New Hampshire’s place on the moon

  • A press release announcing the contact between Sanders Associates, now part of BAE Systems, and NASA for equipment that helped  launch the Saturn V rocket that carried Americans to the moon. BAE Systems—Courtesy

  • Sanders Association engineers in Nashua working in 1969 on the Saturn V prelaunch checkout system. The company is now part of BAE Systems. BAE Systems

  • The Apollo 11 silicon disc carrying messages from scores of world leaders that was left on the surface of the moon. It is placed near a half-dollar coin to illustrate its size. NASA—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 7/14/2019 6:00:22 PM

You may know about the plaques aboard the deep-space Pioneer missions that carry messages to the rest of the universe, but you probably don’t know that a silicon wafer containing tiny messages from world leaders was left on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – and it has a Concord connection.

“They were made in Worcester, where the fabrication was, but there were Concord engineers involved. Between Concord and Worcester there was a constant flow back and forth, all the time,” said Peter Gilbert, 81, of Henniker, looking back on NASA-related projects done by Sprague Electric, which had a large manufacturing facility in Concord for half a century.

Gilbert, whose family has been in Henniker more than two centuries, contacted the Monitor with this fascinating tidbit after reading an earlier article telling how Sprague’s Concord factory made capacitors, tiny battery-like devices, for Apollo 11.

The article also drew mention of a much bigger New Hampshire connection to the entire Apollo project, although one based in Nashua rather than Concord.

“We developed a pre-launch checkout system for the Saturn V rocket – one of the very first automatic, computerized systems used in the space program. We produced a number of display consoles, data processing and light panels,” said Dave Rines, program director for the Space Systems product line at BAE Systems in Nashua.

Rines was looking back at earlier days of the electronics firm when it was still Sanders Associates, the Granite State’s first major digital technology start-up. A 1969 press release talks about NASA signing a $3.65 million contract with the Nashua company for “a continuation of engineering and logistics support for operational display systems in connection with the Saturn V program.”

“Another piece that we developed and built – think of it as a noise filter for electronics. This filter unit was installed on the LEM, the lunar excursion module. Power-generation systems generate dirty power; this would have filtered out noise and unwanted feature of power system, made sure there weren’t any unwanted spikes that would damage the electronics … to provide clean power to a data-processing module,” said Rines.

“It was about half the size of a cigarette carton and used in data-processing subsystems aboard the LEM. It certainly was on Apollo 11 that landed and took off again; we don’t know if it was in other (lunar missions).”

It’s not entirely unexpected to find state firms associated with Apollo 11, which took humans to the moon 50 years ago this week. In its rush to fulfill President Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon within a decade, NASA scoured the country for quality components, sourcing items from hundreds of companies.

“NASA was grabbing the highest technology they could find to get this thing off the ground that nobody was sure would work,” said Gilbert, who has an interesting explanation for the lack of Sprague’s corporate bragging during the Apollo era. “None of us really believed it would work, you know. You didn’t want to be out there with your neck out when the thing crashed and burned.”

Sprague, based in North Adams, Mass., and with other facilities in New Hampshire and the Bay State, had long been a military and government contractor. Along with its expertise in transistors and silicon wafers, that’s probably why NASA turned to Sprague for perhaps the most unusual item on Apollo 11, a commemorative silicon wafer.

The story, largely forgotten, is that the State Department asked NASA to solicit messages of good will from the leaders of the world’s nations to be left on the moon. Weight is a major issue in space flight, so something small was needed.

A 2007 article by Space.com, based on a book about the project by space historian Tahir Rahman, says Sprague engineers developed a new technique (later patented) “to inscribe the microscopic messages on the 1.5-inch, 99%-pure silicon disc. After delivering a final version just a week prior to lift off, Sprague was sent scrambling again by NASA to add more nations’ notes that were late to arrive.

“Nor were these messages simple texts. Some included intricate artwork, such as the Vatican’s message by Pope Paul VI. Though not visible to the naked eye, a low-power magnification was all that was needed to reveal the mini masterpieces,” the article said.

The disc and other mementos were put in a small cloth bag that was left on the moon when Aldrin and Armstrong returned to the lunar lander for the last time. It was almost forgotten, judging from transcripts of the pair’s dialogue: Aldrin tossed it down and Armstrong nudged it with his foot, the article said.

“ ‘Okay?’ Armstrong asked of its placement. ‘Okay,’ responded Aldrin, which was all the pomp and circumstance the disc would ever receive.”

Incidentally, if you go back further than Apollo there’s a connection between the surface of the moon and a Concord kitchen, as explained by Tom Richardson III, who now lives in Durham.

“My father, Tom Richardson Jr., managed a transistor production line at the Concord Sprague plant from 1959 to 1965,” he said. “They had an order for transistors which at the time were individual little gadgets about the size of your fingernail with wires coming out of them, that would go into the radios in the Surveyor spacecraft.”

Surveyor was a program before Apollo that landed robotic spacecraft on the moon, at a time when nobody knew whether the lunar surface was hard or soft or even, as some argued, covered with dust so thick it would swallow a lander.

“These had to be matched in pairs, to as nearly identical as possible in the spacecraft and in the receiver on the ground, to avoid corrupting the data,” said Richardson, who at the time was about 15.

“Dad brought some home one evening. My mother and I sat at the kitchen table and went through the paperwork for each transistor, the test results, and matched up the ones that were as close as possible to each other. We then marked them with a small dot of white paint. … I specifically remember putting those dots of paint on each one … and we then packaged them as pairs, all serial-numbered,” he said. “First thing next morning dad took them to Logan airport, put then on a commercial flight to California, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and they were used in Surveyor.”

In 1966, three years before Apollo 11, Surveyor 1 was the first craft to land safely on the moon, rather than crash-land, and send back close-up photos. In all, seven Surveyors were launched with five making it safely to the surface, no doubt carrying transistors painted on a Concord kitchen table.

“I suppose my fingerprints are on one of them sitting on the moon,” said Richardson.




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