Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Roy Neal
Houston, Texas – 27 April 1999
Rolling? Okay. We’re rolling. And just for identification, first
of all, I’ll tell everybody that we are now on the campus at
the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. I am Roy Neal and with
me is Jack Kinzler. And you’re going to find out all about him.
By the way, if we seem to be in space, it’s the result of an
arduous effort on the part of our crew, who have been working very
hard to give you a proper background, the explanation of which will
come later in the course of this interview. Right, Jack?
Okay. Now let us then get ready to roll through all those years. How
many years was it when you first came aboard NACA [National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics] (not NASA)?
1941. March of ’41. And the way I came aboard was as a model
maker, as well as a friend of mine, Caldwell [C.] Johnson. We lived
in various cities and heard that the government was hiring employees
to actually build models for wind tunnel research. And here I had
spent probably from age 12 until 25 or so building competitive models;
and it was, you know, very interesting to me in the aeronautics field.
So, I had an opportunity, and I filed an application, got a call to
come down to [NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory] Hampton,
Virginia, and take a interview. And I’ll never forget the day.
It was such a wonderful thing for me to get hired to build models—my
hobby, my life’s hobby—and get paid for it! So, that’s
how things started, Roy. I just was one of those lucky guys who came
into the business through aeronautics, through our hobby in aviation.
You said you started in 1941?
As World War II was really getting under way for these United States.
Does that mean you were working on some wartime projects during that
Yes, it does. I worked in the machine shop at the time on Langley
Field Base. And they had various secret projects for the military,
for the war, including advanced designed airplanes that were still
in the development stage. And so they gave we employees secret ratings;
and whenever the draft boards in our local neighborhoods tried to
call us up, all we had to do was go over to the draft officer in NACA
and tell him, “We’ve got a call. What do we do?”
And he says, “Well, just take your time. Don’t worry about
it.” He says, “You’re not going anywhere.”
So, as a result of that, we were put in the Air Corps enlisted reserve.
We did have to board a bus and go up to Richmond, Virginia, and take
physicals and go through all these steps that you would as a draftee.
But upon the completion of the physical test and everything else,
the colonel (or whoever it was) there said, “Okay, fellows,
you’re heading back to work at Langley Field.” So, that’s
how that came about.
And then one day the National Advisory [Committee for] Aeronautics
became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
It had a new role. And that, of course, meant that your life changed
considerably, didn’t it, Jack?
Very much so. And it’s kind of an interesting thing to talk
about because, as a young fellow working in the shops, I was across
the street from the department where [Robert R.] Bob Gilruth had his
facilities: the PARD (Pilotless Aircraft Research Division). And you
know, I’m sure, of Bob’s activities. But I’ll leave
that go for now. But as one of the employees over there, I had developed
a kind of a lot contacts because I was in charge of a group of 10
men as a subgroup of the shops and we would go out to the test facilities,
install the precision models, and do modifications as required around
the space—around the Center.
So, I got to be well-known and whenever they—Bob decided he
was going to start a Space Task Group, he went to my superiors and
he said, “I’d like to have at least one of your people
who could come with me and develop a similar facility like we have
here at Langley.” And then he called me and he said, “Jack,
would you like to work over in the space program with me?” And
I said, “By all means!” I had been reading books about
spaceflight and listened to some of the lectures that were available
at the time, and I was primed, ready to jump onboard whenever he asked
Still a very young man, of course, too.
Yes, I was quite young then.
So, the Space Task Group reached out and pulled you in. And at first,
did you have an assignment or did you have to make your own?
Well, it’s kind of interesting. He knew that—he asked
me to come with him so that the shop’s organization could be
represented in some fashion. Remember this: there were 1,000 employees
at Langley Research Center, scattered around in all their research
shops. And it’s not a manufacturing-type environment; it’s
a research and development environment. So, with that knowledge, he
thought, “I’d better take somebody with me that’s
familiar with this kind of business.” So, he asked me if I would
go, and I joined him; and we followed on, and we came to Houston,
[Texas]; and he never gave me another bit of instruction. He said,
“I want you to create an entire technical services organization
with up to 200 people. And you would design the buildings, lay out
the basic outline of the facilities. You would go about the country,
recruit people. And while you’re doing that, you’ll run
around to the Cape [Canaveral, Florida] with the Big Joe capsule that
you built at Langley.” So, it was a thrilling thing for me to
get an offer like that.
I’m going to come back to that, too.
Because right now I think we’re jumping out of Langley into
Houston a little rapidly—
—because you were doing things back there at Langley before
you came here.
That’s right. In the earliest days, just prior to NACA becoming
NASA, there was a gentleman who created what is now called the parasail.
And in that project I had occasion to work with him and then I also
went out to the Jet Propulsion Lab and worked there. When we considered
the idea of making a passive satellite (you may or may not have heard
of this), but we built a sphere 6-in. in diameter and filled it with
a—some material which would expand if you exposed it to a vacuum
of space; and we had a 12-ft diameter Mylar plastic-type device that
would balloon out and become a spherical satellite, if you will. So,
I worked on that project as well as— [William J.] O’Sullivan
[Jr.] was the gentleman who had the parasail. I was involved with
both of those.
And that balloon sounds a lot like something called [Project] Echo.
Echo, right. After our 12-footer was successful, we went ahead and
built a 100-ft sized sphere, which packed in about a 24-in. diameter
sphere. Same principles. Launched on some of the existing booster
rockets that were in use in those days. So, here again we were well
ahead of the beginning of any assay in this instance. Just, you know,
a year or two. But—
Well, you’re back in the ’50s now. You've been there from
’41 into the ’50s.
Into the ’50s.
And so this gives us that transitional time in the ’50s, as
NACA transitioned into NASA.
Yes, it does.
And gave you a beginning into what was to become the manned spaceflight
That must’ve changed a lot of the thinking of the kind of things
on which you were working. No more balloons.
Yeah, you could certainly say that, because they haven’t made
any more that I know of in the present period of time. As far as a
transition: we were involved with aviation in NACA, and aviation dictates
airplanes with wings and so on. So, the aerodynamic aspects of aviation
certainly led over into the development of the capsules that had to
fly. We had to have a means of them sustaining themselves, you know,
in later flight. And of course, I’m jumping a mile when I get
to the Shuttle. But nevertheless, we did—our experience with
aviation, I think, was a direct leader into the days of the rockets
and so on. As a matter of fact, you may or may not have heard a lot
about Bob Gilruth’s concept.
We in the machine shop built scale models of wings. We were interested
in trying to break the sound barrier because it was a limit in the
wind tunnels. You couldn’t do it. The air flowing through the
tunnels would get turbulent, and you couldn’t get any decent
data from it. So, Bob and his group came up with the idea of building
small wings, mounting them on the side of a rocket, firing them out
at Wallops Island, over in Virginia, off in the Atlantic. And as they
were ascending at high speed, they would go through the sound barrier.
Meantime, they were able to take telegraphic pictures (telegraphic’s
the wrong word). But photos of the activities, and also—telemetry
is the word I was looking for. Radio telemetry. So, with that concept,
we were kind of moving over into space, trying to get more data on
transonic flight. That was a real transition there.
Now that was before actually the—
Before—that was still NACA. But close to it.
And so, when the time came that the Space Task Group was formed, there
was a lot of background there and a lot of people who at least had
some basic knowledge with which to begin.
Very much so. And I guess the public in general doesn’t realize
that we weren’t a rocket-oriented agency then. But Bob’s
group utilized the solid rockets to fly and do work in the transonic
speed range. So, there’s the connection there. In other words,
that led them to thinking that “Since we have a capability to
fire rockets, maybe we could put a man in space.” That—it
really originated right there with Bob’s group, the Project
Mercury concept for a man in space.
I noticed you said “transonic,” not “supersonic.”
You were getting up into the higher realm, weren’t you?
About what timetable was that? The late ’50s or the early ’50s,
Probably about ’55, ’57, ’58. Leading up—coming
up close to the creation of NASA.
In ’58, wasn’t it?
In ’58, yes.
And that’s when the Space Task Group really was formed, too.
Then the astronauts were chosen—
—shortly thereafter. Well, now we’re into that realm of
astronauts; and suddenly the new task is there. Tell us about the
beginnings. How do you begin to design to send—to build something
that will send a man into space?
Well, you do—you base your design work on the necessities, let’s
put it that way. That’s pretty simple. But that means you have
to have a machine that can support life. And you have to be able to
leave the atmosphere of the Earth and return to Earth through very
difficult conditions: reentry, where you hit 3,000°F and so on.
So, they looked into things like ballistic missiles that used reentry
warheads. This is a part I’m familiar with. And they concluded,
“If we build a heatshield of the right curvature, we might be
able to get back to Earth without melting.” Simple things, but
we leaned on what somebody else had been doing. When we—when
the Mercury capsule design evolved, they knew that they had a living
person going to be in it, so they got thinking about the necessity
to safely save an astronaut at the Cape if there’s a mishap.
So, the—I was quite involved with this particular thing. I’ll
describe it briefly.
I was approached by Max [Maxime A.] Faget, who was part of the design
team for Mercury. And Max said, “Jack, can you make a scale
model of the Mercury capsule concept that we have in mind? And what
I’d like to do is confirm the most direct thrust angle we could
put on an escape rocket and still not burn up the spacecraft when
we light it off. So,” he said, “what I’d like you
to do: I can give you the dimensions of the concept capsule.”
He said, “If you’ll draw up some small-scale models; and
we’ll take them over to Wallops Island and we’ll fire
them with a small rocket on them, and we’ll have different degrees
of angle on the outlet rockets—the exhaust plume.” What
they wanted to do was get the nearest to a vertical thrust out of
a rocket motor. They wanted to divert the thrust so that it would
miss burning up the capsule, which is directly below it. So, the net
accommodation was a tall tower with a small rocket on it that they
weren’t sure when they were writing the specifications for the
design for the contractors to bid what angle to specify.
