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Unsung Hero

Jim Bigham, kneeling, second from left, leads NASA officials through the workings of the lunar landing training vehicle his team designed. Kneeling, far left, is Neil Armstrong, who took the lessons from the vehicle to the moon. /Photo courtesy of James Bigham

Fifty-one years after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, the Apollo 11 mission remains a defining moment for stargazers and space enthusiasts nationwide. But for one Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, the moon landing was even more than that. It was a career highlight that still feels impressive a half a century later.

You couldn’t land a spacecraft on the moon without first learning how to do it, and that’s where Jim Bigham came in. He was the project manager in charge of designing and building the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV), which Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts used to prepare for the historic mission.  The vehicle proved to be vital to the moon landing’s success, with astronaut Bill Anders calling it “a much unsung hero of the Apollo program.”

“If you think about it,” Bigham says, “landing a man on another body in the universe was unique to the history of manned exploration.” NASA officials originally planned for the landing to be fully automated, but Bigham and the astronauts objected. “There was no way,” he remembers thinking. “We knew we had to have some real-world training here on Earth.”

The road from Mt. Lebanon to NASA was a winding one for Bigham. He graduated from Mt. Lebanon High in 1949, playing on the school’s golf team and in a local amateur hockey league. Bigham studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue University and became an Air Force fighter pilot. The Korean War ended before he was called to duty, so Bigham served his time in Germany as a flight instructor.

After returning to Pittsburgh in 1956 to work as a sales engineer for the Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corporation, Bigham discovered he didn’t much enjoy the job and plotted a return to aviation. In 1958, he joined the Boeing Company in Seattle, where he designed a wide range of aircraft.

In the meantime, Bigham’s parents had moved to Houston, where he would visit them periodically. He became fascinated by NASA’s Apollo Program, so upon receiving a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the University of Washington in 1965, he applied for a job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. He was put in charge of the LLTV.

The mission of landing on the moon itself posed a host of unique challenges, including reduced gravity, the lack of any atmosphere, an unprepared landing space and limited amounts of fuel. In fact, Armstrong only had 14 seconds of fuel left when he touched down. “And above all,” Bigham adds, “there was no possible chance of rescue if there was an accident.”

NASA allocated $7 million toward the training vehicle—equivalent to $57.8 million today—and as Bigham and his team worked on it, they understood the stakes were high. “We knew if we didn’t succeed it would have serious implications for the future of space travel,” he says. “And, at the time, when Russia appeared to be ahead of us with Sputnik, it terrified people. They were terrified of the implications of the Russians putting into orbit things that might attack the United States. We had to respond to that. Which we did very successfully and left the Russians in the dust.”

Subsequently, six further Apollo teams—all trained on the LLTV—made trips to the  moon. Bigham later detailed his time at NASA and his relationship with Armstrong in the short book, A Much Unsung Hero: The Lunar Landing Training Vehicle. Later projects included working on the Shuttle Training Aircraft for the Space Shuttle missions. He retired from NASA in 1989 and now lives in San Antonio. His wife of 47 years passed away a few years back, and he’s spending his days during the Coronavirus pandemic reading history books and trying to exercise as much as he can. As for his place in space-travel history, he says it was really just “a matter of luck.”

“Aeronautical engineering is highly specialized,” he points out. “But my background as a pilot and my degree in stability and control and flexible structures was exactly what was needed at the time. It was just luck that I had the right background for it.”