NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
G. "Guy" Thibodaux, Jr.
Interviewed by Kevin M. Rusnak
20 October 1999
Rusnak: Today is October 20th, 1999. This oral history with Guy Thibodaux
is being conducted in the offices of the Signal Corporation in Houston,
Texas, for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. The interviewer
is Kevin Rusnak, assisted by Carol Butler and Sandra Johnson.
I would like to thank you for joining us today, Mr. Thibodaux. I'd
like to start with while you were growing up, did you have any interest
in chemistry or aviation engineering, anything like that, that might
have led you into the career that you went into?
Well, I happened to get in by accident in a way. Yes, I had a great
deal of interest in chemistry as a young person and always had chemistry
sets stinking up the house like children usually do. I thought I wanted
to be a chemist. But I went to the Career Day, actually, at high school
there, and the head of the chemical engineering department at Tulane
University [New Orleans, Louisiana] convinced me I ought to be a chemical
engineer. He said it was a much better field than being a chemist.
So I studied chemical engineering.
I had very little interest in model airplanes or aeronautics at the
time, although I had very, very close friends who were very avid model
builders. I used to watch them, but I have little patience to do that
type of detail work, so I had no interest in building them myself.
I did become what they called a gopher. I went to the model airplane
contest and you had to fly a number of different events, and I used
to be the one who went for the models while the guy was getting ready
to enter another contest. So that was basically more interesting than
That seemed to be a popular pastime for many of the people that we've
talked to, having something to do with model airplane building.
Well, it turns out back in the thirties, all the way through the fifties,
I guess, that there were an awful lot of people who worked for NASA
who were model builders. [Robert R.] Bob Gilruth was a big model builder,
in fact, Caldwell [C.] Johnson, Max [Maxime A.] Faget, Owen [E.] Morris,
a lot of them.
How is it that you ended up at Louisiana State [University, Baton
Well, I was born in Louisiana, actually, and I grew up in New Orleans,
actually. It was a state university and my folks had a little money
and were able to get me what they called NYA [National Youth Administration]
scholarship, which paid for a part of my education, so I had to work
while I went to college. It was the cheapest place you could go to
get a college education at the time, and not too far away from New
I understand that you had a roommate who also went on to have a storied
career in the space program.
Yes, it took me four and a half years to graduate because of my job.
I had one required course in chemical engineering that I was unable
to schedule. It was only taught at one time during the week, and that
conflicted with my work schedule, so I had to go to summer school
and then to go an extra semester.
See, originally all the other time I was in military, and I always
roomed in the military barracks at the university. Max was not in
advanced military, [Maxime A.] Faget. I don't know why, he and I got
to talking and decided to room together during that one summer session,
so we lived together during that summer session and then continued
to live together until mid-term when I graduated that year, 1943,
January of '43. I don't know, we were two similar students. We got
along pretty good.
I used to visit his home. His father was in the [U.S.] Public Health
Service. In fact, he found a cure for leprosy. He lived in a leper
colony thirty-five miles south of Baton Rouge, and we'd go there sometimes
on the weekends. It was nice because all of the Public Health doctors
had a small golf course and swimming pool and tennis courts, so it
was fairly nice.
Sounds like an interesting experience for a college student, to be
able to go to leper colony and have these types of activities there.
Do you remember any particular stories or events from your college
experience, with or without Max, that you think were typical of your
Stories with or without Max. Well, I don't know of any particular
stories. We were just kind of normal students in school, and I don't
think either of us were honor students at all. Both of us were very
good, I think, in our major courses, but the rest of the stuff we
didn't pay much attention to. I never studied very hard, for some
reason or other. I've said to a lot of folks, I was born lazy, and
I always look for the easy way of doing things, so I had decent grades
in school. Better than average, but certainly not what they expect
people to have in order to get hired at NASA these days.
That's true, but you seem to have done very well for yourself regardless.
Well, the insistence on hiring straight-A students sometimes misses
an awful lot of good folks, like Bob Gilruth and Max and me. [Laughter]
I wouldn't argue with that at all. So when you graduated you went
into the Army?
Yes, I went in the Army. In fact, even before I graduated, I was two
weeks short of graduation, the Army called me up, so I went and talked
to all the professors and they all gave me my grades and wished me
well and sent me off. I started in the Corps of Engineers. I had a
commission in the Corps of Engineers, and I started out in Fort Leonardwood,
Missouri, training troops up there at an engineer replacement training
center, right in the middle of the winter, and up in the Ozark Mountains,
which was kind of tough for a flatlander like me, who grew up in the
swamps and over in the hot weather. But it was a very interesting
I was there for about four or five months, and then shipped overseas
to China-Burma-India theater, actually. I finally wound up in India-Burma
border, in fact, and was assigned to work in an engineer general service
regiment, which was building a road from India into China, actually
to supply the Chinese against the Japanese. At the same time we were
building a lot of advanced fighter strips to support the Air Force.
