50 Years Ago - Ulbrich Steel and the Space Race


It was 1969 – when the Civil Rights Movement reached its apex, when the Vietnam War raged on, when Rolling Stone magazine published its first issue, when Star Trek first aired on television, and when NASA began to launch manned rockets towards the Moon. The 1960’s brought about great technological change, especially due to a curiosity with space travel and because of the innovations by American manufacturers like Ulbrich. 50 years ago, at a critical juncture in American history, Ulbrich Stainless Steels & Special Metals, Inc. – the “Biggest Little Steel Mill in the Country” was already adept in the milling and conversion of metal alloys.

As the United States competed with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a highly publicized “Space Race” for ensued technological and political supremacy. NASA was given a mission set by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, as part of his inauguration speech: to perform a lunar landing with an American crew and return to Earth. Eight years later, with the help of Ulbrich Steel, Apollo 11 took off for the Moon. Ulbrich was part of an American manufacturing effort rising to the occasion in support of manned space travel.

Before becoming a critical cog in NASA’s supply chain, Ulbrich was fulfilling an important steel manufacturing market niche – highly specialized, smaller quantities. Steel companies known as melt mills such as U.S. Steel and Allegheny Ludlum traded high volumes of steel and dealt in larger quantities. They sold stainless steel on 10,000 pound coils – too many pounds for small manufacturers to convert, form and keep in their inventory. Practical applications for thin gauge metals grew and demand for small quantity orders also increased. Ulbrich bought large quantity coils in various sizes and gauges, then milled and slit the material to narrow widths and even smaller gauges for customers.

By 1969, Ulbrich’s customized approach made the company a prime candidate from which “original equipment manufacturers” like United Technologies, Hamilton Standard, Grumman Aircraft, North American Rockwell, Collins Aerospace and others could purchase small quantities of stainless steel and special metals like titanium. Ulbrich often developed trial orders with customers so that every aspect of the material could be tested and re-tested. Eventually, the correct specifications were met and specialty metals including nickel and titanium alloys were purchased by major manufacturers for state-of-the-art devices and top-secret aerospace projects.

On July 20, 1969, all of America’s industrial advances were on display when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. The feat was accomplished using precision milled steel and specialty metal supplied by Ulbrich. Customers such as United Technologies and Hamilton Standard formed the metal into interstellar components. 300 pounds of thin precision strip stainless steel and titanium supplied by Ulbrich was utilized in numerous applications aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft.

Applications included seals, bellows and apparatuses for the landing gear of the Lunar Module (LM) nicknamed “Eagle” – the first crewed vehicle to land on the Moon. Ulbrich metal was also in the Command and Service Module (CSM) referred to as “Columbia” – the propulsion unit that towed the Lunar Module through space. On the outer structure of the CSM was a heatshield made up of stainless steel brazed honeycomb for which Ulbrich supplied the raw material. In other areas of the mission to the Moon, Ulbrich had a hand in manufacturing oxygen and fuel tanks, mechanical clamps, and even components of the manned spacesuits.

The Apollo 11 spacecraft carried astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins on their historic, first voyage to the Moon and back from July 16 to July 24, 1969. On the day of liftoff, the Ulbrich Family, Fred Sr. and his wife Ada, Fred Jr. and Dick Ulbrich attended an official viewing in Cape Canaveral. “There were several thousand of us, about a mile and a half away,” Fred Ulbrich Jr. once recalled. “We were in the bleachers. They made us wear goggles and made sure we didn’t look when it went off, and that was quite a thrill.”

Ulbrich was perhaps the least known metal supplier to have concocted solutions for the Apollo missions. Precision metal was critical to the spacecraft and Ulbrich continued to supply metal for components of future Apollo spacecraft such as the next successful moon landing in 1971. The achievement is a testament to the extensive capabilities of Ulbrich as a rolling mill and to its high quality, precision products. This story of success is also tribute to the craftsmanship and professionalism of working men and women at the company throughout its lifespan.

All articles