineers, McRight suggests, is "to do more with less. In addition to developing new technologies, we'll also see a refining of existing ones, particularly as processes are brought in line with today's leaner budgets and tougher environmental and safety regulations." Since the design and development of processes is intrinsic to their education, chemical engineers may find themselves playing a crucial role in tomorrows "amazing space feats."