So it was rather interesting.
I was a white officer in a segregated Negro organization at that time,
and that was a kind of interesting part of my life. It was kind of
fortunate for me that my father always treated everybody with dignity
and respect and I never had any prejudice that I was taught. In fact,
I learned an awful lot from those folks, things that I can apply to
my daily life right now. I still have some very wonderful friends
from those days, even after over fifty years.
That's great. How was the general mood in the Army at the time towards
I didn't notice that the white solders and black solders intermingled
and got along fine with each other. I saw nothing of any indication
of friction. There was an awful lot of turmoil going on in the United
States at that particular time, though and, of course, some of the
black solders would get these rebel-rousing newspapers to kind of
get them a little bit angry at the system, but we had a wonderful
chaplain who took care of all that. He's a very dear friend of mine.
He's eighty-five years old and still an active chaplain.
Were any of your experiences in the Army particularly relevant to
your later career in the space business?
Well, a little bit. Actually, I did an awful lot of explosive demolition
work in the Army and, of course, I ended up handling all the pyrotechnics
and explosives for all of American manned spacecraft. So doing blasting
and stuff like that in the Army was some of the experience that I
got. Other than that, yes, I got—you might say I grew up, is
what happened to me when I was in the service. I learned responsibility,
learned how to deal with people. So it was a very, very valuable part
of my experience.
I was a little concerned that it wasn't particularly technical, it
was all very, very crude engineering, and being a chemical engineer,
I didn't have an awful lot of experience in that type of construction
work, but with the help of all the soldiers there, I learned pretty
quick. It worked out pretty good for me, because I didn't get hurt,
although I did come back and I think I had recurrent malaria for a
number of years.
Did you have any exposure to military solid rockets at that time,
like with the bazookas or air-to-ground rockets?
Yes. In fact, I knew a good bit about bazookas. They were actually
invented by a guy in the Corps of Engineering, actually. Then later
on, towards the end of the war, we had airplanes that used spin-stabilized
five-inch aircraft rockets, they were B-25s, which we used against
Japanese shipping up in the Irawaddy River at that particular time.
They were heavily armed airplanes. I got exposed to those on the air
bases that we built. I used to walk around and look at a lot of things.
I'm very inquisitive and I like to look at things that I'm not too
When you got out of the Army and returned to the States, what did
you do then?
Well, I didn't have anything to do for a while. I was on leave. They
gave me, I think, six weeks to see if I came down with malaria. Well,
I didn't come down with it because I'd been on a malaria-suppressive
drug. They gave you six weeks after you came off the drug to see if
you got malaria. Well, I had the recurrent type, which recurred once
a year, actually, for a while, so that I didn't come down with it.
In the interim, my father worked for an automobile company, and his
boss hired me to do a little public relations work. They had no cars
to sell, but they had to keep people off their backs, so part of my
job was to take orders and try to tell them that they were going to
get a car sometime soon. [Laughter]
So how is it that you ended up hooking back up with Max Faget and
ending up at Langley [Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Virginia]?
Well, Max and I had talked about if we both survived the war, you
know, we'd get together maybe and go look for a job. Well, I had no
idea I'd wind up in an aeronautical research organization. I thought
I'd work for some chemical organization, you know, chemical plant,
pharmaceutical plant, something that I knew I could apply the experience
that I had. I never dreamed that I could apply all of my experiences
to an aeronautical research organization. In fact, in the particular
job that I had, it turns out I've been able to utilize everything
chemical engineering taught me in my work. In fact, it was an extremely
valuable type of education for the work that I did.
Great. So the two of you ended up at Langley by—
Yes, Max called me and he said his dad had a little car that had airplane
tires on it at that particular time, because you couldn't get tires
for civilian automobiles. His dad told him he could have the car and
we'd go look for a job. So we went back to the university and talked
to various department heads about where we might look for a job.
