Rockwell Collins Radio Used in Moon Landing7/20/2009
Radio created in Iowa sent messages back from moon
by Jeff Eckhoff of the Des Moines Register
Palmer credits Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter's urine with bringing him to the space program - and thereby launching one of the Iowa careers that in the late 1960s and early 1970s was focused on getting Americans to the moon.
Palmer was the youngest engineer on staff when he joined the team assembled by Cedar Rapids-based Collins Radio Co. to make communications and data systems for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs - including Apollo 11, which first touched down on the moon 40 years ago, on July 20, 1969.
Collins Radio spent more than five years working on the Apollo program. The company ultimately designed and built equipment that transmitted virtually all voice and data between astronauts and the ground, including Neil Armstrong's first words from the moon. At the peak, more than 500 Collins employees worked on various equipment on the spacecraft.
Palmer's first assignment: Design a new seal for a radio that had shorted out when a bag of urine ruptured during one of NASA's early Mercury orbital flights. That work led to other jobs testing the effects of launch vibrations and perpetually searching for ways to shave weight off the spacecraft.
Palmer and other former Collins employees say the Apollo program, especially, was a rigorous, demanding job driven by a tight schedule. The company now known as Rockwell Collins currently has little involvement with space, but workers still hold up the moon landings as examples of what can be achieved with hard work and high standards.
"It was a huge step forward for us," said Rod Blocksom, a communications systems engineer who serves as unofficial caretaker of Rockwell Collins' company museum. "The eyes of the world were on us."
Above all else, Collins Radio employees were told, the equipment must not fail.
Parts were tested and retested and drilled out of single pieces of aluminum to avoid seams. Then-relatively new circuit board technology, the innards of most modern electronic equipment, was eschewed in favor of more direct wiring.
And weight perpetually had to be reduced.
"We could have used some of the state-of-the-art technology, and it would have made things better," Palmer said. "That was the hard part. Many times, you know the answer but you can't use it, because the technology doesn't have five years and it hasn't proven itself."
Emil Koval, a mechanical engineer who retired in 1989, said the equipment "had to be reliable, and you had to make sure you took no chances." But at the end of the project, "you've got this extreme satisfaction in that you did something that hadn't been done before. You worked on a radio that went to the moon."
Current and former Collins workers say the country's national sense of urgency - slain President John Kennedy had promised that Americans would land on the moon by the end of the decade - led to long hours for employees and a determination to get it right, regardless of budget.
But in the early 1970s, the national interest in space began to fade. Around the same time, company founder Arthur Collins tried, and failed, to take his firm in new directions.
"After Apollo, the Vietnam War was still going on, and the budget wasn't there to do much more," Blocksom said. "Since then, we've participated in other ways on some satellites" and a few pieces of space shuttle equipment, "but nothing as big and dramatic as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo."
Palmer, who transferred to other divisions of the company before he retired in 2004, said his desk was one of the last to disappear from what once was a large office of space engineers.
"After we had this resounding success, Mr. Collins overinvested his company in a new way of competing with IBM" in computer servers, Palmer said. "At the same time we're trying to bask in our glory, we're going down as a business unit."
Collins Radio Co. merged with Rockwell International Inc. in 1971. Rockwell Collins, which was spun off as an independent company in 2001, now concentrates on electronics and communication systems for military and commercial aircraft with locations in Cedar Rapids and Coralville.
Blocksom acknowledges that the company has little legacy left from its space business. But the work on Apollo, with its "huge emphasis on quality and reliability," set the standard for later aviation work. And it helped remind employees of what's possible when high standards are set.
"Out of it came a cadre of highly skilled assembly operators, test technicians, engineers. ... All of these things, you know, carry forward," Blocksom said.
Hence, his attachment to the museum, which he hopes will encourage young Iowans to seek careers in science.
"It's very important to keep these accomplishments," Blocksom said. "It's kind of important to know where we've been and what we came from to know what we can take on. History kind of lets you bridge from what's happened to what's possible."