So, I drew up a 10-deg, a 15-deg, a 20-deg, a 25-deg angle off the
vertical for the nozzles and we’d fire these with a 10 and then
15 and the 20, and we got a pattern of the flame intrusion on the
spacecraft. We did that with high-performance cameras. Actually they
had those cameras at Wallops, where they could—actually, while
a test subject was flying, you know, going up at enormous speed, they
could still track it and get data from it. So, in this case, I helped
make the first test models, had them made in the little shop from
my drawings, and then I went over to Wallops and supervised the testing
aspect of it. That was a—just one little pinpoint of something
that you had to do because of—men were going to fly.
These were models that were tested not in wind tunnels, but in actual
Actual flight. And they went through the transition period that I
was talking about, which is similar to what had to happen later on
in real flight.
Well, as you got a little closer to manned flight, you began getting
into what they call boilerplate models. And again, that word “model”
comes in. Were you responsible for any of that work?
Yes. We built the models in the sheet metal shop in the boilerplate
fashion. That’s a true term, by the way. Boilerplate is steel
metal plate; they just call it boilerplate. And the original early
models for Mercury, the pre-Mercury models that were built in house,
were actually made out of just plain steel plate. And they weren’t
designed for reentry, but they had the configuration shape of what
would be later the exact flight models. And we built those models;
and we had occasion to do drop testing.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of this particular phase
yet. We brought in helicopters from the Navy; and we would go out
on Wallops—not Wallops but in the bay near Langley. We’d
go out in the bay with the models on a boat. We’d pick up the
boilerplate with a helicopter and lift it up to maybe 500 ft or so,
and then set all the cameras and everything and release the capsule
and let the parachute flare. (It was more than 500 ft. We were a bit
higher.) But anyway, it would drop the boilerplate, and it would deploy
parachutes; and they’d come down and they’d make an impact
on the water (of course). And with that kind of data, they began to
realize another thing. They realized that they couldn’t keep
an astronaut alive if they were to hit the water too hard.
So, I got involved in another thing. We—and the next thing—we
were still at Langley now, but it was now NASA at this point. We had
a water-testing tank, a facility where they ran down and just tested
seaplane hulls and things of that kind. So, with that water facility
available to us, we decided we’d better do something along the
impact line. And finally within our NASA, it occurred that we should
disconnect the heavy heatshield that was bolted directly to the upper
part of this capsule and add a rubberized circular band around it,
about (I think it was) 4 feet deep and the spacecraft was about 7
or 8 feet in diameter.
So, imagine a circular hoop of rubberized fabric with 2-in., 3-in.
holes throughout so that it could let air in and let air out. And
imagine that’s all folded up and secured to the underside of
the spacecraft prior to normal usage; and then upon nearing—when
the parachutes are out and they’re nearing descent to the ocean,
they had a release device (actually it was an explosive bolt), and
it would drop loose and it would fall down, extend itself so that
it was suspended (the heatshield now)—is suspended about 4 ft
or so below the Mercury capsule. And as it hits the water, it starts
squeezing the air out because it’s like an enclosure with air
in it. The heatshield hits the water first, and then as it squeezes
the air comes out. So, we got a real soft landing, which was the solution
at that time for the Mercury capsules. We had installed that particular
element into the manned Mercury capsules.
And that actually flew.
Actually flew, yes.
You know, that was one of the things we never really saw during the
We never realized that heatshield slid down.
Was dangling down in the water—sloshing around. Now, I’ve
got to give you a little side. (You’re helping lead me on here
in the way I want to go.)
I think that’s what they have in mind for me.
That’s my kind of role. Go ahead, Jack.
Okay. The engineers over at McDonnell Douglas [Corp.], who had designed
the prototype Mercury capsule, they got involved with the new addition
that NASA itself thought of; mainly the shield of rubberized fabric.
And they came and, in their design, they picked some 6-in. long turnbuckles.
If you know what a turnbuckle is, it has male and female threads and
you can tighten things up. Well, they took some stock turnbuckles
out of a catalogue they had and they put them on, and their purpose
was to allow the heatshield to jostle around in the water and still
be, you know, freely contained. However, they didn’t work too
well. They put some in the test model in the Langley tank and turned
on the wave maker and let them jostle. And it didn’t take any
time at all for these big, cumbersome turnbuckles to get twisted around
and break. Well, one day Mr. [James S.] McDonnell [Jr.] himself was
there watching the testing. And I got to looking at it, and I decided,
“This is ridiculous. We shouldn’t have these big, bulky
So, I went back to the shop and I made a turnbuckle that was ¾
in. long and about ½—¼—3/8 in. in diameter.
It had steel cable going into it with a steel ball embedded inside
of a hemispherical radius. So, when you put it together, closed it
up, you had a cable coming out, an attachment on the other end, and
just nothing but a little tiny ball that could swivel. McDonnell—Mr.
McDonnell turned to me and he said (I gave him one I had in my pocket)—he
said, “Jack, do you suppose you could let me take that back
to our plant? And,” he said, “we’ll see about solving
this problem.” So, there’s a tiny, little insight into
what happens when you think simply. You know, simplified design is
what I’m driving at here. So, they took my—they redesigned
the method of suspending the heatshields using that little ball swivel,
which I made.
Interesting that you went to Mr. Mac himself.
Well, I felt like I could! He was on the job and I never felt like
any particular higher official was of unique experience in that you
couldn’t talk to him. And he was a down to earth man, by the
way. I knew this previously from the way he worked. He’d walk
in the shops and talk with the men and work the machines and so on.
So, he was a guy’s machinist-type buddy. You know, the kind
you could talk to. But that’s what I did.
Wasn’t that kind of true throughout the program—there
were never any barriers. The top people used to pitch in.
Oh yes. Absolutely!
I remember George [W.] Jeffs talking about how George Jeffs from North
American [Aviation, Inc.] and Bob Gilruth put nuts and bolts together
when the job needed doing. Gilruth came down from on high to tighten
those nuts and bolts.
Yeah. Well, I can give you an exact example of that. We’ll have
to jump way forward, but we can come back. On the Skylab Project,
which I’m sure you’ll get to later, Max Faget was on the
floor watching us do our early demonstrations of the parasol. And
we had some telescoping tubes, which slid back and forth, but they
didn’t have any latching effect on them, so that they had to
depend on just a friction, like a fishing rod. And he got down on
the floor, and he worked one as I watched, and he said, “You
know,” he says, “I don’t see why you can’t
put a little slit in this aluminum tube, bend it down (it kind of
has a spring temper to it).” And he said, “Then put an
offset in the next adjacent piece.” He said, “Whenever
you pull them out, one at a time, they’ll jump and latch; and
they won’t be able to go back.”
So, he did that. He designed something that—I was [the] designer
primarily of this Skylab parasol. But a person like Max, who was a
Director at the Center—a Division Director lay down on the floor
and kind of looked at it! So, that’s typical. And both Bob Gilruth
and George Low, those were all design engineer-type people. They had
to learn how to become administrators and managers, but they were
already highly skilled designers on their own.
Well, they tell the story that on one occasion, using ingenuity again,
you had a boilerplate that was somehow dished up on a mattress.
Oh, you know about that?
You’ve been reading books.
I’ve been reading about you. So, why don’t you tell us
that one, if you would. Okay?
All right. Well, that’s a particularly interesting thing to
me to talk about. We built the first boilerplate that—at Langley
Research Center. And it was time to take it down to the Cape. And
I had a—by that time, I had about 10 employees. And they were
all shop guys—a machinist, a metalsmith, and so on. But they
all knew how to drive a truck. We got a surplus flatbed truck at Langley
from the GSA, an old clunker of a truck; we put our boilerplate on
it vertically and tied it down; and we decided it might get jostled
pretty badly if we didn’t do something about it. So, I said,
“Well, I know we—what we could do is: let’s go buy
a mattress and some plywood, and let’s put a sheet of plywood
on the truck bed. Let’s lay the mattress on the plywood, and
then put another sheet of plywood on top of the mattress and bore
holes through it and tie it all together so it becomes a soft mounting.”
So, the fellows drove all the way down to the Cape with this spacecraft
fastened this—in this manner, in this old used truck.
Now the story gets more interesting as—we go on. At the time,
you know, we were at the Cape in Hangar S (it’s called). And
during that time, we were ready—almost ready to take our Mercury
prototype out to the Atlas. So, adjacent to the hangar is a great,
big, huge, about 150-ft long dolly that has a mattress laying on it
in a horizontal position with very intricate weldments and, oh, just
all kinds of beautiful stuff to make sure nothing would happen to
this Atlas. So, they were ready to drive out and take the Atlas out
to the launch pad; and it was our turn to—we had to follow them.
So, we took our Mercury capsule—sitting on its rubber mattress—we
followed this (probably a $2 million or $3 million) dolly that was
carrying the Atlas. We followed it out, just slowly out the track.
And we have some pictures of that, and it was really exciting. But
anyway, they raised up the Atlas with the crane; and then they lowered
the hook down, and we hitched it on our Mercury capsule. And they
picked it up there and put it up on top.
Well, we as a crew then, we were non-skilled crew people for launch
preparation. But my people got up there, and we checked everything
out and made sure it was fastened properly. And so, we kind of got
a little bit of teasing about that, you know, the kind of thing that
we came in with. But we were naïve, I must say. We, as a group
of people, when—we didn’t worry about everything being
just exactly according to Hoyle, you know. Just “improvise,”
is the word we used many, many times. Another time—do you want
to hear about one other?
Okay. Their heatshield was made out in California in a plant—this—we’re
talking now about a solid heatshield, not an ablative-type heatshield—
Neal: Not ablative but a solid. Okay.
—but made out of ablative material, and it was delivered with
the spacecraft. And it got down to the—down to the pad—not
to the pad. It got down to the hangar area, and so it was taken out
for a trial fit. They raised it up and started to lower the spacecraft
onto the mating junction, which is a cylinder which is of a given
diameter (like 20-ft in diameter plus or minus 1/16-in., something
like that). Well, they started to lower it down, and they said, “Oh
boy, we’ve made a big mistake here!” They took it back
and, instead of going all the way back to the factory to re-machine
it, they called on me.
