As the Apollo 11 astronauts hurtled toward their historic galactic rendezvous 50 years ago this week, some industrial ingenuity from South Carolina went along for the ride of the century.

The local engineering know-how included a durable, heat-resistant composite — one of the first Earth-made products to ever make contact with the surface of the moon some 239,000 miles away.

Developed by researchers at a North Charleston manufacturer, the fire-resistant additive known as Refset was built into the soles and heels of the NASA crew's spacesuits. Also, various hoses and communication cables were coated with the compound for the daring eight-day lunar mission. 

"It will not support combustion, even in a 100% oxygen atmosphere," manufacturer Raybestos-Manhattan crowed in a Charleston newspaper advertisement just days after the world's first successful moonshot.

The "one small step for man" tie-in was a huge source of pride for a business that traced its local beginnings to the late 1890s, when Samuel Hughes set up shop on Pritchard Street to make heat-resistant asbestos packings for a nearby manufacturer of steam-fired engines and pumps.

By 1910, new owners added a textile division and renamed it General Asbestos and Rubber Co., or Garco. They relocated from the peninsula to what is now the fringe of North Charleston's trendy Park Circle area.

Raybestos Industries arrived on the scene from Connecticut in 1924, when it bought the business. Five years later, it combined the South Carolina factory with the Manhattan Rubber Co. to form Raybestos-Manhattan, though the deeply ingrained Garco name would stick around for decades to come.

Apollo 11 wasn't the North Charleston plant's first encounter with the American space program. Other Garco-made fire-proof fabrics and other protective technologies flew on least four previous NASA launches, starting with the unmanned Apollo 6 in April 1968.

Refset was the most famous of the bunch. Described as "tough rubbery material" in a 1969 newspaper report, its name was short for "Raybestos Elastomer For Space Exploration and Travel."

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.


The composite made its real-world debut with Apollo 9, assisting in the safe return of the three astronauts during the scorching re-entry stage.

"It performs its role in the heat shield of the command module and is one of several Raybestos-Manhattan products protecting vital spacecraft and engine parts," the newspaper report continued. 

Factory at Garco .jpg (copy)

The site of the old Garco manufacturing plant in North Charleston is being redeveloped into apartments and other commercial real estate uses. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

NASA also used Refset once the Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins splashed down in the Pacific. The material covered the inside of the quarantine trailer where they lived in isolation for three weeks after their return.

It's doesn't appear Refset is still in use, at least under that trade name, and its creator is long gone. The late Charleston industrialist Jerry Zucker acquired Raybestos-Manhattan with a partner in 1982 and renamed its RM Industrial Products — and later RM Engineered Products — before selling it to a British firm in 1993. The remnants of the company went bankrupt in 2001 under yet another owner.

As for Garco, its name is still associated with the space industry, though not the stargazing variety. Its old factory site near O'Hear and Virginia avenues in North Charleston is being redeveloped into apartments, retail stores, offices and other terrestrial real estate uses.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572 or follow him on Twitter at @byjohnmcdermott