When St. Joseph’s Church holds its annual community Festa Thursday through Sunday, July 16-18, there will be a unique artifact of our country’s history among the assortment of items contributed by the community for the fundraising raffle. Parishioner Louis Cariola has donated a piece of material taken from a roll of ¼ mil thick aluminized “H-Film” used to construct the Apollo 11 lunar module that landed on the moon July 20, 1969. Twenty-five sheets of this material layered together acted as insulation protecting the astronauts from temperature extremes. The sheets were installed between the module’s outer aluminum layer — only .004” thick — and the astronaut crew compartment’s .012” thick aluminum skin.
Lou Cariola was an engineer and physicist in the 1960s with Grumman Aerospace, the company contracted by NASA to build the Apollo spacecrafts. He worked in a spectroscopy laboratory analyzing all of the elements involved. “I was in charge of a group that was responsible for all of the materials that went into the Apollo 11 lunar module,” he says. “We were more or less trouble-shooters and qualifiers; if there was a problem with contamination or a questionable material, we would try to find out what the problem was.”
The work involved various stages, he explains. “We validated what perimeters the materials had to meet. During the fabrication of the materials, we would have to measure the thermal radiation properties. Anything that went into a cabin area, we had to check its toxicity and flammability.”
Tests were conducted on small squares taken from the actual material that went onto the lunar module. “If there was a question, if it did not meet our specifications, then that particular part would have to be put aside and they’d have to make another part.”
And it was all uncharted territory at the time. “We were developing these materials as we were going along,” Cariola says. “We had to protect the astronauts as well as the fuel and all of the components that were used. It was primarily about maintaining temperature control, because in space, we had to deal with 500 degrees difference. When facing the sun, it was plus-250, roughly, and on the other side at the same time would be minus-250 degrees.”
There were constant changes and last minute adjustments. “I’ll give you a perfect example of that,” says Cariola. “The guys that did Apollo 10 went within 10,000 feet of the surface of the moon. They did almost everything but land. But their landing radar antennae which was to measure how far they were from the surface of the moon wouldn’t give them the proper reading and they probably would have crashed. The material that we’d used on the bottom around the engine was a nickel material coated with a special paint — it’s called Inconel — and it was burning off in the vacuum of outer space. Little metal particles were floating down as they were simulating the landing and giving them the wrong reading. So we had to come up with another material to put on the base around that engine, and that was only a month or so before the [Apollo 11] mission.”
Cariola’s crew was required to retain all the test samples until a mission was completed. But afterward, he says, there was no provision for what to do with them. “I had a drawer full of test panels and nobody wanted them. I ended up retaining many of the test pieces from the Apollo 11 lunar module. The piece I’m donating to the Festa was used as both a super insulation and thermal shields material, what we called ‘micro-meteorite shielding.’ It’s just a small piece, around 3/4 to 7/8 of an inch square.” Looking at photographs of the lunar module, he adds, amidst all the different copper, bronze and gold tones visible, “You can see a little bit of this material if you look. It’s yellow-ish gold in color and was used on various parts.”
While the donated piece didn’t actually go into space, it is still a rare artifact from the Apollo 11 mission. “Because the lunar module never came back to Earth,” says Cariola, “there are very few artifacts from it. It landed on the moon, and the bottom part, or the descent stage, stayed on the moon. The upper, ascent stage returned to the command ship and then it was jettisoned and eventually crashed on the moon. Unlike the Apollo command ship that came back to Earth, the lunar module never did. So that’s the significance of this material; it’s the closest thing you’re going to have to what landed on the moon.”
Cariola has donated other test panels to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Armstrong Air and Space Museum — located in Neil Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio — the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center and the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island.
The winning raffle ticket holder at the Festa who goes home with the small square of history will also receive a copy of a letter from Neil Armstrong, written to Cariola in 1979 in response to his query as to whether the test panels were worthy of saving. “He wrote back and said maybe the Smithsonian would be interested, and gave me a person to contact. I followed through and yes, they were very much interested, so that’s how I ended up with the donation there. I was also fortunate enough to be one of many that were selected to sign a plaque that was microfilmed and then brought to the moon on Apollo 11, so I’ll include a copy of that, too.”
In terms of the test panel’s monetary value, “I honestly don’t know,” says Cariola. “You’ll see all kinds of prices for [space] artifacts on the Internet. It’s hard to put a value on this, because most artifacts that are authentic are probably items that an astronaut put in their bag, a coin or something that he had. This is a little different.”
In addition to the piece he’s donating, Cariola will bring several other test panels to the Festa for viewing. “Most people have no idea how extremely thin the materials that were used were. The lunar module was referred to as ‘the tissue-paper spaceship.’ Even the cabin area was so thin that on Earth, an astronaut could possibly step right through the floor. I’m bringing a piece of one of the thickest parts of the shielding, which would have surrounded the astronauts, and it’s amazing how thin it is, maybe .0025 of an inch thick.”
The Apollo 11 lunar module, with its legs extended, stood just 22 feet, 11 inches high and had a diameter of 31 feet measured diagonally between footpads. “The whole lunar module without fuel weighed only as much as two SUVs,” says Cariola. “But it didn’t have to go through our atmosphere. It was designed strictly for outer space, and it’s the only true spaceship that’s ever existed. It was totally encased when it left the Earth. It wasn’t until it was completely out of our atmosphere that it was taken out of its ‘cocoon’ and went to the moon.”
The process of creating the lunar module from start to ready-to-launch took years, Cariola says, with thousands of people involved. “Once it was decided that we were going to go to the moon and safely return astronauts, the initial designs were to go with a giant rocket that would go to the moon, land and return. That started around ’62. But they realized that the weight and size would be enormous, so they went with the idea of sending the separate two-part ship to the surface and then rendezvous back. I think Grumman got the contract in ’63 and I was hired at the company in ’64; that’s when I started seeing the components for the lunar module.”
It was interesting work and an exciting time to be doing it, says Cariola. He worked out of Bethpage, Long Island at the Grumman headquarters, where the company was also building aircraft that went to Vietnam. He worked on the F-14 and F-111 among other aircraft, but eventually most of his time was devoted to the Apollo program, he says. Cariola also traveled around the country quite a bit to qualify materials to be used before they even left the plant and spent time in the clean rooms during assembly. “My timing was right, I guess, for something as important as this. You get so involved at the time, you almost take things for granted, but I was fortunate to have had that opportunity to work on something like this. It was a special time; with all the turmoil we had in the country in the ’60s, this was sort of a unifying factor. Most of the people in this country were supporting the space program, and even people around the world. It would be nice if we could get something going again, whatever it is, to get us unified in some fashion like that again.”