NASA Headquarters NACA
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Jose, California –
30 September 2005
Ross-Nazzal: Today is September 30th, 2005. This oral history session
is being conducted with Alan Kehlet of NACA [National Advisory Committee
for Aeronautics], Langley [Research Center, Hampton, Virginia], and
STG [Space Task Group] as part of the NACA Oral History Project sponsored
by the NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Headquarters
History Office. This interview is being held in San Jose, California,
during the eleventh NACA Reunion. The interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal.
Thank you again for making time to meet me this morning.
We sure appreciate it. I’d like to begin today by asking you
how you became involved with NACA.
I graduated from the University of Illinois [Urbana-Champaign, Illinois]
in 1951, and in 1950 right before the Korean War started, jobs for
aeronautical engineers were nonexistent. Some of the people I knew
that were ahead of me took jobs driving bakery trucks and things like
that. Just before graduation in 1951 the Air Force came to schools
recruiting for Wright Patterson Field [Ohio], civil service jobs,
and the entire class of twenty-two of us signed up to go to Wright
Patterson. Now, that was the first time, because we thought it would
be a great job. Shortly afterwards, the companies, the aircraft companies,
came to the school recruiting, Lockheed [Aircraft Corporation] in
particular, North American [Aviation, Inc.], and suddenly the class
realized, hey, there were opportunities out there besides the Air
A man came from Langley [Aeronautical Laboratory, Hampton, Virginia],
the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division [PARD], on a recruiting trip,
and I was absolutely fascinated with the type of work doing in PARD,
the pilotless aircraft, and decided that that’s really what
I wanted to do. There were two things I knew I didn’t want to
do. One was work on structures, and that’s what the aircraft
companies were offering is designing pulley brackets and details like
that. The other thing I didn’t want to do was work in a wind
tunnel. So the pilotless aircraft individual, and I don’t remember
his name—so I sent a letter of apology to the Air Force and
signed up to go to NASA.
So in July of 1951 I arrived at Langley Field. My first impression
of Hampton was one of “I wonder where the city is,” not
realizing I was in the middle of it at the time. I went to the Employment
Office there at Langley and was assigned to the full-scale wind tunnel,
which I immediately said, “Now, wait a minute. What I understood
I was coming here for was PARD, not the wind tunnel.” Well,
everything at PARD was filled up, and I said, “Well, gee, I
kind of feel very strongly, that either I work in PARD or maybe I
better look for something else.” This is after spending all
my money on airfare to get to Virginia.
Anyway, they said, “Okay,” so they put me in PARD. I worked
for NACA, NASA [for] about twelve years, and most of my career, it
was like having a hobby and getting paid for it. It was absolutely
a fascinating experience, something that, in later years as I went
into industry, I recognized that few people had the opportunity to
do the things that I was fortunate enough to do and get the experience
that I got. In industry there weren’t all that many people that
actually had hardware experience, which I had the opportunity at NACA
and NASA to have.
So my early career at NACA, I was assigned to a mentor, Jim [James
H.] Parks by name, and Jim was a fantastic teacher. He would let me
do whatever I wanted to do within reason and would only kind of overview
the thing to make sure that I wasn’t going to do something stupid
or something that might be of injury. But he was a really good teacher.
We worked for Clarence [L.] Gillis, who was the section head, and
than Paul [E.] Purser was the branch head, and Joe [A.] Shortal was
the Division Chief. So I learned about NACA then from the recruiter
that came to the university back in 1951.
What did he tell you that PARD was working on that fascinated you
at that point?
Well, it was airplane configurations, performance, and control. That’s
what I liked in school. I liked being an aerodynamicist, as opposed
to a structural type. I also was influenced by my wife’s cousin,
who was a recruiter for, at that time, General Dynamics [Corporation]
in Fort Worth [Texas]. He said one thing, and that’s while I
was going to school, “Stay out of structures. We can always
get all the civil engineers we need to take care of structures. Be
an aerodynamicist.” And that’s something that I enjoyed,
so that fit very well.
That’s great that you managed to work into that type of position.
You mentioned that Jim Parks let you do pretty much what you wanted,
as long as you weren’t putting yourself or others at risk. Could
you walk me through how you came up with an idea for aircraft research
and how you saw that idea to fruition?
Well, we had a general research program on aircraft configurations,
and we had a standard body configuration with different wings on it.
We had the swept wings, the straight wings, delta wings in that particular
program. An example of what could be done is that it occurred to me
that if you put—well, first of all, it was rocket propelled,
so you had the solid fuel rocket behind the airplane model. It had
to be boosted, and then the rocket separated, and it was free flight
from then on. So there was hydraulic systems and telemetry systems
in the aircraft that were boosted, as I said, to Mach up to about
Mach one-five, one-point-five.
As we started getting configurations that had larger and larger wings
on them, it occurred to me that maybe we should put that airplane
in the back of the rockets and sling two rockets underneath the airplane
configuration. I proposed this to Jim, and he said, “Well, how
would it work?” So I sketched out something, and Jim actually
helped me with the stress analysis as we designed this particular
booster configuration. Then we put a rocket behind it and got a two-stage
vehicle on it.
It occurred to me several years later when I was in industry—I
was Chief Engineer of the Space Shuttle for North American Rockwell
[Corporation]—that the configuration of the Shuttle and that
original configuration back in the early fifties are very similar,
with the strap-on rockets that were below the vehicle. So that’s
an indication of innovation that Jim encouraged.
How long would you spend working on one of these type of projects?
Well, I always said that there were three years. There was the year
of design, and a year to build and fly it, and a year to write the
reports. It was about a three-year cycle throughout the program.
How many other individuals would typically work with you on one of
Pretty much an individual. Jim and I published a lot of reports, and
I published some of them under my own name, technical reports. But
basically you worked on the thing as the project engineer type. Now,
we had help. We had a computing pool that would do the various calculations
that were needed and help read the telemetry records and things like
that, but basically it was you were responsible from start to finish,
including writing the report, going through the Editorial Committees,
and arguing with the various Centers. We either agreed or disagreed,
with some comments.
Can you talk about that whole process of writing those reports? You’re
an engineer, and coming up with the report, and then, as you mentioned,
working with Editorial Committees. Who served on those committees?
Well, in the report writing, in particular, first of all, you had
to get the telemetry records and read those, and we used Gerber Scales
and all sorts of things. It was a paper with traces on it. You would
read those in numbers, and then they would be converted from the numbers
to the actual what the sensor was reading, like angle of attack, so
many degrees; angle of attack, angle of side slip, acceleration, rate
gyros, and things like that, too. You’d get that basic information
and then plot it up into plots of lift versus drag and lift versus
angle of attack, and that would be the report on the performance.
So you had to write, and I remember, I think if you looked in the
reports that both Jim and I wrote, and I think I had about thirteen
or fourteen reports I wrote, it always starts out as part of a general
research program. That was the starting line, and that was kind of
neat, because engineers don’t like reports, and I learned more
about English and spelling and grammar and things like that from writing
a report than I ever learned in school, which made it kind of interesting.
I’m a poor speller, but I can spot a misspelled word right away,
because I know it doesn’t look right.
But going through the report, you write it. Jim would review it. Then
Gillis would review it. Then they’d come back with comments
on the things. It always seemed to me you wrote the report three times.
The first was the draft, the second was the correction, and the third
time was back to the draft, almost. Then it would go to Editorial
Committees, and they would be composed of our peers. There would be
an Ames [Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California] rep and
a Cleveland [Ohio] rep [from Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory].
Generally, since I was from Langley, those would be the two Centers
that would go through and make comments. When they got through and
you incorporated their comments to Jim or Gillis’ satisfaction,
then it would go to another Editorial Board consisting of English
majors, who would then check the dictionary to find out whether you
used the word right or not.
I recall one incident. An apogee, which is the highest point on there.
I had one rocket experience where you fired the rocket up to a high
altitude, and then it pointed down from its apogee and fired more
rockets to get high speed. I think it was the first time that the
woman had ever heard of the word apogee, and she challenged it as
to whether it was being used right. Fortunately, it was, in my case,
because I had looked it up in the dictionary ahead of time.
So you went through that type of thing, and then finally it was final
typed in paper-type text and figures. Now, the figures would be handmade
and lettered with Leroy lettering. I mean, it was a terrible, labor-intensive
job to write those reports. Nowadays you can put them on the computer
and a word processor, and they’re something that wouldn’t
take very long at all.
Did you make the figures yourself?
Most of them, yes, and that’s what our computing pool, or computers,
as we called them, were women there that were mathematicians, for
the most part, and they would help make figures and things like that.
Did you type the reports yourself—
—or did you have a secretary pool?
No, we had a typing pool that would type the report. Good Lord. I
used one of the reports as a master’s thesis, and had to get
somebody to type it, because you couldn’t have any errors or
anything else. I really admire those women that could type without
making mistakes. On my word processor now I use the two-finger system,
and fortunately, it can correct everything.
When you were working on this research, were you working at all in
conjunction with the military or with the aircraft industry?
Yes to both comments. Working with the military, one of the projects
I had was the F-104, which was the Starfighter, a Lockheed airplane.
It was secret at the time. The Air Force questioned the Lockheed’s
estimation of drag on the vehicle, so they built two models, both
of them secret, brought them to Langley, and I was assigned as the
engineer to put them together with a rocket system and launch them
at Wallops Island [Virginia]. There was the truck going up to Wallops
with a model on it and all wrapped up with guards and everything else,
and we flew the model, and the results were fine. The Air Force got
the results, and I published a report on it. So the second model was
destroyed, because they felt the first one was good. So that was working
with the Air Force.
With industry, to some extent with General Electric [GE Company] on
the reentry vehicles. That was later in my career, and how I got into
blunt bodies is another story, which maybe we can talk about later
on. But worked with GE on the shape of reentry, the ICBM [Intercontinental
Ballistic Missile] reentry.
So I’ve had both, working with that. Then later on, after Apollo
was awarded to North American, before I left NASA, I was the engineering
representative out at Downey [California] for NASA to answer questions
that North American might have.
You mentioned that your work with Lockheed was secret at the time.
Did you have to get security clearance to work on that project?
Oh yes, I had a top secret clearance. You’re right. Yes, they
went around interviewing, and I know I got a call from my uncle and
[he] said, “What are you doing? The FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation]
asking me all sorts of questions about you, including how long had
I known you.” He thought that was kind of humorous, but anyway.
How long did it take for you to get a secret clearance, do you recall?
I think it took about six months. I got the clearance before that
particular program, and I’m not sure why, but anyway.
I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about Wallops Island.
That’s where you did some of your work. How did you get out
to Wallops Island?
