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NASA Engineer Remembers Glenn Research and the Apollo 11 Connection

photo of John Nieberding
Joe Nieberding surveys the office he worked from at NASA Glenn Research Center during the final phase of his 34-year career. He started in 1966, following in the footsteps of his brother, Bill. Today, he still teaches a course on why rockets fail.

When Apollo 11 launched 50 years ago, it was propelled by a liquid hydrogen-fueled launch vehicle called Centaur – which wouldn’t have existed without decades of work by scientists at what’s today called NASA Glenn Research Center. One of those scientists was Joe Nieberding, who recently spoke with Kabir Bhatia about Cleveland’s role in the space race.

photo of Centaur rocket
Just outside the NASA Glenn administration building is this Centaur G-Prime upper stage rocket, a later version of the one that was part of Apollo 11.

Glenn Research Center began as the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory and spent much of the 1950s and ‘60s working on using liquid hydrogen as a fuel. In 1957, the center tested a hydrogen-powered plane over Lake Erie. By the mid-1960s, the Centaur project was underway, which used liquid hydrogen and would become the upper stage launch system for Apollo 11. Nieberding – then a physics student at John Carroll University – recalls watching news coverage of the Centaur project in the spring of 1966. A few months later, he was hired at NASA Lewis to work on the project alongside the very scientists he had seen on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

Nieberding’s role was to calculating trajectories to the moon based on fuel consumption, weight and other factors. But the Apollo mission was not the only motivation for his team’s work. They were also working on unmanned missions to launch weather satellites, the Intelsat communication satellites and other projects.

Today, he looks back on his work with pride, noting that much of the technology that originated at NASA Lewis in the 1960s, such as liquid hydrogen for propelling launch vehicles, is still used today. But one of the greatest compliments  came from Russian scientists with whom Nieberding worked later in his career.

“I asked them, ‘How did you feel when Apollo 11 landed?’ They said, ‘We cried.’ I said, ‘Because you lost the race?' They said, ‘No – because humans finally had done it.’ I’ll never forget that.”

Celebrating Apollo 11
The western Ohio birthplace of Neil Armstrong is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with a weekend full of events. And some of the artifacts on display in Wapakoneta will also highlight Armstrong’s connection to Northeast Ohio.

The first man on the moon spent part of his career at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. History

photo of Anne Mills, Joe Nieberding
NASA Glenn Historian Anne Mills says the center has saved a great deal of material from Nieberding's Centaur project, as well as some documents from the mid-1950s when Neil Armstrong worked at what was then Lewis Research Center.

Officer Anne Mills says they’ve lent some documents to the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum for this weekend.

"A flight log book from 1955. In that log book are entries when Neil Armstrong worked here. This was his first job with NASA. He only worked here for about four months, and he was a research pilot. Unfortunately, we didn't know he was going to be famous. So we have no pictures of him working here. But we do have some documentary evidence of it."

After his stint in Cleveland, Armstrong transferred to another NASA facility to become a test pilot. And as he landed the lunar module on the moon 50 years ago, he was guided by another Ohioan: Gene Kranz, from Toledo, who served as flight director for Apollo 11.

A new honor
On the eve of the 50th anniversary, both of Ohio’s U.S. senators say they'll introduce legislation to rename NASA’s Plum Brook Station test facility for Armstrong. Republican Rob Portman says the move would recognize his role in the space program and as a Navy fighter pilot.

“He ultimately was a test pilot. That’s what he considered himself. He was a Navy pilot who had over 80 missions over North Korea and South Korea, by the way. Got shot down in Korea – people don’t know that, often.  He was a test pilot who flew some of those dangerous machines available then. But he always wanted to push the boundaries of space and then, of course, [was] an amazing astronaut.” 

Portman plans to co-sponsor the legislation with Democrat Sherrod Brown. Plum Brook Station in Sandusky is part of NASA Glenn, and includes the world’s largest space environment simulator.





Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.