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Apollo - St. Louis played an important role in the greatest voyage of the 20th century.
BY BILL HARTEL

St. Louis was the point of departure for one of the greatest expeditions of the 19th century: Lewis and Clark's exploration of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803-1805.

The Gateway City played an even more important role in the greatest voyage of the 20th century: man's first trip to the moon.  In fact, had it not been for a handful of St. Louis businessmen in the early years of the century, it is unlikely that Neil Armstrong even would have taken his "giant leap for mankind" 40 years ago on Monday.

In the 1920s, Robert Goddard was conducting research on liquid-fueld rockets in Massachusetts with limited success and even less credit.  His budget was limited and the press seemed to enjoy ridiculing his work rather than celebrating it.  The New York Times wrote on Jan. 13, 1920, "Professor Goddard...seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

In the later years of that same decade, another aviation pioneer approached St. Louis businessmen to sponsor his dream of making a solo transatlantic flight.  Charles Lindbergh's successful "hop" in 1927 made him a worldwide hero and, upon his return, "Lindy" began to ponder man's aviation future.

In July 1929, Lindbergh came across a news article mentioning Goddard's rocket work and the former air mail pilot-turned-national hero decided to lend his support to Goddard's work.  Lindbergh lobbied heavily on Goddard's behalf and succeeded in securing financial backing for Goddard's work.  Goddard was able to expand his facilities, moving them to New Mexico, where he pioneered the use of gyroscopic stabilation and gimbaled thrust to control his rockets.

Goddard's publications, essentially ignored in the United States, were studied carefully by Herman Oberth, a Romanian scientist and founder of the German "Space Flight Society."  He was doing his own research in liquid-fueled rockets and, with the help of a new member of the club, recent high school graduate Werner Von Braun, launched progressively larger rockets.

In World War II, Von Braun, Oberth and other members of the Space Flight Society designed and built rockets for use by the Germany military.  Their V-2 rocket, considered by many to be the first fully successful rocket, utilized features invented by Goddard at his New Mexico facility more than a decade before.  After the war, Von Braun and his rocket team were transported to the United States to continue their work in rocketry, culminating two decades later in the design of the massive Saturn 5 booster, the rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon in 1969.

The role St. Louis-based McDonnell-Douglas played in design and construction of the Mercury and Gemini capsules is well known, but those spacecraft could have been built by any number of aircraft companies around the country.  With all due respect to McDonnell-Douglas, the success of the Apollo missions to the moon owes more to the vision of the backers of the "Spirit of St. Louis."

Charles Lindbergh visited the Apollo astronauts several days before the first mission to the moon.  It was reported that Lindy calculated that the Saturn V burns "10 times more fuel in the first second of its mission that I used on my entire flight to Paris" more than 40 years before.  What else they discussed was not recorded.  Perhaps they reflected on the significant role that St. Louis played in their respective historical adventures.


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