Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
by Summer Chick Bergen
Houston, Texas – 3 February 1999
Today is February 3, 1999. This oral history with Paul Purser is being
conducted at the offices of the Signal Corporation in Houston, Texas,
for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. The interviewer
is Summer Chick Bergen, assisted by Carol Butler and Sasha Tarrant.
Mr. Purser, we're glad for you to be here.
[What was going on in aviation in 1914 was that] the government sent
this group to Europe to find out, really, the status of aviation.
They came back with a report that they had 1,400 military aircraft.
The United States at that time had fourteen. This was somewhat upsetting,
and in order to approach that problem, Congress established the National
Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA] to try to catch this country
up with Europe. It worked very well, because by the mid-thirties,
we were the leading aviation country, the only producer of real transport
aircraft, the DC-3, and really established a world-preeminent status
During the late thirties, they again got concerned in Washington [DC]
about what was going on in Europe and sent Charles Lindbergh to Europe
to review again what was going on there compared to what was going
on here. He reported, much to the disgust of the press, that Germany
was really making strides, particularly in military aviation. The
press was so upset about it that they almost drove Lindbergh out of
the country, but Congress, as they had done in 1915, listened, and
they told NACA, which at that time had a total of, I think, less than
700 employees, to be prepared to start expanding.
Henry [J. E.] Reid, who was the director at Langley [Research Center]
at that time, wrote to all of the academic people he had had any contact
with around the country and said, "Get your best aeronautical
engineering, mechanical engineering seniors to take the Civil Service
exam that's coming up in the spring of '39, because we're going to
be hiring like mad."
At LSU [Louisiana State University], I think the whole senior aeroengineering
class, twelve, I think, took the exam, and we had to wait. The mills
of the gods ground slowly then, just as they do now. One of our class,
Lindsey Lina, L-I-N-A, was hired during the summer of '39. I got a
call in early October and came in in October of '39. Walt [Walter
C.] Williams got a call about six months later, and Harold Sweberg,
who was one of our senior class and had taken a fellowship at Caltech,
got his offer at mid-term, and he jumped on a bus and rode it all
the way across the country because he was having trouble supporting
himself on a master's graduate fellowship, and his family in New York
needed help. So he came and joined the group at Langley.
Then in succeeding years, more [LSU] people showed up, and after the
war, when the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division [PARD] had started,
again in response to what had been going on overseas, because by that
time we found out more about what Germany had been doing in rockets
and turbine engines and high-speed flight in general, and the wind
tunnels were just at that time not capable of operating near the speed
[Robert R.] Gilruth, the Center's [Johnson Space Center’s] first
director here, was in the Flight Research Division, and he started
looking for ways to get aerodynamic data at the speed of sound, and
one of the ways was to mount a small wing in the high-speed air flow
over the wing of a P-51 fighter plane. Another way is to put surplus
military rockets in models and fly them up through the air, track
them with radar, and use telemetry to measure the forces on them.
That was how the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division started, was
During the war, I had been working in and ended up running a wind
tunnel, low speed, eighty miles an hour, but in one way or another,
I and the other people in the group worked on, I think, almost every
airplane that the U.S. used or had proposed for use in World War II.
So we had a lot of aircraft experience. With the Pilotless Aircraft
Research Division, I got a lot of experience; live experience and
with models in free flight, and after we started getting them to high
enough speeds for aerodynamic heating to become important, Gilruth
set me off to the side to try to develop ground-based high-temperature
facilities using the … people at Langley who were used to designing
test facilities and things. Caldwell [C.] Johnson, who was one of
the chief design people in Project Mercury, was one of that group.
So we developed various facilities, that and flying models. I think
at that time we had gotten models up to Mach number 15, which is about
halfway to being able to go into orbit, but it was still faster than
anybody else had been.
[Maxime A.] Faget and I and Chuck [Charles W.] Mathews, who was here
for a while, and several other people worked closely with Faget, collectively,
with Faget providing, I guess, the primary sparks, came up with the
idea of Project Mercury. At the same time, the NACA was continuing
to work with the Air Force on the research airplane projects, and
they were looking for the next step beyond the X-15. We had a conference
out at the Ames Research Center of people from Langley and Ames, the
Flight Research Center, the engine lab at Cleveland, and NASA Headquarters,
or NACA Headquarters.
While we were there, we were really looking primarily at something
like what Boeing had proposed to the Air Force, a Dyna-Soar, a long,
slender, triangular aircraft that would be flown with power to very
high speed and then allowed to just coast, to glide, with an eventual
range of 12,000 or more miles. That was in line pretty much with what
the then-director of Langley [Floyd L. Thompson] had kind of preached
for many years, that eventually our aim should be to be able to fly
anywhere in the world in an eight-hour day. You have to take off from
that a couple of hours in getting to the airport and maybe a short
commuter flight to the big airport and then some time on the other
end. It was going to mean that you'd have to go to very high speeds
for the long-distance part of it. So even though, in those days, space
had the same connotation as many four-letter words do now in Washington,
by looking at it from Thompson's viewpoint of how can we keep going
higher, faster, and farther to get to this ultimate goal, and the
Dyna-Soar thing looked fairly reasonable.
Right in the middle of that conference, the Soviets flew Sputnik,
and that kind of turned our little conference into somewhat of a turmoil.
