NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
John B. Lee
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Houston, Texas – 18 January 2008
This is the
text only version of this transcript, and the photo references are for
photos provided by
Mr. Lee. To view the photos in context, access the PDF
version of this interview.
is January 18th, 2008. This oral history with John Lee is being conducted
for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project in Houston, Texas.
The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal assisted by Rebecca Wright.
Thanks again for joining us this morning.
Lee: I appreciate
the homework that you sent me last night. Based on the list of questions
you gave me, it made me dig deeper. Going over some of my biographies,
I ran into this piece which talked about the 12 technical papers that
I had written. One was a TM [Technical Memorandum] called, “Earth
Landing Systems for Manned Spacecraft.” It was co-authored by
John [W.] Kiker, [James] Kirby Hinson, and myself. John Kiker was hired
from US Army Aviation Transportation Research and Engineering Command
and took over the parachute systems after I became Dr. Maxime A. “Max”
Faget’s technical assistant.
John Kiker and I both went to Turin, Italy, to give a presentation to
AGARD [Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development], which
was a subcommittee to NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. I gave
the presentation on the subject. What it covered was the parachute systems
on Mercury, Gemini, and what we were proposing for Apollo. What was
interesting about this, Radioplane, which provided our parachutes, provided
the life support systems and the parachutes for the Italian Air Force.
Tom Beresford with Radioplane set it up for me to go down to talk to
their people on Saturday in Rome, Italy.
Kiker went back to Paris, France, and Friday I went on down to Rome.
When I arrived at the hotel that night, there was a young Italian boy
who introduced himself to me. He asked, “Could you stay over until
Monday to give your presentation instead of tomorrow?” I said,
“Yes, I’ll be glad to do that.” He said, “I
will be your guide for this weekend.” I had my own personal guide.
He took me around the five hills of Rome. I got to see Rome as probably
few other people get to see it. I got to go in places like his private
clubs and to some of Rome’s best restaurants. I was taking lots
of pictures of churches and some very famous statues. Sometimes he would
stop me and say, “No no, Mussolini!” I did not know the
difference but he made it very clear that they did not think much of
the statues that Mussolini had built.
The following Monday I gave the presentation to them. At that time the
communists were trying to take over the Italian government. The Italians
were very cautious about discussing how they stood on anything like
that. After that presentation, one of the executives took me to the
airport. When we were walking from the terminal building out to the
airplane and when there was no one around us, he turned to me and he
said, “You all beat those Russians to the Moon.” That was
a real thrill to find out how the Italians felt about the US and the
strain they must have been under. That made the trip very much more
worthwhile. That was very interesting and exciting.
classes did you teach at the University of Texas [Austin, Texas]?
Lee: I talked to
them about the parachutes and the Earth landing systems on the three
manned spacecraft. My main thrust was to show them how we designed,
developed, tested a system, and wrote the final reports. At that time,
the three-parachute system for Apollo was still under development.
Now let’s go back to some of the other questions that you asked
me about what sort of materials or concepts I was looking at when designing
the Space Station. I talked to you about the design concept of how we
would put the Space Station up with the Saturn booster, and we could
do it all in one launch. I didn’t really get into developing the
materials for it.
The materials had been pretty well established. I just helped to develop
the concept of putting the Space Station up with the Saturn Booster
and then the Shuttle. It was a 12-man Space Station that would orbit
the earth for 10 years. That was the concept for the one which we could
put up with the Saturn booster. The crew could stay up there for a long
This was also done under Dr. Faget’s Advanced Planning Group headed
up Rene [A.] Berglund, and I was the deputy project manager and head
of E&D [Engineering and Development Directorate] technical support.
I had the support of the subsystem managers from the divisions. Jack
[C.] Heberlig was also his administrative assistant and took care of
all the finances. Both of those Space Station designs were run under
a contract with North American. I cannot remember if it was still North
American and not Rockwell. North American has gone through several evolutions.