They brought it into the hangar, and I looked over it, and I went
and made up a device that I could go out to the pad and measure the
exact distance or the diameter of the aperture that we had to fit
in. And I found out we had to cut a ¼ in., an 1/8 in. on the
side (a ¼ in. diametrically) off of this heatshield in order
for it to nicely nest in the mating part. So, I used simplicity once
again. I—they set the heatshield up, upside down, on a stand.
And I got some duct tape; and I duct taped the block of wood with
a bored hole in it on the dead center of the heatshield, which was
to become a pivot point. And once we got that duct tape in place,
then I got some wood and made a freestanding—do you know the
word trammel? (A trammel used—okay.)
I was making a big trammel—big by size wise, of course. So,
then I had them get me some wood and we made a rather stiff, like
a flat board with a vertical board join to it so it wouldn’t
sag and twist. And then we bored a hole in the board, and we had it
fixed so that was on a pivot in this center piece that was taped down.
I went and got a router, hooked up a regular, conventional router.
Sent over to (oh gee, one of the hardware stores nearby)—
In Cocoa Beach.
—Cocoa Beach [Florida], yeah. I sent into Cocoa Beach, “Buy
a router, get it out here in a hurry. I need it.” So, I mounted
a router on this board and I walked around the perimeter of the heatshield,
routing material with a hand router, using this wooden trim thing
to act as a guide. And then I’d measure with the device I made
up on the top of the stack, so whenever it was enough clearance I
said, “You can take it back. They don’t fit.” So,
I did that job all by myself. I personally did it! And came up with
how to do it.
Now, you have to think about this a minute. If that heatshield had
to ship back to its origin, you’re talking about a month’s
time or a week’s time at least in transit. And they have to
go back through and do what we did in one day. One day! We brought
it down and fixed it in one day, and set it back up. And it went right
on and stayed.
There are probably dozens of stories like that that you could tell.
Oh yeah, I could just go on.
Yeah. But basically the big story there is that you simply applied
what you knew to make something work.
And used sort of commonsense ideas as far as procedure, but not common—not
anything that the average person would do, you know. I mean, I don’t
think there are many guys would do it, what I did, in this case.
Well, you did it and it worked.
Of course. So, now finally after all the boilerplates, Mercury was
ready to fly.
Did they require any more model-making at that stage of the game—
And I’ve left out the function of the shops at Langley. They
made a lot of precision models of the Mercury capsule for testing
for the aerodynamic shapes and things of that kind. So, there was
an active program of making models (metal models) that could be tested
in wind tunnels as Mercury was developing. We didn’t just skip
by that. We built models. And in my shop, the machine shop at the
Johnson Space Center, also made models in the early days. And then
we made models later of the Apollo and the Skylab and, you know, everything
that came out as a full-size object started in modeling throughout
the entire program.
Now they were flying Mercury while you were beginning to look at Gemini
and other points and to the Moon, too.
That's right. Mars even.
And you were—
All the way back, we had Mars models we built in 1962. Not many people
know that. But we had a group of engineers who were thinking ahead
about Mars in the early ’60s. Now we’re talking about
we can do it in 17 days, and you know—but that’s a fact.
Because we had the Mars mission models that we built. Now we didn’t
go very far with that, of course. We just did some—built some
replica conceptual models.
Interesting at the time. But, too, you had the immediate job of, “Let’s
get on with flying to the Moon” by that time.
Once Mercury got well involved, the President [John F. Kennedy] had
declared and you had a goal. And I imagine this accelerated things
in your life, didn’t it, Jack?
Well, yes it did. It brought on the fact we had to move from Langley.
And in addition to that, we were charged with all sorts of responsibilities
that I didn’t have before. I had to come on to Houston and design
a layout for a shop that would support the research and development
we did and—
And it was named Technical Services wasn't it?
[Technical] Services Division. Yes.
You finally had a title.
You were Director of Technical Services.
Yes. I left my title with Bob Gilruth as his Technical Assistant and
became Technical Service Division Chief.
And what did that really mean?
Well, it’s a common name given to the Langley, Lewis [Research
Center, Cleveland, Ohio, now known as John H. Glenn Research Center
at Lewis Field], and Ames [Research Center, Moffett Field, California],
all the old NACA labs that are now NASA labs, where they had a service
department. You have to bear in mind: these service departments only
work in research and development. They’re not into manufacturing
like the contractors do. So, they do prototype work. Original, first-time
projects. Well, that term Technical Service Division was commonly
used. It was called [that], the one at Langley. So, I named my Division
Technical Service Division.
And that’s how that name came about. But what it consists of
is bringing together a large number of highly skilled craftsmen, machinists,
sheet metal workers, aerospace technicians who can work on—well,
we had parachute packing facilities that we worked with. You have
a model shop, where you build your preliminary models. When we first
came into Houston, we built a full-scale model of the lunar lander
out of plywood. And the astronauts would come in our shop, climb upstairs
into the model, and look out and say, “Boy, these windows aren’t
big enough for what we’ve got in mind. We’ve got to be
able to look straight down.” And so we would change the shape
of the windows. We’d just talk. You know, “Can you add
another 6 in. or take something off?” So, we would build prototypes
with the astronauts in our midst, based on—they and the designers
would work together. And so the Tech Service Division really had a
lot to do with helping develop the prototypes of all kinds.
But let’s see, did I leave everything—anything out there?
Machine, sheet metal, welding, electronics, model shop, plastics department,
electroplating facilities, and then I created a group of technicians
called the Field Test Branch within my Division. Now these were technicians
whose assignment was to go out on test projects and support the test
engineers. And I kept—I had the whole complement of non-engineering
people in my control when I first came here, and then I gradually
transferred them off (as you can imagine) as the thing grew. But anyway,
these technicians in Field Test Branch were quite helpful.
I mentioned us testing boilerplates down at Langley with them jostling
and things, and then going out on drop tests. Well, these same people,
when we got to Houston, continued doing that sort of thing. They’d
go out to White Sand, New Mexico, and do drop tests or do Little—well,
we had Little Joe and Big Joe, two different names, for capsules.
And they would support the preparation as well as stand by and help
with the launch activities. So, it was a real broad Division that
I put together.
Essentially you were in charge of making all the hardware that had
to be used to test the hardware that would be used.
You were really building up to that.
Did you actually involve yourselves at the time also with the working
hardware that would fly with the astronauts?
We built flight hardware from day one. They call it “flight
hardware” when it’s going into flight. And I’ve
been talking about boilerplates and models and capsules and such,
but flight hardware was a common activity of our department—both
in Langley, when we—well, they didn’t bring—they
built—they didn’t build any flight hardware there. They
just built the early prototype Mercury stuff. But once we got to Houston,
we made things that were mostly the experiments that had to do with
each flight. We would build the total experiment in house. And the
experiment could be, you know, a lot of machine work and electronic
wiring and hookups. And the development of exercise equipment for
the astronauts. You know, the thing now that everybody uses to walk
on in place? We built prototypes of those in our shops. And they actually
flew those things!
Let me get this straight, too, Jack. Because basically, you were getting
the spacecraft from the contractor. Others were concerned with making
that spacecraft flightworthy.
You were basically handling or developing flight articles to be developed
Flight articles to be flown. That’s right. Flight articles.
But then there were times when the Apollo fire came and they had a
bolted hatch together, and it was determined, “This is impossible.
We shouldn’t have anything like this. You can’t get out
quick enough.” We built a alternate quick-opening hatch in our
shops as a fix for the Apollo fire change design. We built it from
their drawings, the actual full-size door that had hinges and it would
open quickly; and you didn’t have the complications of the other
one. So, we had times when we built things that were actually put
And that was the design that was adopted then as the fix was made?
Yes. That’s right.
Redesigned the Apollo.
Redesigned the Apollo, where they decided the door hatch was a limiter
and would be very apt to, you know, cause a future problems, if they
had another fire or whatever. So, they quickly got together and came
up with a completely modified design that opened in seconds.
I remember, too, during that time you were doing a lot dealing with
EVA [extravehicular activity]. Spacewalking. Propulsion systems. That
sort of thing. Can you describe those for us?
Yes. When they were nearing the time to go into trying for spacewalks,
we had an engineer who came into our shops and said, “I think
I’ve got an idea. The Russians opened their hatch and they dangled
their astronaut out,” Yuri [A.] Gagarin, I think it was. I’m
The first guy who did the walk—oh, the first one—the first
one was [Alexei A.] Leonov, who did the first spacewalk.
Well, Leonov came out of his hatch and dangled on his umbilical cord.
So, a fellow named Harold [I.] Johnson that worked—you might
have heard his name. Harold Johnson thought, “Gosh, we can do
better than that.” And we were only weeks behind the—Leonov
being the first EVA. So, within weeks, he came over. We quickly built
a handheld maneuvering unit—totally built in our shop. It had
nitrogen bottles with compressed air—compressed nitrogen in
it in a tube. And then it had some little wings, tubular wings that
would hinge out, and they had nozzles on their ends. And it had a
hand control that moved—that moved up and down. And we fixed
that up for Ed [Edward H.] White [II].
And Ed White got outside of his hatch. He went outside and opened
up the wings on this maneuvering unit, and he motored around—forward,
backward, up, down, and everything—and we were so proud that
we Americans had done something meaningful! We gave an astronaut something
that he could maneuver with rather than just dangle. So, that’s
that story. But that was done in Tech Services.
The HHMU. Handheld maneuvering unit.
There must’ve been lots of others, dealing with EVAs, like,
oh, handholds later on so the astronauts could figure out how to maintain
a work status in space.
Yes. Yeah, there were. Even after I retired in ’77, I had contact
still with some of the contract engineers with Rockwell [International
Corp.]. And they’d call me once in a while and ask—I had
a machine shop in my—in my garage, a real minimum one but a
shop! Once a machinist, always one. And I got a subcontract arrangement
so that I could do work and be paid by the contractor on occasion.
And one occasion was the—on the Shuttle.