Basically you flew in an airplane from Flight Research right there
at Langley Field. We had a Grumman Goose, and it landed in the water
next to Wallops, taxied up to the ramp, and then you got out and carry
along—we had kind of screwball rules at that time. All of a
sudden somebody decided that engineers going up there shouldn’t
fish, and it was a great fishing place. So we no longer took fishing
poles with us, we took measuring rods. They just happened to have
a reel on one end of it. But getting to Wallops Island was by airplane.
They didn’t have the causeway built at that time. It was pretty
isolated. They had a bunk building and a cafeteria building. It was
manned by ex-fisherman type of people, and I always admired these
people that did the cooking and the cleaning and things like that
People were always trying to see how they could save money. I know
in our own PARD there was one individual that decided he didn’t
want to pay the I think it was a dollar a night you had to pay for
your room and board, plus you had to pay for meals. But your room
was a dollar a night. So he took his own sleeping bag and tent with
him and slept on the beach. This caused a great deal of consternation
by various people that was this going to set a precedent, so the ruling
was, “I don’t care whether you sleep on the beach or whatever
you do, you’re going to pay a dollar a night, anyway.”
So that kind of put a stop to that.
But there were all sorts of things. Wallops Island was a great place.
They have lots of wildlife on it. I know I’d go and there’s
not much to do, so the guards would say, “Well, I have to make
a nightly run,” and it would be about ten o’clock at night,
and I’d go ride with them, because you’d ride down the
place and you’d see fox and all sorts of animals there at night.
So once you were on the island, you kind of had to stay there. Now,
the people came to the island by boat, and one time the boat did blow
up, and some people got injured. I remember that.
The other thing that happened on Wallops Island was Derwood [A.] Dereng
lost a hand, anyway. He was up there. Let’s see, they had pulled
the external power from the model so it was on internal power, and
then for some reason the rocket didn’t fire, and so in order
to save the batteries on the model, they wanted to put the external
power back in, so Derwood climbed up on the zero length launch platform
we had and tried to put the external power plug back into the model
plug. Somewhere along the line in the process of doing that, the rocket
went off, and the stabilizing fin from the rocket came along and hit
his hand and knocked it off.
Well, that meant we had a real problem, because some way you had to
get the external power to internal power, and at that time what we
had was just a plug. You pulled the plug out, and it went on internal
power. So we decided to put switches on it, and that was a screwdriver
blade type switch on the side of the model, and there were two of
them, one to turn the hydraulic system on and one to turn the external
power on. Well, you couldn’t climb up on the platform anymore
to do this, so we invented a ten-foot screwdriver. Have you heard
the term, “I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot screwdriver”?
The job I had at the time, with my models, anyway, was to stand on
an air stand ten feet away from the rocket and turn first the internal
power on and secondly the hydraulic system. Moving that screwdriver,
ten feet long, from one slot on the side of the model to the next
slot to turn the power on, you’d kind of jiggle around there,
and the countdown was going on all the time. In sixty seconds we would
turn it on, and if you didn’t get the system turned on by T-minus-ten
seconds, they would stop the count and go on. But we were always kind
of taking care of—and I’d jump off this stand and run
behind the concrete barrier, and pow off would go the rocket. So we
had numerous cases like that.
One of the famous pictures I liked was the one of Jim Parks lining
up the wings of his model with the booster fins. There he was standing
at the very end with the model pointed right at his stomach, looking
down there and lining up the wings, and I thought, “Boy.”
That was before Derwood’s accident. Anyway, that was kind of
interesting, and I always kidded Jim about that.
Can you walk me through one of those aircraft tests that you would
work on: the preparation in advance, the test itself, and then what
occurred after the test.
Well, as I mentioned before, it was pretty much an individual’s
job. We built most of the model at Langley, which was kind of nice
to see it being built, the nose on the model being spun by craftsmen
in the shop and the cylinders being cut and grooves put in them and
things like that, including the wings. Many times the wings were built
of aluminum and wood, or later on, all aluminum. So there was a lot
of going down to the shop. “How’s my model coming along?”
type of thing, and seeing, “Well, that’s pieces of my
Then it finally got put together in the Assembly Room, and then we
shipped it over to the IR&D. Let’s see, I don’t remember—something—oh,
Instrument Research Division, I guess it was. They would install a
telemetry system in it. Then we’d bring it back to PARD shop
and we’d put in the hydraulic system in the tail section and
put it all together.
Then we would do influence coefficients with it, which is holding
the model rigid and flexing the wing to see how flexible the wing
was, because ideally we’d like something absolutely rigid, so
there was no aerodynamic relief on the wings, so you’d get a
true idea of the lift and drag coefficients. So after that then the
model was put on a sort of a cradle and you swung it to get moments
of inertia of the model and the weight of the model. Then it was taken
down, put on a crate, and pictures were taken. They’d always
have somebody who would stand next to the model with that twelve-inch
ruler and a picture would be taken to give some idea of the size of
Then it was shipped up to Wallops, and once you got there, then any
type of pyro[technics] , if there were. Some of our models used pulse
rockets to make the disturbance. Others had hydraulic systems to flex
the tail up and down in a square wave type fashion. I remember when
it finally got all put together, and then there was the job of taking
the file, and you’d go around—all the screw heads, you’d
file them down. They’re nice and neat, and you’d put putty
in the screw slots and things like that, and get the model polished
Then it was mounted on the rocket and the telemetry system checked
out while it was on the rocket. That was kind of interesting, because
the rocket was tied to the wall of the room that you were in. It was
an explosion-proof type room, and of course, you couldn’t come
in there with anything that would cause a spark or anything else.
The telemetry system would be checked out, and then it was put on
a truck and brought down to the launch pad. We had what was called
a zero length launcher. It was pointed at an angle and the whole vehicle
only moved an inch, and it was free, so there was no tube or anything
else like that.
We shot a lot of rockets like that. After a while, you could get pretty
good at watching the thing. I know once in a while the model would
break up, for a lot of reasons—the fin would come off of the
rocket or something—and there would be confetti all over the
sky. You could see that. I remember being up there several times with
people that hadn’t had that experience, and the model would
break, and I’d say, “Oh, it broke up.”
They said, “It did?” Then pretty soon you see all the
pieces come down.
The other thing you had to watch for was where that rocket would go
after it separated from the model. Every once in a while the rocket
would decide to peel up and come back to the launch site, and so if
you’re standing out there taking pictures of the thing, you
kind of had to watch it to make sure that the rocket landed in the
ocean, not near you.
Sometimes, every once in a while, somebody would get the idea, “We
ought to recover the models,” and would try to stick a parachute
somewhere in the system. I remember Purser, in particular, Paul, said,
“We don’t recover the models. It isn’t worth the
effort. Once they hit sea water, the aluminum is going to corrode,
anyway, and it would be just too much of a job to recover it and tow
it back in and refurbish it.” So the answer was, “No,
we don’t recover the models.” So somewhere out in the
ocean is a whole seabed full of now disintegrating aluminum type thing.
Every once in a while the rocket with the fins would wash up onshore,
and we’d recover the rocket, but it was just scrap was what
it was at that time.
I have some more questions for you about Wallops. When you went out
to Wallops, how long would you stay?
Generally three to five days at a time.
You mentioned you had to spend a dollar a day for your meals and your
place to stay.
Just to sleep.
Was it like a hotel or was it barracks?
It was more barracks. It had bunk beds, three high, and the showers.
The cafeteria was nice, basic food type of thing.
And what would you do at night when you weren’t running tests
Well, you’d go fishing or go with the guard to make his rounds
or work on a report type of thing, and play cards, I think. I think
we played cards.
How many men can typically be out there at once?
Oh, not very many. Probably four or five, typically. They had their
own programs, projects, going on.
Tell me a little bit about Langley Field. Were you involved in any
sort of organizations out there or any softball teams or intramural
We had a softball team. Max [Maxime A.] Faget and I were pitchers,
usually on opposing teams. And we had a model airplane club. That’s
one thing, in spare time I built model airplanes and flew them. I
had a roommate. That’s at a time when two men could live together,
and it was okay. We went to school together at Illinois, and both
of us took jobs. He went into the Structures Division, and I went
into the Pilotless Aircraft. But the two of us would build model airplanes,
and then on Sundays go fly them there at the field, usually in the
ramp at Flight Research, because there was a nice big concrete ramp
there, and you could take the U-control type airplane models and fly
Were there any social activities sponsored by the folks at Langley?
Yes. After I was married and Lois came down to Virginia, we had activities
of dances and things like that, which was very nice. That’s
where I met Max Faget’s wife, Nancy, who was just an absolutely
charming person, who saw the two of us there as we were brand-new
young kids, and came over and sort of chaperoned us and made us feel
really at home. She’s a very, very gracious lady.
One of the things that I maybe hadn’t mentioned is Langley hadn’t
hired anyone in five years. I was one of the first people to be hired
after almost a five-year moratorium. The net result was practically
everybody there was at least five years older than I was there. Most
of them were World War II vets, which I was not. So they were much
more established than these newlyweds that came down to Langley. But
they were very nice.
I’m wondering if you can talk about the community at Langley
and then the community of Hampton, As you pointed out, you were newlyweds
coming to this area, and there wasn’t much in the area. Can
you talk about that some?
Well, they did have a number of women’s club. Lois, being a
university graduate, joined the AAUW, the American—what is that?
American Association of University Women.
University Women, right. That was quite a bit of social life just
from that organization, and also the women’s club. So the people,
I thought, at Langley, the NACA people, were quite friendly, so we
had a very active social life. The city itself, Hampton, was sort
of like a fishing town type of thing, and I don’t recall too
much activity that was going on by the city itself. Most of our social
life was NACA.
I’m wondering if you can talk about any sort of professional
organizations you belonged to while you worked for NACA.
Well, one thing I did was go to night school and get a master’s
degree from the University of Virginia [Charlottesville, Virginia].
I remember when I graduated, my feeling was, “I don’t
want to go back to school ever,” you know, “I’ve
had enough of this.”
Lois and I were married about a year after I started, and then about
a year after that, Lois said, “You really ought to get a master’s
degree.” So the university was offering classes which were taught
by NACA people. We had a number of doctors there that taught the courses
in fluid mechanics and things like that. So I went to night school
for two years, and then we went to Charlottesville for two summers
and spent—I think it was four weeks you had to spend the residence
time at the university. And then waited for six years and eleven months
before the seven-year deadline to take my orals and turn in my dissertation
or, actually, turn in the paperwork, and got my degree just a couple
of weeks before the deadline of running out of time. Procrastination.
Well, it was the middle of the Mercury Program, and I thought, “Yes,
I’ve learned everything I needed to know from getting the degree.”
But again, Lois said, “Hey, if you start something, you ought
to finish it,” and she was right. Later on I recognized that
having the papers showing you had completed it certainly helped a
lot when I went to North American.