Max had gone to talk to Fritz [Ernst E.] Maser, who was head of the
aeronautical—it was an aeronautical engineering option. They
didn't have a degree in aeronautical engineering at the time; it was
a mechanical engineering with an aero option. Fritz headed that up,
and I had come to know Fritz, too, pretty well. He was a very personable
type of guy, easy to get to know. He gave us Paul [E.] Purser's name,
who had been a student at LSU a few years, two or three years ahead
of us. Paul had worked at Langley all during the war. He'd gotten
a deferment basically for an important civilian job and he was inducted
in the Air Force as a private, but his duty station was at Langley
Field and he was never called to active duty. He was an inactive reserve,
I think, of course, discharged at the end of the war.
We were given his name so we—Max was very familiar with the
Norfolk area. In fact, he'd gone to high school in Norfolk because
his father was in the Public Health Service and he had been transferred
around from Marine hospital to Marine hospital. So Max had been there
and he had a friend named Woody Blanchard there, who he used to build
models with and go to Langley Field and fly the models. So that's
basically how we got up there.
We went over the Langley and asked to talk to Purser and had an interview
with him. It was kind of hard for Langley to get people, because colleges
really weren't turning out an awful lot of engineers. They were interested
in getting a couple of engineers for this new outfit that was going
on called Pilotless Aircraft Research Division [PARD]. It wasn't quite
a division yet, actually, but it was going to become one.
Paul was very enthusiastic about hiring us and he had something specific
for us to do, it was very new and very fascinating and it looked like
it was right up our alley. He wanted Max to work on ramjets and wanted
me to work on rockets, actually. In fact, they hired me to work on
liquid fuel rockets because of all the work [Wernher] von Braun and
the Germans did were all liquid fuel rockets. They thought that's
where the future was, but it didn't take me too long to figure out
that wasn't anything we needed at all, in fact. I saw that propellant
rockets were really the way to go for the type of stuff we had.
In fact, this kind of turned out to be the way to go for everything
except launching off a big thing. All the military rockets have shifted
over from liquid to solids for the same reasons that I understood
why we wanted to use them, in fact. Instant readiness, reliability,
ease of use. There were no big ground facilities there. They had a
lot of good reasons why rockets, solid rockets have some particular
advantages over liquid rockets.
Well, certainly you're a pioneer in that respect, even ahead of your
time. Do you recall what the first project was you worked on when
Well, I didn't have any projects to work on, actually. You see, I
provided a service for everybody else. The main job we had to do was
aeronautical research. The way we did that, we used free-flying rocket-propelled
models. It was my job to get the propulsion systems and get them lined
up and talk to engineers about how they wanted to use the thing, so
that my job was really a service job.
Occasionally I did a little research work, actually, I think, for
this research job, as they were concerned about the effects of the
rocket exhaust on the base pressure models, and I did a program on
that. Then another job we did, we did research on jet vanes, because
the Germans had used jet vanes in their V-2 rockets, actually, so
I was involved in that. I had a few research projects, but most of
my work was a service to the engineers. We'd discuss what they wanted
to do, actually, and what their goals and objectives were.
I found a lot of different ways that I could alter rockets, for example,
to improve the type of data they got, or to help them get types of
data that they weren't sure they could get. I also started changing
from buying standard rockets, but modifying those rockets to give
the right characteristics to help the research program.
Well, you could change the thrust-time characteristics, for example,
was one of the things you could do. You could get them where they'd
create torques, certain torques of moments, actually, to apply to
the models, and study the model's response to those things. You'd
get the type of aeronautic data you wanted. We were always interested
in increased speeds, you see, so it was my job to go find bigger and
better rockets all the time, and then write specifications for them
and contract for their design production, you see. At first we used
all service military rockets.
I remember, I think my first year's budget for rockets must have been
four or five, three or four years after I got there, it was I think,
I believe I had $30,000 to spend for a first year's budget. I had
two brand-new rockets developed for that $30,000.
Which ones were they?
It was a T-44 and a T-45 made by Thiokol Chemical Corporation when
they were first in business. See, there was two things happened to
solid rocket world that put them on the map. The original solid rockets
had no place to go. They had no future whatsoever. The manufacturing,
where they were manufactured limited the size that you could build.
They all burned both on the outside and the inside. Consequently,
all the hot gases were on the outside. The heat would heat the cases
up and you couldn't run them very long, because the cases would melt,
you see, or they'd lose their strength and blow up.
The first thing that happened in solid rockets was the internal burning
charge, where they burned strictly from the inside out, you see. Consequently,
the only parts that get hot is the nozzle. As soon as the propellant
burns through the wall, why, then, there's no more propellant left
to burn, so it can't heat anything, you see. So that was the first
step, actually. Then the next step was to make them where you could
cast them like concrete.
