Project Egress Statement

As part of the Project Egress collaboration with Adam Savage and The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11, we were asked to write a short statement about the project.  Here is ours.

John Saunders (NYC CNC / Saunders Machine Works) Progress Egress Statement

I was in San Francisco, standing in line at an Autodesk Virtual Reality exhibit.  Uncertain what the headset would show, I struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to me.  Shortly into our conversation he asked, “What was mankind’s most significant achievement of the 20th century?”  I fumbled my words and, perhaps from embarrassment, do not recall what I said.  His answer: the Apollo 11 mission.  Perhaps my nervousness was justified. This man was Brian Mathews, a member of the team that scanned the Apollo 11 Command Module and created this virtual reality exhibit that allowed spectators to experience the Apollo 11 Command Module from the same perspective as the astronauts.

From that moment on, I binged on all things Apollo; from Wikipedia articles to Netflix shows and everything in between. Then I came across HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon” – possibly one of the most underrated shows of all time. The 5th episode captivated me, watching as the team at Grumman brainstormed, prototyped, and faced seemingly impossible hurdles to build the Lunar Module.

Fast forward to May, I received an email that read, “We are searching for collaborators on an upcoming build project that involves machining complex parts for a scale replica of an important piece of NASA history.”

I thought someone was pranking me.  When I realized this was not a joke and I looked at the project part drawings, I thought, “Are we capable of making these parts? Can we machine them by the July deadline?”

The team at Savage Industries had tasked us with the Hatch Gearbox, a complex mechanism with over 30 parts used to open and close the Command Module hatch.  A hatch that represented the crew’s last direct contact with planet earth – and their first contact upon a successful mission completion.

This past Christmas, my wife and I took our five year old son, William, and two year old daughter, Jane, to Washington D.C.  William and I had just built the LEGO Saturn V kit and I beamed with pride when he recognized iconic Apollo artifacts at the National Air and Space Museum.   As a father, you endeavor to foster an early interest in anything making, building, or engineering.

Back at Saunders Machine Works, the team and I spread out the dozens of prints for the gearbox. Knowing these parts were designed with slide rules and made on manual machines, I wondered, “How did they do it?” I cannot imagine the intricate setups and fixturing used to achieve the detail and precision.

I wanted to know: who originally built these parts?  Where were these parts made?  A Google search lead to photos of the factory in Downey, California where North American Aviation built the Command Module and many other NASA spacecraft.  Seeing the machines, the room, the people responsible for building such spacecraft humanized these amazing feats.


Diving In

We gathered around our conference table.  Ed, Jared, Alex, and I divvied up the parts, deciding which person and CNC machine would tackle each.

Our machining experience helped us with the workholding, tooling, and speeds and feeds. But the key for Project Egress was our ability to work as a team; consulting, planning, and troubleshooting together.   We then each acted as surgeons, focused individually and solely on the accuracy and detail of an individual part, later convening with others to test fit and watch the gearbox take shape.  We made parts using 3-axis, 4-axis, and 5-axis CNC machines as well as a laser and 3D printers. There are no words to explain how it feels to hold the finished Gearbox –only enormous smiles of pride.  A sense of accomplishment that transcends any of us individually.

To me, Apollo 11 represents the culmination of knowledge, skills, resources, technology, and the determination to achieve an almost unthinkable human feat.  On a smaller and much more humble scale, that mirrors our experience. Machining this replica piece was a test for our team to put our heads together to achieve a goal we thought may be too difficult.

In a world where so much can be had with a mere mouse click and debit card, the Apollo 11 mission is proof that it takes more than money to succeed. You cannot Amazon Prime a Saturn V Rocket.  It took a deep roster and multi-generational talent pool of machinists, engineers, material scientists, and thousands of others who challenged themselves to be the best in their fields and collaborate on the largest project in human history.

The North American Aviation plant in Downey, California no longer holds the future of aerospace manufacturing. Left in its place stands a shopping center; a metaphoric and literal sign of the change in times. Yet we stand proud alongside other makers and entrepreneurs as part of the manufacturing renaissance. We aim to inspire younger generations just as we have been inspired by those before us.

I feel honored that, in some small way, we are helping celebrate the most significant achievement of the 20th century.   We are proud highlight to this past era – an era that we, as a society, should study and remember not because it is the past but because it should also represent our future.

The Smithsonian now holds our ever-so-small contribution but a very large part of our hearts. I look forward to returning to the museum with William and Jane in hopes that they, and others, are inspired to pursue one of the many paths that will lead to wonderful achievements in the 21st century.


John Saunders
July 1, 2019