Was it typical for NACA to offer classes?
Yes. It was encouraged to go to it. I think when we went to the summer
school classes at the University of Virginia taught by outside professors,
that I would say 95 percent of the class was NACA. We really made
the summer school.
How long did that summer school last?
It was either four or six weeks long, I don’t remember which.
At first, NACA administration said that they would provide half-salary
if you would go there, which I thought was a pretty good deal. Well,
it turns out, they paid full salary, anyway, both summers, so that
was really neat.
Would they pay for your tuition, as well?
No, but they did pay this salary.
That’s really nice. Then you didn’t have to take vacation.
Yes, that’s right.
That’s a big plus. We talked about your papers before. What
about presentations at NACA? Did you have to present papers?
Well, I presented different things. Particularly when we started the
Mercury Program and the astronauts came there, then we had a lot of
press come through, and they would have open house at the Center,
and I always got a chance to make presentations about something on
Mercury or on the pilotless aircraft before that. See, that was where
I got the speaking experiences and things like that.
NACA was a tremendous learning thing. In retrospect, I think back
of what I got from the University of Illinois, which I’m very
proud of and appreciative of, but the final finishing school, the
professional school, was NACA.
What are your memories of Sputnik while you were working out at NACA?
Well, I remember living in Hampton, and we had a couple of kids by
this time, and having the television program interrupted with news
that the Russians had launched Sputnik, and my thought process was,
“My gosh, what in the world is happening?” So when the
Space Task Group was thought of, and I don’t remember whether
it was formed at Sputnik or not, but Sputnik was what, ’57?
We might have started the Space Task Group. But anyway, I just felt
like, “Man, we’ve really got to get on the ball and do
something about letting the Russians get up there first.” But
it was fascinating to learn about it, that just a couple pound, little
ball they put into space; why can’t we do that?
Before we talk about NASA, I just had a couple more questions regarding
NACA, and anything else you’d like to talk about. How did you
get around Langley Field? Did you walk or take a bike?
I mostly walked, if there were meetings at Flight Research. Generally
it was between PARD and Flight Research and Instrument Research, you
just walked between the places, and it was a good walk. If you had
to go to the other side of the field, for whatever reason, over on
the Air Force side, you might say, then you would drive over there,
drive your car over to that place. I don’t recall buses being
around at that time.
Where was PARD located on the Center?
Well, it was on the west side of the field right near the big water
tank that was up there. In fact, we used that water tank, dropped
several models of Mercury to check the low-speed aerodynamics, you
might say, of it.
One of the things I think I might mention is how strange, at times,
coincidences seem to shape your whole career. Shortly—well,
within a couple of years after I started with NACA, our models were
going higher and higher speeds. We were getting up to Mach one-point-five
and Mach two. About Mach two the angle of attack indicators would
disappear. The channel would just go dead during flight. After two
launches, like the first one we thought, “Well, it was a mechanical
failure.” The second one, we hit Mach two and the angle of attack
indicator disappeared, that signal.
I was assigned the job of what went wrong with it, and being fairly
new out of college and knowing some thermodynamics, I calculated and
said that the angle of attack indicator was being burned off, that
the aluminum was just low-cast aluminum, and the temperatures were
getting high enough on the thing that it was weakening it, and it
was just disintegrating, structural failure on it. So it took a little
convincing of some of the people that this was really the case, but
out of that came the job, “All right. Then figure out how you’re
going to replace it.”
So at that time the Polaris shape was in the news, so I was trying
the Polaris shape, and then they got [H.] Julian Allen’s paper
out of Ames about blunt bodies and their stability, and so I was trying
some blunt bodies on the front of this. I was using the supersonic
wind tunnels at Langley to do these tests. What it was, was you put
the model of whatever you had on the angle of attack sting, so all
the mechanism was there. The only thing different was the shape of
the sensor itself. Put it in the wind tunnel and run it at Mach six,
ran it there, ran it in transonic wind tunnel.
Got a whole bunch of data on it, and it occurred that what I had was
a shape, and I had different Reynolds numbers, which was the energy
of the flow of air on this thing, and that might be interesting. So
I compared it to Allen’s stuff, and sure enough, I had some
experimental data that was theoretical, and so I wrote a report on
it, which immediately became secret, because it was the entire aerodynamic
characteristics of reentry vehicles, different shapes on it. Out of
that came the tap on the shoulder by Purser saying, “Would you
like to go join a group going to put a man in space?” So I became
head of the Aerodynamics Group, a young kid. I think I was the youngest
one in the group, and I was the boss. But it was out of the angle
of attack type thing that led to the blunt body that led to the Mercury
type and the Space Task Group.
Let me ask you just a couple more questions before we talk about the
Space Task Group. Did you have a chance to work with any members of
the other Centers, excluding [periods] when you were working on reports?
No, I don’t recall too many until the Space Task Group was formed.
Then yes, but before that most of it was the report-type interfaces.
Do you think that there was any sort of competition between the Laboratories?
Oh, I think there were. As a matter of fact, it got pretty bad later
on, and I think that’s one of the big problems that the Administrator
has, the overlap between what was happening out on the West Coast
with Ames and the [NACA High-Speed] Flight [Station, Edwards, California]
there, versus the Flight Research at Langley, and defining the roles
of the various Centers. Initially it wasn’t that bad, but as
things became more complicated, yes, there was competition.
If you had to look back over your NACA career and pick just one thing,
what would you say that would be your most significant accomplishment?
Oh, I think that story I just related about the blunt body leading
into the Mercury shape, so I have a patent, along with six other people,
on the Mercury configuration, and my contribution was the shape of
the nose and the afterbody on the Mercury.
What do you think was your most challenging milestone while working
Well, I think the transition from building the hardware and testing
it to using more and more outside vendors and working with them, and
that particularly was true with the Apollo Program, the start of the
Apollo Program. Otherwise, it literally was a learning experience
and, for the most part, a hobby that I got paid for.
Let’s talk about the transition from NACA to NASA. Can you talk
about that and its impact on your career?
I don’t know. We sort of had a joke of NACA versus NASA. If
you take the C on NACA and put one line on it, it’s cents, and
you go to NASA and you put two lines on the S, and that was the difference
between the two. I think that a lot more money came in with NASA,
much bigger responsibilities, it caused a lot of travel, because we
went from in-house build and fly to going to industry. I think some
of the things that happened which were not all that good was the divorce
rate went up, and people were then told, “We’re probably
going to move from Langley [Research Center].” A lot of people
felt uncomfortable about that. Of course, being from the Midwest,
it didn’t make much difference to me. I liked Virginia, but
any other place could also be all right.
You became part of the Space Task Group, one of the original thirty-five
members. What was your reaction when you were asked to become part
of this elite group at that point?
Oh, I was delighted. I thought this was fantastic, particularly since
Sputnik was around there, and this was going to be our answer to the
Russians, as far as the technology is concerned. So it was a chance
of a lifetime.
Some of the books I have read about the Space Task Group have indicated
that some engineers at Langley discouraged young engineers from joining
the Space Task Group and suggested that their careers might be put
at risk. What do you think of that?
There’s no doubt about it. It happened. My boss—I won’t
mention his name—told me that this was—well, the Administrator
called it a circus stunt to put a man in space. My boss said, “You
know, this place is not going to make it. I think you ought to think
more than once about whether or not you want to go, because when it
does fail, there isn’t any job for you back here.” Well,
at my age in the twenties, that was so what? I could always find a
job somewhere else. So I took it. Yes, it was a threat, but I don’t
think it discouraged anybody. I don’t think it caused anybody
to say, “Well, I better stick with Langley.” Not that
I know of, anyway.
As I understand it, while the NASA bill was circulating through the
House and the Senate, you had started working on what was known then
as the Manned Satellite Program. I [was] wondering if, at that point,
was that a secret program?
No. No, I don’t think it was secret. No, I wouldn’t say
it was secret. I think there was a lot of enthusiasm about it, and
then moving—we moved out of PARD over to the east side of Langley
Field—I think that’s where the hours started to get long.
That was the other difference between NACA. NACA was an eight-to-five
type job, and what work you took home with you was in your brain more
than anything else, and thinking about it. When we started the Space
Task Group, man, then five o’clock was not a deadline to get
out of the buildings.
But I have to tell you that, because later on when I came back to
Langley after being out at North American as the NASA rep, I was Joe
Shortal’s assistant, and we were working on various programs.
I stayed in my office to about five-fifteen or something, because
time didn’t mean all that much. I came down, and the door was
locked. I couldn’t get out of the building. I had to call Security,
who came out with a key to let me out of the building, and they said,
“The building gets locked at five o’clock. You ought to
be out of the building at that time.”
I said, “What is this, anyway?” Anyway, I learned from
then that you don’t stay past five o’clock, and that was
NACA type of timing, even though it was NASA at the time.
So people were encouraged just to work their normal eight-to-five
hours, not necessarily work any overtime?
Right. Yes, that’s right.
Actually, that brings up another question for me. What was your typical
workday like at NACA? Obviously, working from eight to five, but can
you generalize [about] what would happen during those eight hours?
With NACA, yes.
It was a combination of a desk job and walking the shop and working
in the shop. It depended on whether you were writing a report. Now,
generally it wasn’t like you spent three years and then you
started a new one. You always had models in the pipeline. So you could
be writing a report on one flight while the other one was being built
or over in IR&D getting a telemetry system or something. So there
was a whole sequence of events. So typically it was you get to work
by eight o’clock, and you’d sign in and get to your desk,
open your desk, and then start the day’s work, which, as I said
was report writing or walking the shop or something like that.
Now, lunchtime, we would have contests, paper airplane contests of
who can get the paper airplane to fly the furthest. We ended up getting
ten-foot-long copper tubing from the shop and putting rubber bands
on it and using that as a catapult, and then taking the paper airplane,
delta wing type thing, and putting a paper clip in the nose and fasten
that on with staples, and then using that as a hook. And we’d
stretch that thing out to see if you could make that airplane fly
the whole length of the hall, all the way from one end of the building
to the other, you might say. We kept hitting the venetian blinds in
the end, and Joe Shortal got a little upset at times because we were
wrecking the blinds, and somebody was going to have to pay for it.
Did you still have these kind of contests when you were working for
No, I don’t think we had time for that. No.
Why don’t you talk about your typical workday for the STG. Obviously,
you mentioned you were working very long hours, and you were committed
to this new space program.
It was a lot of fun, in certain respects. What was bad about it was
Max Faget on Sunday afternoon would always call up and say, “Al,
ha, ha, ha,”—he’d kind of laugh—“there’s
an airplane leaving at eleven o’clock tonight in Washington
[D.C.],” and here we were in Virginia. He was going and, “I’d
like you to come along.” So that meant the bag had to be kept
packed most of the time for a two- or three-day trip. Lois would obviously
not like our Sunday afternoon being interrupted, but certainly very
supportive of the whole program. That would happen during the week.