Now it’s Boeing. At that time their study group was at Seal Beach,
south of Los Angeles in California.
Basically most of the evolution of the Space Station came from the Manned
Spacecraft Center [MSC]. I knew that von Braun had proposed putting
up a revolving Space Station in order to simulate artificial gravity
on the crew. That would have been very complicated. We had proved in
the Skylab missions that artificial gravity would not be required. On
one study we had two study contractors: one at JSC, and one at MSFC
[Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama]. When we were putting
up the Space Station with the Saturn booster, we used the solar arrays
and they used the nuclear energy for the power supplies. We showed that
you should use solar arrays and not nuclear energy for Earth orbit.
So here, once again, I think that we out-engineered Marshall.
Putting the Space Station up with the Shuttle and its many individual
modules made it much more complicated and a lot more expensive. We have
had to fly so many more Shuttle missions, and then we have had to put
them together in orbit like a Tinker Toy set. That has really complicated
things. As you know, it has been a very slow a complicated process.
It’s taken them many years to do it, whereas we could have done
it so much quicker, less complicated, and cheaper with the Saturn booster.
During the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, I was the lead engineer from Engineering
on the docking module for the flight. Once again, we did this in the
same study group with Rene Berglund, and I had the same position for
that as I did for the Space Station. I was responsible for the engineering
part of it. This was also a study contract with Rockwell. I have talked
about designing the concept, what the problems were, and how we were
going to dock. At that time we had two different docking mechanisms
on the two spacecraft, so you had to have a specific docking mechanism:
one for the Command Module and one for the Soyuz. Once we developed
that concept, it went to Caldwell [C.] Johnson in Engineering, and he
designed the actual docking mechanism hardware and module. That was
the difference between doing the concept design and the design and building
of the actual hardware. Glynn [S.] Lunney was made the program manager,
and he ran the program between the U.S. and Russia.
The KGB was the organization that was the sleuths for the Russians.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the story or not, but it’s
very interesting. Stop me if have. Caldwell Johnson and Dr. Robert R.
“Bob” Gilruth made a trip to Russia with a model of our
proposed docking system. Caldwell and Dr. Gilruth were going to show
this model to the Russian engineers the next day. Dr. Gilruth had a
suitcase that he never locked because he didn’t have a key for
it. They went out for dinner, and the KGB came in and took that model
apart; they couldn’t get it back together. The KBG also locked
Dr. Gilruth’s suitcase, so he had to break it open.
At that time, the Russians would always have at least three people in
a group, which included a KGB agent, so the group would not know who
the KGB agent was and who the actual engineers were because they all
acted like they were engineers. I think that was an interesting story
about some of the problems they had working with the Russians. I’m
sure Glynn Lunney and some of the others have told you a lot better
stories than that, but that was one that Caldwell and Dr. Gilruth both
I will try to tell you some of the things that I know about the universal
docking mechanism. When Dr. Faget started designing the Shuttle, he
asked for a design concept using the Apollo spacecraft to fill the gap
between the end of the Apollo Program and the first Shuttle flight,
which Dr. Faget assigned to Rene Berglund’s Advanced Study Group.
We came up with a plan to put the Apollo spacecraft into a more northerly
Earth orbit. We planned to map the whole Earth in 24 hours using some
of the new and most advanced classified photography equipment. Some
of it was from the Air Force. At that time, the Air Force had not been
able to map the United States with their airplanes. We got the approval
from Dr. Faget and Dr. Gilruth to show the results of the study to NASA
Headquarters [Washington, DC], which turned it down.
They said that they wanted a plan to dock the Apollo spacecraft with
the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. I think that George [M.] Low was at the
NASA Headquarters at that time. I do not know this for certain, but
I think he had a lot to do with this decision. Dr. Faget gave this task
to Rene’s study group so we ended up developing the concept for
docking the Apollo spacecraft with the Russian Soyuz.
