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Guilderland man's idea helped NASA, Apollo 11 reach the moon

Guilderland man's idea helped NASA, Apollo 11 reach the moon

Local resident shares personal connection to the mission
Guilderland man's idea helped NASA, Apollo 11 reach the moon
Milton Dickfoss, who contributed to the Apollo program a new resistance soldering technique for the LM window heater.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had enough to worry about in 1969.

The agency was preparing for its most ambitious mission of all time—putting Apollo 11 and two men on the moon during mid-summer.

When NASA developed a problem with the lunar module that would land on the big white marble, they called on Grumman Corporation—the aerospace and defense tech company assigned to build the space vehicle.

Grumman called on Milton Dickfoss, a company mechanical engineer who now lives in Guilderland.

Dickfoss' story about the LEM's situation and his solution is part of The Daily Gazette's "Moon Memories" project—a salute to today's 50th anniversary of man's first visit to the moon.

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The newspaper recently asked readers for their personal stories from Sunday, July 20, 1969—the day Apollo 11 made history. At 10:56 p.m., astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar service. "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," he said, a quote that has resonated for 50 years.

Dickfoss, now 86, offered the most personal connection to the mission. The South Dakota native, whose family later relocated to Jericho, Long Island, landed a job at Grumman in Long Island around 1960.

At first, Dickfoss was a technical writer. He eventually moved to the mechanical side of the business.

More moon memories:

"When they got the [NASA] contract, everything went into the space program," Dickfoss said in an interview. "Even though we had all the military aircraft still going, that was their main project. But when the LEM came, Grumman just went into it. Everybody got involved."

Dickfoss' involvement was in electronic assembly. "Printed circuit boards, harnesses, cables, connectors," he said. "Making sure that the tooling that was required to do the job properly could be done."

NASA found a glitch during LEM test flights. The two triangular-shaped windows—both about the size of a magazine—were fogging up.

"They came back and said, 'OK, Grumman, tell us what to do about this. Make a fix for it,'" Dickfoss said. "My supervisor came to me and said, 'Milt, find out what you can do to defog those windows.'"

Dickfoss found the answer, with some help from Latham's Mechanical Technology Inc. The company, a General Electric spinoff, had developed a new product line that included a soldering iron that could solder to anything.

Dickfoss made inquiries and, using the new tool, was able to solder to glass. Once he was able to solder to the window, Dickfoss attached a low-voltage wire to the Corning-made space glass. The now-heated glass windows inside the LEM did not fog up.

Every motorist today knows similar technology. In many vehicles, thin wires run through back windshield glass to defrost ice and clear up condensation.

The company thanked Dickfoss and others who worked on the project. Fred Haise, a NASA astronaut who would later become the LEM pilot for troubled Apollo 13, wrote Dickfoss a letter of appreciation in July 1970.

"We in the flight end of the business know that success on our manned space missions will be measured by the performance of individuals like you," Haise wrote, including the tiny "Silver Snoopy" pin that was the astronauts' personal award for professional excellence.

Dickfoss took pride in his problem-solving for Apollo 11.

"I did have that feeling, thinking there are very few people—we had thousands of people working at Grumman—but out of the whole world, I had a part in it," he said. "It makes you feel good."

Dickfoss, who moved to Rotterdam in 1970 with his wife, Anneliese, and children Susan and William, has lived in Guilderland for the past five years. He still watches the moon in the night sky and reads about space projects.

Dickfoss is excited by the prospect of astronauts returning to the moon in 2024.

More moon memories:

The next lunar landing is expected to include men and women. According to published reports, NASA is serious enough about sending a woman to the moon that the agency has named its new lunar program "Artemis." In Greek mythology, Artemis is the goddess of the moon and twin sister of the sun god Apollo.

Dickfoss has also heard about an often-discussed manned mission to Mars. He's all for it.

"Let's go," he said.

Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]

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