Then during working days we were working on the Mercury configuration,
and the configuration that we first came up with was a cone—looked
like an inverted ice-cream cone—and found out it was a very
unstable type of thing. So we were trying various nose radius, and
we’re using the vertical spin tunnel at Langley for these testings.
This was the tunnel designed to check spin characteristics of airplane
models, and we were using it to check the low-speed static and dynamic
stability of these blunt shapes. We finally ended up with two configurations.
One was the inverted ice-cream cone with a very long cylinder on the
back end, which made it stable, and the other was put a parachute.
Well, we ended up with the parachute on the back.
So there was a lot of building models and testing them in the wind
tunnel and things like that to get whatever aerodynamic characteristics
we could. Then we built in-house a number of models, the pad-abort
full-scale rocket model, which the first time we shot it, one of the
inserts came out. We had machined the nozzles ourself. The insert
came out of it, and the thing tumbled, and immediately we had all
the critics all over our back about the design of the thing, whether
it was feasible and things like that, so it took a lot of explaining.
Fortunately, we recovered the rocket, and we said no. McDonnell [Aircraft
Corporation] had proposed that, “Well, let’s put the rockets
on the side of the vehicle for abort rockets.” Max and I persisted
and went back, and the next time we shot it, it worked like a charm.
The only thing about that, as I remember, is the pad abort. It was
in the wintertime. We were at Wallops Island, and the Navy had a helicopter.
I was going to ride the helicopter out to sea as they took pictures
from the ocean side of this launch, thinking that here I was in a
business suit, and my Navy friends were dressed in wet suits with
life jackets on there, and I didn’t have a life jacket or anything
else, and the water was pretty cold, supposedly. But the shot went
off all right, and the helicopter came back. But I thought it was
kind of amusing that the Navy wasn’t worried about me in particular.
[Laughs] But that was one of them.
The other thing that happened was what we called Big Joe, which was
another pad abort. Oh, that was the Apollo Program, not the Mercury.
That was later on.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Mercury capsule design. Did
everyone work on all aspects of the capsule design, or were you assigned
certain aspects, and how was that determined?
Well, basically it was broken up into various things like aerodynamic
structures and things like that. The Aerodynamics Group I had, basically,
after the basic configuration was decided, and the basic configuration
was—Max and I had an interview with I think it was Life magazine,
and they published quite an article about the Mercury design. Well,
we started with a sphere and put a man inside of it, and then wrapped
the rest of the vehicle around that, the blunt shape and the cone
coming back type of thing.
So my group was primarily responsible for the launch aerodynamics
of the vehicle, when did you jettison the escape rocket, what kind
of acceleration would the astronaut feel if they had to make an abort
at various altitudes, how low can you be before parachutes didn’t
have a chance to open. And then the whole reentry type of thing with
the dynamic and static stability of the vehicle. How could we make
sure the blunt end would get around first and you didn’t enter
backwards? Because the vehicle was stable in both directions. It could
enter backwards and fly just as well as it could with the blunt shape.
So we had that type of thing. The structures people took care of structures,
and then we had the guidance and control people, and all of the systems
inside, the environmental control system and so forth.
Who worked with you on the aerodynamics?
Well, Denny [Dennis F.] Hasson, that I think you talked about, was
one of them. Bill [William W.] Petynia was my deputy, and Bruce [G.]
Jackson and other people were all in that group, and they were all
excellent aerodynamicists. So we did it ourself. Then later on when
the contract was awarded to McDonnell, the McDonnell people did the
aerodynamics, and we would cross-check stuff. The wind tunnel testing,
McDonnell sent representatives out which would go with the wind tunnel
people, and my group had the wind tunnel responsibility, also.
Did you start out primarily using theoretical calculations, or did
you start using things like boilerplates to determine when you can
jettison [the escape rocket]?
No, we did the theoretical work, primarily, on all of that, with the
exit or launch configurations and all the way through to reentry.
Then we checked it against wind tunnel results and checked it against
the boilerplate type vehicles, too.
Do you recall any sort of significant changes that had to be made
as a result of either calculations or wind tunnels or the boilerplate
If we talk about Mercury, the most significant thing was—let’s
see, I think it was towards the last flight on the Mercury. We had
a fire on board and shorted out a lot of systems on Mercury, and—gosh,
I’m trying to remember whether it was [L. Gordon] Cooper [Jr.];
one of the astronauts that flew that mission. It had a tremendous
effect on Apollo is what really happened, but that was the primary
change was the fact that the wiring inside the capsule could no longer
be exposed. It had to be protected from the perspiration and the salt
that would normally come from perspiration of the astronaut. It would
actually get in there and in under 100 percent oxygen environment,
would cause a fire. Almost anything would burn.
Were you involved at all with the review of applications for the design
and building of the Mercury capsule?
Yes, I was on the source selection subpanels to go through the various
companies’ proposals that came in for Mercury. In fact, I made
one of the presentations to the companies about what we wanted in
the Mercury configuration.
What was it you were specifically looking for, do you recall?
As I recall, it was just outlining what was expected from the aerodynamics.
How much wind tunnel testing and things like that would have to be
done, and the schedule, just saying that we had to do certain characteristics
and configuration freezes by certain times in order to make the schedule.
At any point when you started working on this Manned Satellite Program
first and then what became the Mercury Program, did you ever have
a feeling that it might not succeed, that no one had ever done this
before, and perhaps it might fail?
You know, we were young and egotistical and felt that we could do
anything. When we showed the schedule, we said we wanted to fly this
manned vehicle by 1960, I think it was, somewhere around that time
period, General Electric I remember saying that, “You’re
about three or four years off. You’re too short.”
We said, “Nah, we can do it.” And I know that the first
Mercury that got shipped down to the Cape [Canaveral, Florida] from
McDonnell Douglas was equated to say that hey, it was nothing but
a bushel basket full of parts, which wasn’t quite true. I mean,
the vehicle certainly was there, and many of the systems were. But
it was a case of where we designed, developed, and built the thing
all at the same time. Normally you go through each of those phases
separately, but this was a let’s do it all in parallel, rather
than in series.
How much time did you spend working with McDonnell?
I spent a lot of time with them. I went to St. Louis [Missouri] several
times. John [F.] Yardley was the fellow in charge of the program,
or at least had a lot to do with it, and John and I became very good
friends. Later in life, I went to work for John running the Tomahawk
Cruise Missile Program out of St. Louis.
What sort of work would you do with McDonnell? Were you primarily
supervising their work and double-checking everything?
Right. We’d get a tour of the factory to see where the vehicles
were being built and the meetings would be general meetings. Where
all of the disciplines—how are you doing structure-wise? How
are you doing system-wise? How are you doing from a wind tunnel standpoint?
So it would be a general meeting just putting all of the systems together.
Were there any sort of problems that you encountered out at the factory
or with the contractor at any point that you recall?
No, I think McDonnell did a good job on it. They had very good people
and well-talented people, and so I can’t recall any real problems.
Did you do any work with the ABMA?
The [Army] Ballistic Missile Agency. At the time, were you doing any
work with them?
No, I don’t recall it.
Did you do any work down at Cape Canaveral?
Well, yes. Going down there, getting ready for the launch, we would
be there after the launch to take care of the flight performance,
read the telemetry records, and things like that. One interesting
experience I had was being way up in the top of the gantry and a workman
was putting the adapter between the Atlas rocket and the Mercury capsule,
and the adapter—bolting it to the Atlas. And he kept having
to climb out of the pit he was in to get a tool. So I was standing
there, and I could see he needed a wrench, so I gave him a wrench,
and got a union grievance written up against me. I wasn’t supposed
to do that. That’s just one of those things.
Did you have any involvement with the Little Joe?
Yes. Who built that, Convair [Astronautics Division]? They built Big
Joe. I have a little model of Little Joe. That was a test on our parachute
system, and as I recall, it worked pretty well.
Do you recall anything else from that day?
No. The only other time that we had a problem was when we had the
Mercury on—what was it—the Redstone, down on the Cape,
and the booster lifted an inch off of the launch pad, and the engine
shut down, and the booster dropped back down on the launch pad. Fortunately,
it stayed up, but because the engine cut off, it armed all the systems
in the Mercury capsule itself, and so the capsule said, well, we’re
up at altitude, because the booster cut off, so we jettisoned the
launch escape system, and when that fired off, it armed all the barostats
that said, well, we’re at low altitude. We ought to shoot off
the parachutes. So here we had a whole sequence of events of the rocket
lifting off, shutting off, dropping down, launch escape tower blasting
off, and then the parachute, drogue chute, popping out, and the parachute’s
lying on the side of the vehicle standing up.
I was at Langley, and Max was down at the Cape and called up and said,
“What would happen if we fired the retro rocket on the thing?”
I had some thoughts about it, and then I said, “Max, we do that,
the thing is going to tumble and going to look stupid and the parachutes
won’t open. They’re just going to flail around. It might
even blow up the rocket. So the best thing to do is probably just
leave it alone.”
So they sent a crew out there and detanked the thing and stabilized
the rocket. What happened was the rocket umbilical got fouled up some
way where the ground to the umbilical got released before it should
have and sent a circuit up to the rocket to shut off the engines.
Now, that was a case where it was “I told you so” to Marshall
[Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama]. Now, there was a little
more than just a slight competition between Marshall and Langley.
Can you talk about that?
Well, my personal opinion is that [Wernher] von Braun really wanted
to run the whole program, and [Robert R.] Gilruth was assigned, Bob
Gilruth, was assigned to be the space type of leader, and I think
von Braun resented it. So there was a lot of feeling down there. Like
the launch escape tower, I had a cartoon of that. Marshall was saying,
“We need to know the characteristics of that tower, the whole
vibrational characteristics and everything else,” because it
would affect their engine controls on the booster. So I had a cartoon,
which one case was looking at the whole rocket system from on the
ground, looking upward, and the rocket disappeared into the sky with
a little tiny point up there called the launch escape tower. Then
next to it was a picture of looking down at the rocket from the launch
escape tower, and there was this big launch escape tower, coming all
the way down to a little tiny rocket at the bottom. And I said, “There’s
two views on this thing. Our view is the launch escape tower is nothing,
and your view, of course, is that it’s going to control the
whole vehicle.” But that was just sort of the feeling. It was
all resolved, but there was a little bit of a feeling about the Marshall
Did you work at all with von Braun?
Not personally with him, but some of his people, yes.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you had? You mentioned,
obviously, working with Marshall could be difficult. What were some
of the biggest challenges you had while working on the Mercury Program?
I think the unknown that we had. You know, we got a pig one time.
