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Langley Scientists Continue Work On Next Mission 50 Years After Lunar Landing

Sheila Thibeault and Al Ragsdale
Sheila Thibeault and Al Ragsdale are scientists who worked on the Apollo 11 moon landing and are still working at NASA today. Charles Fishburne/WCVE

July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of America’s landing the first humans on the Moon. Charles Fishburne traveled to NASA Langley to speak with scientists who worked on this mission and has this story for Virginia Currents.  

Learn More: Watch the PBS documentary Chasing The Moon Sunday July 8, 9 and 10.


Radio:  Sixty seconds.  Lights on!

Charles Fishburne: NASA Langley developed the system that mapped the Moon and picked the place to land.

Radio:  Forty feet down, two and a half.  Picking up some dust. 

Fishburne: And when it came time, Al Ragsdale was copying these very same signals that came from the Apollo 11 Astronauts.

Radio:  Four forward, drifting to the right a little.

Al Ragsdale : I was writing on this piece of paper when they were landing on the Moon.

Radio:  The Eagle has landed!

Fishburne: He was the Lunar Module Landing Simulator Engineer, and his job was to do all the pre-flight checks on the simulator at Langley and go through the routine before the astronauts came in for their training.

Ragsdale: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin.  All the people who landed on the Moon trained on that simulator.

Roy Wyman is Media Chief at NASA Langley.

Rob Wyman:  It’s amazing to think that it has been 50 years, almost 50 years, since the Apollo astronauts set foot on the Moon, for the first time ever and they did all of their training right here.

Fishburne: Wyman stands by the giant gantry, that’s the 240-foot high, 400-foot-long steel structure where the astronauts trained. Grass grows over a field that was once covered in special sand and surrounded by spotlights, used at night to replicate as nearly as possibly what it would be like to land on the Moon.

Wyman : And then they would hang the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), a mockup of the spacecraft the astronauts would use to land on the Moon and they would hang it on cable, and simulate landing, where to land and how to land. And they did all that. And what is really amazing, when they were asked afterwards what it was like landing on the Moon, they said it was like Langley.

Fishburne: Twenty-five years old at the time, Ragsdale worked closely with the astronauts.

Ragsdale:  All the people that landed on the Moon trained on that simulator for at least a year. I would come in at four o’clock in the morning and check out anything that needed to be checked out and make sure whatever they were going to do that day would work.

Fishburne: At a nearby hangar, the astronauts practiced docking in space.

The engineer whose job it was to perfect a television system to make that possible was Sheila Thibeault,  a physics major just out of college. 

Sheila Thibeault:  If something went wrong, we would lose two astronauts.

Fishburne: Coming back from the Moon, looking to dock with the Command Module, the astronauts could not see where they were going without that television.

Thibeault:  That’s the part I worked on. And we tweaked the parameters on the television monitor as best we could, to be able to maximize the resolution they would be able to see.

Fishburne: Both the hangar and the gantry are still in use and ready for the next mission.

Debi Tomek, Deputy Director, NASA Langley’s Space Technology and Exploration Directorate.

Debi Tomek:  It is an exciting time for us, here at NASA Langley.

Tomek: We have been involved in everything from the Moon landing all the way back in the '60s, all the way up to the space shuttle program up until current time frame. What we are focused on right now is this Lunar 2024 push, which is exciting for us because at this research center, we have been working on a lot of these technologies for years.

Fishburne: They are testing Orion, the next space capsule. They are learning how to use robots to assemble components in space. They are experimenting with better ways to land, and to protect equipment on the Moon’s surface and on Mars.

Wyman : Our mission is very different. We’re not going to the Moon just for a quick trip, to plant the flag and leave some footprints and come back. This time we are going to the Moon to have a sustainable presence, a long-term presence on the surface. So it’s significantly more challenging. Langley is going to play critical roles, whether it’s in the development of the architecture, kind of the system. How do we get our astronauts from the surface of the earth into orbit on the Moon, to the surface of the Moon to stay and work there, and then back home safely?

Fishburne: Ragsdale is now 75, still on the job and ready to do it again.

Ragsdale: You know, with imagination and motivation and especially teamwork, you can do what seems impossible.

Fishburne: Ragsdale is now writing math models and coding programs to simulate spacecraft entry and powered vertical landings on Earth, Mars and the Moon.

Thiebeault: We put material specimens in here.

Fishburne: Sheila Thibeault is also still working. One of a handful of radiation experts at Langley, she is testing materials in a radiation lab that might be used in habitat construction, using food and water and supplies as radiation barriers. And she is designing fabrics for spacesuits.

Thibeault:   We are so excited now that we are now going back to the Moon. We are going to put humans back on the Moon. And they are going to stay there longer.

Fishburne: And at 75 years old she even has patents for her fabrics, designed to be worn by the next men and women on the Moon and the first humans to land and to live on Mars.

Wyman: We feel that Mars used to be very much like Earth is today. It no longer is. Why did that happen? If it happened to Mars, it could happen to us. So we have to be able to get ourselves beyond a single-plant species. 

Fishburne: Still, NASA estimates getting to the Moon by 2024 will cost an additional $20 to $30 billion, that has not yet been approved by Congress. For Virginia Currents, I'm Charles Fishburne.

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