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How Minnesota companies contributed to — and benefited from — America’s push to go to the moon

Sixty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon.

President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, stating that the U.S. would send a man to the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out.
President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, stating that the U.S. would send a man to the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out.

A Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd one year ago today. Sixty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to land on the moon by the end of the decade – thus invigorating the space program with public enthusiasm and billions of public dollars.

Gil Scott-Heron captured the tension of these two facts in his 1970 poem/song, “Whitey on the Moon”:

How come there ain’t no money here?

(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)

Y’know I just about had my fill

(of Whitey on the moon)

I think I’ll send these doctor bills,

Airmail special

(to Whitey on the moon)

Kennedy could have tackled racism, poverty, or other serious domestic concerns. Instead, he chose space and the Cold War. We are still living with the consequences of this decision.

This race to the moon profoundly affected our country. The science and technology of the moonshot were transformative, and Minnesota played an important role in the story.

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Kennedy’s speech

In his famous address, the president issued a challenge:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, and Michael Collins returned safely to the earth on July 24.

Why did Kennedy feel the need to set such an audacious goal for the United States? The memory and fear of Sputnik, when the USSR launched the first artificial satellite in 1957, was still fresh in American minds. And, more immediately, Kennedy’s presidency was already in trouble after two Cold War events that took place five days apart in April 1961.

First, on April 12, the USSR notched another space first by launching a man, Yuri Gargarin, into orbit and bringing him back to earth after one trip around the globe.

Second, on April 17, a group of CIA-trained exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs to topple Fidel Castro but instead put on a farcical show of ineptitude. The two episodes were each a blow to US prestige, and together they were a Cold War public relations disaster.

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Kennedy and his aides decided they needed a reset and settled on a speech to a joint session of Congress that would serve as a second state of the union speech. But what should be the focus? NASA provided the answer when, on May 5, astronaut Alan Shepard successfully completed the first Mercury mission, a sub-orbital flight aboard a Redstone rocket. The US was back in the space race.

One Minnesotan who paid close attention to the President’s speech was Robert Gillruth, the director of manned spaceflight for NASA. Gillruth grew up in Duluth, earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Duluth Junior College and the University of Minnesota. In NASA’s official history of the Apollo program, Gillruth wrote of President Kennedy’s declaration:

There could be no misunderstanding as to just what was desired, and this clarity of purpose was one factor in the success of Apollo…. [It] provided a goal so difficult that new concepts, as well as new designs, would be required to accomplish it. Since the landing was geared to the decade of the sixties, the pace of the program was also defined, and a clear test of strength with the Soviets was implicit, if they chose to compete.

In an oral history interview, however, Gillruth admitted that his immediate reaction along with the most of NASA was different. He was “aghast” at what Kennedy proposed. None of the equipment needed for a moon landing existed, much of it was barely imagined, and instead of the steady, methodical project that might land Americans on the moon by 1975, the president was calling for a crash program to be completed in less than nine years.

How could this be done? Several Minnesota companies played an important role.

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Minnesota companies and their contributions

The biggest Minnesota players in the moonshot were Control Data, Honeywell, 3M, and UNIVAC. They worked behind the scenes, supplying NASA and its contractors with a variety of products. All of them had strong connections with the existing military-industrial complex.

Control Data, the newest company of the four, concentrated on producing high-speed computers that were primarily used in the design of spacecraft and their components. The knowledge and revenue generated by these products provided the company with the resources to develop faster and cheaper general-purpose computers for non-military government and business customers. It also gave Control Data a reason to push the frontiers of computing speeds and develop high-performance computers, what came to be known as supercomputers.

3M participated in the space program in a variety of ways. First, NASA called on the company’s expertise to produce adhesive tape and other materials for spacecraft construction. Second, 3M was one of the leading manufacturers of magnetic tape which, over the course of the 1960s, became the preferred medium for storing digital data used and generated by the space program. Third, NASA tapped 3M’s prowess in research and development of new products to create special ceramic fibers for use in space suits, heatshields, and other components.

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Honeywell had deep expertise in a variety of control systems, including autopilot systems for aircraft. They were a natural choice to “design, develop, and manufacture the stabilization and control system (SCS) for the Apollo command and service modules.” As described in the official NASA training manual, the system consisted of “a spacecraft ‘autopilot’ subsystem, manual control, and associated cockpit displays.” In other words, Honeywell controls allowed the astronauts to fly their ship on the trip to and from the moon.

Working on the Apollo Stabilization and Control System at Honeywell.
Working on the Apollo Stabilization and Control System at Honeywell.
UNIVAC (now known as Unisys) played a key role in NASA’s Deep Space Network, the communication system connecting ground stations around the world with Mission Control in Houston and the Apollo spacecraft. One of the problems UNIVAC engineers had to solve was to ensure that the information transmitted and received throughout the system remained clean and free of errors. Norm Priebe, a Minnesota native who worked on this project in the 1960s, noted that they developed software code that could “detect errors… and synchronize the receiver with the transmitter,” and “All of it was done in St. Paul.”

Another division of UNIVAC, in Roseville, put together the hardware (i.e. the physical machines) that carried out the work of storing, transmitting, and receiving the data among the various tracking stations and other nodes on the network. In fact, the backup for the ground communications system was in UNIVAC’s Roseville facility due to the fact that exact duplicates of the machines in the field were available there and because the Twin Cities lies roughly on the same longitude as Mission Control in Houston. This meant that the UNIVAC employees in Roseville, to quote Steve Anderson in a TPT Almanac interview, were both excited during the missions but “really scared” that the systems they designed and built might fail.

A UNIVAC 494 computer at NASA in 1961.
Sperry Corporation, UNIVAC Division photographs and audiovisual materials
A UNIVAC 494 computer at NASA in 1961.

Just deciding to go

May 25, 1961 wasn’t the beginning of Minnesota’s involvement in the space program, but it jumpstarted a new era that affected Minnesota’s economy. By 1980, 3M, Honeywell, Control Data, and UNIVAC employed about fifteen percent of the state’s industrial workforce. We are still benefiting from this technological bounty today.

To paraphrase a line from the movie Apollo 13, the moon landing wasn’t a miracle, we just decided to go. Perhaps we should just decide to tackle our festering social problems and put our enormous resources and energies on the path of justice.

I thank Susan Riley for extensive help with this column.