5 Ways Wisconsin Helped Put a Man on the Moon

Tom Giffey |

U.S. Navy Lt. Clancy Hatleberg, left, was the first human being that the Apollo 11 astronauts encountered after they returned to earth on July 24, 1969, after their historic moon landing. (Image: NASA on The Commons | )
U.S. Navy Lt. Clancy Hatleberg, left, was the first human being that the Apollo 11 astronauts encountered after they returned to earth on July 24, 1969, after their historic moon landing. (Image: NASA on The Commons)


When the first men to walk on the moon splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969 – 50 years ago this month – the first human being they encountered was Lt. Clancy Hatleberg, a 25-year-old Navy SEAL from Chippewa Falls. As the capsule bobbed on the choppy, shark-infested waters, Hatleberg opened the hatch, handed biological isolation suits to the astronauts, sprayed them with disinfectant to kill any “moon germs,” and helped get them hoisted into a waiting helicopter. “Being given a chance to participate in the first mission where men would actually walk on another planet … it was like a dream come true,” he said in an interview published in 2005. Hatleberg – whose wife, Sue, grew up in Eau Claire – went on to a two-decade career in the Navy.


Even if you’ve seen the 1995 film Apollo 13, you probably didn’t realize that Tom Hanks was playing a Cheesehead. Jim Lovell, the commander of that ill-fated moon mission, grew up in Milwaukee. He graduated from Juneau High School and attended UW-Madison, where he played football, before leaving for the U.S. Naval Academy. A Naval aviator, Lovell was selected to be an astronaut in 1962 and in 1970 led what was supposed to be the third manned moon landing. An oxygen tank explosion caused the mission to be aborted, but Lovell and his crewmates were able to return to Earth safely.


Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton (1924-1993) was born and raised in rural Monroe County, near Sparta, where you can visit the Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum (which has the only moon rock on public display in Wisconsin). After a career as a military pilot, Slayton was picked as one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. Grounded because of a heart problem, Slayton became a manager of the astronauts and made crew assignments for the Apollo missions. Eventually deemed fit to fly, in 1975 Slayton was part of the crew of the historic Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, in which U.S. and Soviet capsules docked to each other in orbit.


Not all who contributed to the success of the Apollo missions have their names in the history books. Among the anonymous heroes were the men and women of AC Electronics in Milwaukee. Back in the 1960s, this division of General Motors (which became ACDelco a few years later through a merger) was creating guidance and navigation systems for NASA. AC Electronics designed and built the delicate gyroscopes and accelerometers that helped the Apollo spacecraft stay on course even when out of radio contact with Earth while orbiting the dark side of the moon. With the help of one of the very first microchip-based computers (built by Raytheon, it had roughly the power of an early 1980s home computer), these Wisconsin-made systems controlled the ascent and descent of the Apollo spacecraft, bringing the astronauts safely to the moon and back.


A native of Massachusetts who studied at Harvard, Homer Newell (1915-1983) came to the University of Wisconsin to pursue a doctorate in mathematics, which he received in 1940. Not only did he play a critical role in the creation of NASA as a civilian space agency in the 1950s, he helped plan the scientific approach of the Apollo Program. Throughout his 15-year career as a NASA administrator, Newell strongly advocated that scientific research should be at the core of the agency’s efforts. He was also involved in designing scientific instruments that astronauts left behind on the moon. According to the International Space Hall of Fame, Newell “won great acclaim for his critical role in the scientific success of the Apollo program.” His advocacy helped get the only scientist to step on the moon, geologist Harrison Schmitt, onto the crew of Apollo 17. (Coincidentally, Schmitt would go on to become an adjunct professor of engineering at UW-Madison.)