Countdown to 50: NASA Glenn Research Center and the Moon Landing

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WTVG) - Cape Canaveral... Houston... California. Plenty of places spring to mind when the subject of NASA comes up, but Cleveland residents have taken a lot of pride in their hometown contribution over the years at Lewis Field.

Even today, Glenn Research Center remains at the forefront of space exploration research -- as is evident by this Centaur rocket -- but did you know the facility also played a pivotal role in putting man on the Moon?

The center's story begins nearly 3 decades before that one small step.

NASA Glenn was established in 1941 as part of NASA's predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). At the time, their primary goal was to improve the state of aircraft engines.

When NASA was established in 1958, it was then a natural leap for the center from "the sky's the limit" to a loftier goal. As for the renaming of Lewis Labs after a certain Ohio native...

"John Glenn never worked here," says Anne Mills, NASA Glenn history officer. "When he was a Mercury astronaut, however, he and all 7 of the Mercury astronauts came here to train."

That training involved a daunting machine dubbed the MASTIF, able to use 3 axes of motion to test astronauts' ability to bring a tumbling spacecraft back under control -- not to mention giving some valuable insight into motion sickness.

The center also provided Neil Armstrong with his first job after graduating from Purdue in 1955.

"He really wanted to be a test pilot," says Mills, "and if you wanted to be a test pilot, the NACA is where you went."

A new position opened in California for Neil 5 months later, but not before getting some flight hours in at Lewis, his logbook still intact.

Mills says that because Armstrong worked at the center for such a short amount of time, "and we didn't have a crystal ball... no one bothered to get a picture of him working here!"

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Fast forward to the Apollo program -- named and overseen by the center's director at the time, Dr. Abe Silverstein. During his tenure came the center's greatest contribution to the Moon landing: liquid hydrogen as rocket fuel.

Dr. Louis Povinelli has worked here since 1960, and was part of an 18-person team looking at rocket instability using that new fuel. The first runs proved so powerful, they would nearly shake themselves apart in the lab.

"High frequency would develop, and give abnormal temperatures in certain parts of the engine", Povinelli recalls. "It had the potential to destroy the engine completely through an explosion."

Dr. Werner von Braun, the so-called father of modern rocketry, refused to use liquid hydrogen at first, working on the military side of things (NASA being founded as a civilian institution). Dr. Povinelli offers that von Braun was seen as "Mr. Big... Washington was listening to him, not to NASA."

It was Dr. Silverstein who eventually sold von Braun on the benefits of the new fuel.

"For these long missions, you needed to carry all that fuel with you", Povinelli offers, "and if you built it out of solid propellants, it would've been too heavy."

By 1968, Dr. Povinelli's team had perfected the design -- and it's no coincidence the first successful lunar landing wasn't long after.

"You kept thinking at some stage of this process -- coupling and decoupling and firing engines -- some small thing might cause a malfunction, and that would've been utter disaster."

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Many people don't know if or when they're about to make history, but the Lewis Labs team was fully aware the country's reputation was at stake should they not take chances and make mistakes on the ground, instead of 270,000 miles away.

"[History] doesn't happen in a vacuum," says Mills. "Everything is built on what you've done before. History is just simply... lessons learned."

These lessons, among others, will help NASA Glenn keep moving forward and make that next giant leap for mankind.