They realized that the way the Shuttle was coupled together they had
the doors, the hatches that opened, they were entirely latched together
with one continuous group of rods, interconnecting, so that they would
all do the same thing together. You know, the latches that lift them?
Well, they got thinking about this. “What if those things hang
up? What if they open the hatch and it won’t close? That would
be the end of the Shuttle right there.” So, are we doing okay?
Oh, I’m—don’t you worry about the time. That’s
I’ll worry about it. You worry about just telling me a story.
Ok. Well, we drifted about a bit. But this is a good—
Yeah, it’s a good one. A darn good one.
—I’m retired, and they come by and call and say, “Do
you suppose you could think of some way we could change this, disconnect
this continuous linkage in some fashion, so that it wouldn’t
be as likely to lock up the whole system? You know, we’d operate
more freely. And then we need some tools in which to do that.”
So, I built a lot of tools that were—I designed the tools, actually,
with a sketch from an engineer saying, “I need something that
can reach around this far and get a hold of a linkage and be able
to maneuver it, you know, by frictional grip.” So, I actually
designed (just paper design) some latching separating devices, which
they took over to the Johnson Center and ran tests on them. And they
adopted that scheme of things. So, then they wound up making all the
hatch doors so that they could be safely operated without jamming,
without the entire system jamming. So, that’s a case where I
wasn’t even working at Johnson Center. I was retired!
That was later on.
Well, during that time, though, I—you people did the plaque
on the Eagle, didn’t you?
You made—how did that happen?
Well, I’m very proud of that; I’m glad you brought that
up. There was a symbolic meeting, a symbolic committee meeting at
the Johnson Space Center with representatives from NASA Headquarters—high-level
ones—Bob Gilruth, Neil [A.] Armstrong, and a couple of other
Division people at the Center. And as that meeting was about to transpire,
Bob Gilruth phoned me over at the Tech Service Division. He said,
“Jack, we’re getting ready to determine how we should
best celebrate the Moon landing, the first landing. And I’d
like you to come over with some suggestions of what we might do.”
Now this was [an] original phone call. So, I go back and I talk with
my deputy. I had a real capable fellow that was with me all the time,
David [L.] McCraw. Dave and I got to thinking, “Well, they need
a plaque. Why don’t we use some stainless steel? It’ll
be long living, long lived. And certainly it has to have a message
on it; it has to have crew names on it; and it might have to have
the landing site and that sort of thing.”
So, I had some prototypes made up in the rough. And I carried that
plaque concept from myself over to the meeting. I have to back up
a little bit. The same time Bob Gilruth said—no, that was—that’s
right. I just took the plaque and showed the plaque idea. And sure
enough, they were thrilled with that idea of having a plaque. We told
them where it would fit. We would mount it on the ladder, center ladder,
on the descent ladder. And so we took our prototype. We went out to
a mockup. We fitted it on the ladder and double-checked that it would
go. And we had that all ironed out, you know, total concept from scratch
idea to, “Here it is!”
So, the first conceptual plaque metal that I took into the meeting
had the American flag engraved in the middle, and it was painted with
the red and blue—red, white, and blue paints that were baked
into it, into the etched definition. And then it had a place for the
message, and it had a place for the name of the landing spot, and
then the crew signatures. So, Bob Gilruth, in looking at that metal
plate—and I have to tell you why it had a flag on it. They had
painted a flag on the lunar landers, on the base. When you look at
old pictures, you’ll see a American flag painted right onto
the part that stays on the Moon, on the descent stage. So, I personally
thought, “That’s not a very effective way to celebrate
an American flag.” So, I thought of having a freestanding flag.
So, and—we’ve slipped off the plaque here for just a moment—
—but I’ll get it all together. So, I went over there and
I brought up two points. I said, “What you need is a freestanding
American flag, and we can design something that’ll telescope
and fit in a nice, simple package. And we can do that readily. And
then,” I said, “but in regard to the plaque.” Bob
Gilruth looks at the plaque and he says, “Well, there’s
a flag on the center of the plaque.” He said, “Jack, what
do you think about this idea?” He said, “Suppose we took
the flag that’s off your plaque and put two hemispheres on the
top: one the eastern hemisphere and one the western hemisphere.”
He said, “If we do that, any creatures that come from outer
space in future years and look at the lunar module that’s setting
there on the surface will recognize the source from where this device
came.” So, as soon as he mentioned that, I said, “Boy,
that’s a great idea!” And he said, “Okay.”
And we got a—the committee that was there in the room, they
said, “Okay, we’re going to buy the idea that we’ll
have the lunar plaque contain the hemispheres.” And then they
of course went with that.
Then I had roughed in—I had roughed in a message like, “Here
men from Earth made a landing.” But I had addressed it to NASA’s
credit. In other words—and was going to have it signed out by
NASA, Johnson Space Center, USA. Or something. So, once the plaque
concept was approved, now all it had on it was the two hemispheres,
and then it had the crew signatures, and it had the name of the landing
site, and the date. That’s it. So, they—Washington Headquarters-types
took it over and said, “We’d better go by the President
and see if he approves this sort of thing.” And they went over
to see President [Richard M.] Nixon. He says, “I like the concept,
but don’t you think it ought to have the President’s name
on the bottom?”
Now the story goes a little further. So, obviously NASA called down
to the space—to us and said, “You—we just have this
picture you’re going to use to create your final metal plaque.
Can you add the President’s signature to it easily?” And
we said, “Yes, but we need a data fax copy—a faxed copy
of his signature.” So, they sent a copy of his signatures down
to us. And this is where the story gets really unique. I have a secretary
whose name is Germany—Mrs. Germany. And Mrs. Germany’s
mother-in-law received a letter because she had become 100 years old,
and the letter was signed by Richard Nixon.
Mrs. Germany, my secretary, saw the data fax signature that was sent
to our office and she got to thinking, “That doesn’t look
like the signature that we’re supposed to use for President
Nixon.” So, she—I said, “Would you mind going home
and getting that letter your mother received and then I’ll take
it from there.” So, she took off work and went back home, got
her mother-in-law’s letter, brought it in, and I had to call
up NASA Headquarters and say, “Folks, we’ve got two different
style signatures here. Which one are we supposed to use?” The
one was brand-new from a letter received a few days ago. The other
was probably out of the file. And anyway, it had—I think it
had “Richard N. Nixon” or “Richard Nixon”
without the N. It was one way or the other. But that little aside
there, we almost put the wrong signature on the plaque! But—
Which signature was the one?
—Richard Milhouse—Richard M. Nixon. But the first time
he had it just “Richard Nixon.”
What was your—in this case the mother’s signature correct—the
Oh, yes! That was—the one the mother—
The one they sent you was the wrong one.
They sent me the wrong signature. Yeah, I didn’t make that too
clear. It was “Richard M. Nixon.” Okay, and so we talked
about that but we didn’t finish with the flag.
In regard to the flag, I stood there in that—sat there in that
meeting and suggested that, “You know, if we had a freestanding
flag, it’d be much more appropriate than just depending on the
Moon flag painted—I mean, the American flag painted on the lunar
lander.” So, I got an action item to go and come back with a
projection, you know, a scheme. So, I went back to the office and
I remembered how nicely telescoping tubes work and so on. So, I got
some telescoping tubes out of the shops and we made up a prototype,
and then I got a directive to show it to Neil Armstrong and see if
he would approve of what we had. So, he came over to the Tech Service
Division. We put our flag together in—on its little prototype.
And he said, “That’s perfect. Let’s go with that.”
So, then the details came out. We had to be able to have somewhere
to put it that would be easy to have access to. So, we went out to—once
again to this mockup that we had there and Dave and I looked it over,
and we thought, “Well, if they come down the descent ladder
and walk around about three steps to the side, if we hang it underneath
this—the arm—the armrest of the ladder, that’d be
a nice, handy place.” So, we did. We designed a way to fasten
it on the underside of the descent ladder armrest, and we added things
called “pip pins.” They’re real quick releasing.
You just squeeze them, and when you pull them out, a ball intercept
releases itself and then you can just take the thing right off. So,
then I had the design. We had to put a hinge in the top of it and
tubing. Got to thinking about, “It’s going to just hang
limply, and it’s got to fit in a 3-ft long package. We can’t
have a 10-ft pole sticking out there.” So, we made a telescoping
piece for it. And this is where the story gets even funnier (or more
We put linkages—we used the concept of a telescoping tube that’s
inside of a drape in a window, you know; just a sliding effect. Then
we added these tubes of a length that would fit in a maximum 3-ft
limb, so that that was okay. And the idea was to hinge it up on a
90-deg hinge and have a stop, so it would catch and would just stand
horizontal, the one tubular limb. But in the meantime, since we had
to hold it, we sewed a hem—a seam—a hem in the top of
the flag. And by the way, this was a GSA [General Services Administration]
warehouse-issued flag that cost about $5 as I recall. They’re
nylon and I got to thinking that nylon would stand 200°[F] plus
or minus. And they ran tests to prove it did. So, with that in mind,
we were able to slide the tubular piece hidden within the flag and
stretch it out.
And if you pulled it all the way out, you’ll see in—if
you look at the 11 and then 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, different Moon landing
pictures, they all have flags out. They moved them in different ways,
you know, different amounts. But we fit the vertical pole. It had
to be a 10-ft tall pole to do its job. So, it had sections that fit
inside of one another. And the lowest section had to be something
one could drive into the soil without damaging the joint you’re
hammering on. So, we put a hardened insert out of a hardened steel—it’s
this tubular aluminum. Very thin, lightweight aluminum. So, we built
it with a hardened piece for hammering. Then we told the astronauts,
“You take the hammer out of your geological tool kit and pound
this thing down.” And we put two different red lines on it:
one at (I think) 12 in. and one at 18 [in.] as I recall, that were
to tell them, “If you hit it this far, it’ll be okay.