We were going to launch a pig, and put him in the cradle and started
monitoring him, and the pig died. One of our secretaries was a farm
girl, and she said, “If you’d asked me before you had
the pig in there, I would have told you that you never put a pig on
his back, that the belly fat on there will suffocate the pig.”
And that’s exactly what happened. So we went from pigs to monkeys,
and the monkey was kind of interesting, too, because he would get
an electric shock if he didn’t perform his duties rightly.
I’m drifting away from your question, but I think the concern
about controlling the vehicle and getting the right aerodynamics on
the vehicle for reentry. To such an extent, when John [H.] Glenn [Jr.]
flew in the Mercury, I had asked that John turn off all jets and let
the vehicle oscillate, because I wanted to find out just how good
our aero characteristics were, and we could tell from the oscillations
the static stability and the rate of decay or rate of expansion on
the dynamics. Of course, it was voted down. “We’re not
going to take the first flight and do it because some dumb aerodynamicist
wants some data on it.”
Well, as I recall it, John, on entry, tried to keep the spacecraft
at a certain angle of attack, and was using up and did use up all
of the reaction control system fuel. So the vehicle did rock; it did
oscillate. And it diverged exactly what we had predicted it to do,
and then the parachutes came open and stopped the oscillations. But
I thought, “Well, we did get our data after all.”
Did you have any role to play during the missions?
No, except for listening to what was going on. But, no, it was mostly
doing the analysis afterwards.
And what did that involve?
Well, all of the records, the telemetry records, like did the launch
escape tower jettison when it should, and things like that. I remember
the launch escape tower, I put three legs on that, and the theory
was that they all had explosive bolts. You had to get that launch
escape tower off of the vehicle, because that covered up the parachute
system and everything else. So it was a single-point failure that
had to make sure it worked. So we had two explosive bolts for each
leg, and the theory was that if two out of the three explosive bolts
worked—the legs, two out of three—the third leg would
just break, break off, when the rocket fired, which seemed to be the
Well, it turned out that running wind tunnel tests on the thing, you
had to run the launch escape tower with one leg into the wind, and
then you had to turn around and get the flat. I thought, “Man,
if you had four legs on that thing, you wouldn’t have to do
something like that. You could have sort of a symmetrical aerodynamics.”
So on Apollo I put four legs on it, and the explosive bolts turned
out to be very reliable and didn’t have any problems. That’s
all I can think of.
What did you learn from the first mission, from Alan [B.] Shepard
Well, that was kind of interesting. Alan wanted a parachute, and I
kept telling him, “Why do you want a parachute?”
“Well, just in case the thing enters backwards and doesn’t
do right. I want to be able to climb out.”
I said, “Look it, here’s the calculations. If it enters
backwards, there’s going to be so much pressure in the hatch,
you can’t open it.”
And he said, “I don’t care. I want to parachute down there,
So we said, “All right.”
And then I thought, “Maybe what we ought to do is not wire up
the abort system on the vehicle.” But anyway, that was—it
would never happen that way, but we had all sorts of schemes, you
know, a bit of humor on the thing. But I thought putting a parachute
on the thing was kind of dumb, but it satisfied the astronaut, so
the parachute went on it.
One of the things that came out of Mercury that affected Apollo, another
one, was that Mercury was a ballistic entry, so because the manufacturing
couldn’t guarantee that you’d get the center of gravity
exactly on the center line, that we rolled the vehicle deliberately.
So the vehicle, on entry, did have a slow roll and sort of wobbled
around its point down to the predicted impact point, where the ships
could be for recovery.
We came along in Apollo, and we were trying to figure out how to put
controls on the thing to control down-range, cross-range, up-range,
type of thing, and first we were going to put fins on the back end
of the vehicle or something, and then it occurred to me that, “Hey,
we put the spin on Mercury because of the offset. Why don’t
we just offset the center of gravity deliberately?” Then the
vehicle would pull lift, and all you had to do was roll the vehicle
to the different attitudes, and you’d get cross-range or being
away or down-range or up-range, depending on how you rolled the vehicle.
Rolling the vehicle was very easy, because you had no damping and
roll. That’s the system we used on Apollo, and I guess that
was one of my claims of fame to the Apollo Program was the guidance
system using roll control.
While you were working on the Mercury Project, what sort of contact
did you have with the astronauts?
I had a lot of contact. The big fight with the astronauts was the
instrument panel display. Every astronaut wanted his own little peculiarity,
it seemed like, to such an extent that Bob Gilruth assigned an engineer
and an astronaut to go figure out what the panel was going to look
like. I was the engineer and John Glenn was the astronaut, and so
we put the panel together. Right or wrong, that’s the panel
everybody had to use. We probably did all right, because everybody
seemed to be upset about it.
What was included on that instrument panel? What did you determine
would be necessary?
Well, where the switches would go and where the rate gyros would go
and where the attitude gyros and things like that on the panel.
Did you have any other sort of contact with them, in terms of providing
them some guidance on how the systems worked or giving them lectures
No, I don’t recall too much interface with that. We had a whole
training section that was going through that stuff. The input I would
have would be to the training session, what the aerodynamics would
be, so running any type of simulators that would get the data. But
I didn’t have that much contact with the astronauts.
You mentioned you were interviewed by Life magazine. What was the
press interest like in the Mercury Program itself?
Oh, I think it was very high. Basically it was just the story of Mercury,
how the configuration evolved. That’s about what I remember.
I think I have a copy of it somewhere hidden in boxes someplace.
That would be a nice memento to have. Were you interviewed by any
other magazines or newspapers?
Well, yes, the local newspaper in Joliet, Illinois, did quite an article
several times, on the Mercury Program and the Apollo Program. Local
boy does good or something like that.
That must have been exciting. Max Faget passed away just last year.
What are your memories of working with Max Faget on Mercury and also
Max was a fantastic individual. We were friends, both socially as
well as professionally, and Max would have a hundred ideas a second,
of which probably he could discard ninety of them after first conversation,
but ten of them would be good. He would walk around—he would
pass you right in the hall. He’d look at you and pass right
on by, and man, Max didn’t see you at all. His brain was going
around a thousand miles an hour type of thing. He was a fun guy to
work with. He was my boss during the Space Task Group.
When did you officially stop working on the Mercury Program?
Well, I’m trying to remember. Long before the first shot, even,
we had an advanced design group going as to what the follow-on to
Mercury ought to be, and we had already picked the Moon. So there
was a small group. Kurt Strauss was the leader, and Bob [Robert O.]
Piland, who was Max’s deputy, sort of put it together, and I
was in charge of new configurations and had a group of people looking
at how I could do this.
There was a whole progress of the Apollo. It started off, it was going
to be two people, and then it ended up being three. The configuration
changed from a small reentry vehicle that was directly landed on the
Moon type of thing, so it just flew to the Moon and it came back.
It was a small reentry vehicle with a living module behind it. We
even looked at Earth rendezvous, and then looked at lunar rendezvous,
and finally the decision was made, after the contract had been given
to North American, by the way.
North American had the contract for almost a year before the decision
was made of what was the mission going to look like. It caused North
American a lot of trouble, obviously, not knowing what the requirements
really were. There was this not complete struggle going on, but a
difference of opinion whether there ought to be direct lunar descent
or whether there ought to be lunar rendezvous or Earth rendezvous.
But finally when the decision was made to go lunar rendezvous, then
the configuration changed to one of make the vehicle big enough to
put everybody in it and forget the living module, because there was
a problem with what do you do with the LM [lunar module] in that case.
How do you hook that on if you’ve got a living module between
the spacecraft and entry vehicle. So Caldwell [C.] Johnson did a good
job, and he was a fantastic drawer. He could sketch things out that
really looked neat. I wish I had that artistic talent that this guy
has. So a lot of it configuration-wise came from Caldwell.
But we had three study contracts on the Apollo. General Electric had
one, and Martin [Company] had one, and Convair, General Dynamics,
had one. We would do what was called the red-eye express. I remember
we would get on the airplane and fly up to Valley Forge [Pennsylvania]
for General Electric, leave that night and go over to Martin Company
and have a meeting there, and then fly to San Diego [California] and
then have a meeting the next day there, and then fly back at the red-eye
type of thing. They’d get back, and then you were expected to
go to work the next day. Here you probably get four hours’ sleep
during the first three days of this marathon. We did that about once
every couple of months type of thing.
Let’s take a break for a second. I need to change my tape.
We are back with Mr. Kehlet, and I’d like to ask you about your
work on the New Projects Panel. Who was involved in that panel, do
Well, Kurt Strauss was the leader of it, with Bob Piland, also, and
I had the configuration part, and most of the people in my Aerodynamics
Group were assigned part-time to do this in addition to the Mercury
Program. We came up with several configurations, one of which you
had mentioned, the lenticular vehicle. I liked the lenticular—that
flying saucer type thing. It appealed to me because it could reenter
just like Apollo—or like Mercury does, except it had the capability
of landing horizontally. What it had was retractable elevators and
rudders on the back of the vehicle, and the saucer entered like the
Mercury, and then the fins unfolded in back, and it took a horizontal
position at about Mach five, and then landed on its bottom. It didn’t
even need landing gear, although, in retrospect, it probably should
have had it.
Max didn’t like it, because Max wanted to use parachutes. He
thought that making something, an airplane type thing, would be too
complicated, and he probably was right. But anyway, we pursued the
lenticular and did a lot of wind tunnel testing on it, and it looked
pretty good. Then Max came up with the criteria: it had to land in
sea state four, which are huge waves. So we had a basin, a water basin,
there at Langley, and they created a sea state four wave panel, and
we shot a model of the lenticular into the waves, and man, it hit
like a pancake and rolled on the waves and then flipped upside down
and landed upside down. So that was sort of the death knell.
Well, when Shuttle came along, I remember teasing Max about, “Well,
Max, are you going to make this sea state four, also?” The answer
was no, because you couldn’t put the Shuttle down on sea state
four. It just wouldn’t launch in sea state four. So it wasn’t
until ten years later that that requirement got relaxed. Otherwise,
we would have had a lenticular Apollo rather than the Apollo shape
Was that the only problem or challenge that you encountered with the
Well, that’s as far as we’d gone. There might have been
other problems with a retractable system, but I got a lot of support
from the other Centers, Ames [Research Laboratory, Moffett Field,
California] in particular; and the high-speed, [NASA Flight Research
Center], Edwards [California]; and even Langley had some lifting bodies
that they were proposing for the Apollo. There was no question that
Max didn’t like the lifting bodies. He wanted to have parachutes
on there. He didn’t want this horizontal landing.
