WALDPORT — It was easily the most significant meeting of science, engineering and the spirit of human endeavor in modern times.
As the world gets ready to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Waldport resident Ray Winward is left with much to reflect upon. Part of an elite team comprised of some of the most powerful minds of its time, Winward and thousands of his counterparts were charged with finding their limits and pushing past them — again and again — to pull off what was repeatedly called the impossible: putting a human footprint in space.
Using skills he first honed in a Pennsylvania home for orphaned and disadvantaged boys, Winward, now 76, was hand-picked to spearhead a team charged with perfecting the astronauts’ lifeline — their space suits. The year was 1965 and Winward had just wrapped up his time at Edwards Air Force Base working with altitude chamber simulations, pressure suits and oxygen deprivation in test pilots that included Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier.
In a presentation set for July 18 at the Waldport Community Center, Winward will talk about his experiences with NASA contractor ILC Dover and his time as the Space Suit Interface Engineering Representative for NASA, fitting the Apollo astronauts with their suits and then shadowing them at training sites and educating them in the use of the suits — a journey spanning eight years and locations in Dover, Delaware, Houston and Los Angeles. The event begins at 5 p.m. at 265 NW Hemlock Street.
He’ll talk about some of the challenges: Creating suits capable of shielding their wearers from extreme heat and cold, radiation and micrometeoroids invisible to the eye but traveling at 17,000 mph. And the solution: an incredibly complex armor whose outer garment alone had 22 layers.
Winward shared close moments with the astronauts and not just the pressure but also the camaraderie of a gigantic endeavor. He recalled the lengthy ordeal of fitting Neil Armstrong for his suit three month before the moon flight and taking a break to go have lunch with the man who would become a household name.
“I said to him, ‘you’re an introvert. How are you going to handle this?’” Winward said in an interview this week in Waldport. “He said, ‘well, I’m going to give them a year and go back to Ohio and teach.’ And that’s just about exactly what he did.”
Winward helped the astronauts the navigate the cramped space of a simulated lunar lander in their cumbersome suits and knew how difficult it was for the first men on the moon to get out of the module and down the ladder to finally plant their soles in the fine dust of the moon’s surface.
“The last three feet was a plunge,” Winward recalled. “They didn’t have steps all the way down but they had these great handrails.”
When the mind spirals back through a lifetime of turns and intersections, it hones in on the key places where, without a fated twist, the rest wouldn’t have followed. Winward thinks a lot about the Milton Hershey School for Boys, founded by the chocolate magnate of the same name east of Winward’s hometown of Philadelphia. In a memoir he’s self-published so his three daughters will better understand his life, Winward recalls the school’s machine shop program where he found his calling following the death of his father and the confinement of his mother, afflicted with MS, to an assisted living facility.
Those who attend his presentation — which he likens more to a conversation with the community — will learn why the space suits were important, some of the tortured detail of their creation, and glimpse the work of nearly 1,000 tirelessly toiling engineers and seamstresses.
It’ll be a moment, 50 years later, when those old enough can recall the instant that brought a planet together.
Like so many others, Winward sat glued to a television set on that historic evening on July 20 1969, telephone at hand just in case he was needed for anything.
“The whole world celebrated,” he said. “Everyone remembers what they were doing when men landed on the moon.”