But don’t exceed this distance, because it’ll be sitting
So, sure enough, we had determined how hard to drive it into the Moon
soil and all that. And (let’s see, where else would I go with
that?). That was quite a particular event. I’m so proud of that,
because that flag is on each of the six Moon landing sites; and there’s
only one (Apollo 12, the second flight, when [Charles C.] Pete Conrad
[Jr.] made his flight) for some reason—after they got back,
I heard this—he said that when they raised it up, the latch
didn’t catch. So, you’ll see him standing there, holding
a sagging flag in his picture. And I kid [him] a little about it:
He was too short to reach high enough to pull it. But that’s
just an—that’s an aside. (Don’t publish that!) But
that was quite a thing, to come out with. I gave two suggestions,
and that was the only two that were taken. You know: the flag and
Those vivid mementos that people carry to this day of Neil Armstrong
saluting the flag.
Which he did.
I think he carried it through to the logical conclusion, don’t
He did. Yeah.
Those were incredible times. Now once they had made the lunar landing
(let me see where we are for time; yeah, we’re getting pretty
close to a reload time here, but we still have a little left on this
tape I believe).
Once they had made the lunar landing, there were more things that
were needed for the Apollo Program.
Were you involved with those?
Yes, we had occasion, in house, to build all the geological tools.
Everything that was used to—including the shovels, the hammers,
the devices that all went together to become a lunar tool kit. And
initially, they hand-carried it as they went along on Apollo 11. But
eventually—and another thing happened. The rover was so late
in development, it was not going to be available for two or three
Moon landings. So, they had to get something to use to do their tour,
you know; to go about and gather rocks. So, we built every one of
the lunar tool carrier objects in our shops at JSC. And then a little
later on, we made up a hand-wheeled dolly that Al [Alan B.] Shepard
[Jr.] thought he’d like to have; and that was something he could
put the hand-carry dolly on in a converted way and walk along like
you do [with] a golf cart tote. And we made that.
Did you help him make his golf club out of existing hardware?
Yes. I have to explain that, too.
I think so.
Always using simple ideas, he came in one day and he approached us
about making a—not the whole club but just the club head for
something he could use. And he said, “You know, you have—we
have all these handles that have shovels on the ends and they have
quick disconnects on them and so on. Suppose you could make a club
head that would snap right on the same fitting that is the end of
one of the shovel handle things,” which made him a complete
golf club. So, we built that little device for him, and he took it
in his PPK kit (which is pilot’s preference kit; they’re
allowed to have so many pounds of their own things). And I don’t
know whether he told management about it or not. I never did hear
whether he did.
He told me, very specifically, that he had a special arrangement with
Jim [NASA Administrator James E.] Webb.
And the arrangement was very simple: If the flight was going well
and there were no problems, he was able to make the golf club use.
Don’t do it.
That’s right. And so obviously the flight went very well and
he was able to use it.
It went well. He did it.
He did have management permission.
Yeah, but that’s how we pulled it off. In other words, he didn’t
have to have anything except that little club headpiece, you know.
And it was made to a perfect fit, so it was like a set of snap-on
tools that have ratchets and you can plug them in, you know. It was
very simple. But that did happen. We built that.
How about the lunar rover? Did you have anything to do with that?
Not the rover, except we built models of the rover for (I guess) demonstration
and determination of design and that sort of thing. But it came in
pretty much as an outside developed device as far as I know. But we
did not do too much with the rover.
You know, we’ve talked pretty much about a lot of the things
that you came up with that I’ve generated for you. Is there
something in particular with that Apollo series of ingenuity-made
devices of which you’re particularly proud?
Go ahead. Tell me about it.
Well, one is (I don’t know which one’s the best; there’s
Well, we’ve got time here. Tell us about both of them.
Do we have time for both of them?
We’ll make time.
Oh okay. We’ll start with the first one. Another thing happened
when the Apollo fire occurred down at the Cape. There was a “Stop
and let’s get a—let’s look around and see what we’ve
got here that is an unsafe working condition wherever,” you
know. And the first thing they realized was that the Saturn-LM adapter,
which is a big cone about three stories tall, it’s big enough
to encompass the whole lunar module, which is inside of it (you know,
it’s closed up inside of it). It had three different levels
of catwalks around it, and it had a door at the entry to the bottom
one, and I think a door at the top (if I’m not mistaken) for
a crew to go inside and work. You have to bear in mind, they could
spill anything. They could have acid. They could have a fire. They
could have all kind—because the place—they have to be
in there, even when they’re loaded, ready to—prior to
launch. Just one of the last things they do is get out and close those
hatches. Well, they had these minimal hatches that one could get out
So, Gilruth (I think) approached me on that one. He said, “We
need to think about a more safe way of rescuing people from inside
the cylinder,” which is the lunar—the SLA (Saturn LM adapter)
(I cross my words up once in a while), “the Saturn LM adapter.
And can you come up with any ideas?” And he—I think he
said to me, “One of the simplest ideas that might occur”—Oh,
the structure that we’d have to get through is honeycomb aluminum.
It’s an—it’s about 2-in. thick, but it’s very
thin, like egg crate material. It has a skin of aluminum about 1/16-in.
thick (even less than that)—1/32-in. thick, aluminum skin outside
and aluminum skin inside. But between those two is a sandwich of honeycomb,
very lightweight. And to get through that, you know, you’d have
to cut with some fashion—in some fashion.
So, the first thing they do is: they got a—one of these bush
bolos that they—you take a hammer and you can take a bolo and
put it up against the structure and hit it (this is crude now)—you
can chop your way in. This is an emergency; assuming there’s
a fire in there, and they’ve got to get in. Or there’s
something. So, they first made up something where you could take a
hand hammer and chop an opening into the structure. Well, that didn’t
go very far. But that’s the one that was in existence when I
came along. And I got—
And then Gilruth said, “Well, if you make anything that does
powered cutting,” he says, “it can’t make any sparks,
because there might be a fire based on sparks.” So, I finally
thought about, “Well, why don’t we use some air motors
that are air-driven (there are such things; there’re motors
that drive by air), and why don’t we take a real slow-rotating
cutter made out of Tungsten carbide, like a cutting tool; and if we
mounted a air motor on a top horizontal run, it would be getting pointed
where it could motor across while driven, you know. It could cut a
slot. If we had one that would go down, it would cut a slot. If we
had one that went across, it would cut a slot. With four air motor-driven
components mounted on a device, we could turn on a switch and let
all the motors start running, and they would walk through and they
would cut these four openings simultaneously. And you could push out
a nice panel big enough for a person to escape out of.”
So, we built that prototype in—we designed that and built it
in our shop. That wasn’t an engineer design; that was designed
by the shop. And it worked beautifully! George Low was there and others,
and they said, “Boy, that’s—” Oh, timewise,
I think it took 30 seconds to completely cut and come out. We hung
it on a gantry, which is a pivot like you use for a boat or something.
We had it designed so once it cut lose, you’d just give it a
push and the gantry swung out of the way, and the astronaut could
dive out (not an astronaut) but a technician. So, that ought to have
been good enough. But then I got thinking, “Why don’t
we get something that really works really quick. Not 30 seconds, but
how about 1/1000 of a second?” So that was a kind of a change
when I went to that. We came up with a SLA cutter (SLA, Saturn LM
adapter cutter); we called it the “SLA cutter,” which
sounds like coleslaw. And that device was miraculous. (I have a patent
on it by the way.)
It consists of a cylinder that can be activated with 2,000 psi air
pressure. It has a male cutter on the outside of the capsule. It has
a receiving, matching (you know how cookie cutters work, one cuts
within the other?) (I have to use my fingers for this). It has a female-shaped
receiving piece. And you have to imagine (right in here) is the structural
material. So, you bore a hole—you bore a ¾-in. hole through
the structure and you put a shaft in that hole that has a piston on
the end of it, and it’s in a cylinder. So, like a 1-stroke cylinder.
You mount the receiving piece on the inside and the other energizing
piece on the outside, and tighten up one nut—you just tighten
up the nut with a wrench—and you’ve got a standing, waiting
emergency exit device. We built nine of them, so we’d have one,
two, three on 120 degrees apart. All three floor levels. No matter
where the guy was when the fire starts, he could get out of one in
So, then we wanted to power that thing. And I first thought about
using pyrotechnics, so that an explosion to fire a single stroke of
a piston in a cylinder. Because all you had to have was an energy
force to move one time and push the thing, and it would cut. But I
consulted with [Joseph G.] Guy Thibodaux, who you’ll probably
do something with eventually. He was a pyrotechnics fellow. And he
said, “Jack, if you go down to the Cape with your device with
pyrotechnics involved,” he said, “you’ll never get
through the review board for the next 3 months!” I said, “Well
then, how about compressed gas?” He said, “Go that way.”
So, we went out and we bought these scuba bottles, 2,000 psi. We hooked
them up with a quick-acting valves. When you send an electric circuit,
you know, a pulse of electricity, the valves open, the scuba bottle
valves open all at the same time, and they go all at once or individually,
selectively. So, they fire in 1/1000th of a second! You’re looking
at a non-, you know—a non-active thing, a—1/1000th of
a second later, you’ve got an opening and it’s swung out
of the way from its initial cutting force. And so that’s the
SLA cutter. That’s all mine. That was my concept. And those
were used through all the launches as a safety device. Never had to
fire it in to save anybody, but they saved taking those Saturn LM
adapters back to the factory and building 9—8 new—no,
3 from 9—6—they’d have had to make 6 new special
act that way. Also, we even came up with a patch device so if they
accidentally fired it all they had to do was set the blank back in.
Because it cut it so cleanly, you could set it back in place and epoxy
it in, and glue it in with a—with an adhesive. Well, that’s
the one story I wanted to tell you. (Now let’s see, what was
You had one other that you were particularly proud of.
Yeah. Now I’m going to draw a blank. Surely not? SLA cutter.
What was the other?
We can come back.
Because I—you know, right now, I’m just thinking that
after the Apollo fire, they called on you to clean up the program,
Yes. After the fire, Gilruth sent me out to the contractor’s
plant and asked me to look through the—their whole operation
out there, and write a report that of what you see as far as malpractice
work. You know, doing things—
—improperly. So, I flew out to the contractor’s plant,
met the night shift representative of NASA, who showed me around.
