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.


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.
 

 

Spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, the space robotics company holds a number of multimillion-dollar NASA contracts, tasked with everything from software development to planetary-rover design. Its goal, says Astrobotic CEO John Thornton, is to use robotics in such a way that universities, space agencies, and even everyday people can access the stars. “Essentially, our objective is to make space available to the world,” he says. “And we’re starting with the moon.”

In July 2021, Astrobotic’s unmanned lander, the Peregrine, will deliver one of the first-ever commercial payloads to the lunar surface. In addition to rovers and other instruments, the Peregrine will carry mementos from private citizens who’ve purchased space aboard the craft — “Mostly things like SD cards, family photos and wedding rings,” says Thornton. “We even got some pet hair.” To honor its hometown, Astrobotic will also send up a Kennywood token — a piece of Pittsburgh flair that beat out a Heinz pickle pin and an Eat’n Park Smiley Cookie during an online vote this spring.

Though part of its payload is tongue-in-cheek, the Peregrine’s mission is anything but, says Thornton. Eventually, the company hopes to create fuel from extracted lunar water, enabling deep-space jaunts to Mars and beyond. 

“If we can essentially learn to live off the land of another celestial body, we can become true planetary explorers,” he says. “The moon is our practice ground for that. It’s the place where we’ll learn to extract fuel and grow food and do all those basic things that help us break the tether of reliance on Earth. We’ll be able to go somewhere, set up shop, and then go to the next place and the place after that.”

Humanity’s interplanetary pilgrimage, in other words, could start in the Strip District — something that comes as no surprise to Andy Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center.

For more than a century, says Masich, the city’s reputation as a place “where big thinkers and big capital came together” made it an early catalyst for space exploration. In his 1865 novel, “From the Earth to the Moon,” Jules Verne shot his characters through space using a giant cannon — one based on the real-life guns then being forged in Pittsburgh. Later,  John Brashear insisted the Allegheny Observatory be moved to a streetcar line and remain “forever free to the people,” giving much of the public its first up-close glimpse at the sky. 

(This helps explain the Observatory’s unusual placement just four miles north of Downtown. “People say, ‘Oh, the Allegheny Observatory, there’s too much light pollution there,’” says Lou Coban, the facility’s manager. “And I say, ‘Sure, but we’re within delivery range of like, 50 different pizza shops.’ But yes, the light pollution is pretty bad.”)

After turning our collective gaze upward, Pittsburghers then worked to get us off the ground. In 1903, the Pittsburgh Reduction Co. — soon to be called Alcoa — supplied the aluminum for two rather peculiar brothers from Ohio who were working on a lightweight engine. The Wrights took flight for the first time shortly thereafter, and Pittsburgh’s glass, steel and intellect have helped humans fly higher ever since.

That’s why so many aspects of Apollo 11 — from maps of potential landing sites to the Pittsburgh-designed lunar plaque — originated here, says Masich. And that’s why today, amid an increasingly frenetic push to get back to the moon, the Steel City is once again front-and-center. “We may not be the city with the same heavy industry that we had in 1969, but we still have the talent,” he says. “Our scientists and space companies are going to set the pace for the future.”

What that future could look like, says Masich, bends the imagination. “Think about it: We went from the Wright brothers to Apollo 11 within the span of a human lifetime. It makes the hair on your neck stand up. Are we a great species or what?”

Today, in a world once again marred by bad news and division, a shot of Masich’s enthusiasm certainly couldn’t hurt. And half a century after Apollo 11, perhaps the mission’s enduring lesson is that breakthroughs in space can deliver exactly that.
 

 


Astronaut Jap Apt | photo courtesy Jay Apt
 

“The moon landing was a galvanizing, inspirational, unifying moment unlike any other in human history,” said Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space, during a recent talk in Pittsburgh. “Find me something else with that kind of aspirational through-line that crosses so much of humanity. I don’t think you can.”
Jerome “Jay” Apt, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a former astronaut himself, agrees. “I think the human desire to explore is in all of us,” he says — and a renewed interest in space is beginning to wake it up. “We’re seeing it excite people in every generation. Today’s young people are going to take us well beyond where we’ve already been.”
 


(l-r) Fox Chapel Area High School sophomore Jacques Moye, CMU student Melissa Bryan
 

Indeed, if students such as Jacques Moye and Melissa Bryan are any indication, Pittsburgh’s greatest contributions to the cosmos are yet to come.

Take Moye, a sophomore at Fox Chapel Area High School who dreams of becoming an astrophysicist. “It started when I was young, just walking around at night and looking at the stars and being curious about what was up there,” he says. “There are so many things we don’t know yet.” Then he discovered Neil deGrasse Tyson, and that was that — he’d found his future career. Earlier this year, Moye’s curiosity earned him a trip to Disney’s prestigious Dreamers Academy: an immersive, four-day mentoring event for the country’s most ambitious young people. Now he’s setting his sights on an internship with NASA.

Or take Bryan, who found her calling during a childhood trip to the National Air and Space Museum. “I looked up at a rocket called Scout D and said, ‘I want to make [rockets like that] one day,’” she says. Now a rising junior double majoring in mechanical engineering and physics, Bryan has designed propulsion systems for the Carnegie Mellon Rocket Command, which builds high-powered rockets for competition and has earned several awards. When she graduates, she hopes to build systems on rockets bound for space.

Col. Fincke — who, at the rate he’s racking up flight time, will likely be up there already — looks forward to the company. And he can’t wait to see where his hometown goes next.

“It’d be great for our great, great grandkids to remember the times when their grandmoms and grandpappies lived on Earth and in Pittsburgh,” he says. “You know, there will probably be Steelers fans on Mars.”  


Whether you want to celebrate the moon landing or send your kids to space camp, several summer events are here to help.

  • The Carnegie Science Center’s Summer of Space has something for every age group, including interactive exhibits, lectures and screenings of the acclaimed documentary, “Apollo 11: First Steps Edition.” (carnegiesciencecenter.org)
     
  • The Apollo Area Historical Society will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. (apollopahistory.com)
     
  • Farther afield in Wapakoneta, Ohio — Neil Armstrong’s hometown — the Summer Moon Festival will commemorate the moon landing July 17 to 20. (firstonthemoon.org)
     
  • Designed for girls ages 8 to 12, Assemble’s Galaxy Girls’ Space Camp runs Aug. 12 to 16.  Girls can build a spaceship, simulate a flight and terraform a distant planet. (assemblepgh.org)
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