I didn’t have anything to do with working with the Russians. I
did not travel to Russia. I probably could have gotten involved with
them if I had gotten on Glynn Lunney’s team, but I wanted to stay
with Max. I felt like I could learn more in one day working with Max
than I could working a long time with some other people. He was so brilliant.
a nice compliment.
Lee: Once again
I was off doing something else at that time of the flight, but I was
very elated, because Donald K. “Deke” Slayton finally got
to fly on that flight. He was also a good friend of mine. The flight
opened up a new era for us in spaceflight. We would now work with other
countries around the world. I have talked to some engineers, and I was
told that we almost lost that flight. Because of the good support by
our engineers, they were able to save the flight. I had better not go
into that because other people that you’ve probably talked to,
or should talk to, have more information on that.
After working on the docking module concept for the Russians, I was
put in charge of the Advanced Technology Programs for the directorate.
After all of the work that we had done in studies such as the Space
Station, I was in a position to know what kind of technologies we should
try to develop for the future space programs. That was a pretty good
fit, and that was what I did for the last six years I was at NASA. Mel
[Melvin] Savage at NASA Headquarters was responsible for funding the
RTOPs [Research Technology Operation Procedure]. I was responsible for
getting the requests from the divisions, and I would request the money
from NASA Headquarters to conduct advanced research. These studies would
be funded out of NASA Headquarters on contracts called RTOPs. The divisions
would assign study managers who were responsible for each of the study
One of the interesting technology programs we had at that time was to
build a Beam Builder System where you would take up strips of metal
in the Shuttle and then you could form them into beams that you wanted.
That is you could take a flat piece of metal, and you could form it,
bend it 90 degrees, or whatever form you needed. It would have been
much cheaper transporting flat sheets of metal and then forming them
in space. It would have saved a lot of space in the Shuttle bay. I thought
it was a very good solution to putting something up where you could
build it in space. Dr. [Christopher C.] Kraft was also very interested
in this project. I do not know what happened to the project after I
left. I know that it was never used.
Another one was that we were trying to develop the technologies for
more efficient solar array panels. We had developed chips for the solar
array panels that had an efficiency of about 10 percent. We had a technology
program going where we were trying to increase the efficiency of those
panels to 18 percent. I do not know what the efficiency is of our present
day solar arrays. One of the problems was that because of the low efficiency
of the solar arrays at that time, it was not feasible cost wise. At
that time we were also trying to use solar arrays to get energy from
outer space and beam it by microwaves down to hydrogen fuel cells on
the Earth. That was going to be one of the things where we could really
help the Earth. I read somewhere lately that a company was developing
a chip that would have an efficiency of around 40 percent so that should
make it more economically feasible with our high gas prices. That technology
is being carried out today. That was a very interesting project.
Another one was that we had several studies on computers and its software.
At that time they were trying to get industry to come up with common
nomenclature in the software. When we would let one contract on software,
the study manager would convince us that it would solve all of his problems.
After that was completed he would come back with a new request to improve
that study. At the time, I did not know very much about computers or
its software. What I found out was how fast computers and its software
were changing. Dr. Kraft was quoted as saying that the space program
accelerated computers by 20 years. Those are examples of some of the
ones that were very interesting.
In reviewing my records I can give you a more comprehensive record of
the programs that the directorate did. Here are some examples.
MSC had built a crew habitability module. Crew Systems Division had
an RTOP for studies on crew support systems. Unbeknownst to MSC, MSFC
had gone to NASA Headquarters and convinced them to have this equipment
sent straight from the contractor to MSFC to be put into their module.
Dr. Faget gave me the job to get that decision reversed. I got with
Ed [Robert E.] Smylie, the chief of Crew Systems Division. He, Frank
[H.] Samonski, and some of his other engineers pulled together a test
plan that showed that the hardware needed to be tested at MSC before
being put in the MSFC module. It included studying electrolysis, O2
generation, solid polymers, molecular sieves, hydrogen polarizer, containment
control, CO2 reduction, water reduction, and waste management. MSFC
certainly did not have the capability to run those tests. I went to
MSFC and convinced them of that. We then went together to Headquarters
and got the decision reversed. After the completion of the test program,
the system was finally sent to MSFC and put in their module.
