Archive photo of moon landing
Archive photo of moon landing Image Credit: Reuters

Downey, California: The people and places that brought us Apollo 11 are disappearing.

While the astronauts and Nasa's mission control in Houston garnered the most attention during the moon landings, an army worked to put the pieces together across the country. That included the rocket scientists in Alabama who developed the Saturn 5 rocket, the women who sewed the parachutes and the Navy divers who met the astronauts after splashdown.

"Thank you, the 300-and-some-thousand Americans working on that program," Michael Collins, command module pilot of Apollo 11, said in a recent interview. "They all did their jobs so properly."

The two key pieces that were the astronauts' home during their lunar trips were built on opposite sides of the country.

The Apollo capsules rolled off the assembly line in Downey, California, 24km southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Fifty years ago, Nasa owned a 160-acre tract of Downey - the size of two Disneylands - that was home to factories, offices and test facilities.

The spaceship factory

"We referred it to as a city within the city," said Gerald Blackburn, one of the more than 25,000 people who came to work in Downey at the height of Apollo programme in the mid-1960s. "We worked at the spaceship factory. We were all part of a team. Team Apollo. It was a magical place."

That is gone, replaced by a sprawl of stores, movie theaters and restaurants.

The story was almost the same in Bethpage, New York, on Long Island. That was the headquarters of Grumman Aircraft, which won the contract to build the spindly spacecraft that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon.

Today, Grumman's cavernous assembly building still stands, but it is a movie soundstage. The company, now part of Northrop Grumman, largely left New York more than two decades ago.

In 1961, only a few months after President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of putting astronauts on the moon by the end of the 1960s, North American Aviation, which leased the Downey site from Nasa, won the contract for the command module and the service module, which provided the propulsion and power. North American also won the contract to build the second stage of the gigantic Saturn 5 rocket.

Grumman won the lunar lander contract a year later.

To appreciate the whiplash pace of aerospace progress during the 20th century, look at the life of Ernest Finamore. When he joined Grumman as a teenager during the Second World War, he riveted together TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, propeller planes with a top speed of 442.57km/h and a range of 1,609km. By his 40s, he was a lead inspector for the construction and testing of the lunar lander, which would make history a quarter-million miles from Earth.

The guy comes in and bumps shoulders and all. And then I took another slow look and he says, 'Hi, I'm Neil Armstrong.'

- Ernest Finamore, lead inspector for the construction and testing of the lunar lander, on meeting Armstrong

Finamore, 93, shared a memory of the day he bumped into Neil Armstrong.

As he was working in the lunar module cockpit there was a knock on the door. "The guy comes in and bumps shoulders and all," he said. "And then I took another slow look and he says, 'Hi, I'm Neil Armstrong.' "

Armstrong looked out the window and asked about a device called a touchdown rod, which would register when the spacecraft had landed. Armstrong complained that it might bend up and become ensnared with the ladder that he and Aldrin would climb down.

An engineer was called in and agreed, and the rod was removed. (The rods on the other three landing pads remained.)

Armstrong also laughed at the two stools in the cockpit. Finamore recalled him asking, "'When am I going to have time to sit down?' I said: 'Oh, OK. Take the stools; save more weight.' This is how things happened.' "

Many Americans thought that the dream of the moon was impossible, but Apollo was a siren call to engineers.

Charles Lowry was living in Columbus, Ohio, a parachute expert working at a division of North American focused on fighter jets. He remembered being in church when the topic came up.

"At some point, the leader said, 'I understand now that the United States government has a plan to go to the moon. How many people really think we're really going to the moon?' And my hand went up. I looked around me, and no other hands went up. Not even my wife's hand."

Lowry wanted to move to California and join the moon effort, which would need parachutes for the Apollo capsule's return to Earth. But his wife did not want to move far from their families.

"Finally, she said to me, 'If you'll buy me a big swimming pool, we'll go to California,' " Lowry said. "So we did."

Play acting

At Downey, a structure that looked like a giant playground swing was raised over a big pool of water. Mock-ups of the command module were dropped from a chain into the pool to simulate whether the astronauts and capsule would survive the splashdown.

"We could essentially sink the spacecraft, which we did," said Wilfred Swan, a structural engineer who worked on the command module, recalling a test that failed.