The Air Force—I don't remember whether it was six months prior
to that or a year prior to that—had a top-secret or possibly
higher classification than top secret, conference to which a few NACA
people were invited. One of them was Al [Alfred J.] Eggers from Ames
and one was Bill [William J.] O'Sullivan [Jr.] from Langley. The conference
was so highly classified that Dr. [Hugh L.] Dryden, the NACA director
at that time, told the NACA attendees that they could not even tell
their home-based supervisors what the subject was.
O'Sullivan was part of the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. He
had not told any of us anything about it. Eggers was in something
of a middle research management position at Ames, a very bright guy.
He had not told any of his people about it, but he had done a lot
of thinking and had modified some of his research plans to accommodate
work on re-entry bodies. He, in front of the NACA hierarchy who were
there, had the guts to get up and tell us just enough about the subject
of the conference to let us all know that the Dyna-Soar was not the
way to go. Faget had been thinking that for other reasons for almost
a year by that time, and so he got up and told us what he thought
about what finally became Project Mercury.
Al Eggers told us about his proposal for a lifting body, being somewhere
similar to what is now being proposed as a crew rescue vehicle, but
at that time we wouldn't have been able to meet the weight requirements
for reaching orbit, whereas the Mercury spacecraft would be able to,
we felt. That just completely turned us around from looking at the
Dyna-Soar concept and got us concentrating on what became Project
Sputnik got almost every scientific group in the country eager to
be what eventually became NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration].
Dr. Dryden was not personally in favor of that, but he did something
that our Washington hierarchy has very seldom done since that time.
Instead of doing what he thought, he talked to the people in the Centers
and became the driving force that although he did not really personally
believe it was the right thing for NACA, he was convinced by the people
in the Centers that it was the right thing for the country, and he
was the real promoter of NACA becoming NASA.
There wound up being a group of about twelve of us working under Gilruth,
developing ideas for Project Mercury, so we spent about six months
pretty much concentrating on that. Then when it began to look like
NASA was going to be formed somehow, they pulled a bigger group into
Washington [DC] from all of the NACA Centers. It turned out, because
primarily of the geographical proximity, Langley and Cleveland [Lewis
Research Center] were the most heavily represented of the groups,
but during the summer of 1958 there were, at various times, from fifty
to seventy-five people from the Centers collected in Washington [DC]
finding out what we were going to have to do to make sensible progress
as a space agency.
Then in July, when the Space Act was passed with NASA to come into
being and active on October 1 , we concentrated on how do we
convert NACA to NASA. NASA then came into being officially the first
of October '58, which was just three or four days less than one year
after the Soviets had slapped us in the face with Sputnik, and I don't
think Congress has ever reacted as quickly to anything as they did
to that. There was a complete new agency with new ideas and new projects
within just under a year.
The first administrator of NASA [T. Keith Glennan] came into office
officially on the first of October. He had been working with the people
in Washington for some time before that, I don't know how long, whether
it was a week or two weeks or a month or what, but he was not completely
unaware of what was going on, but one of the first things that he
did was ask Gilruth to come up and make a presentation on Project
Mercury. Gilruth and Charles [J.] Donlan, Max Faget, maybe Chuck Mathews
went up to Washington to meet with Dr. [T. Keith] Glennan.
I was off somewhere else doing something, I don't remember now what,
but it was part of Mercury and various others. We kind of scattered
all over the country at times collecting information, but at any rate,
they made the presentation on Mercury, condensing quickly a lot of
what I just said about the early history. As Dr. Gilruth told me when
he finished, Glennan said, "Well, I think you ought to get the
hell—" and Gilruth thought, "Oh, my God, he's going
to say 'out of here.'" Nope. His next words were "on with
the project." So Gilruth said, "Yes, sir. We will do that."
He came back to Langley and told Thompson, the director, that Glennan
had said we should get on with the project, so he and Thompson together
put together a memo setting up the Space Task Group. And that's how
we came into being. The memo was not signed by Washington. It was
verbally blessed by them later, and really, neither Gilruth nor Thompson
had any authority to do that except that the new administrator of
NASA had said, "Get the hell on with the project." So they
Thompson made space available for us at Langley and provided an awful
lot of support in every way. That was how we got started. Then when
[President John F.] Kennedy decided to really put us on the map with
Apollo, we still had not flown any of the Mercury spacecraft at that
time, but he said we were going to go to the Moon and return safely
within the decade, and so we had to do something other than just occupy
borrowed quarters at Langley, and that was when they got started looking
for sites for what is now the Space Center here in Houston [Texas].
All of us in the Space Task Group, while we had nominal positions,
were really working on almost different things every day, whatever
needed to be done. I was working as an assistant to Gilruth, and he
called me a special assistant because I had the task of doing almost
anything that he felt he couldn't do, didn't have time to do, or didn't
want to do. So I had some contact with almost everyone in the Space
Task Group, and as we developed into the Manned Spacecraft Center
down here with the larger group there.
We had grown as NACA from just under 700 people when I joined it in
'39, to, I think, around 8,000 at the end of World War II and [then]
had grown very little more. We still were around 8,000 ten years later
in '57 when Sputnik flew. Then in '58, with the formation of NASA,
we began growing, partly by absorbing some groups that were already
in existence, [but] to a large extent by hiring new people, but people,
hopefully, with some practical background and experience in addition
to just having degrees.
