By Dennis Morgan
Bettendorf had what may appear a small, but crucial, role
Americans are looking upwards at the moon this week, recognizing the golden anniversary of man’s first landing.
The date was July 20, 1969, when astronaut Neil Armstrong spoke those famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he stepped foot on the moon.
The moon landing was the culmination of a goal set forth by President John F. Kennedy during the Spring of 1961 of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade.
The story has been told many times and will be celebrated this Saturday on the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon.
Bettendorf – an unassuming man
While many remember the headlines and the live television footage of the moonwalks, few know that an Antelope County native and Elgin resident played a role in the mission.
Noel Bettendorf, who passed away in 2010, was a quiet, unassuming man. He was everything one would associate with a man who grew up in rural Nebraska.
Yet, through a series of decisions made, he found his way to California where the skills he learned both here and in the Army put him in a position of great importance during the summer of 1969.
Noel grew up on a farm south of the “Million Dollar Corner” south of Oakdale. When he was five years old, his parents, Jack and Ellen Bettendorf, moved to Oakdale where he attended Oakdale High.
After high school, he entered the Army in 1946 and was stationed overseas in Germany with the Post World War II Occupation.
After serving his time in the military, he returned home and lived in California for awhile before returning back to the Oakdale area where he married his wife Lois. And here’s where the story begins to take shape.
Lois said they packed up and moved to California in 1956 looking for work and ended up in LA county in the Norwalk community.
“He had one job, but it didn’t pan out,” she said about Noel’s return to the Golden State. Then, on the way home he saw a sign for help wanted at the Accessory Product Company (APCO). At the time all he knew was that they helped make airplanes. So, in part because he had served in the military, he was hired as a parts inspector.
“His boss was responsible for the making of parts that required precise measurements,” she said. “Noel learned how to use a caliper and he would do precise measuring with the parts, rejecting or approving them.”
Over the course of 15 years, he became chief inspector and had a number of employees working underneath him.
The company sent Bettendorf across the country to inspect missile and airplane parts.
He worked on several missile sites (near Mead and Arlington) in Nebraska, focusing on the missile parts.
“People were all together back then, not split apart like the country is now,” Lois said. National pride, she added, was strong and the country was focused on beating the Russians to the Moon in the 1960s.
“He had all these parts that he approved,” Lois said. “It was something that he took great pride in … It was a good job (the income he received from the APCO years) … you could raise a family and that’s what we did.”
Reliability and quality control were synonymous with APCO when Bettendorf went to work there. Their connection to the space program only grew during the 1960s.
Lois shared a magazine which the company produced talking about the program, one which featured Bettendorf and his quality control department.
“Realizing that manned capability in the aerospace program puts unusual emphasis on reliability, APCO stresses reliability as a basic function of design. Therefore, the Quality Control Department participates in every activity … from original receipt of raw materials or sub-assemblies, through manufacturing and testing, to final shipment under strickt packing conditions,” stated an APCO publication which Bettendorf was prominently featured examining parts under a microscope.
“In addition to APCO’s self-imposed strict standards, all quality control functions are in accordance with specifications of the Department of Defense, NASA and FAA.”
During the time Bettendorf worked at APCO, they produced precision equipment for installation on missiles, spacecraft and aircraft of every leading manufacturer. Because of APCO’s ability to engineer beyond ordinary limits, the products produced there had to meet the demands of space flight (temperature extremes, pressures, weight and size.
Three spacecraft compo-nents produced there, which Bettendorf was directly connected to were a series/parallel helium check valve; a solenoid-operated helium shut-off valve as well as a series/parallel check valve, all for the Apollo missions.
The valves were instrumental in firing the engines on the space ships including the Lunar Module which landed on the moon. The first lunar module which touched down on the moon was called the “Eagle.”
On that very day 50 years ago, Lois said her husband was glued to the television screen and was as nervous as a man could be. The couple were on vacation at Arcada, California at the time.
“He had his head inside the television,” she said about Noel. “He was very stressed out on the mission itself … He told me that if the part which he had inspected and approved did not work, the astronauts would not lift off from the moon to return to the Command Module to return home.
“The ship would not lift off if the part did not work,” she said. “He was the one, he either accepted or rejected the part … He was proud of that.”
And he was relieved when the part did work and the Lunar Module lifted off and returned to space.
Because of Bettendorf’s commitment to making sure the parts did work, he received an award from NASA for his role in the mission.
He continued to work for APCO for two more years. In that time, Textron purchased the company and moved the plant far enough away that he grew tired of being on the road for two hours just to get to work, work an eight-hour day, then travel two hours to return home.
He returned to Nebraska in the 1970s where he managed the Gambles store for a time, helped farmers at harvest time and also worked for the City of Elgin for a number of years before retiring.
Lois said Noel never forgot his role in the space program. He kept the NASA award and looked at it from time to time. She still has the award tucked away with other belongings.
Bettendorf like many others of his generation, the greatest generation they have been labeled, understood that for the country to achieve success whether on the fields of Nebraska or in outer space, we had to work for it.
Someday, man will again step foot on the moon. But the new generation of space travelers will do so, in part, on the labors of Bettendorf and others who did their part, with little fanfare but proud nonetheless, of doing their best, to put man on the moon 50 years ago this week.