BERLIN – Area residents and citizens all over the country this week celebrated the 40th anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon back in July 1969, but one local man watched the seemingly endless grainy frames of first Neil Armstrong and later Buzz Aldrin taking their “giant leaps for mankind” with a sense of personal pride in the relative ease with which they bounded around the lunar surface.
Ocean Pines resident Sam Mattingly, now 82, played a significant role in NASA’s manned space flight program, researching and developing the techniques and training the astronauts would later use to nimbly complete their tasks in cumbersome pressurized suits outside their space vehicles. In the early 1960s, when the nation’s space program was starting to accelerate, it became painfully obvious the astronauts could not successfully operate outside their vehicles in the weightlessness of outer space. The suits were bulky and restrictive for the astronauts, who struggled early on to complete even the most mundane tasks outside of their vessels.
However, Mattingly and his late partner Harry Loats, with their fledgling company Environmental Research Associates, had the wisdom to see the value of training the astronauts in the comparatively weightless environment of a swimming pool and began a simulated training and testing program in the pool of the Baltimore area prep school McDonogh. At first, NASA officials were lukewarm to the idea, but warmed up after the failed attempts of the astronauts to maneuver outside their spacecraft in the early stages of the Gemini program.
Mattingly, Loats and their team of researchers stepped up their underwater training program at McDonogh and trained the astronauts throughout the rest of the Gemini program in the mid 1960s. Astronauts such as Scott Carpenter, Mike Collins, Dick Gordon, Gene Cernan and Buzz Aldrin all participated in Mattingly’s underwater training program in the pool at McDonogh.
Mattingly has been a full-time resident of Ocean Pines for the last 10 years and owned a condominium in Ocean City for 12 years prior. He met his wife Nancy on the Boardwalk at 9th Street back in the 1940s and the couple has been married for 58 years. In an interview with The Dispatch this week, Mattingly proudly recalled those early days of developing a training program for astronauts that would help plant the seeds for the later Apollo missions and have a hand in practically everything NASA has done since. The following are some of the highlights of that interview:
Q. How did you and your partner become involved in underwater training for astronauts to begin with?
A. Well, what really happened was, we were just a small company and we had taken a contract with NASA to study seal problems with space stations. When we completed that, we had a little carry-on to the contract to design an airlock and some doors that had different seal configurations in them so that NASA could test different configurations.
Q. And that small contract carry-on led to using the pool at McDonogh School to train astronauts to maneuver and work outside the spacecraft in simulated zero gravity situations?
A. When that happened, a fellow at NASA had a plastic airlock built as a showpiece for the people at NASA. It was full size. It was four feet wide by six feet long. As soon as we saw it, physically, we asked could a man get through that and we started to have a lot of discussions on that. What does an astronaut have to do? So I went over to the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, all this work was done for Langley by the way, and at the Norfolk Air Station they had a pressure suit operation. They were very nice. They trained me because they wouldn’t let me have a pressure suit without training me first. So I brought the suit back and we stuck the airlock in the water and it was rather cumbersome. We had lead weights hung all over the place and at that time, we found out it wasn’t a very good simulation, but it certainly was a simulation. We found if we were able to refine it, we could gain some valuable information, so we did.
Q. The water-training program wasn’t immediately well received by the space program?
A. The people at Langley liked it, so they said let’s study all the problems a man in a pressure suit would have to encounter outside the space station. So we did that. Houston wasn’t terribly interested in it because they did zero gravity airplanes. They do an outside loop actually and they get about 30 seconds of close to weightlessness.
They thought our work was interesting, but not terribly important. Then when Gemini started to have problems. Gemini was the first attempt for American astronauts to get out of the space vehicle. They found out it wasn’t just a piece of cake. The tests they were doing in the airplanes just weren’t complete enough to understand what a long term outside of the space vehicle was going to do to them.
Q. What did the tests in the pool teach you about how astronauts work in the pressure suits?
A. For one thing, you tire easily. A pressure suit is a difficult thing to operate. It’s like being in a balloon and any time you move, it’s like changing the shape of the balloon. At any rate, in the middle of the Gemini program, they were sort of aware of us, so they came up and talked to us and we started to do the Gemini work and we ended up training the astronauts for Gemini 12, the last Gemini flight. It worked and NASA was sharp enough to understand it was what they needed to train astronauts. It became the major training system for any EVAs [extra vehicular activity]. That’s the long and short of it.
Q. The end of the Gemini program didn’t necessarily mean the end of your work with the astronaut training in the pool. Did you help prepare the Apollo astronauts for what they were about to accomplish?
A. We didn’t do training of astronauts beyond Gemini, NASA did. But I trained the NASA people to train the astronauts. They had to put a facility in down at Houston. We stayed here and continued our research. There were so many little things that we had to learn, so we went on with our research probably for another five years and then folded it up. It was a lot of fun.
Q. So that brings us up to the threshold of the Apollo program and the first man walking on the moon, which, of course, was 40 years ago this week. Clearly, your work help lay the seeds for the success of that program?
A. Yes. The interesting thing is, we trained Aldrin for Gemini 12 and he did what was considered at the time the first successful EVA. We also had the opportunity to work with Gene Cernan, who was really the Gemini astronaut who got into the most trouble. He was on Gemini 9 and his training was obviously incomplete. When he went up there, he really had a great deal of difficulty. It was touch and go as to whether he was going to get back into the space capsule. He came up after his flight and we had the full mock-ups of the space vehicles and he got in the water and then he understood pretty quickly what the problems were. It just was really not a well-designed task. He couldn’t reach the positions he needed, he couldn’t bend the suit the way he needed to. So, we got to know him pretty well and he was quite a character. Later, we had a bunch of the other astronauts come by and kibitz around, so it was a great time, a lot of fun.
Q. Did you understand at the time the magnitude of what you guys were doing and what it might lead to?
A. Nobody knew what was going to happen later. We just knew if you were going to space, you have to be able to work outside the vehicle because something inevitably is going to go wrong. So that was the real impetus to all of our work. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Nobody could prognosticate the success of the program. It just all fell into place. We lucked out in a way.
Q. Obviously, you take a lot of pride in what your work helped NASA accomplish then and since?
A. Obviously, yes. Aldrin said later in his book he thought we had done a great job. I remember quite well a bunch of us went down to dinner in Baltimore after a long time working in the water. Sometimes, we worked overnight. He had to because the McDonogh pool was also being used by the school and we had to fit within their schedule. So it was a lot of interesting work.