When we came down here [to Houston]—really, before we came down
here, we started giving a series of lectures to the new employees
and some of the old employees to kind of acquaint them with what needed
to be done. Sometime in '63 or '64, "Shorty" [John A.] Powers,
who was head of public affairs at that time, said, "Gee, this
would make a great textbook on spacecraft engineering." So we
put it together. "Shorty" had some contacts with Fairchild
Publications, and he got them to publish it for us, so it was the
first graduate-level textbook on spacecraft engineering. It came out
of the Space Center here in 1964, and Faget and I and Norman [F.]
Smith were the editors of it.
I wrote the first chapter and the last chapter, because the guy who
was going to write the last chapter never got around to it. We had
various people working [on their specialties] writing the chapters
in between. But we had to do it all on our own time, so it meant that
I had to take the stuff home with me, proofread it, and get it set
up. My wife typed it. It's about a half-million-word book. I proofread
stuff before I gave it to her to type. I proofread what she typed.
We sent it to the publisher, and I proofread galley proofs and page
proofs and final proofs, and that half-million-word book came up with
one typographical error that I know of, and it was on something that
I didn't proofread. It was the little statement in the front pages
that usually says "All rights reserved." It didn't have
an "S" on the "rights." "All right reserved."
In a way, that is kind of what we did with the spacecraft. We essentially
proofread every step of the way, and we still couldn't keep out all
of the errors, but we pretty well minimized them.
[It occurred to me on this reading [of the transcript] that I had
not mentioned the Russian translation of our “Manned Spacecraft”
book. The interesting part is that the Russians did not translate
every chapter—only 36 of 47. I guess they only bothered with
the chapters they felt they could learn from; and they didn’t
bother with the material that they already knew.]
When you were working on Mercury, you did some work on the development
of the heat shields?
Not specifically on the development of the heat shields. Most of that
work was done by Faget and people working directly for him. My contribution
to that was one of the ground-based high temperature facilities that
I had been in charge of developing, which was a very high-temperature
supersonic wind tunnel, really. It had a Mach number of between 3
and 4, and it had a total temperature of the air of 4,000 degrees
Fahrenheit, which is enough to melt almost any known material at that
time except maybe diamonds. We needed to test heat shield materials
not only for Mercury, but basically for ballistic missile work.
An interesting thing, we had tested various metals, various shapes,
various other materials. Gilruth and I, and I don't know whether anyone
else from our group was involved or not, but at least Dr. Gilruth
and I went to a meeting in Secretary [Neil H.] McElroy's office. He
was Secretary of Defense at the time. The subject of the meeting was
whether the Redstone group under Dr. [Wernher] von Braun should be
allowed to develop what's called an ablative heat shield for the Redstone
missile, or whether they should try to develop one of the metallic
heat shields that the Air Force was working on for the ballistic missiles.
One very prominent man who had started his career at Langley and had
left and gone into the academic world and scientific consulting after
the war got up and said, "Well, it's really very simple. Just
go ahead and make it out of smooth stainless steel and don't worry
about all this ablative stuff."
So Dr. von Braun said, "It won't work."
And I said, "It won't work."
I said, "Well, we've got this high-temperature jet down at Langley,
it's to a temperature of 4,000 degrees, which is about what the Redstone
would reach on reentry, and I'd like to show you some pictures of
some tests in it." I showed him a picture of a stainless steel
nose that burned like a flashbulb.
Dr. von Braun said, "See? I told you it wouldn't work."
And the prominent scientist sat down and shut up. He did a lot more
talking later about other things, but he didn't talk any more in that
group that day.
You mentioned Dr. von Braun and the Redstone. Were you involved in
acquiring the Redstone for use in the Mercury Project?
To some extent I was. I think that probably Jack [C.] Heberlig did
most of the work, but I did some of the kind of opening negotiations.
At the time, for some reason, Dr. von Braun and I could get along
very well. Walt Williams couldn't get along with him at all. They
just drew sparks off each other. I don't know why, but they did. Sometimes
Walt and I drew sparks off each other, too, even though we were classmates
at LSU. But anyhow, that was my involvement, kind of the initial negotiations
and so on. Jack Heberlig did most of the detailed negotiations after
that. There was a lot of give and take, and von Braun was a very—quite
a stubborn man, but so were we, but we finally reached agreements
because, although very stubborn, he was also willing to listen and
learn. I think I helped us smooth the road for dealings with him.
Did you feel confident about putting a man on top of a rocket when
you were doing Mercury?
Yes, because we were going to check everything out ahead of time.
We couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't fail, but we weren't going
to do anything that we were not very confident in working, having
done enough ahead of time so that we were not going on theory, we
were going on the basis of solid experiments.
What role did you play in the decision to advance from the Redstone
to the Atlas after Gus [Virgil I.] Grissom's MR-3 mission?
You've got it backwards. We didn't advance from the Redstone to the
Atlas. We chose the Atlas because that was the biggest, most powerful
rocket that the Air Force had either flown or was getting ready to
fly at that time, but it was not going to be ready in time to do some
early testing. The Redstone was an operational missile at that time,
and it looked like we could get some actual flight experience with
the launching, the separation, trying out the escape rocket, things
like that before we could ever get a useable Atlas to work. So we
didn't progress from Redstone to Atlas; we chose Atlas and came back
to Redstone because of what we could get hold of.
Also, in order to try to get something even quicker than Redstone,
I started playing with the idea of taking four of the largest solid
propellant rockets that we had in our stable at that time and putting
them together and firing two of them, and then later firing the other
two to carry the spacecraft up to pretty high speed and altitude and
try the separation and so on.
