At 92, retired engineer recalls his role in Apollo 11 mission

Mystic — Fifty years ago, Cal Beggs experienced awe and more than a twinge of emotion as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trod the lunar surface.

But, remarkably, he felt no trepidation.

“We’d tested to the point where we were absolutely confident everything was going to work,” Beggs said Wednesday. “We weren't going to have any failure on our watch. ... We tortured that thing.”

That “thing” was the backpack Armstrong and Aldrin wore July 20, 1969, the day the Apollo 11 astronauts stepped outside the lunar module they set down on the moon. Beggs had led the team that developed the backpack at Hamilton Standard in Windsor Locks, and, as one of four Hamilton Standard employees present that day at the NASA Command Center in Houston, he felt no need to hold his breath as Armstrong's historic first step — and those that followed — unfolded.

Now 92, Beggs has been a resident of StoneRidge, the senior living community on Jerry Browne Road, since 2009.

In an interview, he recalled that Hamilton Standard — then a division of the United Aircraft Corp. and since absorbed by other companies — pursued a role in America’s space program soon after President John F. Kennedy, in a May 1961 address to Congress, focused the nation’s attention on the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade.

Kennedy drove the message home on Sept. 12, 1962, in a famous speech at Rice University in Houston.

“We made our proposal and won the contract for backpacks,” Beggs said. “It was a natural offshoot of the work we were doing,” which included developing propellers and aircraft air-conditioning units. NASA needed engineers to develop a portable life-support system that would enable astronauts to exit their pressurized environments to “walk” in space, either to make repairs to the outside of a space capsule, if necessary, or move about the lunar surface.

The challenge for Beggs and his team was to accommodate the astronauts’ “metabolic requirements” — pressurize their suits, supply them with oxygen, cool them and remove contaminants — as well as enable them to communicate with their fellow astronauts and their home base.

“In space, you’d have 12 seconds to live” without pressurization, Beggs said.

Beggs joined Hamilton Standard in 1948 after graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He worked on the Apollo project for seven years and finally retired in 1987. A Manchester resident during his Hamilton Standard days, he lived on Fishers Island for more than a decade before moving to StoneRidge with his wife, Virginia, who died late last year. 

He said he remembers being seated in a Houston control room as Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module, which had left the Apollo 11 capsule, piloted by the mission’s third astronaut, Michael Collins, orbiting the moon. Beggs monitored incoming data and watched a television screen.

“We could hear all the communications between Cape Kennedy (the mission’s Florida launch site) and the astronauts,” he said.

Never, Beggs said, did he doubt the backpacks would perform. And, during the two-and-half hours Armstrong spent outside the lunar module and the nearly two hours Aldrin was outside, the backpacks were flawless.

Despite his calm, the scene was somewhat overwhelming, Beggs recalled.

“I had a sense of awe when he stepped down on the surface,” he said, referring to Armstrong, who died in 2012. “Here, we’d been working on this project for years. ... I was struck emotionally by the moment."

Beggs doesn’t remember much about Apollo 11’s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. By then, he thinks, he probably was back home.

Only occasionally since then has he reflected on his connection to history, he said.

If not for the framed, signed autograph of Aldrin that hangs in his room at StoneRidge, the staff there might never have learned about his link to Apollo 11. They threw him a party this week.

In a note displayed with the photograph, Beggs explained, rather matter-of-factly: “I was (privileged) to play a vital part in the placement of human begins on a celestial body other than earth for the first time.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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