I suspect that one of the reason that Max won in putting that configuration
on the Apollo we have is because there was a lot of work done in lifting
bodies, and if we had gone to a lifting body, the requirements or
the responsibility for the vehicle could have gone to that Center,
and I think maybe—my own personal opinion is that by that time
Johnson [Space Center, previously called the Manned Spacecraft Center,
Houston, Texas] didn’t want any other Center to be working on
the vehicle, because when the—well, anyway. So there were a
lot of things, but the Apollo certainly, configuration of the ice-cream
cone inverted, was the simplest of all designs.
What were some of the other topics or questions that the New Projects
The number of people on the vehicle, the type of mission, the sizing
the boosters required, the number of stages that might be required
to go on that. At that time it was you take off from the Earth, and
you go to the Moon, and you land on the Moon, and then you lift off
from the Moon and come back to the Earth. We hadn’t analyzed
it deep enough, I’m convinced, to know whether we should do
like Apollo had to do, or eventually did do, and that was it actually
went into Earth orbit for a coast period. Then the S-IVB fired a second
time to go to the Moon. So I think the whole mission type thing is
what we looked at.
But the rocket got pretty big, there was no question. Even the size
of the vehicle landing on the Moon and taking off from the Moon with
the reentry vehicle, with all this thermal protection and everything
else for the coming back to Earth, the question was, well, how do
you land that thing and make sure it doesn’t tip over in the
process of landing on uneven surfaces, but we weren’t sure what
the surface of the Moon looked like. At that time I recall there were
people that were predicting there was a twenty-foot dust layer on
the Moon, and you land on the Moon and it was going to be buried in
dust. Surveyor proved that not to be the case, but in the early days,
we weren’t sure what the lunar surface really looked like.
You mentioned that you were looking at the number of people who might
be on this mission. Do you recall how that might have changed over
I think we started out with two, initially, just go to the Moon. But
then when the LOR [Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous] came into being, then it
was recognized, hey, you probably need two people to go to the Moon,
but you ought to have somebody tending the vehicle, the mother ship,
you might say. So it ended up being three.
When you looked at the type of missions, what sort of issues were
you looking at?
Radiation on the way to the Moon; where you should pick samples type
of thing. Basically, the whole mission.
And were you working with other scientists who had background in these
fields, like radiation or geology, or was it primarily just this group?
Well, it was primarily the group. We weren’t that far along
on the vehicle, and it was recognized at that time there would be
a lot less hardware being built by JSC or Langley than there had been
on the Mercury Program, and that’s one of the reasons I left
NASA was that the emphasis was going to be on contract management
and not on hardware, and I still had the feeling, well, I liked to
see hardware being built and design it and build it.
When were you assigned to work out at Downey for NASA?
Well, it must have been about 1961. Might even have been 1960; somewhere
in that time period. Right after North American won the contract—by
the way, that was kind of interesting. I was on the Source Evaluation
Board, and I thought North American did a terrible job on theirs,
and the Martin Company, in my opinion, had a far superior product,
both design and capability. But we had a couple of people on the panel,
Walt [Walter C.] Williams, in particular, who worked with North American
on the X-15 Program, and he thought the world of a couple of people
there, Charlie [Charles H.] Feltz, by name, and—my memory slips
me now—the leader of North American. I’ll think of him
later. And was very persuasive. In fact, I had to go back and justify
my score, my panel score on the vehicle. Well, I didn’t change
anything, but the feeling was that whatever North American was weak
in, NASA could help and straighten them out, which was probably true.
So North American got the contract.
So I went out there to—whatever I could do. I remember going
down, and they were designing the launch escape system on the vehicle,
in the group, always, at one time, and I remember the guy, the supervisor,
looking, and he said, “So you’re Al Kehlet. You’re
the guy that put four legs on this thing.” [Laughs] It was quite
a—well, we can talk about the transition, because that was kind
of interesting, going into industry.
What were working conditions like out at Downey, compared to working
at Langley Field?
I think industry doesn’t recognize a time clock, for the most
part, and industry always has the attitude, well, you’re on
salary, and that means you’re 365 days, 24 hours a day, available.
That isn’t true in all cases, but in the aerospace, I think
the aerospace industry is probably the most intense of all industries,
as far as expecting a lot. At that time, anyway, the salaries were
the highest of any industry, so once you get paid for it, you were
expected to work pretty hard for it.
When you were working out there for NASA, what was it like?
There was a lot of respect for NASA by the people, and just being
a NASA rep gave you a lot of—I found I could go anyplace I wanted.
There were no secrets or anything else. I was invited to any meeting
I wanted to go to, anything else. It was very good.
Were there any problems that you noticed at North American that perhaps
foreshadowed what occurred in 1967?
No. The fire was a terrible thing. I think North American got blamed
for an awful lot. As the roles shifted from building a lot of this
stuff at Langley like we did in Mercury to being contract administrators,
NASA still had a lot to say about the technical details of things,
and weight was always a problem. As you know, or maybe you don’t,
we actually built two vehicles for Apollo. We built a Block I, which
had a half a dozen vehicles which were far too heavy for the boosters,
which were coming along, to ever be used in the mission. Most of the
vehicles you see in the museums and things like that are either boilerplates
or Block I type vehicles.
Block II was a real vehicle. That’s the one where we were to
go to the Moon, we had a weight requirement to meet. The fire occurred
in a Block I vehicle, and we never launched one. So walking around
on canvas covers for wires, and using Kapton wire without recognizing
the problems with the insulation on Kapton.
I learned a lesson on that thing about Kapton wires, and used it many
years later when I ran the Tomahawk Cruise Missile Program. Guess
what kind of wiring that Tomahawk had? Kapton wiring. One of the vehicles,
cruise missile, failed on the final checkout, and it was found out
that the wire, the insulation was cracked on it, Kapton insulation
on the thing. So we had to change the whole procedure on how to put
the wire panels together for the missile because of the Kapton wire.
I was talking earlier about coincidences and things. Everything in
your life will repeat one time or another, it seems to me, at least
in the career.
How many people were working for NASA out at Downey when you were
Oh, probably three or four.
And were those people all engineers, or were they from different aspects,
like Public Affairs and Procurement?
Most of them were engineers. In fact, there might have been one or
two contract-type people, but most of them were engineers.
What was the expectation for you while you were working out at Downey?
Well, from NASA’s viewpoint, straighten out North American.
From North American’s viewpoint, get NASA to make decisions
quicker. So it was a two-way street.
How often were you in contact with people at NASA?
Oh, probably daily.
Were you in contact via telephone or correspondence?
Yes. Mostly telephone.
And who were you mostly speaking with?
You know, I don’t remember. Well, let’s see. I guess it
was Aleck [C.] Bond, and Piland, Bob Piland, would be the people I
What were some of the issues that North American wanted resolved from
Pick the mission was a big one, because as I mentioned before, the
LOR hadn’t even been finalized at that time. I think North American
was way behind the power curve, initially, as far as the talent, getting
the talent together. They had a bunch of internal problems. As an
example, the Los Angeles Division which built all the airplanes, the
F-86 and the F-100 type airplanes, and Downey was a Space and Information
Systems Division type thing. It wasn’t even a full space type
Again, I’m trying to remember the name of the North American
guy that made a commitment to NASA that North American wouldn’t
have to hire people because we had all this talent at the Los Angeles
Division. Well, Los Angeles Division didn’t want to lose their
talent, so they made a moratorium, and that was you couldn’t
transfer. If you wanted to go work on that space program, you had
to resign or retire, quit. What that meant to the individual is they
lost all of their seniorities, which was more important towards retirement
than anything else. So all of a sudden they had no seniority at all.
A lot of them came to Downey to do that, but they timed it to go get
people, anyway. So NASA said, “We’re not going to give
you any money for recruiting, because you have this pool.” That
hurt North American getting the talent together, so that was not good.
So there were a lot of startup problems, really, really startup problems,
with confusion on the requirements and confusion on talent and things
When I was being processed by North American to be an employee, there
were two people in front of me, and I said, “Oh, who’s
your supervisor?” They didn’t know. I said, “Well,
what do you mean, you don’t know? What are you going to work
“Well, we’re not sure yet.”
I thought, “How could you possibly get a job with somebody when
you didn’t know even what discipline you were going to work
in?” I think North American was out shotgunning the employment.
Did you know who you’d be working for and what branch?
Oh yes. Yes, I did. Yes. I ended up being the technical staff to the
guy that was in charge of Apollo systems. He died shortly after I—he
had a heart attack and he died. I don’t remember his name. That’s
I understand that you worked on LOR with Chuck [Charles W.] Matthews.
Can you talk about that?
Well, I don’t recall that much working with Chuck. I remember
knowing Chuck in the Space Task Group, and I have a tremendous respect
for his technical abilities, management ability. He was a good guy.
As I recall, most of the work that I did was on the direct lunar landing,
and although I did work on a couple of committees, the Fleming Committee
being one of them, which was the direct lunar landing, and one of
the other committees in Washington. I was in Washington the day that
the President [John F.] Kennedy made the announcement about we’re
going to go to the Moon. We had just finished up our committee work
on the size of the boosters and things like that. What we did was
worked with the Marshall people, and I was the rep from the Space
Task Group, to determine the number of stages we’re going to
have, and the size of the stages. So that was kind of interesting.
You had been doing all of this work prior to hearing Kennedy’s
speech. When you heard Kennedy’s speech, what was your reaction?
Oh, I thought that was great. We didn’t have much space experience,
by any means, but so what? The big thing was going to be to line up
this contract. Who were we going to give the contract to? Because
the studies were already going on. So Kennedy made it sound like we
were going to start from scratch. Actually, we had about three years
of work on configurations already done through both our in-house studies
and the three contractors we had, so by the time he made his speech,
the configuration was established. The command module was going to
be the entire living quarters, and the lunar landing module was going
to be attached to it, and so forth.
That’s a different perspective. I know in the history books
you often read that people were shocked. We’d only flown Alan
Shepard for a fifteen-minute flight, and how were we going to go to
the Moon. Here you’d been working on these studies for quite
What was the feeling like at STG when they heard that they were going
to be moved out to Houston?
Well, first of all, Hampton was a small community, and moving 200
families out of the thing would devastate the real estate market,
and so actually, moving down to Houston was known probably before
the public announcement was made, because we sent a team down there.
I was part of the team that went to Houston. I don’t remember
the name of the buildings that we had, but we went down there. Flew
down there, and there must have been a crew of maybe ten or twenty
people that went down and looked at the various building sites and
things like that in Houston.
The people in Houston really, really welcomed us. We went into a restaurant
one night, about ten of us, and the waitress said—she could
tell by our accent we were not Texans—“Where are you from?”
We said, “We’re from Virginia.”
“Virginia? What are you doing here?”
“Well, we’re looking to see about setting up this space
She said, “The Moon men are here! The Moon men are here!”
And they were very, very good, very gracious.
What did you like most about Houston when you visited?