That was what Faget and Caldwell Johnson developed into the Little
Joe. The name "Little Joe," if you've ever played dice and
you look at the four on a die with rounded corners, and it's four
dots just like the four rockets that we had [clustered in one round
shell]. Little Joe actually is two deuces, but it's also four and
the die with four on it, one die with four spots, and that's where
"Little Joe" came from. That, I think, was possibly Guy
[Joseph G.] Thibodaux's contribution, the name. I don't know. It was
either his or Caldwell Johnson's.
Was the Little Joe formally known as the High Ride, or was that something
High Ride rings a little bell, but it's a very faint bell. [Laughter]
I mean, I'm not really sure about it right now. [It may have been
a proposal that von Braun’s people at ABMA (Army Ballistic Missile
Agency) made very early in the space game.]
Okay. During Mercury, McDonnell [Aircraft Corporation] was the contractor
for the spacecraft. What interaction did you have with that corporation?
I had very little direct contact with them. I was primarily, as I
said, doing the things that Gilruth couldn't do, didn't have time
to do, or didn't want to do. So I did have some contact with them.
I was part of the group that went up to Canada when the Canadian AVRO
CF-105 fighter plane was canceled and the A.V. Roe plant in Toronto
was going to have to almost shut down and wanted to have places for
some of their better people to go. So they offered us opportunities
to come up and recruit some of them, and after some very quick and
intense negotiations in Washington [DC], we got the approval to do
Gilruth and Charlie Donlan, Chuck Matthews, me, and I don't know whether
Faget went with us or not, but we went up to Toronto, and the AVRO
people took us in, gave us freedom to talk to anyone we wanted to
in the plant. They had a kind of shopping list of people they thought
we might like, and we spent a whole day, each of us, interviewing
several of them, and wound up the day with about thirty that we thought
we would like very much to have. I think it wound up that twenty-seven
of those thirty actually came down here. Jim [James A.] Chamberlin
was probably the senior one of them, but Bob [Robert E.] Vale and
Tom [Thomas V.] Chambers, Les [Leslie G.] St. Leger—my memory's
slipping on me. There was a time when I could have named every one
of the twenty-seven for you. [Laughter]
What impact did these engineers from AVRO have on the space program?
They gave us a wealth of high-level, practical experience because
they had been involved in designing and flying hardware, and we were
having to expand our work force. We could get, very easily, new graduates
with lots of theory knowledge but very little practical knowledge,
but the aviation industry was growing pretty rapidly in this country
at that time, and so it was hard to attract people that had experience
as well as just basic knowledge. They gave us a major infusion of
excellent background and experience.
We've heard lots of good things about the engineers that came from
Canada. You said that as special assistant to Gilruth, you did a lot
of things that he didn't have time to do or didn't want to do. Are
there any of those that you can think of that stand out in your mind?
Well, when we moved down here [Houston], almost everyone bought a
lot and built a house or bought a house already built, not quite within
walking distance of the [Johnson Space] Center, but almost. My wife
and I decided that if we were going to move from the little country
town in Virginia, Hampton, where we had been for twenty-three years,
to the big city, we might as well take advantage of the big city.
So we were among the few people who settled in Houston rather than
out here in the Clear Lake area.
As a result, there were many things that just being in Houston after
work hours I could take care of, contacts with the Chamber of Commerce.
There was always somebody that wanted someone from the Space Center
to come talk to their group and tell them [about NASA], so I drew
a lot of those short straws. I was in a high enough position that
when they had a prominent visitor that someone wanted to entertain,
we could do that.
One very interesting thing, King Hussein [of Jordan], who has been
in the news recently, was visiting Houston. I don't remember whether
it was '63 or '64, but it was in that time period, and John Mecom
was having an evening soiree to let him meet some of the prominent
people in Houston, and Deke [Donald K.] Slayton and I drew the short
straws for that. Deke and Marge and I and Dottie got to the Mecom
place at about the same time so we parked our cars and the four of
us got out and walked up to the door. Marge reached up and tapped
on the door, and it opened, and this voice said, "Come in. I'm
King Hussein." Marge looked around. She didn't see him. She looked
down, and there he was. [Laughter] She was about six or eight inches
taller than he was. So she stuck her head down and said, "I'm
Marge Slayton." Then Deke and Dottie and I went in and introduced
ourselves. It was a rainy, blustery night, and we [had] run up to
the door. The king said, "Good evening. I'm King Hussein,"
and Marge looks around and didn't see him. We did a lot of those things,
that kind of thing. We had a very good time.
I was also the primary center's contact with the educational community,
the University of Houston [U of H], Rice [University], [Texas] A&M
[University], the University [of Texas] in Austin. At one time I had
either a president or vice president of each of those four universities
gathered around a table in my office asking them to help us arrange
for interchange of credits among the four universities because some
people might want to go to Rice for one or two courses, or to the
U of H for one or two under a different professor, or A&M, or
[University of] Texas at Austin.
This was not a very popular idea, because graduate school deans are
very independent souls, and they don't like to be told that they have
to accept somebody else's credits. But we reached an agreement that
with proper safeguards of review by actual graduate school faculty
and so on, that not only would they accept credits from those four,
but they would accept, in some cases, credits that people had gotten
from a University of Virginia Extension group that had taught several
courses at Langley. That was, I think, a first in academic history,
because even the University of Virginia wouldn't accept the University
of Virginia Extension graduate courses. He could do the basic work
at Langley, but he had to go spend a year at the University of Virginia
taking some of the courses there. [A student] could write his thesis
under supervision of selected people at Langley, but he had to spend
a year, [or 3 summers], in Charlottesville [Virginia].
