Local History #tbt Blog - How Aeronca Helped Send a Man to the Moon
“Aeronca got near perfection for moonship.”
That was the headline in the July 16, 1969, Middletown (Ohio) Journal when the Apollo 11 command module “Columbia” -- with the help of employees of Middletown’s Aeronca Incorporated -- departed Earth. (1)
Apollo 11’s goal : to deliver the first humans to walk upon the Moon as well as the “Eagle,” a special craft the astronauts would use to descend to Moon’s surface after landing. (2).
The rest, as they say, is history. On July 20 lunar module Eagle landed on the Moon’s surface. On July 21, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto the Moon, followed shortly by Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. In the meantime Michael Collins remained alone in lunar orbit, piloting the Columbia (3).
A worldwide audience marvelled at the historic events (3).
Back in Middletown, Ohio, the technological victory was personal. That’s because the Columbia carried a special heat shield developed by Aeronca that would protect its precious cargo upon re-entry to Earth. The stainless steel used in its construction came from another Middletown industry, Armco Steel Corporation. (1)
“Emotions were riding high at Aeronca, Inc. today,” wrote Middletown Journal reporter Fred Sennet about the successful liftoff. “After all, it isn’t every day you help send a man to the moon.” (1)
“Aeronca employees who helped develop the brazed honeycomb panels on the Apollo 11 command module that guard the astronauts against the intense temperatures of outer space, have a lot riding on today’s Moon
shot… ” Sennet wrote. “...Without the panels, there would have been no launching today…” (1)
The gravity of the mission weighed heavily upon all involved. A successful re-entry was paramount.
According to “Apollo Manufacturing,” a document available through NASA (4), “One of the severest requirements of the Apollo program was for a heat shield that would withstand the intense aerodynamic heating experienced during entry from a lunar mission.”
Sennet described the intensity of returning to Earth. “Re-entry heat is 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit but there are ‘flash points’ where the heat builds to 25,000 degrees,” he wrote. He quoted Don LaFrance, factory manager at Aeronca : “It’s not the electrical components or the controlled environment that keeps [the astronauts] alive...It’s the structure.” (1)
“You know men’s lives are involved,” LaFrance told Sennet. (1)
LaFrance recalled the 16 to 18-hour days and weekends that became the norm as employees developed the capability to build the panels. “...The project here brought people together for a common purpose…” LaFrance said. (1)
“A working relationship developed with the company’s suppliers and the employees that had never existed before,” Sennet wrote. He quoted Lance Duncan, manager of control administration at Aeronca, who summed up the situation : “The enthusiasm spread.” In addition to Armco, another supplier mentioned in the article was North American Aviation, “which assembles the module.” (1)
With mission accomplished on launch day, the pride of all who were involved was palpable.
“There were a lot of technical problems to overcome,” Duncan told Sennet. “But we took them one by one. Through the sweat and blood of a lot of people, the goals -- and some of them were virtually impossible -- were met.” (1)
Of the panels, he said, “They’re 99 and 44-100ths perfect, as perfect as man can make them.” (1)
After reuniting in the command module, the three astronauts returned to Earth on July 24, 1969, splashing down in the North Pacific Ocean, their historic eight-day mission completed (3). Today the command module is under the care of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (2).
The explorers had left behind a science experiment consisting of many mirrors to measure the distance between Earth and Moon. (5)
But most Earthlings remember a more personal memento : Neil Armstrong’s first-ever Moon-print, “a boot-shaped depression in the gray moondust.” (5).
A fitting way to say “America -- and Middletown, Ohio -- were here.”
Photo Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
1. The July 16, 1969, Middletown Journal, available for viewing
at www.midpointelibrary.org > eLibrary > Research Databases >
Browse L-P > Newspaper Archive > Middletown Journal.
2. https://airandspace.si.edu (Smithsonian National Air and
4. Apollo Manufacturing available for viewing at www.nasa.gov
5. “What Neil & Buzz Left On The Moon” (revised May 9, 2017)
A photographic display celebrating Middletown, Ohio’s 78-year relationship with the aviation/aerospace industry will be available for viewing through September at MidPointe Library, Middletown. A companion exhibit on the library’s interactive touchscreen accompanies the exhibit.
The exhibits highlight the history of Aeronca, a longtime Middletown employer now known as Magellan Aerospace. They also recall the vital role that nearby Middletown Regional Airport/Hook Field played in local aviation.
Visitors can find the display just by looking up to the ceiling. A model of the colorful Aeronca 7AC Champion plane is suspended above the library’s Local History and Genealogy Gallery. The 7AC was one of several popular, private-use planes produced in the post-war era at Aeronca-Middletown before the company became a leader in the aerospace industry.
The Aeronca photo and interactive exhibits will be available for viewing Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ; Friday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. ; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ; and Sunday, 1-5 p.m.
MidPointe Library Middletown is located at 125 South Broad Street, Middletown.
“Aeronca, a Photo History” by Bob Hollenbaugh and John Houser and “Aeronca C-2, The Story of the Flying Bathtub” by Jay P. Spenser are available for reading in the Ohio Room adjacent to the Local History and Genealogy Gallery.