Exactly 50 years ago on July 20th 1969, the world heard these famous words as Neil Armstrong lowered onto the surface of the Moon: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

This week we have seen a tremendous amount of media coverage given to the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo moon landing.

In the background to this successful mission was the work done by Marshall with Tom Bacon to develop the fuel cells which went on to power the moon landings – the same technology which is being used today to develop fuel cells for cars.

It is often overlooked but Marshall worked on a contract in the 1950’s, here in Cambridge (on the North Works in Hangar 6, in one of the bays now used as a workshop by MMG), with Tom Bacon to develop the fuel cells which produced the power and water for the Apollo space missions.  Whilst Marshall were only involved in an early stage of this project (Pratt & Whitney then took it to the final stage), it is recognised that the work done here by Marshall and Tom Bacon made it possible.  Indeed, the best quote on the subject came from President Nixon at the time who put his arm round Tom Bacon’s shoulder and said “Tom, without you we would not have gotten to the moon.”

Below is the relevant extract from Sir Arthur Marshall’s book (p.275/6) which tells the full story.

Extract from The Marshall Story by Sir Arthur Marshall

“Our many contacts with the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) and their first-hand experience of our capabilities stood us in good stead when the question of work on the Bacon Fuel Cell arose.  A fuel cell is a piece of equipment which, fed with hydrogen and oxygen or some other gases or liquids, produces electricity.

Francis Thomas (Tom) Bacon lived near Cambridge and his life’s work was the development of fuel cells.  The NRDC decided to support further development of his work and a contract was established whereby Tom would provide the technical input and team up with Marshall with the object of developing a reliable, automatically controlled fuel cell to generate higher power than the lighting of a few bulbs which had previously been achieved under laboratory conditions.  This was an exciting and challenging project. The Company (Marshall) appointed John Frost Project Manager responsible to John Huntridge (Joint Managing Director).  After two-and-a-half years’ work, on Monday 25th August 1959 we demonstrated to those interested in fuel cells, including the Press, a fuel cell with an output of six kilowatts driving a forklift and a circular saw and providing power for arc welding.  This unit was not commercially viable but it was one stage closer to a practical solution than anything that had been achieved before.

The principles of Tom Bacon’s fuel cell as developed at Cambridge were further developed by Pratt & Whitney of America and used in the Apollo moon landing in 1969 for which the fuel cell provided electrical energy and, from the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, water for drinking and humidification.  I posed the question to Keith Williams, who was writing on behalf of the Royal Society a biographical memoir on the late Tom Bacon’s work, “Would the Apollo moon mission have been possible but for Tom’s life’s work and his work with us at Cambridge?”  Keith Williams replied that he could not do better than to record Tom quoting the occasion when President Nixon put his arm around his shoulder and said, “Tom, without you we would not have gotten to the moon.”

Pratt & Whitney wrote to Tom after the successful Apollo flight congratulating him on the part his fuel cells had played in the mission and recording that the three fuel cells were one hundred percent reliable.  The electrical energy used during the mission was of the order of 400 kilowatt hours.”

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