Minnesota companies played big role in the Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago


The historic first moon landing happened 50 years ago this week. It was truly a national effort, with hundreds of companies collaborating with NASA to make it happen.

That includes companies here in Minnesota that made components to help steer the spacecraft and food to nourish the astronauts.

President John F. Kennedy's stirring speech at Rice University in 1962 set the tone for a race to the moon.

'We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard,' Kennedy said during that speech.

Less than seven years later, Apollo 11 launched into space carrying astronauts to the moon surface. A breathtakingly successful mission made possible, in part, by key contributions from Minnesota companies and Minnesota engineers.

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'Well, it was very thrilling. We're all real happy it went off real well because, well ... going to the moon and everything is really a big thrill for all of us. We all feel like we're part of it,' a Honeywell employee said in a video shot around the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Members of Honeywell's 'manned spacecraft team' watched the launch of Apollo 11 in the Twin Cities. In the 1960s, Honeywell was based in Minneapolis, and designed and built key components for the Apollo spacecraft. The company's contributions included vehicle stabilization and control systems, making it possible to maneuver the spacecraft from launch to touchdown on the moon. Honeywell also developed environmental controls providing oxygen and drinking water for the astronauts.

'I think it's absolutely astounding, yeah. The more I think about it in later years,' said Dr. Bill Garrard.

Garrard was an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Minnesota from 1967 until 2017.

'Honeywell played a very major role. Honeywell was a leader in design of control systems and those were very, very important for the flight of Apollo,' said Garrard.

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Honeywell advertised in newspapers and magazines looking for engineers to join the company's 'Apollo team,' touting the Twin Cities parks and golf courses, and the Minnesota Twins and Vikings.

'Most of the engineers were Minnesotans, but they did recruit fairly heavily from other parts of the country as well,' said Garrard.

The company had mock-ups of the spacecraft that engineers used to design components. But Honeywell was just one of hundreds of companies working on the Apollo project. Bringing it all together to put man on the moon was almost mind-boggling.

'It was a huge undertaking,' Garrard said. 'I don't think anyone should ever minimize the amount of effort that went into it.'

Honeywell wasn't the only Minneapolis-based company playing a big role in the Apollo program. So did Pillsbury, which developed special foods like 'Space Food Sticks.'

But it was the engineering by companies like Honeywell that made the moon landing possible 50 years ago.

'It feels like the six years I spent on the program are really worthwhile now. This is what we've really been after. It looks like it's really gonna go and we're real happy about it,' another Honeywell employee said in a video shot around the time of the Apollo 11 mission.

Through its multifaceted efforts, Honeywell put Minnesota's stamp on one of the greatest technological achievements in history.