Some other studies included Propulsion and Power Division on antenna
arrays, cryogenic cooling, and electromechanical vs. hydraulics systems;
Structures and Mechanics Division on structure material processes and
materials for the Shuttle. These are just some of the examples over
During this period of time there was one project called the Space Shuttle
Engineering and Operations Support [SSEOS]. It was to pick a contractor
for technical support to the Center. I was on the board that picked
McDonnell Douglas for the job. It was my job to follow these contracts,
monitor, and rate the contractor on their support for E&D. Chuck
Jacobson from McDonnell Douglas was the company’s contract manager.
They had an incentive contract. I kept giving then an excellent rating.
Chuck was a great manager.
I chose to retire in 1980 because I had gotten to the point, and a lot
of other people had also gotten to the same point, where it wasn’t
much fun anymore. We were being driven by Headquarters rather than Headquarters
getting their ideas from the field Centers. The other reason was at
that particular time Congress wasn’t giving any raises to the
government employees. The interest rates were so high at that time that
by retiring, with the COL [Cost of Living] raises, within a few years
I’d be making more than I was making at NASA. I ran the figures
on it, and sure enough it worked, so I retired. I told Max about it,
and he showed Dr. Kraft what was happening. Both of them stayed on until
after the first Shuttle flight then they both retired from NASA.
Later on Congress finally started giving raises. Where we were working
in the $50,000–$70,000 range, people are now making over $100,000
for the same grade level. I think that they are now getting paid much
better. Some of the people that I knew stayed there for many, many more
years, and they really made out. It would have taken me a few more years
to get where they have gotten. Anyway, I’d had enough. I was tired.
Time to retire. [Photo below taken in 1980, the same year as retirement.]
Ross-Nazzal: Did you ever work for any contractors?
Lee: No, I never
did. There was one time, when Rockwell wanted me to be a consultant
for them. That was when they were getting ready to bid on the Space
Station contract. It turned out that they didn’t get the contract
on the study. McDonnell Douglas won it, so that job fell through. What
they wanted me to do was be their interface with Engineering because
they knew that I knew Engineering in all depths, backwards and forwards.
I felt like I could have done that job with one hand tied behind me.
That was as close as I got to working for a contractor.
I’ve gotten involved in community things like being on the board
of directors for the Citizens State Bank, on the board of directors
and being president of the Dickinson Country Club, on the board of directors
of the NASA Alumni League, and I am a member of the Space Center Rotary
Club. I was in management and marketing for a while. Other than that,
I haven’t gone to work for anybody, but I find that I am still
very busy. In retirement, I have enjoyed hunting, fishing, bowling,
dancing and playing golf.
like it. What do you consider your most challenging milestone in your
career working with the space program? Also, what do you consider your
most significant accomplishment in your career?
Lee: Well, that’s
a hard one to answer, because everything we did, every accomplishment,
and every milestone was so challenging. We were always doing things
that had never been done before. We were always expanding the envelope.
Putting man in space was so very, very interesting and challenging.
Having been on the team that started the Mercury Project before it was
Mercury and to be part of the development of the program and its hardware;
having been a study manager to show that man could go to the Moon that
became the Apollo Program; to be a part of a program where a man could
leave Earth orbit and go to another “planet,” the Moon,
was overwhelming; being a part of the development of the Apollo Program
and its hardware; also to develop the concept of docking with the Russians,
that was the start of a new era of international space programs.
