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The Donegal doctor who helped put man on the moon

‘I am rather proud of being a small detail in what was a really huge machine’

FIFTY years ago today the world held its breath as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepared to step on to the surface of the moon.

In one Donegal household the knuckles were whiter than most though as the two astronauts made their now historic giant leap.

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Dr Peter James Coyle BSC PhD, the son of Mountcharles woman Florence Dunleavy, was production manager for Dow Chemicals, the American company responsible for developing a material used in the space flight and which advanced the ambitious project by several years.

So instrumental in the first lunar landing was Peter Coyle that in the months after the successful mission the American Defence Attaché to Dublin, Colonel Joseph F O’Connor, travelled to Donegal to honour Ms Dunleavy for the part her son played in the Apollo 11 project.

Now aged 81, Dr Coyle says that while he was a “small cog in a very big wheel”, he remains proud of the part he played in putting man on the moon.

“It isn’t something I wake up every morning thinking about but yes, I am rather proud of being a small detail in what was a really huge machine,” he said.

The grandson of William Hemmersbach, once one of the best known hoteliers in Donegal and former owner of the Drumbeg Hotel, Peter Coyle attended Keelogs National School in Inver before moving to Kildare and Newbridge Dominican College as a boarder. In 1955 he gained a scholarship to University College, Dublin, and on securing a BSc Honours Degree there moved to Leeds University where he obtained a PhD in radiation chemistry.

How Dr Coyle looked in the Donegal News back in 1969.

Along with a pal, Dr Graham Bingham, Dr Coyle moved to America to continue his education at the School of Chemistry, University of Minnesota. While Dr Bingham was assigned to conducting ‘shaker tests’ on the lunar module, Dr Coyle began exploring how to capture light in deep space. A complex process, his work centred on how to generate energy and power batteries in space using the sun’s rays.

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In 1964, three years after John F Kennedy had committed to putting man on the moon before the decade’s end, Dr Coyle joined Dow Chemicals. There he was appointed technical specialist with responsibility for 3,000 workers in the company’s Michigan Headquarters.

“I did various things before becoming manager of its epoxy business. Kennedy had already announced that he wanted to go to the moon but by 1968 we were seven years in and there was still a big problem – how to get the craft through the earth’s atmosphere with three astronauts on board when it is burning at around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty hot,” Dr Coyle told the Donegal News.

In a bid to overcome the problem scientists set about examining a chemical process called ‘sputtering’ which they hoped would balance the space capsule’s temperature long enough to get it to the moon and back safely.

As part of that process, Dr Coyle’s company was asked to come up with a resin able to resist the inhospitable atmosphere of outer space. Under the Inver man’s guidance, Dow designed Epoxy Novolac, a highly chemical resistant coating which was applied to the outer casing of the space capsule.

On July 16 1969, Peter Coyle along with hundreds of millions of people around the world drew a deep breath as the Apollo 11 Saturn V space vehicle blasted off from Cape Canaveral.

The moment of truth, 50 years ago this week.

“I was in Midland, Michigan, watching it on television and I think the entire US must have come to a stop. Everyone was so happy when it got up because we thought something was going to go wrong, that it would explode in the pit or something. We didn’t have a reliable history at that time and quite a few astronauts had lost their lives previously. It was dangerous every step of the way.”

Fifty years on and Dr Coyle says he has never got sick of watching the footage of Neil Armstrong take that historic step for mankind.

“I am proud, I’m proud of the astronauts and all the people involved, I’m proud of NASA and all those at the various corporations who delivered because what they were working with at that time, the technology was so primitive. The iPhone that people carry around with them today is way more powerful than what was available back then.

“And of course we knew very little about space. It was like when Columbus went to the Americas, he crossed this vast sea that had never been mapped. Obviously we knew where the moon was but the physical process of getting us there and the capabilities of the machinery and controls we had, it was all so primitive.”

It took between 300,000 and 400,000 people to put the first men on the moon. The real heroes of the story though, according to Dr Peter Coyle, are those who actually landed there.

“I’m always very happy to look at the footage but I would encourage people to go and look up the three astronauts who went to the moon because they are the real heroes. They stepped inside this fiery mass and travelled 28,000 kilometres into space. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, they were the real heroes.”

In a poignant footnote to the Donegal man’s story, in recognition of his contribution to the lunar landing a special ceremony was held in the Four Masters Cinema, Donegal Town, in November, 1969.

Colonel Joseph F O’Connor said he wanted to personally thank Ms Florence Dunleavy for the part her son played in the Apollo 11 project. In attendance were Mrs Rita Mullan and Mrs P Tierney, both former teachers of the Inver scientist.

Presenting Ms Dunleavy with a small cheque, Colonel O’Connor said the people of Donegal should be proud of their boy.

He told the hundreds of wide-eyed young people gathered, “Who knows, perhaps another Donegal boy, maybe in this very audience, is also destined to play a major part in future space projects.”

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