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One small town helped “one small step”

You think it gets rowdy around here when the Red Sox hit a walk-off homer? You should have heard the roar at RCA on Middlesex Turnpike on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 planted itself on the moon using RCA’s electronics. Bill Livezey of Lantern Lane was standing in the crammed RCA lunch room, watching it happen live on TV.

Actually, there was no roar. Just relief. Everyone was exhausted.

Livezey: “When it was announced that it landed safely and Armstrong gave that one step for man speech, you could hear everyone exhale. Everyone just felt total relief. We had to go back to work. Not a whole lot of celebration but a lot of relief.”

RCA's contract with NASA, Burlington MA

RCA wins NASA contract

RCA’s Burlington branch was responsible for the radar systems that guided the lunar module to the moon. Livezey was in charge of the White Room, an assembly area where a mostly female team put together circuit boards that would help the lunar module control its descent. This included lots of soldering that would be done by machines nowadays. Why mostly women? They were usually more meticulous and dexterous than men. “They had to be very careful. They had to do everything just right. We had NASA inspectors looking at everything. If they saw one little pinhole, we’d have to start over and it would cause a huge loss of time.”

Time was short. NASA was under immense pressure from President John F. Kennedy, who vowed in 1961 to put the USA on the moon before the decade was out. Although Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, NASA passed the immense pressure onto its contractors like RCA to make good on Kennedy’s vow — and to beat Russia. How bad was the pressure? RCA’S moon mission chief in Burlington, John R. McAllister of Concord, MA, had a fatal heart attack in 1972 at age 53, just four years after Apollo 11.

RCA Burlignton MA
RCA’s “White Room” in Burlington. Bill Livezey is standing on the right.

Bill Livezey felt the weight too. “We were working 12 hours on weekdays and eight hours Saturdays and Sundays.”

Veronica McGowan Andrews was private secretary to the head of engineering. “There were 100 cigar-smoking engineers and I was four months pregnant. I had a blueprint cutter across my desk with a sign that said ‘cigar smokers beware.’ They were never stupid enough to approach.”

Here’s another Burlingtonian, Sandy McEhliney, among the parts inventory:

Sandy St. Croix

William Wigton worked in the environmental testing lab for the lunar module. RCA gave him this tie tack:

Despite the mad dash in 1969 to beat the end-of-decade deadline, there was still time for company softball at Marvin Field on South Bedford Street. Production would play design. Design would play engineering. Livezey was the pitcher for his squad.

Immediately after Apollo 11 came the layoffs. RCA had been so laser-focused on the moon mission that its marketing department hadn’t gone digging for new business, says Livezey. So activity fell off a cliff pretty quickly. One could say the same for mankind’s foray into space. After the Giant Leap, we’re back to baby steps at best.

Livezey saved a lot of RCA’s moon mission material, which made extensive use of . . . Snoopy!

RCA full-page ad in Wall Street Journal, March 1969
RCA full-page ad in Wall Street Journal, March 1969

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a letter about Apollo 10, the “rehearsal” to the actual landing mission, dubbed Apollo 11.

May 23, 1969 internal note

“LM” stands for lunar module. It was pronounced “lem,” and even spelled that way sometimes. Employees heard “lem” all day, every day, for years.

 

Here are Bill’s credentials. Because — why not?

Winchester had nothing to do with Apollo 11 but tried to cash in anyway. Because — why not?

Lunar Cheesecake ad, Winchester

 

 

2 thoughts on “One small town helped “one small step” Leave a comment

  1. I noticed your PERSONAL DATA SUMMARY sheet and I thought that I would give you mine as I was the designer & builder of the test apparatus that was used to assure that the communications antenna which was on the LEM module, piloted by Neil Armstrong and asissted by Buzz Aldrin, would function properly.

    PERSONAL DATA SUMMARY
    Title: SR. Mechanical Engineer
    Name: Gerald Ganley
    Responsibility: LEM Project Designer
    Location: RCA Burlington,MA

    ARTICLE ON LEM

    • If you have any material to add, I’ll add it. The more, the merrier. My cell: 781-718-9872 — Robert Fahey, editor

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