Anyhow, that was one of my jobs of dealing with the academic community,
and that, I guess, is how I wound up spending my last year on loan
to the University of Houston to get the Clear Lake Graduate Center
on the ground instead of off the ground.
During that year, what was NASA's objective in sending you to the
University of Houston in that position? Because you still worked for
No, I didn't. I was on leave from NASA. They gave me a year's leave
without pay, and I would work for the university as special assistant
to the president to help get the graduate center [started], and it
worked out fine because we had the official ground-breaking three
weeks after my year was up.
Then my hearing was giving me trouble, so I asked my next-door neighbor,
who was a surgeon, who he would suggest that I go see to get a hearing
aid, and he said, "I wouldn't suggest that you see anybody to
get a hearing aid. I suggest that you go talk to Dr. Ed Maddox, who
is an ear, nose, and throat man and find out what's wrong with your
ears." So I did. He found that I had a tumor on my acoustic nerve
on the left ear, and in just about ten minutes of office visit, he
reached that conclusion with what he felt was a 95 percent certainty.
[Then] he made some tests and did some x-rays and so on and confirmed
it. He said, "We'd better do something about it right now. Otherwise,
two years from now you won't be here."
So I was ready to go back to work except for getting my ear taken
care of [at the] end of October. I finally got back to work part time
the first of April and in time to retire.
And you worked as a consultant for NASA?
No. I was on the list of NASA consultants, but I don't know of anybody
on that list who actually was consulted with. [Laughter] I did work
as a consultant to [the] General Electric Space Division, trying to
help them get some of their ideas into the non-space market, and through
contacts that I had made through a Chamber of Commerce Science Committee
that I had served on while I was still working for NASA. I made contacts
with some of the oil industry people and did some work for them.
Geoff [Andre Geoffery] Buck and Manley Hood and someone else from
Ames Research Center were working with the Stanford School of Medicine
Cardiology Division on applying space technology to medical problems,
and Jeff contacted me and asked if I would like to join them in it
since I was here and could get my hands on things here much more easily
than they could by telephone and writing, and I said, "Sure."
For, I think, about five years we worked with Stanford, and every
year we had an international conference kind of reporting chunks of
technology that would be of use to the medical community.
On the first one, I took Dottie along, my wife, and she didn't know
anybody at the place the conference was being held, so she just came
with me to work on it, and they put her to work as a gopher, and the
next five conferences they did the same thing. They said, "Bring
her along, and we'll make a gopher out of her." So she got her
airfare and hotel and had a lot of fun gophering.
We always invited Soviet input, and they always accepted but didn't
show up. One time they [did show] up. A conference was held out in
California at [the Asilomar] Conference Center [near] Monterey or
[Carmel]? Anyhow, [it was] between Monterey and [the] Pebble Beach
Golf Course. Dottie's gopher job there was to take people on the seventeen-mile
drive [of] the Pebble Beach area. This time the Soviet representative
accepted and showed up, along with three KGB agents. They were not
hidden as KGB agents. It was a part of the party, three KGB agents,
eight hours each. So he was protected for twenty-four hours a day,
not protected from us harming him, but protected from us talking him
into staying here. [They were] very open about it, and when he gave
his speech, they felt that he wasn't likely to run away in the middle
of his speech, so they went with Dottie on the seventeen-mile drive.
She was not real thrilled about the idea of driving around a strange
countryside with three KGB agents, but she did it and said it was
a very pleasant drive, a really nice drive, real nice guys.
What that man had done, he was a shot-putter, and after his competitive
days were over, he was teaching at the Soviet Academy of Athletics,
and he tied a computer and appropriate sensors to shot-putters and
followed their motions in putting the shot, and for each one he developed
the kind of optimum combination of motions and then set a circuit
in the computer so that whenever they departed from that, they got
a little electric shock. It was kind of like Pavlov's dog experiment,
and with a couple of weeks' training, they could retain following
the right pattern for another couple of weeks. So before going outside
the country to an athletic meet, they could get trained. They could
go, retain the benefit of the training for the two weeks they were
there without the artificial assistance of the computer, and do very
well and then come back and go back into training with the computer
again. But anyhow, that's what his talk was about. So it was an interesting
sidelight. I said I might get out into left field.
That's okay. We were talking about your consulting work. Did you do
some consulting for the National Academy of Engineering?
Yes. One of my Chamber of Commerce Science Committee contacts was
vice president of ESSO, now Exxon, Production Research Company. He
and I got along very well. Working for him, I helped the people at
ESSO Production Research [EPR]who were designing the [Hondo] platform—
… it was to go off the California coast, and at that time was
the deepest offshore platform in the world. It was 840 feet deep.
He asked me to help his design people develop a design-review process
for it, and I did. I had two [EPR] guys [to work with] on it. A lot
of the basic information was very carefully guarded industry secrets,
so I didn't get involved in any of the details, but I did get enough
to be able lead them into setting up a design-review process similar
to what we had done for spacecraft and spacecraft components here.
They were very pleased with that.
The vice president of EPR, Dr. Claude Hocott, was a member of the
Academy of Engineering and was a member of their Marine Board that
was, at that time, trying to help the U.S. Geological Survey develop
ways of overseeing the offshore oil and gas operations, and so he
asked me to do some of his committee homework for him. He liked what
I did and told the Marine Board committee that he had had me do it.
