Inside the Archives: WPP fabric traveled to the moon and back

Published 4:51 pm Monday, August 5, 2019

When the astronauts from Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, their command module landed nose first. Three flotation bags, made from fabric spun by the looms of WestPoint Pepperell, inflated with air, righting the module and keeping it afloat.

The historic journey of more than 950,000 miles round trip came to a successful close on July 24, 1969. More than 600 million people around the world watched Neil Armstrong make “one giant leap for mankind” as he became the first human to walk on the moon on July 20.

From the flotation bags to the spacesuits, advanced textiles made the moon landing a possibility. One local woman, Mrs. Sara Jean Ponder (now Mrs. Ector) made it her mission to understand the diverse and innovative uses of WestPoint Pepperell textiles.

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She debuted her knowledge at the West Point Rotary Club, as the guest speaker invited by the company president and CEO, Mr. Joe Lanier Sr. Extensive reading and research conducted at each of the local mills informed her every word. She became the “down-to-earth lady from outer space.” Beginning as a secretary in 1965, she worked her way to public relations assistant and then consumer programs specialist.

More speaking invitations followed the Rotary luncheon. Soon she presented at textile conferences, Ivy League universities and even the Smithsonian. Then, NASA called. “When NASA called me with a question about textiles – that’s when I knew we were in trouble,” Mrs. Sara Jean Ector joked.

Mrs. Ector’s research and reputation gained her VIP and press access to the 1972 Apollo launch at Cape Kennedy, Florida. On July 15, 1975, NASA presented her with a special citation honoring her “Outstanding Contributions to the Technology Utilization Program of NASA.”

A suitcase filled with samples, including a Ken doll outfitted in a homemade spacesuit, accompanied Mrs. Ector’s space age presentations. A miniature towel, smaller than a washcloth but with the absorbency of three towels, and a segment of rope used by NASA are currently on display in the “Exploring Alabama” bicentennial exhibit at the H. Grady Bradshaw-Chambers County Library.

The small sample fabrics show the breadth of scientific advancement some 50 years ago in 1969. An improved fabric had replaced nylon. Trademarked Nomex, the fire-resistant material protected astronauts and today shields firefighters. The flotation bags which the astronauts activated after the ocean landing led to the development of car safety air bags.

The moon landing accomplished more than winning the space race. The technological leaps made in the space program resulted in a better life on earth.

Commemorating this summer’s fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing serves as an opportunity to reflect on an apex of human achievement and as a reminder to keep looking up.

The space age fabrics are graciously on loan in the bicentennial exhibit for a limited amount of time. Take a few moments to see first-hand the innovative textiles that helped put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. To learn more about space age fabrics or share your memory of the 1969 moon landing, please contact Cobb Memorial Archives at (334) 768-2050 or email