And I thought, “If I go in at night shift, it would be quiet
and I’ll have a good opportunity to really see what’s
going on.” So, I walked that thing through, and I wrote up about
25 or 30 observations. To give you just a few samples: They have heat-treating
ovens that they have timers on that will run for a certain amount
of time to cure a plastic part. Well, when the oven got overheated,
they opened the door and let it bleed off. And I walk in and here’s
a—it’s supposed to be a precisely controlled thing. Because
they had overheated the oven, some guy goes and opens the door and
lets it sit open for a while. And that’s against total procedure.
You don’t do things like that!
Then I looked at some of the machine tools, and I found that some
of them were improperly using them. They—there’s a tracing
head that follows a template on a lathe. And if you hook it up properly,
you can run along and the template will guide your tool; and you can
cut just what you’re supposed to get. You know, the shape of
the template’s supposed to generate the shape. Well, I found
that that was not hooked up properly. I wrote about that.
But then the cleanliness. I went and I noticed they had painted lines
throughout the shops, trying to control the walkways. But there was
stuff sitting over the lines everywhere, you know, the roll-around
dollies. If there’d been a fire, somebody would fall on over
them trying to get out of that place! So, I critiqued the visible
plant in many different ways. I had—came up with, like, 25 or
30 points. And Bob Gilruth was so pleased with it he called up the
president (I think it was Rocketdyne [Division of North American Aviation
Corp.]—or no.) Who—?
Rocketdyne made the engines. I think you’re talking [North American
Space Division head] Harrison [A.] Storm[s, Jr.]—he was out
of North American. North American Aerospace Division.
Kinzler: Yeah. It was North American. He called Harrison
Storms and said, “I’ve had Mr. Kinzler out here looking
around your plant. And he’s written up a rather lengthy report.
I’d like to send it to you and see if you’ll agree that
maybe some action is needed.” So, he sent the whole thing out!
I got the word back that Harrison Storm called all his shops people
in—he had everybody involved—and he laid down the law
and said, “I want every one of these points straightened out,”
you know, “in nothing flat.” So, that did happen. How’d
you hear about that?
Oh, [North American President J.] Lee [Leland] Atwood was a very good
friend of mine.
And this—the story of Harrison Storms, incidentally—
I’m glad you brought it up because—
—who lost his job in the process, as you know, a little later.
Yeah, yes, I do.
But, no. That was—what you did, of course, was very popular
Very unpopular with North American.
But it was something that had to be, wasn’t it?
You really—somebody had to go out there and say, “Hey,
you’re not doing this right.”
But was that really what caused the fire, do you think? Because they
weren’t doing things right? Or was it just one thing led to
Well, as you recall, I went out also and I climbed up in their capsule
they were—the next one they were building. In that one, you
could see wiring laying on the floor right where you’d walk
and stumble over it. You know, basic, finished wiring. And our shops
at their—somebody else’s direction (there was a project
engineer into this), but we made all sorts of sheet metal covers that
could be put over clusters of wiring. And the outcome of that was
a design change on how wiring would be carried—conducted through
the spacecraft. So, we had something to do with that. The Tech Service
Division made prototype boxes [of] different sizes and zip lids on
them and everything else. They had fun doing that! I’d carry
all these boxes out and say, “This is what you guys need here.”
You know. In other words, we put it to them in that case. And they
did. They changed the—they made covers for everything.
And the facts of life are such that following the Apollo 1 fire, there
were no more breakdowns of that kind, even though there was Apollo
You and your gang must’ve had a fantastic time with Apollo 13,
or did you?
No. It was kind of quiet for us. It—the crew themselves, you
know, did a lot to figure out what they had to do to save themselves.
The flight crew. Now the support people on—in the JSC mostly
were out of the flight operations end of it, where they have procedures
to write and all that. And it turned out that we didn’t have
much to do with Apollo 13 fixes. They pulled up some cardboard boxes,
you know, to make simulated adapters for transferring oxygen from
the lunar module over to the command module. All those innovations
happened outside of the purview of our Division. It just happened
that they were able to do it without us. They didn’t need too
much made for the fix for Apollo 13. Just—
Through the latter end of Apollo—the Apollo Program, then, had
you done your job well enough that you could start to look to future
things like Skylab or Apollo-Soyuz? Was it the time for that?
Yes, it was. It was time for Skylab and the most exciting time of
my life, really.
Well, around NASA they call you “the man who saved Skylab,”
and it’s [i.e., Skylab’s] right over your shoulder right
now in its fixed configuration.
Oh, for goodness sakes.
So, let’s talk Skylab.
Let’s move into that arena.
Okay. Skylab, we called it “The Parasol.” That was our
favorite nickname for it. It had its origin when they launched the
section of the Skylab unmanned and they lost some of the thermal covering
on the outside of the spacecraft, which everybody knows that. But
because of that, there was quite a bit of scurrying to determine,
“What can we do to keep the Skylab unmanned capsule—spacecraft
from burning up and being un-useful?” You know, unusable.
So, quite a few people at the Johnson Space Center got to thinking
about the use of masts and booms, and like you do to rig sails on
a sailing craft. Different ones of the fellows, I think, were interested
in sailing, for example. So, I saw and heard the early activity around
the Johnson Center about doing EVA and going out and rigging various
covers by means of a rigging mast, booms, and then pulling fabric
out and deploying it. And when I realized that nobody thought about
going inside and doing it in the simple way, I thought, “Well,
I’m going to look around some.” So, I went over to the
trainer over in building 8; and I found there was a sally port; that’s
a camera port, 8-in. square, right on the side of the spacecraft,
where the heatshield had ripped off. And one thing leading to two,
you know, “Why don’t we use this sally port opening to
deploy something from the inside?”
So, then I went back and I thought, “Well, I’ve got to
have some way to demonstrate my concept in order to have it take precedence
over these EVA-erected things.” So, I had one of my technicians
(actually a fellow that worked in my planning office) go down to Houston
and buy four fishing poles that are fiberglass extendible fishing
poles, “Run down and buy those poles, and I’ll get a purchase
order for them, and bring them back to me.” And then I drew
up a hub with springs attached to the bottom of each of the four fishing
poles, and then I had the shop—sheet metal shop roll up a sheet
metal tube about 8-in. in diameter, maybe a—2-ft long. Then
I called up to my parachute shop and said, “Get me a 24-ft square
of parachute silk.” (This is how we operated! “Bring me
some parachute silk.”) And they came down.
One of the technicians worked with me; and the machine shop fastened
the four telescoping tubes of the fishing rods to the base of this—hub
base; and I fastened that hub base to the floor of the big hangar,
where we had a big—a shop area (a high bay, we call it). And
I tied thread on the ends of each of the four tips of the four extendible
fiberglass fishing rods. I lowered the big crane down from overhead
to the floor level and strung my four lines over the crane hook. Then
I got a group together. I called (I think) Gilruth, everybody came
over for that thing to see a demonstration. I said, “I think
I’ve got something you’ll like.”
So, they were standing around, just wondering “What’s
Kinzler up to now?” So, they took that—I had them—I
raised the crane hook up as I was letting some of the excess cord
go with it. And once I had the hook up high enough (say, 30-ft high),
I knew I had clearance below the hook to do my deployment demonstration.
So, I start pulling—they have a—they made a movie of this
to document [it]. I started pulling all four of the cords simultaneously
and—here’s this canister setting on the floor. It looked
like a magician’s act because out comes fishing rods, moving
out, getting longer and longer. They’re dragging with them fabric
because the fabric was fastened on the corners to the four rods. They
drag out. They get all the way out to where they’re fully out,
and all I did was let go; and it went “sshumm.” So, the
springs were on each corner. So, they came down to the floor and they
laid it out right on the floor, just perfectly. And everybody was
impressed, I’ll tell you. They were impressed! So, that concept—my
concept—was the one chosen for the real thing.
And from that time on, we were—we stayed awake and worked for
6 solid days, around-the-clock. I had about 100 employees involved
at that time in the shops. We built all the tubing devices out of
aluminum. We machined up a new, fancy hub that was more efficient
than the one I had first drawn. And we welded up an aluminum box.
Oh, I left something out. The camera port was designed to receive
an 8-in. square, lengthy box for the camera. So, we used the identical
dimensions of the box and figured, “We’ve got to fit everything
into this, because that’s all the space we’ve got! We’ve
got to get out of that 8-in. hole.” So, we designed the parasail
assembly to fit in an 8-in. square by 3-ft long box. And we went ahead,
built the metal box; and at this time there were so many people involved
and it was so urgent that we wanted to make sure that we could go
as fast as possible.
So, we subbed out some of the things to aerospace contractors to make
up in parallel to what we were doing. They made some boxes that were
backups in case we ruined a box; and then there were metal tubes,
tubular threaded pieces, that were each 3-ft long. And those were
hand—they were contained in a bag—a fabric bag, a separate
bag. And those were designed so you could screw one rod, 3-ft long,
on the back end of this box. You could push it forward 3 ft; then
you’d screw another 3 ft on, push it out 6 ft; put one on, 9
ft. And you can get all the way out to the 28 ft if you have enough
So, they made up these lightweight, short, threaded, tubular pieces,
and put them in a nice, neat bag. And then the rest of everything
else had to be compressed into the box. And the next thing had to
happen was you have to demonstrate that your flight-type parasol will
work. So, we built the flight models; we went over to the large space
chamber that’s at the [Johnson] Space Center; and we raised
the unit up on a—and once again, we had the box mounted up 20
ft or so in the air. One of the astronauts that was monitoring the
program with us climbed aboard, and one of my technicians went up;
and they took these same tubes, and they started pushing and deploying
the parasol out of its canister, downward.
Now we have to work with the help of gravity, not have gravity disrupt
everything. You couldn’t work horizontally or everything would
fall over in an awkward way. So, if you go vertical and let things
out, you know, they’ll tend to fall in a natural way. So, that
was the nearest simulation we could get to a vacuum space-type deployment.
So, they deployed the parasol, and it came out nicely, laid out on
a—they had a grappling net there to keep it from getting damaged.