Well, there wasn’t much that I liked, in all honesty. I thought,
“My god,” you know. Lois’ father is from Texas,
and we’d had a couple of trips to Texas after we were married,
and I thought, “Well, it’s all right.” But my exposure
to Houston was in the summertime, and I thought, “Man, it’s
probably as cold as Texas in the winter and hot like this in the summertime.”
I had second thoughts about it.
But the real thing that happened was when we lived in Virginia, our
oldest son was playing across the street where they were building
houses, and fell on some ice and slit his wrist and cut five tendons
and the nerve. Fortunately, our next-door neighbor was our obstetrician,
and he hadn’t gone to work yet. Lois took Rob over there—and
I was at North American at the time—took him down there, and
the doctor that looked at his hand said, “Well, if it were my
son, I’d take him to Duke University [Durham, North Carolina]
and get it fixed.”
Well, there was no reason to stay at North American, so I transferred
back to Langley, and I was Joe Shortal’s assistant, so I was
Assistant Division Chief to Shortal while we were undergoing this
operation at Duke, which took several trips down there, because one
time Rob gets sick on the way, and we had to cancel the operation.
He fully recovered from it, but while I was at Langley, I was not
very happy at all the second time. The whole work ethic type of thing
was almost back to NACA, and it just didn’t have the spark or
the interest. It seemed to me that, well, if you don’t have
to do something till tomorrow, don’t worry about it today.
Now, that’s probably unfair to a lot of people at Langley, but
I got a call from Charlie Feltz at North American, and he said he
had talked to one of the NASA guys that was out at North American
at that time, because by this time they’d set up an official
office. Anyway—Gray, I think his name was—Charlie had
talked to him about what procedure he had to go through to get a NASA
employee hired, and said that, well, you had to talk to Gilruth and
so forth. So anyway, Charlie called me up and said, “We’d
like to offer you a job and go to California.”
I thought, “Well, I think I’d rather go to California
than to Houston, and I certainly would rather go to either one of
them rather than stay here.” So I said, “Well, I don’t
think it’s quite all that simple.”
He said, “Well, why don’t you talk to Gilruth about it.”
So I did, and Bob Gilruth said, “Well, I’d rather have
you work in Houston, but I’d rather have you work on the program
than not at all.” So I took the job with North American.
And so you moved in ’62 out to California?
That we did, in August, and I had been at North American during the
springtime. It’s such a beautiful place in southern California
in the spring. We drove down Route 91 in August, and there was dust
all over the trees and everything looked like it could use a good
rain, which they hadn’t had for a long time. I thought, “Is
this the same place that I visited before?” But the kids were
just starting school, so that was a good time to move. Our oldest
was just starting first grade.
What were your first few days like at North American?
Well, it was you didn’t leave work at four-thirty or anything
like that, you worked. It was going around to the various places.
I only stayed in that technical job for a short time. Then I requested
and got moved to the Project Office, and was the Deputy Chief Project
Engineer. At that time the way the organizations were, project engineering
was the interface with manufacturing, and so they were the ones that—project
engineers signed all of the drawings to be released to the files and
to manufacturing. It was quite a responsible job, and one of the reasons
I got it was because I did have the hardware experience out of NACA
So shortly after being Deputy Chief Project Engineer, I got assigned
to do the design work on Block II. So here now I’d carried Apollo
from the conception of the various configurations at NASA to being
able to actually do the design work on there. So I led a design group
of several hundred engineers to go through the Block I vehicle and
Now, what happened was on Block I, North American accepted the contract
with a spec [specification] that read something like “We will
build a vehicle and go to the Moon.” Well, North American wrongly
assumed that NASA was like the Air Force, who pretty much left North
American alone, and North American would tell them when they needed
money—not quite this way, but almost—tell them when they
needed the money, and would tell them when the product was ready for
acceptance by the Air Force. And they expected NASA, the same thing.
Well, it was a big surprise to find out NASA was going to send troops
in, and you were going to have technical reviews every two weeks and
design reviews and contract reviews and everything else. Contract
changes kept flowing in, and North American said, “Hey, this
is out of contract.”
They said, “No, it isn’t. Read the contract. You’re
going to go to the Moon. This is to go to the Moon.”
So North American ran out of money and started to use their own money
to keep the program going while they fought this contract thing. Well,
on Block II, we started going through what are the problems with Block
I. Well, the contract was a big problem, so we wrote a specification
You were talking about writing a specification.
So we wrote a specification that was pretty detailed, including the
control documents for the subcontractors. Not only that, but we made
an actual drawing list, which Block I didn’t have. One of the
other things that was done was we invented a vehicle called EM3, to
Engineering Manufacturing Mock-up Module, EMMM, and that was—one
of the systems—engineering had a mock-up, which they would build
to the engineering drawings released at the time. Manufacturing had
a mock-up, which they would take the engineering drawings and make
them into manufacturing drawings. The two mock-ups, the engineering
mock-up was probably six weeks behind the engineering. The manufacturing
mock-up was probably six months. And the net result was there were
changes all over the place.
So it occurred to me, “Why don’t we put the two mock-ups
together and, since we sign the engineering drawings as the engineering,”—by
that time I was Chief Project Engineer—“we sign all the
drawings, we’ll just have the one mock-up and make sure it’s
up-to-date.” Well, the Chief Engineer and the Operations Vice
President weren’t all that good friends, and so the big problem
was a political one of convincing the two of them that we could actually
make this thing work. Finally they agreed to it, and we built this
thing. The first Block II vehicle that went into the systems area
for checkout had less squawks on it than the last Block I vehicle
had, which was the sixth or seventh vehicle.
So it was a fantastic invention, you might say, and when they came
around and said, “We’re looking for cost-saving items
to enter a contest,” or some darn thing like that, I submitted
this thing, and they came back and said, well, they couldn’t
figure out any tangible cost, because it was such an advantage over
the Block I that they didn’t know how to price it. So that worked
out all right. So after that Dale [D.] Myers, who was the Vice President
of the program, formed a Spacecraft Group, and there would be Assistant
Program Managers, and each one would have a vehicle. So we started
with the thermovacuum vehicle went to Houston, and the vibration vehicle
went both to North American and to Houston.
So we started with Apollo 7 was the first Earth orbit vehicle, and
so the Program Manager, or Assistant Program Manager, was assigned
to that, and then Apollo 8 was the ring around the Moon type of thing,
and Joe [Joseph W.] Cuzzupoli was named that. Then Apollo 9, I don’t
recall who was head of that; and 10 had Bud Benner [phonetic], and
then I was assigned Apollo 11. I knew that could be the lunar landing
vehicle, the first one that would actually land on the Moon.
But the reason Apollo 10 didn’t land on the Moon was the LM
was not the lightweight LM, so LM was running behind the command module,
as far as the weight reduction. So Block II command modules and service
modules were ready before the LM. Otherwise, if the lightweight LM
had been there, Apollo 10 would have been the lunar landing. Nine
was the checkout, the rendezvous docking with the LM, and of course,
we didn’t have a LM available at all for 8, so 8 just went around
the Moon, proved the systems really work, and the guidance system.
And the roll control system worked, which was great.
So it was very good fortune there to feel in my career that I started
with the concept of the Apollo Program, all the way through designing
the actual ones that went to the Moon, building it, and then being
in charge of the one that landed on the Moon.
Let me go back and just ask you a couple of questions. What impact
did Frank Borman and his Tiger Team have on the design of the Block
Kehlet: Well, tremendous. But not all good, necessarily, in my opinion.
The Program Office at Houston did a good job of keeping Max Faget
and his crew from changing things. As soon as it started to become
apparent that the spec we wrote for Block II was a pretty tight spec,
whereas on Block I, practically everything was within contract. Now,
Block II, it turned out that not much was in contract, and so North
American, we got schedule relief and money from schedule changes.
So the Program Office in Houston then started putting the squeeze—Joe
[Joseph F.] Shea, in particular—putting the squeeze on Max’s
group to cut down these goodies. One guy I remember saying, “I
want the latest technology to be on that vehicle when it goes to the
Moon.” Well, there was a three-year time lag for most of it
between the time it was technology and what you could get on the vehicle,
so making that statement was stupid. But that was not necessarily
typical, but it was close to it. So Shea’s office put a crimp
Well, after the fire, the floodgates opened, and Frank Borman’s
group came in there, and every one of these goodies that some of the
engineers wanted got socked to us as being flight-critical, and that
was the key word. You had to put “flight-critical” behind
all these changes. The very fact, though, that we converted, and the
first Block II vehicle was almost ready to be shipped to Houston for
the thermal vacuum test when the fire occurred. We were that far along
with Block II. We had about six in the pipeline, and the first vehicle
was ready to go to Houston.
The fire occurred, and that was in January, and we shipped that vehicle
with all of the modifications, everything else into it, less than
a year. I think that’s pretty remarkable. Look how long the
Shuttle’s been down for something. So it was a recognition that
time was critical, but also I think there was a lot less nitpickers
on there. There was probably more willingness to take a risk to get
the thing within the time schedule than there would be today. I think
we have too many QC [Quality Control] and safety people that outnumber
the people doing the actual work.
What impact did it have on the program when Joe Shea left and George
[M.] Low came on board as the Program Manager?
Didn’t have too much at all. George Low was a good guy. Shea
was a good guy. I knew George Low from Lewis [Research Center, Cleveland,
Ohio], and John [H.] Disher, a couple of really pretty fine individuals.
What are your memories of Apollo 11, since that was your vehicle?
Well, went down to the Cape when it launched, and got on the airplane
after launch and went to Houston, and was at the lunar landing type
thing. I wasn’t in the control room. We had a lobby of a motel
down there, and most of the North American people were there. That
was where we saw the lunar landing type of thing. Well, of course,
concern about coming back. It was only after the pickup of the crew
and everything else I felt, man, we really did it. We brought the
samples back and all three guys came back without any mishap.
We did have one scary thing during the mission on Apollo 11, on the
way to the Moon. The next vehicle, which was Spacecraft 109—it
was the second vehicle, and we had 107 and 108 came along, and 109
was in the pipeline. In final inspection, it was determined that the
parachutes were not tied to the vehicle, the parachute risers, and
so there was concern. My god, you know, command module 8 was okay,
but what about 7 on the way to the Moon? Well, I had in my private
file that I brought with me to the Cape closeout photographs of the
whole thing, and so I had a closeout photograph of the area where
the parachute was, and it was definitely tied. So that sort of took
care of that thing, but that was the kind of scares that were going
Apollo 11 had less anomalies in their flight than any of the Apollo
things, which I think was because I stole every good part I could
find that went in that vehicle. When one of the vehicles had a problem
and they wanted to steal my engine, I told them no, and we took it
off of Spacecraft 109, which turned out to be Apollo 13. But that
had nothing to do with the mission.