There was some work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL, Pasadena,
California] probably early 1948, '47, '48, that instantly caught my
eye. They were able to make castable rockets, where you could pour
them. That meant you could make them any size you wanted to pretty
much. I was so impressed with that, that I convinced Bob Gilruth that
I ought to go to California and talk to those folks. I think I was
the only one in NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics]
that went to California that year, because very few people did an
awful lot of traveling in those days.
I remember going out to JPL. It was still in a bunch of barracks buildings
on top of a hill. The fellow who was running that was a fellow named
Morton Summerfield, Dr. Morton Summerfield. "Morty" became
one of the real giants in the solid rocket research. In fact, he wound
up for many years at Princeton University [Princeton, New Jersey]
after he left JPL. The guy who did the research work was a fellow
named Chuck [E.] Bartley. Chuck Bartley and Larry [Lawrence] Thackwell
and Jack [John] Shafer had written a report, actually, that I looked
at. That and the internal burning charges is what opened up the whole
future of solid rockets. Without those two developments, they were
Around that same time, didn't they come up with the idea of adding
aluminum to the propellant?
Yes, that's serendipity, actually. They put aluminum in the propellant
fundamentally because they thought it would help on combustion stability
problems. They really hadn't done their homework very well, and when
they put aluminum in the propellant, it did something they didn't
expect; it improved the performance of it, you see.
The way aluminum improves the performance of it, it acts like what
you call a [unclear] that used to be used in electron tubes, actually.
It wants oxygen more than other things want oxygen, so it kind of
immobilizes the oxygen. The thing which gives rocket performance is
the average molecular weight of the exhaust gases, so it increased
the temperature, for one thing, and it reduced the average molecular
weight of the exhaust gases. In the process of doing that, that's
what drove the performance up, you see. The aluminum is a solid, it's
a molten solid, it eventually condenses into a solid in very, very
fine particles, and it's carried along with the gas, so that it provides
part of the thrust, too, you see, as ejected mass.
That was another big thing. The propellants, the early propellants,
some of the early propellants had pretty fair performance, in fact.
One of the earlier propellants was a double-based propellant, about
half nitroglycerin and half gun cotton. It had a pretty good specific
impulse, pretty good performance. It took quite a while, in fact,
for the composites, what we call cast composites, which are generally
a liquid fuel, which polarizes along with an oxidizer. It took a while
for those to catch up, in fact. Now you have double-base cast process,
which will probably give you the highest of a specific impulse these
I had the opportunity to work with all the rocket companies. In fact,
while I was growing up in the industry, a lot of my friends were growing
up and had become presidents of a company or the chief engineer or
the head of a research department, so I knew those folks real well.
We could do things on the phone that you can't do any other way.
See, that's one of the things about the NACA, what made it such a
great organization, that you never had to write anything down. All
you had to do is talk to folks and it got done. It's probably the
most unique organization the government ever created and probably
the finest one ever created. It's not likely we'll ever see it again.
I wouldn't be surprised if that were true. So you had a generally
positive experience with industry then at the time?
Oh, yes. I was very well traveled. For some reason or other, they
let me go wherever I wanted to go, actually. The big thing in the
solid rocket industry at the time was that they had an annual conference,
this Solid Propellant Information Agency, and it was an annual conference
every year. That's where everyone got together and presented the results
of some of their work, actually, and in the process of doing that,
you got to attend a social occasion and other things and you got to
talk to all the people and find out what they were really up to, you
The military was there, too. The military, the whole academic, military,
and industrial complex usually attended these, and it was the big
thing in the solid rocket industry. I don't know if they still have
those things going on, but they were—I enjoyed going. They published
big documents there, which I used, actually, to study a lot about
the things going on in the business. Later on it became the Chemical
Propulsion Information Agency and it included liquid rockets, actually.
It turns out we had a couple of liquid rockets up at Langley, in fact,
and I eventually got to play with some of those, but not as rockets
per se. They became chemical jets that produced high-temperature gas
that I could test materials in. I had one little British rocket which
was modeled after one of the German rockets, called a Typhoon, which
was one of the simplest little liquid rockets I've seen. I bought
some of those from England and played around with them, but it still
never convinced me they were going that well.
Well, certainly at the time you were sticking with solid rockets and
launching them from Wallops Island [Virginia], right?
