Apollo 11 connection

The Apollo 11 Saturn V space vehicle lifts off with Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. on July 16, 1969, from Kennedy Space Center. Thiokol, based in Elkton, produced more than a dozen retrorockets used in the historic mission that celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.

ELKTON — When the Apollo Lunar Module touched down on the moon’s surface 50 years ago and astronaut Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind, Dave McGrath was at home watching the groundbreaking event on his family’s TV.

McGrath was only 9 years old at the time. Although he could have had no idea that within his lifetime he would be helping create mechanisms that would be part of other celestial missions, seeing the Apollo 11 landing was what got him into “an aerospace career mentality,” said McGrath, who now works as the director advanced technology at Northrop Grumman in Cecil County.

“From that age on, I was kind of set that I was going to get into aerospace somewhere, and I’ve been lucky enough to be at a facility that worked on the Apollo program … It’s really kind of awe-inspiring some of the things they did,” he said.

McGrath will discuss the contributions that Thiokol Chemical Corp., which today has been merged with Northrop Grumman, in Cecil County made to the Apollo 11 launch and early manned space programs during his talk, titled “Apollo 11 Saturn V Propulsion: A Local Connection,” at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 14, at the Elkton Central Library.

According to McGrath, Thiokol’s Elkton location built the eight retrorockets for Stage 1, four retrorockets for Stage 2, and the tower jettison rocket for the Apollo 11 mission.

“For every Saturn V launch, we had 13 rocket motors on each flight, and they all had to work successfully for each flight to be successful,” he said.

Several of Thiokol’s other locations also played valuable roles in the mission, such as Bethpage, N.Y., which made the lunar module. Facilities in Texas and Alabama also made motors for the second and third stages, respectively, and a facility in California made the lunar module’s liquid engine, according to McGrath.

McGrath said his talk will cover an overview of the Apollo 11 mission including the Space Race and the United States’ motivation for going to space, Thiokol’s involvement with the mission, and the company’s involvement with space exploration since then. McGrath has also gotten to meet Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, two of the three astronauts who were on the Apollo 11 mission, and he will be sharing anecdotes of those encounters.

There are some elements of the Apollo 11 mission that just would not be designed that way anymore because they’re “too risky,” McGrath said.

“They had far more crude analysis capability than we have today with our high-speed computers and physics-based models and so forth,” he said.

For example, McGrath said the Stage 1 retrorocket was entirely made of steel.

“We just don’t do it that way anymore,” he said. “It was mostly submerged into the combustion chamber, which is doubly not what we would do anymore. But it burned short enough that the all-metal structure could take the heat, so that was kind of an unusual element to the design.”

Thiokol made retrorockets for the surveyor landers on the moon in the mid ’60s, which served as precursors to the Apollo 11 mission and helped determine where to land for that later mission. The company has also been involved with numerous other NASA missions since Apollo 11, such as making the motor that put the Magellan spacecraft in orbit around Venus in 1990 and making the motor that propelled the New Horizons spacecraft in a flyby of Pluto in 2015, according to McGrath.

“For those of us who worked here in the late ’90s for the Pathfinder mission and the early 2000s for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, all our names are on little microchips on those landers at three different locations on Mars,” he said.

While space technology has come a long way since July 20, 1969, McGrath said the impressiveness of that mission still stands true today.

“When you look at the complexity of that vehicle and consider we really didn’t have CAD (computer-aided design) back then, they did a lot of layouts on mockups of where routings would go because those were too hard to draw even,” he said. “Hundreds and hundreds and thousands of drawings on vellum paper that defined what this vehicle was, and the fact that they decided to do it and did it in less than 10 years is just an amazing feat of doing the hard things and all the great technologies that have come out of things like the space program and whatnot. It’s just an amazing feeling to be part of that legacy.”

McGrath is excited to share his knowledge of the mission and Thiokol’s involvement during his talk on Sunday.

“It’s really an honor to represent the company in talking about a bit of history that we have locally that not too many people know that we even did,” he said.

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