Right before the launch at the Cape, there was a meeting on what was
going to be the follow-on to the Apollo Program. George [E.] Mueller
made the statement. North American was betting it was going to be
a Space Station, because it was obvious. We had all the Apollo hardware.
You could use the Apollo modules, the crew module, to go back and
forth to Earth, and the Apollo system. So you could put a Space Station
A fellow named Bill [William D.] Bergen, who was the Division President
of North American, said, “Al, you’re going to be the Chief
Engineer of the Space Station when you come back to California.”
And George Mueller made the statement I would be in the Shuttle. Bergen
said, “Well, I correct myself. You’ll be Chief Engineer
of the Shuttle.” In all honesty, Apollo was like working on
a race car; the Shuttle was like working on a truck. It was all right,
but it didn’t have the excitement, by any means, that the Apollo
Program had, so it was a letdown.
So what was your role in the Space Shuttle Program? Other than being
the Chief Engineer, what were those requirements and duties?
Well, I had a whole Engineering Department, and so all of the configuration
studies and the launch studies, systems, and everything else, was
done by that. It was a dynamic program initially. In order to win
the contract, you had to win—after winning Phase A, which was
won, I guess, in 1968, the company had to beat out Grumman [Aircraft
Engineering Corporation, and McDonnell Douglas [Corporation] and Boeing
[Airplane Company] were entries into the contracts, so if you won
A, then you had to win B, and then we had to win B Prime, and then
B Double Prime, and then finally C, which was the hardware contract.
So each one of those episodes, you were writing proposals and answering
NASA’s questions at the same time.
So, in the meantime, the Apollo Program was winding down, and trying
to get talent from Apollo, as they were winding down, to come over
to the Shuttle was a problem.
Why was it a problem?
Well, NASA kept asking questions, so there was always a hook, you
might say, or a line attached to the guy that would come from Apollo.
When I need him, I want instant response type of thing. Well, we had
our own problems, too, so you couldn’t always guarantee that
the person would be available on an instant basis.
What were some of the challenges that you encountered while working
on the Space Shuttle during these various phases?
My personal opinion was the Shuttle was too big, but the real problem
was that all of the professional organizations wanted the Shuttle.
AIAA [American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics] went out
strongly for the Shuttle. The Air Force wanted the Shuttle. Industry
wanted the Shuttle because all the hardware for Apollo was being built,
and there wasn’t any new money going to come in for big programs
or anything else, and the industry needed a program. So it was like
who’s going to win this. You want to be a billionaire? Who wants
to be a billionaire? The winner of the Shuttle contract. So there
was a lot of pressure from the corporations to build the Shuttle,
too, as opposed to the Space Station.
The problem was what the Air Force had in mind for a Shuttle and what
NASA had in mind for the Shuttle were two different animals. One was
an elephant, and the other one was a gigantic elephant, I guess. The
requirements were never nailed down, and we went the whole program,
from Phase A through practically the hardware contract, where the
requirements changed every contract.
The Air Force wanted a big payload bay, and they actually wanted the
vehicle to replace the Titan IV, which was a aging hypergolic vehicle.
NASA wanted a small vehicle to refuel the Space Station, and the two
of them can’t meet. NASA wanted a fifteen-foot by twenty-foot
cargo bay, and the Air Force wanted sixty feet long or some number
like that. And the cross range, the Air Force wanted to be able to
launch out of Vandenberg [Air Force Base, California] and come back
to Vandenberg on one pass, which meant you had to have almost 2,000
miles cross range. NASA needed no cross range at all. So they said,
“Well, we’ll just stay in orbit till we line up with the—down
at the Cape, and we’ll land at that time.”
So you had these conflicting requirements which determined the size
of the vehicle and the booster. General Dynamics was our subcontractor
on the booster initially, and every time we changed the vehicle, you
change the size of the booster, and those poor people were down there
really on the ragged end of things. So I think the program was a disaster
from Phase One, because the requirements weren’t nailed down
till the last time, when they were finally nailed down. But you know
what the maximum cross range we’ve ever had on the Shuttle?
It was designed for 1,200 miles cross range. Four hundred and fifty
Now, since the thermal protection goes up as the cube of the cross
range type of thing, we got more thermal protection on the Shuttle
than you could shake a stick at. It’s unfortunate that that
leading edge got banged up the way it did, because that was just a
hole, but as far as the rest of the tiles and everything else, they’re
I see you left in 1973.
Why did you make that decision to leave?
Well, I didn’t really make that decision. I got sort of helped.
It was another one that “I’m going to make you an offer
you can’t refuse.” By that time the Shuttle had come along,
we’d pretty well staffed up, and the opportunity was to—well,
a fellow named Rockwell, the guy that’s the Rockwell of the
Rockwells, said he wanted to take three space cadets to go on commercial
programs. I was one of the three and assigned to go to the Airplane
Division. I didn’t even know Rockwell [International Corporation]
built airplanes at that time, besides the military airplanes. So I
was Division Chief Engineer of the Sabreliner Division.
Then in 1979 they were having a lot of trouble in Bethany, Oklahoma,
on General Aviation, Rockwell General Aviation, and I got assigned
to go there. It was quite a promotion, but I sure as heck didn’t
want to have to move to Oklahoma. But Lois agreed, and we had two
children still in school at that time, and Jennifer had got moved
from school to school in the next several years, but has done okay.
So I went to General Aviation as the Executive Vice President, but
the problem was that the airplanes we were building, which was a beautiful
little single-engine airplane—was one of the series of airplanes—was
costing us $72,000 to build the airplane, and we were selling them
for $68,000. Well, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure
out you’re probably not making any money off of that one, so
I stopped the line, and the Flight Department almost came unglued.
So all of a sudden I got inducted into “Why don’t you
get your pilot’s license?” so we had a company airplane,
so I flew the dawn patrol, six o’clock in the morning. We’d
fly for a couple of hours with the instructor. The corporate rules
were you had to have twenty-five hours of dual before you could solo.
Well, I had already soloed with a Piper Cub twenty years before that.
That didn’t make any difference, so anyway, I finally got my
license there, and still stopped the production of that airplane,
because we had a turboprop that was in huge backlog.
We started making money, and all of a sudden Rockwell said, “We
ought to sell that division.” So they said, “You’re
going to St. Louis as President of the Sabreliner Division,”
my old division that moved now from El Segundo [California] to St.
Louis. So I went down there as President of the Sabreliner.
How long did you stay there?
I stayed there two years, and then I went to work for Fairchild as
President of the Metroliner in San Antonio [Texas]. Huge increase
in salary. It soon became apparent that the Metroliner was a General
Aviation type airplane, going backwards again to me; it wasn’t
all that challenging. John Yardley called up and said he needed somebody
to run the Cruise Missile Program, and going back to St. Louis was
a benefit to San Antonio, although I like San Antonio, but it’s
a nice place to visit type of thing.
So we moved back to St. Louis, and I ran the Tomahawk Program from
scratch. Competition with General Dynamics on the vehicles; we did
a good job on it. Then they were running into problems with that Delta
launch vehicle in Huntington Beach [California]. And we’ve always
wanted to go back to California. In fact, I was promised when we went
to Oklahoma City [Oklahoma], that it would be a three-year type of
thing and we’d come back to California. Well, didn’t happen,
so Yardley said, “Send you back to California.”
At that time Lois was working and Jennifer just graduated from Texas,
bachelor’s degree, and had a job lined up in the airplane company
there, at MacAir. So it was a good time to move. And Steven, our youngest,
was just going to start high school. So if you’re going to move,
that was the ideal time. So I said, “Okay, I’ll go if
you can also package Lois, who’s working here, and Jennifer,
who has a job. So you have to do that.”
John said, “Fine.” So we went to California. I stayed
on that program, and it got going fairly well, and they had an opening
in technology, and I finished up my career as running the technology
for carbon-fiber wings and spars, and all the supersonic transport
was in that division. Also, as a sort of a side job, we were converting
DC-10s into aerial tankers for the Air Force in foreign countries.
We did two of them for the Dutch, and that was interesting. It was
back to hardware again. This time I turned sixty-five and got kicked
out because I was a VP [Vice President] and officer of the company.
And you’ve been retired ever since?
Yes, I did some consulting work for Aliant [phonetic] on their solid-fuel
rocket, and I did some consulting work for George Mueller in his Kistler
[Aerospace Corporation]. But I find that between all the traveling
we’ve done, and we own a number of fourplexes and townhouse
and the house in Tucson [Arizona], that the rental property, just
managing it, is a full-time job.
That’s what I’ve heard. Let me just ask you a couple of
general questions. If you looked back over your entire career, what
do you think would be your most significant accomplishment?
Oh, the Apollo Program. There were a lot of interesting things. The
story about the angle of attack indicator and blunt body, the roll
control, and even Apollo, of being asked by North American to come
to work for them type of thing. I think there were a lot of being
at the right place at the right time. Being picked for the Space Task
Group. I was the youngest of the youngest in there type of thing,
and I thought that was very, very considerate of Purser to pick me,
but on the other hand, I guess I was willing to work hard, and so
that sort of compensated for the youth, I think.
How old were you when you were selected for the STG?
Well, let’s see. That was ’58, so I must have been twenty-nine.
I think of my kids as they went through their twenties and their thirties.
Would I trust them to do that? I guess the answer is yes. Youth has
a big advantage, not being afraid to tackle ideas.
What do you think has been your most challenging milestone over your
Well, I think the Space Shuttle Program was probably the one that
was more work than it was fun, and that’s because, again, I
go back, the requirements. I’ve done a couple of lectures at
the Cal State [California State University] Long Beach [Long Beach,
California], and just push, emphasize, you’ve got to get the
requirements done. If you don’t have the requirements done,
you’re lost. That’s, I think, been a trademark of mine
that you nail down the requirements first, and then you go work on
Do you think there’s anything that we didn’t cover—I
know you brought some notes today—for NACA or your NASA career,
or even your post-NASA career, that you’d like to talk about?
No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve pretty well covered
it. I think the people I worked with at NACA and NASA are just tremendous
individuals. Lois had a saying that the people always seemed to do
well that worked for me. I had a number of jobs that, including the
Cruise Missile Program, that I had at least three or four so-called
deadbeats in the thing that turned around to be darned good people.
They just weren’t challenged enough.
Trying to not micromanage a job has been the other aspect. I like
Jim Parks’ attitude. Let you go as far as you can go as long
as you don’t sink the ship type of attitude, which I think is
very good. Having that type of thing, I was extremely fortunate to
have somebody like Parks. I don’t know if he’s still alive.
I’m not sure. Well, I thank you very much for your time today.
Well, you’re welcome. We took a little longer than we talked
about, but that’s okay.