When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped down from their Apollo 11 moon lander 40 years ago tomorrow, they seemed to move in their bulky spacesuits with an unlikely ease.

Only a handful of the millions watching them on TV that night knew that many of the spacewalking skills and tools developed during the missions leading up to the historic landing had their origins in a 75-foot swimming pool at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills.

Three years earlier, at a time when U.S. astronauts were failing miserably in their first attempts to move and work effectively outside their spacecraft, it was a pair of Randallstown researchers -- Sam Mattingly and Harry Loats -- who persuaded NASA that underwater training was the best way to simulate the challenges of getting the job done in outer space.

Among the astronauts who worked and trained at McDonogh's pool between 1964 and 1966 were Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969), Scott Carpenter, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan (the last man to walk on the moon, during Apollo 17, in December 1972).

"We felt we shared in their accomplishments," said, Mattingly, 82, who is retired and living in Ocean Pines with his wife. "It was a great period to live through, and to be closely associated with such great people."

Mattingly was always full of stories about working with the astronauts, and his own rigorous training -- diving in a pressure suit, parachute and survival training, dealing with explosive decompression or floating weightless in a looping airplane - to work out the problems of simulated weightlessness.

"Every time I tell a story of these memories to my son, Randy, he tells me that I really should write a book," he said. Instead, he penned a 58-page memoir about the days that took him to McDonogh.

Alternating pool time with the school's students, he wrote, the two men and their team of 10 or 12 solved many of the problems of working in space. They figured out the need for tethers, handholds, foot restraints and more space-glove-friendly tools. The value of long hours of underwater rehearsals and strict safety procedures first became apparent from their experiments, and laid the foundation for today's astronaut training.

"There is a continuing heritage from the work done at McDonogh" to all of NASA's modern "neutral buoyancy" laboratories, said John B. Charles, a NASA program scientist and an unofficial collector of the space agency's more obscure history.

"From humble beginnings in the borrowed pool at McDonogh School," he said, "underwater training facilities were eventually built at every major space center in the world, and now exist in the U.S., Russia, Germany, Japan and China."

It's in today's multi-million-gallon NASA pools that astronauts and engineers have created the tools and techniques that enabled astronauts to build the International Space Station and repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

The underwater environment can simulate - with about 70 percent accuracy, some say - both the weightless conditions of space, and, in a much more limited way, lunar gravity, which is just one-sixth that of Earth.

But all that was unknown in the early 1960s when Mattingly and Loats began Environmental Research Associates. Mattingly was trained in business, Loats, who died two years ago, was trained in science. The Randallstown startup was chasing after any research and engineering jobs they could get from NASA, the military or their contractors.

By 1964, their work began to focus on the Gemini program -- the two-man space capsules that preceded the three-man Apollo missions. Gemini astronauts would be the first Americans to step outside their capsules, and NASA needed a tether to secure them and reel them back in. Engineers also had to develop an air lock, through which astronauts could exit and return to their capsule or space station.

"It ... became obvious that a pressure-suited man in normal gravity would not be agile enough to crawl through the air lock, so we would have to simulate weightlessness by going under water," Mattingly said in his memoir.

At first, Mattingly and his company experimented in an Air Force swimming pool near the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. But there was a host of problems, including the "constant parade of people through the pool building asking what we were doing and why, and could they help," Mattingly recalled.

So they returned to Randallstown and approached McDonogh about using its pool. Fifteen years earlier, Mattingly had sold water filtration gear to what was then an 800-student private boys' school. "They had the best indoor pool in the area," he recalled, with great filtration and the clear water vital to photography.

He told McDonogh Headmaster Robert L. Lamborn that it was "very important for the national space program that we use his pool."

Lamborn agreed. "At the time, everybody was behind the space program ... it was national pride," Mattingly said. "He was also a good guy."

But Lamborn set down rules: "We had to clear out of the place after our work. We could only use it during odd hours," Mattingly said. And, Lamborn insisted on the same payments he got from the Red Cross swimming school: $10 an hour.

So Mattingly and Loats moved in, hired local divers, brought in lots of hardware, mock-ups of air locks, hatches, tunnels and spacecraft and reported their results to NASA. They worked at night when they had to, leaving the pool for students during the day.

It all seemed very hush-hush to Quinton D. Thompson, who was head of the middle school at the time.

"It wasn't discussed, and I imagine some of the people there were not completely aware," he recalled. "I knew it was top-secret work." Even so, he confessed, "I may have peeked in the door once or twice, but strictly on the QT. I saw these people in their fancy suits training in the pool."

For a time, some key NASA officials weren't convinced of the need to venture outside a spacecraft, or of the difficulty of working in zero gravity. And they weren't sure of the value of underwater simulations. After all, training on the ground was going fine, and they could always use C-131 airplanes flying outside loops to simulate weightlessness, albeit for just 30 seconds at a time.

But when the actual Gemini spacewalks began in June 1965, Houston quickly realized it had a problem.

"They really didn't know what the hell they were doing," Mattingly recalled. On three missions in a row - Gemini 9, 10 and 11 - spacewalkers Gene Cernan, Mike Collins and Dick Gordon all experienced serious problems with exhaustion, overheating, groping dangerously for hand- and foot-holds. And they simply could not complete assigned tasks.