So they offered to let me come work with them as a consultant.
At the same time, he felt that a retired Navy captain who had supervised
diving and salvage for the Navy before he retired, that he and I would
be compatible. So he introduced us to each other, and we are still
close friends and worked together on many marine projects other than
those we were on [with] the Marine Board … for over twenty-five
years now. So, living in town and doing some of the things Gilruth
didn't want to do paid off for me in the long run. [Laughter]
Great. It's time for us to change our audio tape…
Let's go back to Mercury again. From our research, it looked like
you were one of the first people that talked to the Mercury Seven
astronauts when they first came to Langley. Do you remember that?
After they were already selected and came to the Space Task Group
at Langley, Gilruth had a group of us, he and Donlan and Faget and
me, Chuck Mathews—I can't remember who else, but there were
about seven or eight of us and the seven astronauts—sat around
a big conference table and just spent about three hours, I guess,
getting to know each other. It was nothing technical or business-like.
It was just twelve to fourteen people who were going to be working
together getting a chance to get on a first-name basis and find who
had what little quirks, some of them.
Did you work directly with the astronauts a lot during Mercury?
Very little. Gilruth and Chuck Mathews, Chris [Christopher C.] Kraft
[Jr.], Walt Williams had come up in the Flight Research Division at
Langley, and I came up in the wind tunnel area, and I didn't get involved
in any flight work until we started flying rocket models. They didn't
have pilots in them, so I didn't get imbued with the flight-test engineer
background. So I was more or less a second-class citizen in dealing
with the astronauts and so on, as was Faget because he hadn't come
up through the flight-test regime either. So, most of the people who
had real close daily working contact with the astronauts were people
that were involved in Mission Control activities and had come up through
aircraft flight-test work.
Do you have any special memories of any particular Mercury mission?
Well, on two, when [M.] Scott Carpenter flew and landed a little bit
off of the intended landing spot, there was a while when nobody knew
exactly where he was. Walter Cronkite had been kind of bored with
most of the flight, and when Scott Carpenter got lost, as I recall,
Cronkite just blossomed out, "Wonderful! Now I've got something
to talk about. They've lost this guy. Whew!" Those weren't his
words, but that was my impression, which stuck with me a long time.
I remember seeing Walter after [John H.] Glenn's [Jr.] recent flight
on TV, and I thought about it then.
I didn't get along too well with some of the news people. One of the
local stations, I don't remember which flight it was, seems to me
it was one that landed in the Pacific. I don't think it was an Apollo
flight, I think it was one of the later Mercury flights. Again, a
spacecraft didn't land exactly where they hoped it would. One of the
local TV reporters—well, several of them, wanted to interview
me. Everybody else was down at the Cape [Canaveral, Florida], and
I was acting director, so that was it. They asked fairly reasonable
and innocuous questions, and the next one came up, and I said, "Okay.
What do you want to talk about?"
"Oh, the same thing the other guys have been asking."
I said, "Fine."
He said, "Now, my first question is, when did NASA institute
this policy of hiding the landing spot of the astronaut from the press
and not telling us where in hell he is?"
And I controlled myself; I didn't hit him. [Laughter] I said, "Sir,
the interview is over. The surmise you have made is absolutely false,
and, in addition, I don't appreciate your telling me that you were
going to ask me the same type questions the others did and then try
to slam me with a vicious rumor like that." So he shut up and
left. And his boss at the station showed the whole thing, and he said,
"Your complaint is now on file, Mr. Purser." [Laughter]
After Mercury, the next program that took place was Gemini. What was
your involvement in the development of the Gemini Program?
Really nothing specific that I can think of. It was just a continuation
of helping take care of things for Dr. Gilruth. I think that for things
like that, probably a review of the daily log bit would tell you much
more than I can remember. Some things, like the Russian shot-putters—of
course, that occurred after the end of the daily logs, but the encounter
with the TV newsman and Walter Cronkite's remarks and so on wouldn't
have been in the logs anyhow.
During our research we found that you kept a scrapbook for Dr. Gilruth
of Russian progress in space. Is that accurate?
I don't recall that I did. Whenever I saw anything that I felt he
might have missed, I made sure that it got mentioned to him, either
by copy of the clippings and so on, but I don't recall keeping a scrapbook
Did you have very much knowledge of what the Russians, the Soviets,
were doing during Mercury and Gemini especially?
Not really, not anything more than what was in the papers, because,
as I gathered, the U.S. was fairly open with its own press about what
they knew about the Russians. They were not open about a lot of things
that they were suspicious of, but I think that they were pretty open
with the press about what they really knew.
You discussed moving from Virginia to Houston. What was the impact
on NASA, making that separation?
There were various impacts. One, we got less cooperation from the
people at Langley when we were down here, mainly just because of the
distance. You can just walk across the street to another building
and go in and see Joe and say, "What's going on in this?"
Just the lack of close contact. Other than that, there were very continuous
friendly relations. There were a lot of personal impacts involved,
people making a 1,500- to 2,000-mile move, completely different part
of the country, different general attitude of the people.
For example, I was born and raised in Louisiana and went to work for
NACA in Virginia, and some of the Virginians, who are very strong
on being part of the first families of Virginia and said something
about when did I hear or say or do something. I said, "I guess
it was shortly after I came up north here to Virginia."