And we thought, “We’re home free. We’ve got this
thing all working, and all we’ll do is pack it up and take it
to the Cape.” Well, that wasn’t the case.
We had a thin Mylar, aluminized sheet of material forming the parasol
fabric (about 2/1000 or 3/1000 of an in. thick; the thickness of a
piece of newspaper, is what it was). And they decided they’d
like to have even more thermal protection on the parasol than that
would offer. So, I said, “You think you can repack with another
layer of material and still get it into the same small box?”
Well, we did by forcing and squeezing and going far out of norm, we
actually forced an increased one, and decided that wasn’t the
thing to do. So, after we forcefully got it out, they backed off.
They said, “You know, we don’t really need that second
layer of Mylar on top of what you’ve got.”
So, we had—then we had to go pack it again for flight. And we
got it ready to go to the Cape, and within the hours before heading
for the Cape, once again (I think it was Max Faget watching what we
were doing); and he said, “You know, if you had a short extension
about 3-in. long, it—that will first screw on the box, it would
help the astronaut in continuing to deploy all the tubes.” So,
we designed a quick piece of stuff in the machine shop; and it had
to be oriented. It had to be indexed, we called it. It had to screw
up and stop where the threads that were on the previous piece had
the same stopping point. That’s what we call indexing.
Voice Off Camera: We’re going to stop.
We’re going to change led to another, and—
—tapes. That gives you a nice chance for a short break.
Yeah. And I’ll think of that other thing I want to talk about.
As we left—as we turned off a few moments ago to reload, Jack,
you were about to tell us about this special device that was used,
or that would be used, to deploy the parasol on Skylab.
Right. It consisted of agroup of threaded, extended pieces of metal
tubing that could cause the package to move outward, somewhat like
an umbrella when you deploy it. And it went in its own package. It
wasn’t part of the box that we talked about. But the rest of
it was designed in such a fashion that it had to accommodate another
part of the problem. The damage on the spacecraft was not concentric
with the opening in the port box—the 8-in. porthole.
So, we had to think about that a little bit, and say, “How do
we deploy something out of the porthole, like an umbrella device,
and have it deploy so that it’s over here rather than over here?”
In other words, not centered. And we didn’t dwell with that
too long. We said, “I know what to do. Let’s add another
6 or 8-ft of cord to the end of the two poles that we wanted to move
away from. If we deploy it out with these strings—cords attached
first and then the tip of the fabric corner would be attached to the
8-ft length of cord. If you do that and you push it all the way out,
when you get it fully extended and you release it to spring out, it
will spring out and it will actually kick itself over to the exact
spot where you need it.” So, we added cords on the ends, which
made an offset, which pulled the piece of fabric over right where
And then the good news is: The cabin was 120°F at the time, sending
signals back to Earth. And they had all kinds of foodstuffs and camera,
film, medicines; they had things that would be destroyed in a very
short time with that high temperature. So, once we deployed the Skylab
parasol, the temperature went down within a few hours to 70°F.
And we had fixed the Skylab. We had saved it.
And as an aside: After that, it hit worldwide news. And I started
receiving letters for the next year, asking for autographs and, “Would
you please sign these? Because you’re the guy that did this,
you know, momentous thing of saving Skylab.” And, of course,
the best part of it is: I got this—the Distinguished Service
Medal from NASA for doing the Skylab design. And that’s the
highest medal award they have in NASA, Distinguished Service Medal.
So, I’m very proud of that.
When Pete Conrad went up there with that device, you were able to
watch a lot of that from television.
Where were you when he actually made the deployment?
I was in—
What were your emotions?
—okay. A very good question. And I’ll leave these out
until you’ve asked them. I was asked to go over and stand by
at Mission Control during the deployment phase. And sure enough, I
was there; and they started the deployment in daylight, and as the
spacecraft was moving towards darkness they had not completed the
deployment. So, the question came up, “What will happen to your
fabric if it’s in the night phase and it gets stiff and cold?”
You know, there’s –200°F versus +200°F in a day
and night cycle. So, they asked my opinion and I said, “Why
don’t we stop right where we are?” They had it partway
out. And they’d just stop and wait.
So, sure enough, they waited until they moved around to the daylight
cycle (I think it was about another half-hour or so, as I recall),
and they continued deployment. And when they did deploy, it came out
very nicely with one exception: it had a little kind of a twist—a
little kink in one corner that didn’t affect the coverage. It
was big enough to cover. But I was there, in the Mission Control,
at the deployment phase, with Pete up there busily doing it.
You were there perspiring freely, I would imagine.
Well, you know, that was one of the real highlights of your career.
Yes, it was.
What happened after that?
Oh, I remember finishing Skylab. I didn’t get involved with
the Shuttle to any extent because I was near retirement in ’77
and Shuttle was just in its infancy. And we had—we were building
models and demonstration wind tunnel things and so on. But we didn’t
have too much to do with the Shuttle. But we had the Apollo-Soyuz
followed the Skylab, and that was an interesting project.
We—the Russians and the Americans decided they could do a docking
maneuver, where they could join together. And during that time, the
Americans went over to Russia and examined the docking mechanism that
the Russians had been using for some time; and they didn’t like
the reliability appearance of it, and they were a little bit skeptical
about whether it would be satisfactory to use it in our version. So,
we finally discussed that back and forth (I think) with them and the
edict was put down that, “You can use your docking mechanism
on your end, but we’re going to design our own American docking
mechanism for our side.” We’re talking now about a structure,
a little chamber with two different docking mechanisms on it. And
we made our American one up and it was proved out. It used all real
accurate mechanical functions, and it was certainly preferable to
the one that the Russians had. And then another thing happened in
regard to that. When they finally did go with that mission, the first
thing that happens (this is an international affair we’re coming
up with here), so back to me again. Calls from the office saying,
“We need a plaque that can be shared between the U.S. and the
Russians.” And, “Can you guys come up with something like
that?” So, we had some help from the graphics department in
this particular instant. But we made the neatest combination plaque.
It fit together in two parts. And when it was together, it was a complete
plaque, but as you took it apart each—each organization could
keep half of it. We made up those in the shops; and whenever Deke
[Donald K.] Slayton flew over there and joined up with them in—in
this docking module they had, he and the crew exchanged greetings
with each other and then Deke handed them this special half of a plaque
that we had built in our Tech Service shop. So, we’re always
into everything whenever you look around. That—that’s
something that happened that maybe everybody doesn’t know. But
that was a nice—we were thrilled about that cooperation with
our Russian counterparts. I never did feel badly about, you know,
the fact that we’ve dealt—signed up with the Russians
to work with us in space. And they’re certainly doing well now
with Mir helping us to—somewhere to park our vehicles that we
build and that sort of thing.
You’re still following the program, I take it?
Yeah. Still am.
Retired but following a path.
As are all of us I think.
Well, you know, in checking out your bio I found a lot of references
to your work in finding and training people to go to work in the space
program. Can you tell us about the recruiting and the training phases
in your career?
Yes, I can. First off, I became a product of the Langley Research
Center’s training program that brought in technicians, like
myself, interested in aerospace kind of people. And they enrolled
us in a 4 or 5 year long class in which we learned all the different
things you should learn in a given craft, like in the machine business
or the sheet metal fabrication or aircraft sheet metal workers, and
so on. So, I came through that program myself on a 5-year level and
during that time or shortly after, when I graduated and received my
ring—which—this one; this is the ring, I still carry it—we—I
was asked to be a teacher in the Apprentice School at Langley, so
I volunteered for that. And I taught blueprint reading and strength
of materials and a variety of subjects. But having that kind of a
background behind me, when I joined with Bob Gilruth I was determined
to start an educating—educational group here at wherever we
settled our Center.
So, I got with the personnel department; and, having enough experience
with the existing Langley Research Program for Technicians, I put
together a very similar program and then saw to it that I had to do
recruiting of course. And we went to various high schools and—both
Dave McCraw, who I’ve mentioned once or twice (my deputy), and
I were very knowledgeable about how to choose a young person who has
the natural attributes to be a technical person; technician. And,
what do you suppose we used for criteria? Remember I mentioned we
built models? Well, one criteria was: “Have you ever built model
planes?” You know, “Do you have any interest in aviation?
Have you built models?” The other was, “Have you ever
tinkered with automobiles? Do you ever have any junk cars that you
learned how to put together?” and so on.
So, Dave and I did all the recruiting for the initial classes. And
we would bring in these young kids; and the first thing we’d
get into, “Well, tell us about what you’re doing nowadays.”
You know, “Do you have any hobbies?” (Looking for hobbies.)
Well, some of them did; some didn’t. But pretty soon, we found
there were people who liked to build models. We found people that
were real good at restoring cars and that sort of thing. They had
mechanical aptitude, and they had interest. The key thing is: you’ve
got to have some aptitude, or otherwise you’re a dud, but you
also have to be interested in becoming something in the way of a technician.
So, that’s pretty much the story about the training, where I
went around and recruited.
One time we even had a series, later after the basic apprentice school
was running, we were approached by a Black school out here in Houston
that—a community college. And they approached the Chief of Personnel
at NASA and they said, “Do you suppose there could be any place
you might find to put some of these students of, you know, low expertise
but still have potential?” “Well,” we said, “we’ll
try. So, send some of them out.” And they arranged to bus them
out to our place, and we placed some in the electronics department
and some in the welding shop and so on. And out of about a dozen,
three or four actually had what it takes. The rest were absolute duds!
They couldn’t do anything. They’d sit around and sleep
and miss the bus! They wouldn’t even come regularly. But we
wound up teaching a boy to become a welder; and we had another woman,
who’s still out here, who went through the electronics department.