As I said when we did the Apollo contract studies, we had three study
proposals with three different study contractors. Bob [Robert O.] Piland
was the project manager for these study contracts. I was responsible
for the Martin study. Bill [William] Petynia took care of the Convair
study, and Bill Patterson was the study manager for the GE [General
Electric] study. What was so unique about this contract was that generally
when the Requests for Proposals came in, one of those three study groups
would win the contract. In this particular case, North American who
had also put in a bid, won the contract, which was unheard of. Of course
that flipped out a lot of people. But they got it was because of their
experience in having built the Bell X-1 for the NACA [National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics] and the Air Force. I know because I was sitting
on the management evaluation committee.
Besides that, Bill Petynia and I helped Bob Piland review and pull together
all of the committee reports that went before the board. I thought that
technically Martin had a much better proposal and because of some of
the work that they had done on boosters. Martin also pointed out in
their proposal that there would be a large cost in reliability and quality
control, which it was. No other contractor had considered that. I do
not think that this was taken seriously in the evaluations. At least
that’s my interpretation of it. That being said, I think that
it is an honest evaluation from an engineering standpoint. You have
probably talked to the other people that have different interpretations
Lee: One day while
we were doing this, Bill Petynia turned to me and said, “John,
do you remember how hard we thought the Mercury Project was going to
be? We have no idea what’s ahead of us in the Apollo Program,”
and we didn’t. So when I answer the question you posed, all of
the different space programs were major milestones. All of them were
significant accomplishments. I can just say, “Hey, being in the
space program was a significant accomplishment!” I don’t
know how to answer it better than that. I think that answers all of
your questions. Do you have anything else you want to add to this morning?
I have one more question that I like to ask people. What impact do you
think that the Manned Spacecraft Center had on the area? You’ve
been here since the establishment of the Center.
Oh yes, where we built the Space Center, it was in a cow pasture, as
shown by this photo:
We have had a number of cities built around it and some big cities.
Clear Lake could have been a city in itself, and of course Nassau Bay
became a city. NASA Road 1 [NASA Parkway] was just a two-lane highway
going from Webster to Seabrook. On [Texas State Highway] 146, there
was a draw bridge over Clear Lake from Seabrook to Kemah that held up
traffic when it was opened for boats to pass under it. This has been
replaced by a very nice tall bridge. There was no other bridge across
Clear Lake between Highway 146 and Texas State Highway 3 until a bridge
was built on Egret Bay Boulevard on Texas State Highway 270. These two
bridges helped to open up the other side of Clear Lake for the future
development of Kemah and League City. Much of this development was made
because of the needs for homes and additional office space for the space
Cities after cities have been built up. Of course League City, Seabrook,
and Kemah were already here, and they have been expanded into much larger
cities. Today, down toward Galveston, they are building homes from the
west side of Interstate-45, all the way to Galveston Bay, nothing but
homes and shopping centers. All of this used to be open land, raising
cattle, dairy and chicken farms, agriculture and things like that. So
today that is helping to make it one big city from Houston all the way
to Galveston. The expansion has been absolutely tremendous.
This is another interesting story. I was on the board of directors for
the Citizens State Bank under Walter Hall, and I told you about him
and his five State Banks. He was known as Mr. Democrat in Texas. He
took credit for having gotten Lyndon [B.] Johnson into Congress and
a few things like that. He knew Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird,
very well. He and his wife had breakfast with them in their bedroom
in the White House. That’s how close they were.
When the word got out that NASA was going to build a facility here in
Texas, they had just had the big hurricane Carla. Walter Hall told me
this story. He called Lyndon Johnson and told him that the place was
devastated; Johnson asked him, “What should I do?” He replied,
“You get off your ass and come down here and take a look.”
So Lyndon Johnson came down. They had some of his staff, the dignitaries
in this area, and the press. This required twelve helicopters to accommodate
all of these people for the flyover. Walter noted that there were thirteen
helicopters. Walter Hall asked the man in charge why he had thirteen
helicopters when he only needed twelve. He replied, “In case one
of the helicopters goes out. With Lyndon Johnson, I had better have
another helicopter ready to fly.”