"You can't come up north to Virginia. There is no place in the
world further south than Virginia." [Laughter] So I learned that
Texas had a big Ford plant somewhere here, and one of the big ads
at that time was "Built in Texas by Texans," and we had
some display materials built in our shops here to take to some meeting,
and down in the corner on one of the boxes was "Built in Texas
by Virginians." [Laughter] We not only brought engineers and
managers and so on down, but we brought an awful lot of very high-class
technicians, and it's something that many people don't realize, that
the technicians played a very vital role in making stuff work. But
that was one effect of the move, just a change in the people that
you deal with.
Speaking of people that you deal with, you worked closely with Dr.
Gilruth for many years. Can you tell us about him?
I stay in touch with him now. He doesn't know it, because he's suffering
from Alzheimer's, but I stay in touch, at least a Christmas card and
maybe one other exchange of notes with Mrs. Gilruth, and got one from
him this Christmas. There's just no recollection of anything now.
For a while he would remember spasmodically, but now, apparently,
he's completely gone. But I felt very close to him, and I think he's
really the best boss I've ever had, because I could be completely
open with him about anything and felt he was being equally open with
me. We got along very well.
That's important. It seems that you were describing your interview
with a media person. How much involvement did you have in public relations
It depends on the point of view. From "Shorty" Powers' point
of view and from his successor's point of view, I meddled in it too
much, but we just had a little bit different way of looking at things,
I guess. So we tried to leave most of it with the Public Affairs Office,
because that was their job. But every office gets a little bit of
meddling from the front office now and then. They just seemed to resent
it more than anyone else did.
How well do you think NASA portrayed itself to the American public?
I'm not sure what it is that you're really asking.
Do you think NASA did a good job of presenting itself in public relations?
Yes, I think it did. The kind of places where we had problems was
the public affairs people were somewhat horrified by me telling this
TV interviewer that he had just finished his interview because, one,
he didn't talk about what he said he wanted to talk about and tried
to pull this other thing on me. "You just don't tell him that.
You just change the subject."
"I didn't feel like changing the subject."
And the press were not allowed in the Control Center during a mission,
and, so far as I know, they still don't get on the Control Center
floor, but sometimes one or two can go into the viewing balcony. But
it was a long time before we would even let them get into the viewing
balcony, and the press and the public affairs people, after "Shorty"
Powers left, couldn't understand that, and this was largely during
a period of time when there was one particular reporter on the Chronicle
whose greatest delight was finding something that he could show as
a horrible example.
The first one was we had spent something like $20,000 on three big
flag poles in front of Building 1. He made a big deal about that.
One of the contracts for crew equipment had been to get a pen that
would write in the absence of gravity, and he tried to make a big
deal about that. The people on the floor of the control room wanted
to concentrate on controlling the flight. They didn't want to have
to stop and think, "Well, now, what if I scratch? What's the
damned reporter up there going to say? If I move my earpiece, what's
he going to say?" We didn't want to bother with things like that.
I remember one of the more friendly reporters was from the Post,
and he went around public affairs and came up and talked to me. It
was while George [M.] Low was deputy director, and I don't know whether
George called us both into his office or whether I took the guy into
the office. George, I think, was able to get across to the guy what
the problem was and get him to understand that we weren't just playing
high and mighty, you can't mess in our business, we were trying to
protect the people's ability to do their business. I think that got
it across to him. George was another one of the best bosses. He and
Gilruth were very much alike in terms of how they dealt with people,
in addition to being a very smart guy, too.
One thing we haven't talked much about is Apollo specifically. Do
you have any special memories or anything that stands out in your
mind from the Apollo Program?
No, not really, because by that time almost all of the engineering
and technical problems were being handled by the engineers who were
actually doing the work. My position in the front office was more
managerial and people contact than it was technical by that time.
So I really can't think of any technical input that I had in either
Gemini or Apollo. There again, in the daily logs you might discover
How did the Apollo 1 fire affect your job, affect you in your job?
Gilruth wanted me to collect all the information on it, but then when
he told Joe [Joseph F.] Shea about it, [Joe] insisted that—I
believe it was Tom [J. Thomas] Markley in his office be the central
point for collecting all the data, which suited me fine. I think Joe
just wanted to be sure that there was someone he could trust doing
it, and Tom Markley was a very trustworthy guy.
This year will mark the thirtieth anniversary of Apollo 11 landing
on the Moon. Do you remember where you were when that happened?
No, I don't. [Laughter] I was just being busy.
Looking back over your career at NASA, what do you think was your
Well, that's important.
It was such a great time, and I was always allowed to go meddle in
other things. No one ever sat me down at a desk and said, "Now,
you work on this, and you stay in that square." I could inquire
about, sometimes work on, anything I wanted to, and as a result, I
very rapidly got to know a lot about the whole organization.
In fact, in the very early days of World War II, there was a question
about why were these people at NACA getting draft deferments, and
the War Manpower Commission came down to Langley to make a study based
on what if we did not give these people draft deferments, if we drafted
them, how long would it take to replace them so that what the Air
Corps and Navy felt were vital research activities could continue.
Well, by that time, I'd been at Langley, I guess, three years. I was
enough acquainted with the people around the labs that they plucked
me out and said, "You head up the study for the War Manpower
Commission." So with about three or four other people from different
parts of the lab, we went through every technician and engineering—well,
effectively every male job in the Center, and using a Dictionary
of Occupational Titles, classified them, maybe not in the same
words that were used normally for a wind tunnel mechanic, but it was
Instrument Technician Five, whatever it was out of the Dictionary
of Occupational Titles, and every male job in the Center, we
made an estimate of what it would take to train a high school graduate
to be ready to take on such a job.