(And she is a very, very effective person; and she got in later on
into another department. In other words, she’s—we built
her career for her.) So, we reached out to people with, you know,
the idea that we are products of the high school-level folks. Caldwell’s
[Johnson] the same way. I refer to him but, he and I both, we owe
a lot to the fact that we had enough drive to get ourselves into the
What advice would you give to anyone who might want to take part in
I would say: First, read as much as you can about what NASA is and
what they do. The libraries have endless information. NASA has lots
of free information. I know the teachers take NASA information home
to their classes. So, the first thing would be to become informed
in what NASA’s done or [is] doing presently. Then the other
thing is to consider going to night school, if you’re already
working somewhere at a grocery or something. Go to night school on
your own, and a junior college is very helpful. They have courses
where you can learn. The target should be to become a qualified technician.
Not necessarily move all the way into engineering. That’s desirable,
and a lot of technicians later—some of mine, by the way, have
gone on with additional college time and gotten their engineering
degrees. But what we need in the country, we need badly highly skilled
technicians. And you see that in the automobile business or just about
everywhere. Air conditioning. So, my suggestion to young people is:
become familiar with what NASA’s doing, and then ask them. They’ll
tell you what courses to follow. And if you just do a little bit,
show a little bit of energy of your own, commit yourself, you’ll
be fine. That’s about the best way I can put it.
I promised you the opportunity to come back to that thing that you
couldn’t quite remember when we were talking about—
Okay. I’m just—
—achievements that you were particularly proud of.
Yeah. Now, I talked about the SLA cutter.
Yes, you did.
And the Shuttle. What else did we do with Shuttle? It’s strange
how it would escape me, because it’s a major one.
Now this was Apollo.
It’s terrible. It has to drift for a while. Maybe it’ll
come back in.
The senior moments.
Yeah. That’s what it is. I’m glad you appreciate that.
I do, indeed. Well, I’ll allow you to slide into it in this
—by saying: where (as you look back over your career)—where
do you see the real highlights within that career as the nation slowly
but surely moved into space? You saw it all, Jack.
And what stands out in your memory, if any single or combination of
Well, the first: Alan Shepard’s flight was pretty darn important.
We took our first man and shot him up on a rocket! And I stood outside
the launch pad. In those days, we were allowed to actually go out
of the blockhouse and stand within 200 yards of the Redstone on which
Al Shepard was sitting and watch him take off. So, that’s pretty
primitive, but that’s—I have memories of that. I’ll
never forget that. But that’s just the first thing.
As time went on, when we came into Apollo, I guess my fondest memory
is that I had the opportunity with the symbolic committee to make
recommendations for both a plaque and a flag. And then I got action
items to personally, you know—to do those. I’ll never
forget those meetings, because I was sitting in an office with the
top dignitaries of NASA who said, “Can you tell us what we ought
to do?” And I did! It was kind of brash in a way! But they bought
it, you know, 100%. They didn’t add anything else. Nothing else.
So, that was a highlight. After that, throughout Apollo, I did talk
about how we did the SLA cutter. Oh, I mentioned about repairing the
hatch door on the Mercury (that’s one). There’s a big
one, but it’s sleeping behind me somewhere.
It’s still—you’ll remember it tomorrow—I'm
Yeah. Good heavens! How could I forget it?
Well, a couple of final questions then, if I may.
If it does come to your mind, you just feel free to pop it right up
First of all, you stayed, obviously, tremendously interested in the
Yes. I still follow it.
What do you think of the way the Station and the world are going in
space? Do you think they’re moving in a good direction?
I think so. But I’m disappointed we haven’t planned to
go back to the Moon. There’s no reason why we didn’t add
a return to the Moon program and then use some development of living
on the Moon. In other words, using, you know—building buildings
that would support people and maybe excavating, trying to find water
sources, and different things. So, I think we kind of gave up too
quickly on the Moon, personally. The other thing I feel is that: I
have no doubt—I am positive—we’re going to go to
Mars. And I’m so thrilled that today I read about a way to do
it in—by—in 17 years’ time. I may live that long!
I don’t know. But—
You’ll never know.
So, in other words, we haven’t quit looking out into space and
trying to understand space. And the more we do that, the more our
religion and everything else fits in. I mean, we have to believe in
the Creator and the heavens being omnipotent. And there’s just
something bigger than mankind alone, so I’m very supportive
of way-out thinking when it comes to “Will we find civilization
elsewhere?” and things of that kind. I can’t guarantee
any of it. But I can sure believe in it.
You know, Jack Kinzler, you’ve been kind enough to let me guide
you with my questions for the last couple of hours. I’d like
to give you the opportunity now to say anything that you’d like.
Anything that I didn’t think to ask—anything that you
feel about all of the things we’ve been talking about here.
Okay. Well, I do have one. And it’s kind of what I consider
an unbelievable work situation. We joined the Space Task Group, and
we had a capsule that we were building at Langley. We had to fly down
to the Cape, frequently, and back and involve ourselves with the Hangar
S operation. (I’m talking about myself and probably a few of
my employees.) We had to put together a shops organization. We had
to design buildings that would be suitable. We had to come up with
budgets, asking for millions of dollars to buy machine tools and so
on. We had to commute between Langley and Houston and the Cape for
months and months with that. We had a shuttle that was under contract
to NASA. You just called up and said, “I got to get back to
Langley tonight.” And you’d hop on and, “We’ve
all got to go to the Cape.”
So, we were running a round- robin here, a three-way deal. I was.
And I was setting up shops at Cape Canaveral. I was setting up shops
in Houston. I was out recruiting people. I was talking to architects
about the kind of buildings we’d need. And this is an “I”
thing; but if you get the picture, I had so darn many involvements
it’s almost impossible to believe that one guy would have been
allowed to do it! That’s the thrilling thing to me, that I just
pulled off something not too many people do.
How big did it become, that organization that you headed?
I had 185 employees at the last. I had planned for 300 in my staffing
designs and that sort of thing. But we ran into a clash between the
change of NASA’s views on using support contractors as opposed
to civil servants. And once the civil servant squeeze sort of came
on, then we had a reverse situation. I was actually given a reduction
in force. And this is the sad part of our story. I had to let go many
of these young technicians that we’d brought up over 5 years’
training, let them go because they were the lowest ranked in the civil
service ranking system. And if you didn’t let them go, you had
to push out your top 20-year people. So, we had a case during my time
at JSC that was very distasteful for me. In other words, I saw the
decline in the in-house capability and in the optional changeover
to support service contracting. It grew like Mopsie. And it works.
But you know what’s missing in it, Roy?
We had people who spent 20 years working in shops in the NACA days,
lifetime jobs (they never thought about going anywhere; they’d
just come in, go through apprentice school, and spend their life at
a research center). We then moved out into this newer area we’re
in, the NASA area; and one by one, the pressures that were to bear
brought in contracts and contracts for providing those technicians,
engineers, you name them. That became the pattern. And I think it
was keyed after the atomic energy setup they had, the AEC [Atomic
Energy Commission], the atomic energy operation. As I understand it,
all they had was some Air Force colonels and so on sitting at offices
overseeing contracts; and they did nothing. They didn’t design,
they didn’t build. And they handed off the entire responsibility
for things that they were doing in the atomic bomb development and
so on over to industry.
And gradually, NASA has moved in the direction of handing off more
and more to the—responsibility of the contract, which works.
But you lose one major thing: you lose continuity. Everybody I brought
in with me had over 20 years’ experience. I’m talking
about my initial team. And they stayed on until they reached their
60s or whatever. They made a career lifetime of working in research
and development. You find very few places in the U.S. where you can
get into a research and development environment as a technician or
craftsman, because almost everything you encounter in the big companies
is planned operations. In other words, you have a major design department.
You send drawings out with little piece parts on them. A guy operates
one tool, a lathe or a mill. They spend their life working on very
narrow limits as to how much involved they are with the company, or
the purpose of the company. The auto makers. The auto builders. We
have a problem with that.
We need to have people allowed to get more involved with the entire
process. In other words have these give suggestions, make suggestions,
and have them reviewed by top management. And in many cases, they
will find that some of the most brilliant people they have are just
buried down in the maze of the working operation. So, NASA has crept
in that direction. And our shop now has, like—the Tech Service
building, 9 and 10, is staffed with about (let’s see, how many
would there be?) maybe 75 or 80 people that are civil service at the
most. And not even that. Probably 50; and then they have another 100
or so that are contract people. Every 5 years, they recompete contracts.
The contractors who are bidding in want to win the contracts, so they
offer competing pay scales that are lesser than the ongoing ones.
And this is a bit of a sad story. But this is factual.
So, in that regard, you don’t have any system that keeps the
good people working on a long-term basis. They tend to drift and,
you know, be lost. So, I’m concerned about that. And I don’t
have a fix for it, other than I did see that in recent times the Tech
Service Division, which is renamed now (has a bigger and fancier name),
has actually built some prototypes of this escape device, the X-33
or whatever they call it.
X-38? I’m impressed that something has happened! Believe me,
years have gone by, 20 years have gone by, Tech Service’s shops
haven’t built anything significant like an original device like
the X-38—until now. They are doing it—I guess they’ve
got enough trained people that they can do something like that once
again. But they’re all, most of them are contract people. So,
it’s a—it’s kind of a contrast. I’m talking
about it, against it, and yet I’m saying, “Hey, they’re
finally making it work!” But it took them a long time!
You’ve given us a lot of lessons from the past.
And I guess that’s really what you’re preaching right
I am. I’m stating that the original days of the Space Task Group
were unbelievable in that we gave the opportunity to everyone in the
Task Group to just go ahead and take charge and do what you need to
do. And we’ll back you! We’ll just let you go. And I went
out and found buildings to rent. I ordered machine tools in the millions
of dollars. I never talked about Gilruth about what I was doing. I
just had the go-ahead.
Now he certainly monitored and knew I was doing the proper things.
But I was not alone. People like (well, I don’t know who to
describe next), but I think, well, about Caldwell, you know. He was
a fellow with a lot of capability, and he did a tremendous amount
to help develop the design of the Mercury capsule. And yet he’s
just one of us guys, you know, that did it. And I can’t think
of that other—
And you still can’t think of that one major thing.
No. The Apollo. The Apollo thing.
Well, actually, I think we’ve pretty well covered all the bases.
If you’re happy with where we’ve gone, where—what
you’ve covered, I am, too.
You’ve got a lot. Okay.
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