IEEE Commemorates Anniversary of Human Space Travel

Many members are sharing first-hand stories from behind the scenes

3 min read

Joanna Goodrich is the associate editor of The Institute

Photo of Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon's surface.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of the first lunar landing mission, on the moon’s surface.

THE INSTITUTEThroughout 2019 IEEE is commemorating space travel and the members who developed technologies that made the achievement possible. The IEEE History Center, which is leading the Footsteps: IEEE’s Commemoration of Human Space Travel effort, is working with several organizations to hold events throughout the United States to celebrate.

Apollo 11 launched from Florida on 16 July 1969, carrying Commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, and lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Their mission was to gather samples of the moon and take photographs of the terrain to bring back to Earth. Four days after landing, Armstrong made history by becoming the first person to walk on the moon. Aldrin joined him.

There are several IEEE Milestones in the works, which are partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation, to recognize space-program technical developments.

The Institute plans to feature some of the activities, as well as profile members involved with the program.


The IEEE History Center invites members to post their space-program experiences on the Engineering and Technology History Wiki. Dozens have done so already.

Two were Life Member Carol Crom and Member Richard Coen.

Crom worked from 1956 to 1958 as an antenna engineer at the Tulsa, Okla., division of the Douglas Aircraft Co., now part of Boeing. He was responsible for the telemetry range safety and the C-band FPS-16 radar transponder antennae, which provided data and range safety for missile launches.

He detailed his project and wrote about the struggles he faced when designing “hats,” which connect coaxial cable to antennae.

Crom and his colleagues worked at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with the Douglas missiles and space division. They were assigned the job of building antennae for the spacecraft.

Once the antennae were built, the Cape Canaveral engineers planned to test the closed-loop system. A week before testing started, the engineers asked the Tulsa division engineering representative where the hats were for the closed-loop tests. Crom said no one in her division had any idea what the engineers were talking about. Crom was put in charge of designing them.

 “The engineers at the Cape were not too pleased with my hats, because they wanted to be able to check the antenna impedances through them,” he wrote. “I told them that was impossible, and they would have to be satisfied with the coupling coefficients that I gave them. Time was too short for them to complain, so they accepted the hats that we gave them. The hats worked fine for their purposes.”

In the spring of 1962, Coen and coworker Ken MacLean were engineers for RCA in Princeton, N.J. At the time, one of NASA’s engineers had determined that a lunar excursion module, a small craft used for traveling between the moon’s surface and an orbiting spacecraft, was needed. NASA was looking to hire a company to design the module.

RCA teamed up with Grumman Aircraft, now part of Northrop Grumman, and an engine manufacturer to put together a proposal to present to NASA, with RCA being responsible for the module’s suite of electronics.

Coen and MacLean were tasked with developing a communications system—which would be able to exchange information between the lunar module, the command module, and Earth during each phase of the mission.

A vice president from Grumman presented its design to Coen and MacLean, which included what Coen described as a large “greenhouse” on one side. The glass dome would allow the pilot to see past the rocket exhaust and dust clouds as the lunar module landed on the moon. Coen said he and MacLean were shocked at the design and explained to the group that the intense heat from the sun shining into the cabin would be fatal to the crew.

“In the early days of the space program, even technically trained people often did not seem to realize how operations in space or on the moon were quite different than those encountered in high-altitude flight,” Coen wrote.

After much deliberation, Grumman changed the design. Instead there were two small triangular windows as well as thin 2.4-meter-long hollow tubes that would descend from the bottom of the landing pad. A microswitch at the end of the tube would operate when the craft was about 2.4 meters above the surface. The switch illuminated a large red light in the cockpit. That would signal the pilot to shut down the descent engine at the right altitude, even if dust prevented him from seeing the surface. With this design, the RCA and Grumman team won the contract with NASA.

You can find Crom’s and Coen’s complete accounts at the Engineering and Technology History Wiki, along with those of others who have shared their experiences. If you would like to share your story, you can submit it here.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation’s Realize the Full Potential of IEEE Campaign.

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions