It’s easy to imagine Frank Buff and Joe Szezechowicz feeling proud as they watched Neil Armstrong step through the lunar module hatch and onto the surface of the moon 50 years ago. Nothing unusual there, as most of the 200 million Americans who were watching the moon landing on TV on July 20, 1969 were feeling a sense of pride.
But for Buff and Szezechowicz, the feeling was enhanced because the hatch Armstrong climbed out of was their handiwork. They, and dozens of other workers at Ashley Machine & Tool on Shoemaker Avenue in West Wyoming, built the hatches for the Apollo spacecraft and lunar excursion module.
Ashley Machine is still there on Shoemaker Avenue, but the passage of a half century has erased any trace of the company’s role in what has been called the greatest technological feat in human history.
John Zimniski, the Ashley maintenance manager, has been there 42 years. He is the nephew of the business’ original owner, the late Joe Ashley.
“I was only 13 in ‘69,” he said. “I used to come here quite a bit. I knew a lot of the guys and my father worked here for a little while, but the photos, files, are all gone.”
Zimniski said his father, who is 92, recalls stenciling “LEM” for lunar excursion module on hatch packing crates. Zimniski also recalls Buff telling him he visited the space center in Houston and saw the Ashley stamp on one of the hatches on display.
Ashley built two different hatches, a round one connecting the Apollo spacecraft and the LEM and the 33-inch square exit hatch. They were precision made without modern computer technology. Some measurements were down to one-20,000th of an inch. To eliminate the need for welds, the hatches, which weighed 7 pounds, 8 ounces, were made from individual 400-pound blocks of aluminum.
The work was subcontracted through Grumman Aircraft, today Northrop-Grumman on Long Island. The contract called for 40 hatches, 20 of each kind. The work took two years.
Zimniski recalls hearing about the testing.
“There were underwater tests and explosions,” he said.
Ashley was founded in 1945. Ashley, and it’s subsidiary WIPCO, are prime subcontractors for Northrop-Grumman. Ashley has made parts for, to name just a few aircraft, the Black Hawk helicopters, B-1 Bombers, the F-14 Tomcat, the Boeing commercial 700 series jets and the Boeing 767 Refueling Tanker.
Today, Ashley has more than 50,000 square feet of production facility with 37 employees. Prime customers are Vought Aircraft, Kaman Aerospace, Northrop Grumman, GKN Aerospace, CPI Aerospace and Goodrich Aerospace. The current owner is John Mulhern.
Zimniski said the only surviving memorabilia associated with the LEM hatches he is aware of are the original two-dimensional templates. They are framed and displayed in a Luzerne County home. Citing privacy, the homeowner declined to be interviewed for this story.