When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped down from their Apollo 11 moon lander 40 years ago tomorrow, they seemed to move in their bulky spacesuits with an unlikely ease.
Only a handful of the millions watching them on TV that night knew that many of the spacewalking skills and tools developed during the missions leading up to the historic landing had their origins in a 75-foot swimming pool at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
Three years earlier, at a time when U.S. astronauts were failing miserably in their first attempts to move and work effectively outside their spacecraft, it was a pair of Randallstown researchers -- Sam Mattingly and Harry Loats -- who persuaded NASA that underwater training was the best way to simulate the challenges of getting the job done in outer space.
Among the astronauts who worked and trained at McDonogh's pool between 1964 and 1966 were Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969), Scott Carpenter, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan (the last man to walk on the moon, during Apollo 17, in December 1972).
"We felt we shared in their accomplishments," said, Mattingly, 82, who is retired and living in Ocean Pines with his wife. "It was a great period to live through, and to be closely associated with such great people."
Mattingly was always full of stories about working with the astronauts, and his own rigorous training -- diving in a pressure suit, parachute and survival training, dealing with explosive decompression or floating weightless in a looping airplane - to work out the problems of simulated weightlessness.
"Every time I tell a story of these memories to my son, Randy, he tells me that I really should write a book," he said. Instead, he penned a 58-page memoir about the days that took him to McDonogh.
Alternating pool time with the school's students, he wrote, the two men and their team of 10 or 12 solved many of the problems of working in space. They figured out the need for tethers, handholds, foot restraints and more space-glove-friendly tools. The value of long hours of underwater rehearsals and strict safety procedures first became apparent from their experiments, and laid the foundation for today's astronaut training.
"There is a continuing heritage from the work done at McDonogh" to all of NASA's modern "neutral buoyancy" laboratories, said John B. Charles, a NASA program scientist and an unofficial collector of the space agency's more obscure history.
"From humble beginnings in the borrowed pool at McDonogh School," he said, "underwater training facilities were eventually built at every major space center in the world, and now exist in the U.S., Russia, Germany, Japan and China."
It's in today's multi-million-gallon NASA pools that astronauts and engineers have created the tools and techniques that enabled astronauts to build the International Space Station and repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
The underwater environment can simulate - with about 70 percent accuracy, some say - both the weightless conditions of space, and, in a much more limited way, lunar gravity, which is just one-sixth that of Earth.
But all that was unknown in the early 1960s when Mattingly and Loats began Environmental Research Associates. Mattingly was trained in business, Loats, who died two years ago, was trained in science. The Randallstown startup was chasing after any research and engineering jobs they could get from NASA, the military or their contractors.
By 1964, their work began to focus on the Gemini program -- the two-man space capsules that preceded the three-man Apollo missions. Gemini astronauts would be the first Americans to step outside their capsules, and NASA needed a tether to secure them and reel them back in. Engineers also had to develop an air lock, through which astronauts could exit and return to their capsule or space station.
"It ... became obvious that a pressure-suited man in normal gravity would not be agile enough to crawl through the air lock, so we would have to simulate weightlessness by going under water," Mattingly said in his memoir.
At first, Mattingly and his company experimented in an Air Force swimming pool near the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. But there was a host of problems, including the "constant parade of people through the pool building asking what we were doing and why, and could they help," Mattingly recalled.
So they returned to Randallstown and approached McDonogh about using its pool. Fifteen years earlier, Mattingly had sold water filtration gear to what was then an 800-student private boys' school. "They had the best indoor pool in the area," he recalled, with great filtration and the clear water vital to photography.
He told McDonogh Headmaster Robert L. Lamborn that it was "very important for the national space program that we use his pool."
Lamborn agreed. "At the time, everybody was behind the space program ... it was national pride," Mattingly said. "He was also a good guy."