Destination Moon

Courtesy of Christopher Sprowls Photography

Visitors to the “Destination Moon” exhibit have their photo taken with Command Module Columbia during its loan to the Senator John Heinz History Center.

A full century before Apollo 11’s Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility, French novelist Jules Verne published his eerily prescient “De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon).”

“He launches from Florida in his book. He launches three spacemen in an aluminum capsule, and then they land in the Pacific Ocean,” Emily Ruby told her audience at Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

Emily Ruby

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Emily Ruby is a curator at The Senator John Heinz History Center.

The Senator John Heinz History Center curator presented “From Pittsburgh to the Moon,” featuring plenty of local connections to the July 20, 1969, culmination of the U.S.-Soviet space race.

The first connection, as it turns out, came courtesy of Verne.

“The innovation that he uses to fire these men to the moon is the Rodman columbiad, which is a Pittsburgh innovation,” Ruby said, referencing a large-caliber, muzzle-loading cannon capable of firing heavy projectiles. “This is made at the Fort Pitt Foundry for the Civil War.”

And in honor of that particular piece of artillery, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins decided to name the Apollo 11 command module Columbia.

Thirty-eight years after science-fiction enthusiasts started reading Verne’s book, Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk, N.C., with an engine block and crankcase cast from aluminum supplied by the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., which became Alcoa.

And 66 years after that, Armstrong took part of the Wright Flyer on his historic lunar voyage.

“When you think about it, from first flight to first walk on the moon, that’s not a lot of time,” Ruby said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

To help commemorate the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s small step and great leap, the history center hosted the exhibit “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission” from September through February.

Huey helicopter

A Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, nicknamed "Huey," is on display for "The Vietnam War, 1945-75."

“We always add a local component anytime we have an exhibit at the history center that’s touring,” Ruby said. “We were really excited to find that there were a lot more Pittsburgh connections than we had thought when we started researching this.”

Blaw-Knox Co., which constructed most of the early radio towers in the United States, also built communications structures for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

American Bridge worked on the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The project also incorporated specialty steel from Pittsburgh-area companies and, once again, Alcoa Corp.’s main product.

“They’re a huge contributor to all things space-related,” Ruby said. “Aluminum has made more trips outside the earth’s surface in greater quantities than any other metal.”

From the assembly building came the 363-foot-tall Saturn V, which powered the series of Apollo missions and launched Skylab in 1973. Part of the team that designed and fabricated the rocket was North American Rockwell, a company that was based in Pittsburgh.

Ruby, who spoke July 30 in Mt. Lebanon, cited contributions to NASA’s efforts by other local firms, including Chromalox and J.P. Devine Manufacturing Co., which worked on materials to help equipment withstand temperature extremes, and the research-and-development team at Westinghouse Electric Corp.

“They developed the camera that took the famous moon landing footage that everyone watched, all across America and the world,” Ruby said.

While preparing for “Destination Moon,” she met a gentleman who had some interesting information to share.

“My old neighbor worked on that camera. He has the prototype in his basement,” she said the man told her.

And the history center was able to borrow that particular piece of history for the exhibit.

One particularly memorable image from the lunar surface wouldn’t have been possible without Pittsburgh native and NASA engineer Jack Kinzler.

“He develops this kind of telescoping pole that would pop out and make the flag ‘fly’ on the moon,” Ruby said about the Red, White and Blue’s seemingly waving without any possibility of wind. “His family was gracious enough to loan us the prototype for the exhibit.”

After the Apollo 11 crew returned safely, members of the crew made use of products made by Mine Safety Appliances.

“What we don’t know at the time is: Are they bringing back some crazy moon disease that’s going to exterminate the human race,” Ruby said. “And so they have to be quarantined, and they use MSA respirators.”

Half a century later, Pittsburgh is contributing to efforts toward an eventual return to the moon, primarily through the work of Carnegie Mellon University roboticist and research professor William “Red” Whittaker and his students.

Whittaker is chairman and chief science officer for Astrobotic Technology, a company that is developing space robotics technology for lunar and planetary missions.

“They are developing lunar landers that they’re hoping will democratize space,” Ruby said. “It’s not just the United States or China or Russia that can get to the moon, but any country can go through these companies like Astrobotic.”

For more information about the Senator John Heinz History Center, visit

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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