The result of it was that all of us who were draft-eligible were drafted
and assigned to the Air Corps inactive reserve for as long as the
war lasted or as long as we continued to work for NACA. So my active
duty time was about five seconds, because the man said, "You
are hereby inducted into the Armed Forces of the United States of
America and assigned to the Air Corps Enlisted Reserve [on inactive
status]." Since they don't measure active duty status in units
smaller than a month, I don't have any. [Laughter] That was, to me,
one of the greatest things about NACA and NASA, is that I just wasn't
limited. I could get involved in almost anything that I wanted to.
Through your career you saw the birth of the Space Age. What's your
perspective now of what's going on with NASA and the future of space?
Well, there are two things that concern me. One is the general political
atmosphere that politics enters into decisions seemingly much more
strongly than real needs or engineering and science facts call for.
The other thing was something that I alluded to, Dr. Dryden not being
personally in favor of NACA becoming NASA, but having been convinced
by the people in the Research Centers that that was the best thing
for the country. So he worked and made it come about.
There has been a continual decline since then in people from headquarters
taking advice from the people who are doing the work. That won't keep
it from getting done. Somehow it will get done, but it's going to
be delayed, there will be a lot of lost motion, and it just won't
go as smoothly as it could. It'll cost more and take longer and make
a lot of people unhappy.
I think that going on with the Space Station now is good; it's just
late. It could have been done many years ago, or we could have just
gone almost straight into the Space Station preparations based on
the combination of Skylab and the Shuttle many years ago, and now
we're still arguing should we go on with it, which I think is just
absolutely silly. Of course we should go on with it. Some of the other
things that have come about because of the delays I think have been
great. The little Sojourner on Mars, whoever came up with that, it
was a fantastic idea, I mean [it was an amazing little robot]. I think
that those kinds of things are the things that come up out of the
lower ranks. They don't get thought up by the administrator or his
Before we close, I'd like to ask Sasha and Carol if they have any
Yes, I do, a couple, actually. In looking at your career, it seems
that an important part of what you contributed to NASA and the great
accomplishment was your ability to pull people together. I think probably
the best example I saw was your ability to pull Houston and Huntsville
together and make them work as a team and see the other perspective.
Could you discuss that a little bit, tell us about your mediation,
I guess, between the two groups and getting them to pull together
as a team?
Yes. I think part of it comes from the fact that I've enjoyed so much
being able to get involved in all aspects of the problem to some extent.
That [gave] me an understanding that you don't get anywhere by fighting.
You get somewhere by working together. So, instead of going around
picking fights with people, I try to get them to work together.
We had one assistant director at Langley that used the confrontational
technique whenever he wanted some information, and finally I got tired
of it. He was two or three grades higher than I was, but I told him,
"Buss [nickname was Buster, often shortened to Buss], I'm not
going to tell you one damned thing if you want to start a fight about
it. If you want to know something, ask me the question, and I will
be glad to tell you everything I know, but I'm not going to fight
with you about it one minute. So come back when you don't feel like
fighting." And he hasn't tried to fight with me since then, but
he has asked me many times what I thought about something. I think
that that is maybe why I've been able to help pull people together
and get them to work together, like getting the four universities
to agree to accept each other's credits, with adequate safeguards
to the faculty's sensibilities, of course.
I was also curious. You mentioned earlier that you were on leave for
a year and went over to the University of Houston as a special assistant
to help set up a campus here at Clear Lake. You seem to be in a unique
position to comment on the formation of that school from both the
NASA perspective, what NASA wanted, why they might want to have a
school nearby, and then what the University of Houston saw in building
a school here.
Well, we always had the problem of trying to learn new things and
new techniques, trying to upgrade our people so that they could more
quickly adapt to new things. So from the earliest days of NACA's growth
from 700 to 8,500 during World War II, we've had special classes,
many of them taught—handled by universities, even though the
universities would take advanced people from within the lab to do
the teaching, but they still would kind of approve the course plans
and so on. So this is just an extension of that when we got down here.
It was a so much bigger thing that we really couldn't spare the space
for it to be held in various conference rooms around the Center, and
we had all of the petrochemical industry fixing to explode around
us—not literally explode, but emerging industry, shall we say.
All the school districts, their faculty needed a convenient place
for advanced education. So the University of Houston thought, since
they had been cooperating with us all along, that maybe the thing
to do was to try to get something set up out here, and they got hold
of one of the companies—I think it was Lockheed—that owned
the land, and they talked Lockheed into donating the land, and the
university would take on the job of getting the Center developed.
Because the academic contact was one of the things that I had already
been doing, they asked if they could borrow me for a year, and Gilruth
said okay. When I got ready to come back, I went to the hospital instead.
I just have one question. You mentioned earlier that President Kennedy's
announcement for Apollo to send a man to the Moon and return him safely
by the end of the decade—how did that impact you? What did you
think when you heard that?
I think it was kind of a mixture of, "Gee, we finally got somebody's
attention in a way different than 'Gee whiz,'" and, having gotten
their attention, "Good God, what do we do now?" We sit down
and get busy and hope that the instructions to go to the Moon get
followed by "Here's the money to do it with." [Laughter]
That's all the questions I had. Thank you.
Thank you so much for coming today and sharing your stories with us.
We really enjoyed it.
You're quite welcome. I enjoyed it.
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