• 15.07.2019
  • Success story

A piece of Bern, Switzerland, on the moon

RUAG Space employee Jürg Meister contributed significantly to the success of the solar wind sail experiment of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission of 1969.

"I personally brought the solar wind sail in my hand luggage to the U.S.A." That was 50 years ago, when Jürg Meister, now a sprightly man in his 80’s, boarded the plane to Florida with his valuable cargo and increased pulse rate.

Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on the moon with the solar wind sail of the University of Bern 1969 ©NASA

Many years and hundreds of hours of work were invested in a small piece of pipe, which was scheduled to continue its journey to the moon after his flight to the United States.

It was not planned that Jürg Meister would become one of the most important people in the solar wind sail project of the University of Bern. After completing his degree, he took up an assistant position in the field of meteorite research. However, that was not 100% his passion. When the professors Johannes Geiss, Peter Eberhardt and Peter Signer had a vacancy in the laboratory, one did not have to ask Meister twice. He immediately agreed to his dream job and was able to put all his energy into the solar wind sail project.
Picture: ©NASA

Like firing a shotgun at a tree
The mission of the solar wind sail experiment was to measure the composition of the solar wind. In order to obtain values as accurate as possible, the capture of the solar wind on the moon was simulated in the laboratory. Meister and his colleagues accelerated noble gas ions to 300 to 400 km/s and shot them at a piece of aluminium. To extract the noble gases, the aluminium foil was then melted and analyzed in a mass spectrometer. This made it possible to find out how many of the ions were lost when they hit the foil. With the data obtained, it was possible to calculate the composition of the solar wind. "It's like a hunter shooting at a tree with shot and counting the bullets that get stuck in the bark and those that lie on the ground. The charged particles in space move in a stream, hit the sail, penetrate the surface and get stuck or bounce off. With the shots in the lab, we wanted to find out how many "bullets" got stuck and how many got lost," Meister said.

The impossible made possible
Almost as challenging as the measurement of the noble gases was the construction of the solar sail itself. As the astronauts did not want to do any geological work on the moon and left their hammer on earth, there was enough space for the solar wind sail. The challenge now was to construct something that could weigh a maximum of 452 grams (weight of the hammer), so that an astronaut could unroll in his spacesuit and thick gloves, and yet be so stable that it could survive the trip from Bern to the moon. The result was an extendable telescopic leg that contained the rolled up foil. Astronaut Don Lind came to the aid of the Swiss inventors. He explained to Meister and his colleagues the astronaut's perspective of how it feels to want to set something up in an astronaut's suit, practically without freedom of movement and with limited visibility. He tested the prototype and gave tips for improvements. In the end they managed to produce a solar wind sail that NASA thought was good to go for the Apollo 11 mission.

Copy of the solar wind sail that stood on the moon in 1969 at the Apollo 11 Misson

Transport of the solar wind sail in hand luggage
Jürg Meister himself was allowed to bring "his" solar wind sail to the U.S.A. There were some hurdles to overcome, but in the end, he carried it in his hand luggage. Once on the plane it was immediately taken from him, locked up and handed back only to him when he got off the plane. That was in May 1969. Meister was not able to stay in the U.S. for the launch – but he experienced this back in the coffee breakroom of the research laboratory in Bern. It took another three days for the astronauts to land on the moon. Meister learned via telephone from professor Geiss that the solar sail was set up successful. Geiss was on site and had access to an adjoining room of NASA's control room. "No, I was never afraid that the experiment might go wrong. We had tested everything hundreds of times, nothing could go wrong," says Meister. And so it was. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin successfully put the solar sail into the moon’s surface before the American flag was hoisted. It stayed there for 77 minutes and caught solar wind, which was evaluated after returning in Bern.

50 years of moon landing 40 years of RUAG
Shortly after the successful solar wind sail experiment, Meister and his wife Susanne moved to the United States for six years where he conducted research at a private university in Houston. Back in Switzerland, he returned to the University of Bern before taking up a new position at what is now RUAG in Thun. For 25 years he devoted himself to the development of hollow charges of armor-piercing ammunition, among other things. Even after his retirement, he remained loyal to RUAG. Today, Jürg Meister can still be found every Tuesday at the RUAG Ammotec ammunition exhibition in Thun. There he guides interested groups through the exhibition by appointment, shows and explains the various types of ammunition used or produced by the Swiss Army. And he is still drawn to the world and space. Thanks to their good health, Susanne and Jürg Meister continue to travel all over the world, including this past spring when they were invited to the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C. to attend a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Apollo 11 is a space mission within the Apollo program of the U.S. space agency NASA and was the first manned space flight with a moon landing. The three NASA astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins launched onboard a Saturn V rocket from Launch Complex 39A of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 16 July 1969 and reached moon orbit on 19 July. The next day, 20 July, while Collins remained behind in the command module of the Columbia spacecraft, Armstrong and Aldrin took the Eagle lunar lander module down to the lunar surface. A few hours later, Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the moon, followed shortly afterwards by Aldrin. After a nearly 22-hour stay, the Lunar Module took off from the lunar surface and returned to the mother ship. The Apollo 11 mission included the Swiss-engineered solar wind sail experiment developed by the University of Bern, the only non-American experiment in which the solar wind was captured and evaluated back in Bern.