Suddenly, Charles said, underwater spacewalk training "sort of became imperative." And Loats and Mattingly were ready to make it happen at McDonogh.

Senior NASA officials now began showing up at McDonogh, Mattingly said. They watched underwater simulations of the tasks that Collins had attempted in space. It became clear in the water that some were impossible without three hands.

One NASA official asked Mattingly how the agency could get him to conduct more such evaluations and Mattingly replied, "If Houston could send some money it would make everybody happy."

In the months that followed, astronauts began dropping by McDonogh, first to watch, then to participate in simulations. Scott Carpenter tried it and realized it was exhausting to manipulate a pressurized glove. In his memoir, Mattingly quotes him complaining, "I can't bend my [expletive] finger anymore!"

Gene Cernan came in July 1966 and proved, to his relief, that the task he'd tried and failed to complete in orbit couldn't be done as designed. A "torqueless" Black and Decker wrench proved too big and bulky for the job astronauts were assigned. Mattingly's team warned that work planned for Gemini 10 also looked impossible, and the mission soon proved they were right.

With the final Gemini mission looming, spacecraft mock-ups were trucked in and squeezed through the McDonogh pool doors. They lugged in hoists, lights and generators, laid down pipes and cables. In September 1966, Buzz Aldrin flew in for NASA's first-ever pre-flight underwater training session, in advance of his Gemini 12 spacewalk.

"Aldrin went off to McDonogh and [later] had the most successful [spacewalk] in the Gemini program, practicing connections for different body restraints, handholds and footholds," said Charles, the historian.

When Aldrin later wrote about his lunar mission, he looked back on his training at McDonogh and said, "What we had done there secured the success of a spacewalk ... That day in Baltimore we were all full of a sense of accomplishment and pride."

And amid all the hubbub, the McDonogh kids still got in their swim time, mostly.

One day, Mattingly recalled, "a bunch of 10 and 12-year-olds" were scheduled to use the pool. But it was a crucial moment, and Mattingly's team and astronaut Gene Cernan needed the pool for eight more hours.

So Lamborn, the headmaster, asked if the boys could sit in the stands and watch. Mattingly agreed.

"I told Gene Cernan that there would be kids watching," he said. Then, "after he got into his pressure suit and while we were preparing the rest of the equipment, Gene went over to the stands, helmet in hand, and talked to the kids about space. I bet every kid in the stands that day will remember. It was most impressive."

Richard Working, a McDonogh math teacher and football coach at the time, remembers being there. And he recalls the kids were fascinated.

"They didn't know anything about weightlessness or going into space," he said. "They were bug-eyed."

Mattingly remains enormously proud of the seminal work he and his company did for the manned space program more than 40 years ago. But as the businessman of the partnership, it was never easy, even after NASA turned to them to solve the Gemini spacewalk problems.

"It was a tough period," he said. "We had small loans ... everything to make payroll.... "We just battled through it," he said. "It was fun, but I wouldn't do it again."

Maryland's contributions

Maryland played a key role in the race to the moon. Among the state's contributions:

* The live voices, pictures and other data that were transmitted from Apollo 11 to Earth passed through the computers and switching gear at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

* Martin Marietta Co. in Middle River developed the rockets used in the Gemini program, and the company's engineers went on to other firms to develop the rockets used in Apollo.

* Martin Marietta also built a high-performance wind tunnel used to test spaceship components.

* Engineers at the Bendix Radio Division plant in Towson produced components known as the Apollo Range Instrumental Aircraft. They developed communication receivers, transmitters, oscilloscopes and a parabolic antenna.

* Bendix Field Engineering Corp. in Owings Mills operated the tractor that moved the Saturn V Apollo rocket to the launch site.

* Steel for the Vertical Assembly Building (now called the Vehical Assembly Building) where the Saturn V rocket was made was forged at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point.

* Many of the computers and programs essential to the success of the Apollo mission were developed by experts at the International Business Machines Corp. in Gaithersburg.

* The camera used to record the moon landing was built at Westinghouse Electric Corp. in Linthicum.

Readers on baltimoresun.com shared their memories of the lunar landing on July 20, 1969.

* I was in my dad's basement. I was 8 years old. My Aunt and Uncle had come up from Denver, and we had two b/w TVs running. The thing I remember most was after "Tranquility Base," my dad allowed EVERYONE, even my 7 y/o brother and me a glass of champagne. We all knew that the world had changed.


* My parents invited neighbors over for a party. We had little TV's all over the house for easy viewing. I remember realizing how momentous an occasion it was - the first men to walk on the moon. The opening of the vast frontier of space.


* I remember the mix of reactions that followed the lunar landing and moonwalk. My roommate's parents believed the lunar landing and moonwalk was a hoax perpetrated by "the government." The idea was that it was a morale booster and a distraction from the Vietnam War [which] was in full form by then.


* My mom and dad woke us all up to watch the historic event that night. It was the most amazing thing. I was 7 years old. I remember the 60's space firsts from Gemini 7 to Apollo. Hard to believe, there have still only been the twelve moonwalkers among the billions of us.


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