Lee: Lyndon Johnson
came down, and he looked at the devastation from the hurricane. That
got a lot of action. When this area was devastated by the Hurricane,
the people were also devastated. It is my understanding that when it
was announced that the Space Center would be built in the Clear Lake
area, the people were elated. It seemed to have helped build up their
spirits very much.
It was a real good move for us. For those of us who moved into Dickinson,
Walter Hall was one of the first men that greeted us with open arms.
We still had a home in Virginia that we had to sell and I didn’t
know how I was going to meet my financial obligations. I walked into
his bank, and Walter gave me the money that I needed to buy my lot.
I said, “You don’t know me from Adam. I haven’t even
sold my home in Virginia yet.” Walter Hall said, “Don’t
worry about it.” So I was able to buy my lot so that I could start
building my home. When my wife was able to sell our home in Virginia
in the middle of the summer, we were able to move straight into our
new home. Walter made it possible for us to do the things we had to
do for our families that helped us so much. He and Dr. Gilruth became
very good friends. Walter was able to get a lot of things done in the
area for NASA, which he did. Anyway I’m getting a little off on
a tangent here.
an interesting local story though. We like those. What was it like having
a spouse work at MSC?
Well, in a way it was difficult. We had to get babysitters and had to
provide transportation for them every morning and evening. Some babysitters
were very good, and some were not so good. Our children had scars from
one babysitter. We finally let her go. It made it hard on the family
with both of us working, but somehow we survived for many years. It
wasn’t easy, but she accomplished an awful lot. She is now one
of the top authorities in the world on heat transfer. She has been recognized
by Randolph Macon Women’s College [Lynchburg, Virginia] for having
made major contributions to the world, not just in the United States.
She has really accomplished a lot. She’s a very smart lady, but
it wasn’t easy on the family.
there anything else you think that we might have overlooked that you
wanted to talk about today?
In 1980, I retired from NASA before the first Space Shuttle flight in
1981. Dr. Faget and Dr. Chris Kraft stayed on until after the first
Shuttle flight. I had 33 years in government service, including the
Army Air Corps/Air Force, the NACA, and NASA. My whole career was as
a government employee. The Shuttle uses the ring-sail drogue parachute
for landing today that we developed back on the Mercury Project. We
have used the ring-sail parachute design on all of our spacecraft so
that is quite comforting, to think that I was involved in helping to
develop something that has stood up that long. Here’s an image
of the Shuttle using that parachute [below].
a great accomplishment.
Then in summary, I’ve got a slide on my computer if you want to
go look at it. It is an artist’s drawing that shows from the days
of the horse and wagon on the farm, to the open cockpit airplanes, to
the space program, and going to the Moon:
I love that slide. It is one that I can relate to. It represents the
many changes, things that I’ve seen and participated in during
my lifetime. I’ve been very lucky and blessed. I’ve gone
from the days of the Depression behind horses and mules on the farm,
to flying open cockpit airplanes, to encountering the first operational
jet aircraft in combat, seeing the V-1 guided missile, and witnessing
the launching of the V-II rockets from Germany on their way to bomb
England on missions over Germany, to flying supersonic jet airplanes.
I have participated in the design and development of supersonic jet
and rocket aircraft, to putting a man in space and sending him to the
Moon. I have worked with my WWII adversaries on the space program. I
helped develop the concept to join with our Cold War adversaries, the
Russians, in space. In the meantime, the Hubble [Space] Telescope has
found new planets, galaxies, and solar systems. Unmanned spacecraft
have landed on Mars and gone to other planets: Mercury, Jupiter, the
Sun, and beyond. We have opened up the way for interplanetary space
travel. We helped to write the books on aviation and space travel. I
can’t imagine anyone having a more exciting career than I and
many others who have had the experiences of working on the space program.
I have a couple of questions for you. Is this a great country or what?
We now ask the question, “What is our true place in the universe?”
Think about it.
are good questions.
[End of interview]
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