Critical testing of a balloon satellite that became the first satellite the United States launched into orbit took place in Pasquotank County, an historian who has studied North Carolina's role in space exploration told an audience at Museum of The Albemarle this week.
Jessica Bandel, editor for governor's papers and special projects with the Office of Archives and History of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, presented a History for Lunch talk at the museum on Wednesday called "One Giant Leap."
Sharing a name with a current exhibit that she helped put together at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh, the presentation looked at the role of Tarheel people and places — and at least one animal — in the race to put a man on the moon and the subsequent missions such as the space shuttle and International Space Station.
Bandel says when people hear she's been working on a project about North Carolina's role in space exploration, they often ask why, questioning what the state's role could have played. To the public, most of the high-profile activity seems to have taken place elsewhere.
But it turns out, state residents played key roles in the U.S.' race to get to the moon.
"We had quite a lot to do with that," Bandel said.
At the very beginning of the space race, in the wake of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik into orbit, the U.S. pursued Project Echo to get a balloon satellite into orbit. Bandel showed a slide of the balloon undergoing pressure testing — testing that took place at the blimp hangar in Weeksville.
Before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration put a human being into orbit it first experimented with a chimpanzee. The chimp, dubbed "Ham," spent his last years at the N.C. Zoo.
When the nation's first manned space flight took place, Marine helicopter pilot George Cox from Carteret County helped with the capsule recovery after splashdown. Cox also was involved in helping rescue astronaut Gus Grissom from drowning after splashdown.
Grissom died in a launching pad explosion on a later mission. The deaths of Grissom and two other astronauts hit home painfully for NASA engineer and North Carolina native Samuel Beddingfield.
"It was particularly devastating because Gus was a friend of his, but also because he was in charge of the emergency egress," Bandel said, referring to the exit from the Apollo One capsule.
Another North Carolina native, Stephen Clemmons, risked his own life to open the Apollo One capsule after it caught fire in an attempt to save the three astronauts.
When the Apollo 11 craft splashed down on July 24, 1969, Navy helicopter pilot Richard Barrett, a North Carolinian, helped recover the crew.
Apollo-era astronauts received celestial navigation training at Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. That training helped save the lives of the astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission.
Bandel noted that the second administrator of NASA, James Webb, who led the agency during Project Gemini, was a North Carolinian.
"A lot of the 'how do we get to the moon?' is really solved during Gemini," Bandel said.
Other important North Carolina contributions to the space program include:
• John Kiker of Wadesboro developed the model for the system used to transport the space shuttle atop jet airplanes.
• William Thornton of Faison was an astronaut on the shuttle.
• Beaufort County native Michael Smith was the pilot of the space shuttle Challenger, which tragically burst into flames in January 1986.
• Ronald McNair, who was from South Carolina but attended N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, also died in the Challenger disaster.
• Medicines made by North Carolina pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome, including Actifed, have been important to space missions over the years.
• Christine Darden from Union County was a mathematician who played an important role during the Apollo program. She later became a computer programmer and worked on efforts to reduce the effect of vibrations from supersonic aircraft.
• Charles Duke, who was born in Charlotte but grew up in South Carolina, walked on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission.