This is a good week for Iowans to put away forever what a friend once called our “mental overalls.”
The label was his way of describing the tendency of Iowans to downplay the state’s importance in anything other than dirt-under-your-fingernails agriculture.
Being a farmer certainly is nothing to be ashamed of. But my friend thought Iowans were programmed to automatically sit quietly and say nothing when contributions to the arts, or the sciences, or to business, medicine or humanity were being discussed nationally.
In my friend’s thinking, Iowans spend too much time putting ourselves down and too little time applauding our achievements.
There’s no question about Iowa’s expertise in agriculture and ag research. But there is no basis for Iowans to look down upon our contributions in other areas of life.
This week — the 50th anniversary of the first humans landing on the moon — is an excellent time to remember that Iowans have played important roles outside of agriculture, too.
During those eight days in July 1969, Iowans joined millions of people around the globe to watch the television coverage of Apollo 11 — from the anxiety-filled launch on July 16, to Eagle’s harrowing landing on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility at 3:17 p.m. on July 20.
From start to finish, Iowans played key, though unheralded, roles in getting Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin Jr. and Michael Collins to the moon and back.
Radio equipment that enabled flight controllers at Mission Control in Houston to speak with the astronauts on the moon’s surface was designed and built in Cedar Rapids by Collins Radio Co.
Beginning with the Mercury and Gemini space flights and continuing through every Apollo mission, all voice communication, television footage and flight data was transmitted from space using Collins Radio equipment — from the gear aboard the spacecraft, to the gear in Houston and at Cape Canaveral, Fla., to the 14 tracking and communication ground stations built for NASA around the globe.
This all traces back to company founder Arthur Collins, one of the inventive geniuses in Iowa history and someone who never wore mental overalls.
As a 16-year-old shortwave radio enthusiast, Collins communicated with a 1925 expedition to the Arctic from the attic of his family’s home in Cedar Rapids. Eight years later, when Adm. Richard Byrd was preparing for an expedition to the South Pole, Collins was hired to provide radios for the explorers — and the Collins Radio Co. was born.
During World War II, Collins Radio supplied the United States military with communications and navigation equipment for ground, ship and aircraft units.
The Apollo 11 astronauts headed to the moon on a giant Saturn V rocket, the largest ever built, standing 363 feet tall and 33 feet wide. The rocket basically was a huge fuel tank to power the spacecraft to 25,000 mph to break free of the Earth’s gravity.
Not just any metal could withstand the tremendous heat and powerful forces the Saturn V was subjected to as it thundered off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, with fire boiling from its tail.
NASA scientists turned to the metallurgy experts at Alcoa and its huge production facility adjacent to the Mississippi River at Riverdale in the Quad Cities. There, Alcoa developed a new aluminum alloy that was both lightweight and able of withstanding super-high temperatures.
On that morning 50 years ago when Apollo 11 departed Earth for the moon, it was the work of Alcoa’s metallurgists and the men and women at the Riverdale plant who helped the rocket reach for the heavens.
Before there was an Apollo 11, before there was a Saturn V rocket, and before Neil Armstrong began thinking about “one small step for a man,” there was another Iowa man who played nearly an invisible role in landing the first humans on the moon.
John Houbolt was a NASA aerospace engineer who was born in Altoona, the son of immigrant farmers from the Netherlands.
There was intense debate among scientists over how best to get to the moon and back after President Kennedy laid out the goal for the United States to reach the moon during the 1960s. Some favored what was known as the “big blast,” with a rocket leaving the Earth, landing on the moon, and then blasting off to return home. Others favored putting a spacecraft into orbit around the Earth and then deploying a landing module for the voyage to the moon and the return to Earth orbit.
But Houbolt believed those approaches were much too complex, too expensive and too dangerous. He took his concerns straight to the top of NASA, knowing that he might jeopardize his career by speaking out.
Houbolt argued persuasively that the best approach would involve lunar orbit rendezvous — the mission format the United States ultimately — with a rocket launching a command module into orbit around the moon, the deployment of a lunar lander carrying the astronauts, and then the lander blasting off from the moon’s surface to rejoin the command module for the trip home.
During a television broadcast from Apollo 11 the night before they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, astronaut Michael Collins spoke to an audience of millions back on Earth: “All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say, ‘Thank you very much.’ “
Once and for all, Iowans should throw away our mental overalls. The moon landing showed we didn’t need them back then, and we certainly don’t need them now.
by Randy Evans