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50 years ago, local firm made Space Age history; Designed regulator used on Friendship 7's flight

The anniversary Monday of John Glenn's historic spaceflight 50 years ago had a special meaning at Cobham Mission Systems Division in Orchard Park.

After all, Glenn owed his every breath during Friendship 7's flight -- becoming the first American to orbit the Earth -- to an oxygen pressure-regulator that was developed by George Ord, the co-founder of Carleton Technologies, which has since become part of Cobham.

It worked for Glenn, and the company has gone on to develop more elaborate systems to help U.S. astronauts breathe on every trip into space since then.

"Every single U.S. astronaut since Glenn -- every single one of them -- has breathed through our equipment," said Jan Robazza, a Cobham spokeswoman.

"It's been the standard for spacecraft breathing-regulators to this day," said David Smith, a Cobham design engineer who started at the Orchard Park company more than 45 years ago. "We've used the same technology right up to the present day."

A half-century ago, Ord's regulator was truly Space Age technology. His design had only a single stage, which made it lighter and less expensive than competing equipment, Smith said. In Friendship 7's cramped cabin, smaller was better.

The regulator that Ord invented effectively sealed the visor on the astronaut's helmet to prevent loss of oxygen from the suit. When an astronaut closed the visor, the regulator tripped the valve and allowed oxygen to flow from a very high pressure bottle so breathing was possible.

Ord's design beat seven other companies that were competing for the job from the California company, Air Research, that held a contract for part of the Mercury project.

Glenn's regulator now is on display in the lobby of Cobham's 300-employee Orchard Park plant. How it got there is a story in itself, Smith said.

In the midst of the space shuttle program, Ord, who died in January at age 94, took a trip with his wife, Barbara, to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

While he was there, he saw Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard's spacesuit, so Ord asked a Smithsonian worker if they had John Glenn's spacecraft. The worker told Ord that Friendship 7 was in the back being prepared for display. Ord told the worker he designed the capsule's pressure-regulator and asked if he could see the capsule. A supervisor took him back to see it, and Ord met the technician who was restoring the spacecraft.

"George asked the technician if the breathing-regulator still was attached to the seat," Smith said.

It was, so Ord asked if he could have it, Smith said. A few twists of the technician's wrench later, Ord had the regulator, and it was on its way back to Orchard Park.

"George loved to tell that story," Smith said.