By Colin Ainsworth

Special to the Times 

CHESTER >> Before a Saturn V rocket could launch the crew of Apollo 11 from Kennedy Space Center on Merrit Island, Fla., on its journey to the moon in 1969, the most powerful rocket ever brought into operation had to stay pinned to earth during its testing at NASA’s Bay St. Louis, Mo., and Huntsville, Ala., installations. 

The Saturn V stayed in its test facilities thanks in part to 12 hold-down clamps, each weighing 25 tons, which went into production along Chester’s industrial riverfront in 1963.

The Saturn V clamp was one the contributions to the space race produced by Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co.’s Aero-Hydro Space Division during the mid-1960s. During World War II, the shipyard accounted for 40 percent of U.S. tanker ship output. Its fabrication shops produced catalytic cracking cases for Sun Oil Co.’s Marcus Hook refinery to produce the 100 octane aviation fuel that would give the Allies an edge in aerial warfare.

Two decades later, Sun Ship would contribute to both sides of the U.S. space program’s liquid versus solid rocket fuel debate.

One year before Sun Ship received its contracts for the liquid fueled-Saturn V – still the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever put into operation – it began work on the motor casings for Aerojet General’s solid-fueled 260-SL, still the largest rocket ever constructed and tested. While NASA would ultimately favor the liquid-fueled Saturn V for the Apollo program, the 260-SL would contribute solid propellant technology eventually applied in the later Space Shuttle program.

The Aerojet General project in particular showed the aerospace industry that a shipbuilding workforce was capable of handling contracts in the field quickly overgrowing its own labor pool.

“The enormity of the casings alone made shipbuilders a natural for the job,” Sun Ship sales executive Robert Galloway told the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1964. “The Chester plant’s additional attractions were a waterfront location for shipment, a wide range of skills in welding and metallurgy, and a vast labor market plus the need for more work,” he said.

Sun Ship unveiled its entrance in the space race in Jan. 30, 1963 when a completed rocket casing for Aerojet went on display in the yard. The display went up in time to coincide with the American Rocket Society’s Solid Propellant Conference taking place in Philadelphia.

Designed without a specific government program in mind, Aerojet planned to use the case – measuring 23 feet in diameter, 60 feet long and weighs 94 tons – for a feasibility study on solid fuel rockets for long distance space projects.

The work at the yard had been quietly done over late 1962 to no media attention at the request of Aerojet. Sun Ship had previously constructed components for rocket installations and shipped rocket fuel, but the Aerojet project marked the first space vehicle work for Sun Ship and an industry first for a shipyard building a rocket chamber.

Charles Zeien, Sun Ship vice president of engineering, told the Times at the unveiling that while the project made up less than 1 percent of the work at the yard, it was completed in three months’ time. The work speed prompted commendations from Richard D. Gecker, vice president and manager of Aerojet’s Solid Rocket plant, which had awarded Sun Ship the contract based on its experience in building large steel structures and its access to water transportation. The size of the chamber meant it could only be shipped by water to the Sacramento, Cal.-based Aerojet’s newly opened plant in Dade County, Fla.

The U.S. Air Force soon awarded Aerojet a contract for solid fuel booster motors. “Our efforts in development work on Aerospace projects paid off on June 17 with the receipt of a multi-million dollar space contract,” Sun Ship’s house magazine Our Yard wrote in summer 1963. “The award came from Aerojet-General Corporation… for the fabrication of two large rocket motor cases. The full-scale motor cases will be 260 inches in diameter and about 60 feet long.”

In June 1964, the “Rocket Racket” column in “Our Yard” told employees “If you are strolling in the North Yard during the new few months and see those nine-story futuristic structures on the river side of the Rocket Fabrication Shop, they will be the 260-SL hydrotest stand and maraging furnace – not an exhibit for the World’s Fair. A view of the future in our own backyard and no admission fee required.” The ongoing rocket contracts meant more work in the tool design section and various shops throughout the yard, building “assorted types of sophisticated tools for fabricating the 260-SL rocket motors.”

By the time NASA budget cuts meant the end of the 260-SL contract with Aerojet in early 1965, the project had established the Aero-Hydro Space Division and set the course for Sun Ship’s experimental project work in shipbuilding, aero-hydrospace and industrial products that would continue until its 1982 closure.

“Our Yard” wrote in December 1965 “Add to the growing list of contract we have received for work which is entirely a result of the space age, one is the construction of two tubes for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” The yard produced the shock and expansion tubes for NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., for scientists to study airwaves created by rocket’s re-entry into the atmosphere and the effects of its heat and radiation.

“A look back over the flow of contracts in the past two or three years makes it evident that scientific progress in the conquest of space has created a good customer for us,” the article continued. “We can trace directly to the space industry about $3 million worth of business.”

Contracts in the 1960s included 36 main support girders for underground silos housing Titan ICBMs in Little Rock, Ark.; a 300,000-pound dead weight testing machine for the National Bureau of Standards for measuring high performance rockets’ thrust; fabrication of two wind tunnels for the Langley Research Center for testing aircraft and missiles with velocities from 10- to 20-times the speed of sound; a radio telescope yoke and counterweight for Associated American Universities; a dynamic escape simulator for the Franklin Institute; and the 12 Saturn V hold-down clamps.

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