TO THE MOON: Sanders was on ground floor of Apollo mission

Published 3:00 am Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Apollo Lunar Surface Drill (ALSD) was deployed on Apollo 15, 16 and 17. The system was designed to extract soil column samples and to create holes for emplacement of two probes into the lunar surface.

And, a young man from Goshen, Alabama, James M. Sanders, was the leader of the team that designed the drill bit that actually bit into the surface of the Moon. And, no, the moon was not cheese, Sanders said with a smile.

Sanders grew up in Goshen and early on displayed strong interest and abilities in math and science. He excelled in both subjects in school and was leaning in those directions after graduation. However, Uncle Sam wanted him and Sanders wanted to serve his country. He spent three years in the army and served in Korea during “the conflict.”

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After his military service, Sanders came home to Goshen and continued his education at Troy State College where he majored in science and business. After working in manufacturing and in civil service at Eglin Air Force Base, Sanders transferred to Houston, Texas in 1963, to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The decision Sanders and his wife, Louise, made to make the move to Houston proved to be a wise one. That decision placed the couple on the ground floor of the space program that would put a man on the Moon.

“When I got to Houston, I was working on a computer that was 100 yards square,” Sanders said. “Now, I have a computer in my pocket. I had the opportunity to work on the development of a package that would sit on the Moon, the ALSD.”

Sanders said the ALSD consisted of a cordless, battery-operated motor with specialized drill bits and modular core systems.

The ALSD was designed to drill into the surface of the Moon and extract soil samples, he said. “Each of the core stems was a hollow tube about two-feet in length,” Sanders said.
The rigid tubes were joined together and that would enable the astronauts to drill 10 feet into the Moon’s surface and collect soil samples.”

Sanders said the drill would collect soil samples at different depths so that properties of the lunar soil could be studied. The collected samples are helping to unravel some of the important questions in lunar science and astronomy, including what history and geologic features do the Moon and Earth have in common and what are the differences and what can the Moon tell about the rest of the solar system?

While working on the ALSD project, Sanders was often in close contact with the astronauts. He knew Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michal Collins personally. Not only did he work with the Apollo 11 astronauts, he also played rounds of golf with them. He also golfed with astronaut Alan Shepard, who was the first American to travel into space.

For Sanders, being in the presence of the astronauts and the many others involved with the space program was all in a day’s work.

On July 20, 1969, Sanders was on the scene when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

“I was in a control room separate from mission control,” Sanders said. “We all cheered. It was such an exciting moment for us, just as it was for all Americans. I was proud to be a part of something that made history. I was proud to be a small part of the United State space program.”

While in Houston and at NASA, James and Louise Sanders met many people who were a part the United States space program and attended many “splash down parties” as the space program soared.

But, when it was time to retire, they came back to Pike County, back home.

Today, they, like millions of Americans, will turn on their television to, once again, watch the familiar images of Neil Armstrong as he took man’s first step on the Moon. James M. Sanders of rural Pike County will take pride in having been a part of the space program that placed America number one in the space race and that ushered in the future.