The engineers had to not only change the design but also retrofit capsules that were in production, Swan said.

Swan remembers encounters with Alan Bean, who later walked on the moon during Apollo 12. He had been assigned to work on recovery systems. "I never knew he would just walk in," Swan said.

The two would go to a conference room and discuss the status of the capsule. Swan kept in mind that Bean would be one of the people who might directly suffer if the engineers made a wrong decision.

"That did not mean that I gave him incorrect information," Swan said. "Just couldn't say words like, 'You may die.' "

Two stages

Shelby Jacobs worked at Downey on the second stage of the Saturn 5 rocket.

Jacobs is best known for a camera system that captured the separation of the first and second stages of the Saturn 5, including the interstage - the ring connecting the two stages - falling back to Earth. "Nasa said, 'Show me,' " Jacobs said. "They were concerned if it didn't separate properly, we could lose the whole vehicle and the whole crew and everything."

In the 1960s, there was no way to beam high-resolution video of a fast-moving rocket back to ground, so Jacobs figured out how to protect the camera from the violent shaking of the rocket. "After it took the film, it was ejected out," he said. "It had fins that deployed that kept it right side up. It had parachutes when it landed and beacons to be picked up in the ocean. These films were developed after the flight."

The cameras flew twice, on crewless test flights of the Saturn 5.

As a black man, Jacobs was uncommon among the Apollo engineers, and he had to overcome those who doubted he was smart enough. "I exceeded the low expectations, to the surprise of people," he said.

Jacobs also commuted from Los Angeles, where blacks were permitted to live in those days. "When I worked here, I couldn't live here," he said.

Loss of an eye

Others made their own sacrifices. Blackburn was performing an equipment test when a technician improperly fed ultrahigh pressure gas through a flow meter.

He could hear the pressure building but could not get away. The flow meter exploded, shattering its glass front. "Imagine getting hit in the face with a sandblaster," he said. "I couldn't see anything."

He felt wetness on his face - blood. The accident cost Blackburn the vision in his right eye. Glass shards are still embedded in his arm. He said it was worth it: "I couldn't wait to get back to work."

What prompted changes?

Blackburn's accident occurred not long before the Apollo 1 fire in 1967. During a launch rehearsal in Florida, an electrical spark set off the blaze inside the North American-built command module, killing three astronauts. That led to key improvements that prevented other accidents.

"After that, coming back, the loss of an eye in an accident was nothing compared to what the crew of Apollo 1 sacrificed," Blackburn said. "I had no problem accepting it."

'Really fun'

A legacy of the space programme is that it sped the development of integrated circuits and the rise of Silicon Valley. But fitting the autopilot software for the lunar lander into the tiny amount of memory available was not easy.

George Cherry of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology figured out an algorithm that would work. Richard Gran, a young engineer at Grumman, was sent to help. "That was really fun," he said.

Initially, the computer on the lunar module had 33 kilobytes of memory. Today's computers have millions of times more. A beefed-up version doubled the memory to 66 kilobytes. "Once we got that additional memory, we had no trouble putting digital autopilot into that additional memory," Gran recalled.

Fifty years ago, as Apollo 11 made its way to the moon, the people who built the spacecraft followed with pride and nervousness.

When the lunar module, named Eagle, was finally on the moon, Gran said, "Then I jumped up and down. It's like winning the lottery."

'We did it'

Others were also elated but had more yet to worry about. The parachutes of Charles Lowry were still packed, waiting for the return to Earth. That development was more arduous than first anticipated, as the command module had gained weight during its development. The parachutes had to successfully slow down 13,500 pounds.

But July 24, 1969, the astronauts returned to Earth. The parachutes deployed, and Lowry could celebrate, too.

"It was," he said, "an amazing feeling of 'Yeah, we really did it.' "

The Downey and Bethpage sites have faded into history. Grumman emptied its Long Island headquarters after it was bought by Northrop Corp. in 1994. North American, which merged with Rockwell International, later designed and built the space shuttles. In 1996, the aerospace piece of Rockwell was sold to Boeing, which abandoned the Downey site in 1999.

"That was really hard, to watch them tearing down not just history," Blackburn said, "but removing a major part of my life."