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A Superior Role in Putting Man on the Moon

Monday, May 20, 2019

A Superior Role in Putting Man on the Moon

It is now an incredible 50 years since man first walked on the moon. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their Apollo Lunar Module on the lunar surface and took those first historic steps while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit in the Command and Service Module. All three landed safely back on Earth on July 24. It was the culmination of President John F. Kennedy's national goal, famously expressed in an address to the US Congress on May 25, 1961, of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of the 1960s.

Superior Tube, part of AMETEK Specialty Metal Products, is proud to have played a significant role in that achievement.

The history of Superior Tube is a history of ‘firsts’. In every decade since it was founded in 1934, the company has pioneered the use of new tubing materials and the development of innovative tubing technologies to meet the most demanding requirements of customers who were themselves often breaking through the scientific and technological barriers of the day. That record was particularly evident during the 1960s when Superior Tube truly entered the space age.

For example, Superior Tube was responsible for the tubing for the ballistic control system thrusters in the X-15, the rocket research aircraft that set new altitude and speed records, reaching in excess of Mach 6 (4,500 mph). Each system consisted of two small 40-lb thrust roll control rocket motors for which approximately 140 feet of tubing was needed, tubing that had to perform reliably both in and out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

This move into the development and supply of tubing for rocketry and space projects was, in some respects, a natural progression for Superior Tube. Indeed, the first rocket project for Superior Tube was the Bell X-1 that broke the sound barrier in 1947. So, in large part, the company’s increasing involvement in the space age happened because it was already an approved supplier to a number of the key aerospace contractors who were themselves being approached by Government agencies to fulfil these new, ground-breaking programs.

Superior Tube made significant contributions to the Apollo program

The company’s real journey into space began in earnest with the OSO (Orbiting Solar Observatory) program which consisted of a series of scientific satellites designed to investigate solar phenomena and to conduct a number of non-solar experiments. OSO 1, launched by NASA in 1962, featured titanium tubing manufactured by Superior Tube for the satellite’s compressed nitrogen guidance system and for a methane purging system required for the ‘soft X-ray’ experiments.

In the same year, Superior also contributed to Telstar 1, the world’s first communications satellite, which successfully relayed, through space, the first TV pictures, telephone calls and fax images. Then, in 1964, Superior supplied Type 304 stainless steel tubing for the tiny radiometers in an early weather satellite. From cooling tubes for their launch vehicles to components within the satellites themselves, Superior was a pioneering participant in the earliest satellite technology.

1964 also saw the launch of the Mariner 4 spacecraft. The fourth in a series of deep space probes, Mariner 4 was designed to provide close-up observations of Mars and was equipped with three one-inch bright Type 305 stainless steel tubes manufactured by Superior Tube for each of the craft’s closed-circuit TV cameras. These cameras then transmitted back to Earth the first ever fly-by pictures of the Martian surface.

Of course, as far as the Moon was concerned, it was about a lot more than fly-by. And while Neil Armstrong was the first man to stand on the moon, Superior Tube products had already been there. The successful soft-landing Surveyor spacecraft, launched from 1966 to 1968 in preparation for the manned Apollo missions, incorporated Superior’s Weldrawn Type 305 stainless steel as critical parts of the precision electron guns in the Vidicon TV camera tubes. Designed to obtain high-resolution photos of the lunar surface and determine the nature of lunar soil on which the planning of the Apollo landings depended, Surveyor 1 landed on the Moon on June 2, 1966, the first US probe to land on an extra-terrestrial body – and those Superior tubes are, in fact, still there on the moon.

Superior Tube was by now an important supplier to many customers responsible for the development and manufacture of the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) and other aspects of the Apollo program. Project Apollo was the third United States human spaceflight program carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The idea of a three-man spacecraft that could travel to, and return from, the Moon was first conceived during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower and ran from 1961 to 1972. It followed the earlier one-man Project Mercury, which put the first Americans in space, and the two-man Project Gemini which was designed to extend spaceflight capability in support of Apollo.

Superior Tube supplied tubing for Atlas, the famous booster rockets that powered both the Mercury missions and later Gemini space programs, and one Superior Tube advertisement that ran in the 1980s claimed, rightfully, that almost 200 Atlas engines had been launched and “no flight failures had been attributed to tubing malfunctions”.

Superior Tube went on to make several significant contributions to the Apollo program. The company produced nickel-based Inconel X-750 tubing for the first giant 1.5 million lb thrust Rocketdyne F-1 engines that powered the Apollo Saturn V launch vehicle. The company also supplied stainless steel Type 347 tubing for the cryogenic LOX/liquid hydrogen J-2 engines, five of which lifted the Saturn V’s second stage while a single one powered the third stage.

It was the Apollo 11 mission that put man on the Moon but Superior Tube was also involved in later Apollo missions, most notably Apollo 14 launched on January 31, 1971. On that mission the Service Module carried a re-designed oxygen tank which now incorporated Superior’s Inconel X-750 – the reason for this re-design being that the Apollo 13 mission had been aborted two days into its flight when one of its two SM oxygen tanks exploded.

Looking back, it is impossible for the rest of us to imagine what the experience of being the first man on the Moon must have been like. But Superior Tube is still delighted to have played a part in making it happen.