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From Pittsburgh to the Moon: Our Role in the Space Race

As the nation and private entrepreneurs focus again on space, 50 years after Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, Pittsburgh is once again in the celestial spotlight.



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photos courtesy everett historical
 

It had been one of those hellish, swampy midsummer weeks, when soot from the steel mills stuck to almost everything and the air felt heavy on the skin. For four stifling days, Pittsburghers flocked to swimming pools and shaded porches, seeking refuge from the choking heat and grim news on every front: To the north, a senator and his companion had gone careening off a bridge. To the east, the Soviet threat and war in Vietnam. And somewhere far above — beyond the smog and thin summer clouds — the most dangerous, far-fetched mission in the history of humankind was barreling toward its zenith. Even a slight mishap could prove catastrophic.
 
During a test mission just two years earlier, three Americans died in their spacesuits while their ship burned around them. 

Support for such adventures had dwindled: After a decade marred by the death of a president, division at home and tension abroad, Americans wondered whether space was really worth it.

So on July 20, 1969, when the heat finally broke and a man more than 200,000 miles away took one small step on the surface of the moon, initial reactions were not universally positive. Asked how he felt about the momentous achievement, a New Kensington man also named Neil Armstrong said simply, “I’m glad it was him and not me.” Others, upset that coverage of the moon landing had interrupted “Star Trek,” called TV stations to complain.
 


photos courtesy everett historical (liftoff) and pittsburgh post-gazette (newspaper)

 

But as the gravity of Apollo 11 began to sink in, grievances quickly gave way to elation. America had scored a decisive space-race victory, and Pittsburgh had played a crucial role: The command module Columbia — which ferried the astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit — had been developed and built by North American Rockwell, a Pittsburgh-based aerospace firm. The lunar module Eagle had touched down on shock-absorbing legs from Alcoa. And when Commander Neil Armstrong planted the American flag — using a special pole designed by a Pittsburgher, no less — Westinghouse cameras broadcast the moment to 600 million people.

No wonder the Post-Gazette’s headline, “WE’RE ON THE MOON,” suggested the Steel City itself had touched the lunar surface.

In many ways, it had.

Though it’s never been known as a space hub such as Houston or Cape Canaveral, Pittsburgh has long been present in the sky. From the early days of the Allegheny Observatory, to the importance of 20th-century steel, to today’s focus on robotics and software, the city’s evolution has, at every stage, made space exploration possible.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, some Pittsburghers are gearing up to go back — and one day, to venture even farther.
 

PHOTO COURTESY NASA
 

Colonel Edward Michael “Mike” Fincke isn’t the first Pittsburgh native to star in a science-fiction film. Nor is he first to star in a bad science-fiction film — and “Apogee of Fear” is most certainly that. But the film’s shortcomings are perhaps understandable in light of its constraints: After all, movie-making isn’t easy in zero gravity, especially when your time is short and a budget-weary NASA is watching your every move.

“It took a bit of convincing,” says Fincke, laughing. As Commander of Expedition 18 aboard the International Space Station, Fincke assured Mission Control that the crew’s side project, conceived by a fellow astronaut, would only be shot during their precious moments of free time, without the use of taxpayer funds. The result — an 8-minute movie released in 2012 — is the first sci-fi film ever shot in space.

Fincke, who grew up in Emsworth, saw it as part of a larger mission: inspiring the next generation of cosmic pioneers.  

“I think it’s important that we appreciate space not just for the science and technology it gives us, but for its human value — for its power to capture our imaginations,” he says.

It’s a power he knows firsthand. After watching every Apollo moon landing on television, “I knew I’d found my calling,” says Fincke. A childhood spent building model rockets and watching sky shows at Buhl Planetarium led to scholarships at Sewickley Academy, MIT and Stanford. Finally, in 2004, he found himself on a Russian launchpad for the first time. 

“I was on a rocket almost identical to the models I’d built as a kid,” he says, still astonished by his own journey. “I mean, who would have guessed?”

Since that first flight, Fincke’s 381 days in space have included three trips to the International Space Station, nine spacewalks, and — in 2009 — one Super Bowl victory cheered along from orbit. (“Like any normal Pittsburgher, when you go on a trip, you take your Terrible Towel,” he says.) Later this year, he’ll return to space as part of the Starliner CST-100 Crew Flight Test, a capsule-like craft developed by Boeing and NASA.

The mission, he says, aims to commercialize low-Earth orbit — something that “will help American industry, create good-paying jobs and make life better back home.” By making space exploration profitable, NASA hopes to create a market for commercial companies, which it can partner with to help move exploration forward.
“And from there,” says Fincke, “we can go explore Mars. We can go live and work on other planets. And we can develop pharmaceuticals and materials that will impact our daily lives.”

He pauses to consider the implications. “Boy,” he says. “Exciting times, right?”

When Fincke and his Terrible Towel go shooting toward the stars, they won’t be Pittsburgh’s only galactic projectiles. Out beyond the Martian orbit, asteroid 484 Pittsburghia hurtles through the dark, along with 457 Alleghenia and 26858 Misterrogers. So, too, does 5502 Brashear, named for the South Side millworker and self-taught astronomer who, in the late 19th century, built telescopes that could see into space with unparalleled clarity.

And in a nondescript building on Liberty Avenue, past the sidewalk florists and produce hawkers of Pittsburgh’s Strip District, Astrobotic is building another one.
 

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