Max Kurbjun arrived in Hampton in 1946. An engineer who studied high-speed airplanes, he knew nothing about space travel.

That would change.

Kurbjun and fellow researchers at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory performed some of the earliest research to help the United States land a man on the moon in 1969.

"We didn't even know what an orbit was," said Kurbjun, an 84-year-old resident of Yorktown.

The lab was run by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, an agency created during World War I. Its mission was to develop more sophisticated airplanes than those of Europe.

The objective continued into the 1950s, even as a team of 100 or so engineers dabbled with the idea of space travel while working with rockets. There was neither the money, nor the manpower to support a full-scale space program, Kurbjun said.

"We had very, very limited finances," he said. "We did things for peanuts our biggest shopping center was Garden City Junk Yard."

He recalled buying a handful of hydraulic motors that the Navy had scrapped. They used the parts to build experimental rockets.

That began to change in 1957, when the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite. Space travel, once dismissed by skeptics, became a national priority.

"We were being outrun by the Russians," said Ed Kilgore, an engineer who arrived at Langley in 1944.

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which absorbed NACA and assumed control of Langley.

The facility became home to the NASA Space Task Group, which conceived and directed Project Mercury, the nation's first effort to send a man into space.

Kilgore participated in numerous projects, including firing test rockets from Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore, which propelled Mercury forward.

The rockets helped researchers determine how to build a spacecraft that would safely re-enter the Earth's atmosphere a feat previously inconceivable.

"We proved it was possible at Wallops," said Kilgore, who now lives in Newport News.

Kurbjun was there, too. He was in charge of locating the spacecraft during its descent and preventing it from sinking into the ocean.

The two also got to know the Mercury 7 the nation's first astronauts who trained at Langley. Six of the seven lived in either Hampton or Newport News during the early 1960s.

Officially headquartered in Washington, D.C., most of NASA's leading scientists were based at Langley. Among them were Max Faget, Christopher Kraft and Robert R. Gilruth, who led the Space Task Group.

"Langley was the big cheese they had a big pool of intelligence there," said James R. Hansen, a former NASA historian who has written about Langley.

Its role diminished in 1962, the year John Glenn became the first American in space, as many leading engineers left Langley to start what is now the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Nevertheless, Langley remained an important research center.

For example, its researchers directed the Lunar Orbiter Project, which mapped the moon's surface in the mid-1960s. Photographs debunked the theory that the moon's surface was covered with several feet of dust.

Kilgore was among the engineers to first view the images, which were taken by a high-powered camera circling the moon from 40 miles away.

"We got pictures of the moon nobody else even thought about," he said.

The project was imperative to NASA's next step: building a spacecraft to land on the moon.

Its design was the subject of heated debate, one that was ultimately won by the persistence of a stubborn but brilliant NASA Langley engineer.

Astronaut visits on Monday

Astronaut Susan Kilrain will meet with the public from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Monday at the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton. Her visit coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. The appearance of Kilrain, a veteran of two space flights, is part of a series of events and features at the space center.

Until Monday, the space center will knock $1 off the admission cost to anyone who says "Apollo" when buying a ticket. From Saturday to Monday, the first 500 guests will receive a free MoonPie.

The space center will also host daily Apollo-themed science demonstrations from noon to 4 p.m. until Monday.