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Moon landing still inspires hope

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

On July 20, 1969, Bill Chandler was in Houston. He was sweating. The Apollo 11 lunar module still hadn’t landed. It was running out of fuel.

At 4:17 p.m., EST, the sweat stopped and the tears started.

“For those of us who had been working on it for 10 years, it was a tremendously emotional event. It was a tremendous relief,” he said. “There was probably not a dry eye in the spacecraft center at the time because we had been so dedicated to getting the job done.”

Chandler and his brother Joe, Murrells Inlet natives, were NASA aerospace engineers during the Apollo program.

Bill helped develop the technology that held oxygen and the fuel cells that powered their spacecraft. Joe designed a seismometer to measure moonquakes, a solar panel and an experiment to study the solar wind. He etched his name on a piece of equipment. It’s still on the moon, he said.

Joe remembers arguing with Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, one of the Apollo 11 astronauts, about the seismometer. Joe thought liquid in the level would dry out, and suggested inserting a BB instead. Aldrin told him the BB would spin once it interacted with the moon’s gravitational field.

Chandler won the argument, but Aldrin was right. “It spun,” he said. Aldrin had to fix it.

Joe still laughs about the incident. Compared to the stress surrounding the lunar landing the problem seemed minor.

While Joe watched his experiments, Bill monitored the Apollo’s oxygen levels and the fuel cells that powered the batteries in the lunar module.

“We had TV consoles so we were all watching it on NASA as well as on commercial TV at the time,” Bill said. “We had a lot of TV screens that were set up giving us data on the systems that we were responsible for.”

If a problem occurred, Bill said, other engineers would call his team in to fix it. The experience was stressful, but not “nerve-wracking.”

“It was stressful for everybody just because you know things had to go right,” he said.

Looking back at the events of 40 years ago, the Chandlers agree it was a special time.

“It was a moment in history when we had fantastic opportunities to go and develop technology to do great things,” Bill said.

While the moment passed, the technology NASA used to get man to the moon lives on. Spinoffs like CAT scans, MRIs, athletic shoes and heat-repellent materials are only a few results of the space program’s research.

Students at Waccamaw Elementary School’s Space Camp said they didn’t know technology like computers started with space program inventions.

Joe Chandler knows. He created bioreactors, a product NASA patented and sold.

“A lot of companies are using this to develop stem cells,” he said.

Connie Smith, who runs the space camp with Mary Tester, said the Apollo project forced disciplines to work together. “Medical and engineering communities came together to produce technology that we can also use in other areas,” she said.

In the popular camps, Smith and Tester make sure students know about NASA spinoffs before they leave. One camper, George Couch, relies on technology to pass the time. He said his life would be more boring without spinoff products like computers and video games.

“I think life would have been harder,” Grace Leach said.

Tester teaches the students that NASA’s goal is to improve life on Earth.

“It helps us so much, and that’s what we try to teach the kids. It’s not just some far-off thing,” Tester said.

But for a generation that grew up after the moon landing, that message doesn’t always get through.

Scott Streiffert said his social studies students at Waccamaw High do not always know about NASA’s contributions. He is also co-advisor to the Waccamaw Association of Space Aviation (WASA), a school club.

“We have those discussions in our government class when we talk about the federal budget and where money is being spent,” he said. “Surprisingly, space technology and exploration will go towards the bottom of their lists.”

Streiffert reminds his students, often as they text in class, where they would be without satellite technology: cell phone-less.

“I think the thing that I see with our high school kids is that they’ve grown up with all this stuff and that they kind of take it for granted. I don’t think they stop a lot and think about how all that stuff comes to be,” Streiffert said.

He also said he tries to put the space program into perspective for them.

“It’s more than flying up there and flying around and being on TV. There are a lot of things that come out of that technology, he said.

That’s why Smith and Tester believe it is important for the space program to continue. However, they think the program will need citizen support for NASA to continue to research and explore.

In the 1960s, the level of support for NASA was greater than it is today, Bill Chandler said.

“The country was solidly behind it. We had goals that were set, and we knew we couldn’t fail,” he said.

Bill believes competition with the Soviet Union pushed America into space. But, with the threat of competition in the future, the country might support the same levels of NASA funding again, he said.

Joe sees the advantages of financial support. At the end of his career, he said, the government canceled funding to the last project he worked on, a health care system for the space station.

“It was again a packaged kind of arrangement,” he said. “It had all the health care systems for doctors, but they’d have all the stuff for critical care of patients: x-ray machines, blood analyzers, all kinds of stuff like that.”

Streiffert teaches his students that government prioritizes where it spends money.

“Where space and technology fits in that, I’m not sure,” Streiffert said. “It will take systems breaking down and different things happening to make it a priority.”

And, if NASA can’t pay for the projects, Joe said someone else should.

“If NASA is unfunded they need to get a national science group somewhere that will help foster the development of new ideas,” he said.

After working on everything from the Apollo program to the space station, Joe said he learned how important new ideas are as man continues to learn more about the universe.

“Anything that man can think of, he can do if there is enough money and time,” he said. “Whether it is worth it is another question.”

The worth of a space projects is something Bill questions.

Bill’s last job before he retired in 1989 was helping design the shuttle crew’s escape system after the Challenger exploded after liftoff. Life is not something he wants to risk again.

“I would like to see us do as much research now unmanned as we possibly can with instruments because the cost of doing manned flight is now tremendous. I don’t think the country would be behind it. We can spend our money in wiser ways,” he said.

Alan Pritchard, the head advisor for WASA, believes going to the Moon and Mars is worth whatever cost the government incurs.

“I think it will kind of be a new excitement just to do that, just to put someone there,” Pritchard said.

Forty years after man set foot on the moon, the Chandlers don’t doubt man could reach Mars, too.

For now, Joe said he’ll celebrate the lunar landing.

“I’m going to drink a beer,” he said.

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