July 20, 2019
STONINGTON — Local retiree John Calvin Beggs, who helped design the backpack for the “moon suits” worn by the Apollo 11 astronauts, said that seeing Neil Armstrong touch down on the lunar surface 50 years ago today on June 20, 1969, was one of the high points of his life.
“To realize I had been part of a ‘first’ — putting a human on a celestial body other than Earth, is sort of a super feeling,” Beggs said in an interview at the StoneRidge Retirement Community in Mystic. “To think of all technical know-how that had to come together to make it possible, it’s sort of remarkable.”
It all began when Beggs — known as “Cal” since childhood — joined Hamilton Standard in Windsor Locks, Conn., after graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1948.
“I worked on quite a number of things as a test engineer and a designer, and air conditioning equipment for aircraft,” he said. “That spun off into environmental equipment for space.”
Beggs said that the company made a proposal to develop equipment for life support of astronauts and won the NASA contract around 1962.
“For the next seven years, that was all I worked on,” he said. “It was a fascinating program because it was a meld of medicine and engineering, because the man was in a suit with a very small space around him, probably less than 2 cubic feet.”
“And of course being in such a small environment, his metabolism totally dominates everything inside,” Beggs said. “When he perspires it simply saturates the air in the suit.”
“You’ve got to supply oxygen for him,” Beggs said. “The pressure can’t be too high because he’s in a suit. If you’ve ever tried to bend a long balloon, you know how difficult it is. You want the pressure as low as possible but it still has to be high enough to sustain him.”
“So we came up with a set of equipment which would give him oxygen, keep him pressurized, remove contaminants, cool him, give him communication capability with the other astronaut and the command module, which was still orbiting around the moon,” Beggs said.
“All this equipment had to be crammed into a pack that he was capable of carrying,” Beggs said. “Everything was very compact.”
Beggs said that without the pressurized suit, a human walking on the moon would literally explode because the surface of the moon has no air pressure. “All the gases in the body would expand and you’d be blotto in about 12 seconds,” he said.
Beggs said the only time the astronauts used the suit with the backpack was when they were outside the pressurized vehicles — the orbiting command module and the lunar excursion module. The excursion vehicle took the astronauts from the command module to the lunar surface.
“Any time you were outside the pressurized vehicle, you had to use the backpack for survival,” Beggs said.
Every astronaut involved in the NASA program had a customized suit and backpack, Beggs said, each person’s metabolism was special.
“So you’d match up a suit and a backpack with each individual,” Beggs said, “and we would test them at high altitude in a chamber and get a reference set of data on how the performance went when he worked at various levels.”
“And then there was telemetry, where the data was sent back from the lunar surface to Houston and plotted out,” Beggs said, “and we could observe how it was performing in comparison to how it had performed before in the lab testing.”
Beggs said he was in Houston with his chief project engineer and other engineers for the Apollo 11 launch.
“We were in a room with a TV monitor so we could observe, and screens in which the telemetry data were displayed so we could observe how it was working,” Beggs said. “We didn’t have any direct communication with the astronauts, that was strictly between the Cape communicator and the individuals.”
“We were supportive of all the missions where the backpack was used,” Beggs said. “Occasionally they were used for repair missions when they would go outside the vehicle. I think they were involved in making modifications on the Hubbell telescope.”
Beggs, who is in his 90s, retired from engineering in 1986 and spent five years restoring an old house on Fishers Island. He lived there with his wife, Virginia, for 15 years until she broke a hip and they moved to the mainland, eventually settling at the StoneRidge Retirement Community in Mystic.
Beggs said he has enjoyed singing his whole life and is involved in three groups, including a church choir, a small chorus at StoneRidge, and the Mystic River Chorale. He also continues to make furniture, carve half-models of boats and is working on scale model of his son’s Dyer 29 powerboat.
Beggs owned a Morgan 24 sailboat that he and his sons raced for about 30 years, and later had a Bullseye, a 17-foot Marconi rigged sailboat that he sailed in regattas around Fishers Island.
Born in Little Rock, Ark., Beggs was raised in Oklahoma and moved to Chicago during his high school years. He fought in World War II as an infantryman and was wounded in action.
“I was hit by a shell fragment, which ended my frontline service,” he said. “I was very lucky.”
“I’ve been lucky all my life,” he added. “Lucky in the choice of my wife, and lucky in getting assigned to a program like this.”
Beggs married Virginia McElrath in 1947. She died in 2018. He has three children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.