Yes, we pioneered a lot of stuff there. Multi-stage launching, for
example, you know. When you couldn't get the real high-performance
rockets where you got better performances, you just stacked them,
stacked as many as you thought you could stack, you see, and then
as each one of them burned out, the other one would light. It was
brute force, but it wasn't particularly efficient at that time, but
by brute force we were able to get some very, very high velocities
with our models. Later on, you know, we got to where we could get
specific rockets and kind of match them up a little bit better and
get much higher velocities.
pioneered all sorts of techniques, all the things you see, strap-on
rockets there, where you put a bunch of them together on the outside
and they fall off, like you see on the Delta launches. That was all
pioneered by us. So many of the techniques you see used these days
were actually pioneered by the group in the Pilotless Aircraft Research
Division. It was an organization where no one worried about getting
credit. You don't know where the ideas came from, it was just bull
sessions, and the bull sessions would come up with ideas and then
the ideas would just happen, you see, somewhat, the teams of people
would get together.
Caldwell Johnson, I think you've interviewed Caldwell already. Well,
Caldwell was one of the guys head of the Dynamic Model Engineering
Section, and he'd come up with ideas plenty of times, too. We'd kick
around what we wanted to do and he'd offer suggestions on how you
ought to do it. In the process, there was no holds barred. No one
told us we couldn't do anything, you see. We were encouraged to come
up with ideas. If you couldn't come up with an idea, you had to work
on somebody else's, basically. But if you came up with your own, you
could get heard, actually.
I got involved in many other things, too, at the center, at Langley,
for example, and the other centers, in fact. I first got involved
with Lewis Research Center. They had ramjets which they were flying
out of Wallops Island, actually, staging out of Wallops Island, because
we had the instrumentation.
The guy who used the fly the airplane was a guy named Warren [J.]
North. I don't know if you've interviewed Warren. Well, Warren was
a pilot. He flew a twin Mustang with two P-51s that were two fuselages
that were joined together. He and—you probably haven't interviewed
Scott [H.] Simpkinson, because Scottie's dead. I don't know if you
caught him before. But he and John [H.] Disher, one of the fellows
up in headquarters, were flying these ramjets out of Wallops Island.
Well, they'd drop them, but they couldn't get going fast enough, you
know, because you have to get going supersonic for the inlets to start
and to measure the performance of them.
They came down and asked me what they could do, so I put rockets inside
the ramjet bodies. Then we designed the firing circuits and looked
at all the safety when they were carried on the airplane. We actually
would then fire the rockets before they were released, believe it
or not—I'm sorry, fire them after they were released. Through
a trailing wire you'd release it and then that would come back and
fire that rocket. It was a very simple system. These were ten-inch-diameter
JATO [jet-assisted takeoff] bottles, actually, that the Air Force
used in jets in takeoffs. The ramjet was about twelve inches in diameter,
so it just fit right up the back, and it had a little shearpin to
keep it, and when the rocket fired, it would shear the pin, and then
when it finished, or got up to speed, the air pressure just blew it
back out, you see. We were always doing little simple—trying
simple things like that.
One of the things I liked, I liked what they called passive systems,
you see, systems that require nothing active in them in order to accomplish
a task. Most people don't realize that passive systems sometimes are
far more difficult to design than active systems, because you have
to understand all the rules that govern how they behave, you see,
and you can't tweak them. You can't throw a switch. You can't open
or close a valve. You design the thing so whatever happens is preordained,
you see, and it will happen in a normal sequence of events.
We used to do a lot of things like that. It makes for simplicity,
fewer moving parts, less things to go wrong. That's pretty much how
we operated to a large extent. I don't think we ever had a model that
had any articulating surfaces, for example, or anything like that.
We used other techniques to cause them to move around.
Describe what it was like being on Wallops Island and around Langley
at the time, just the general atmosphere and physical—
Well, when I started at Wallops Island, Wallops Island was a mosquito-
and sand-fly-infested beach that had a bunch of wild ponies on it
running all over there. The Chincoteague ponies were at Wallops Island,
ran all the time. We used to have to shoo them off when we fired rockets.
If we fired rockets, they'd almost stampede. We lived in Quonset huts,
actually, and we had no flush toilets or anything. I think we had
a one-lane strip of concrete. I'm not sure if we even had it then.
You see, Wallops is an island only in the sense that it's separated
from the mainland by a marsh and some little inlets. It's about like
Galveston Island would be, you see, in a sense. We'd get there by
boat. We'd fly, usually flew up to Chincoteague Naval Air Station
and we'd catch a bus and then go and get a boat to go over to Wallops
Island. Or else we flew up in an amphibian airplane that could taxi
up on shore and let us out.
Basically we had a very, very crude system there. We had what they
call a split shed. It was a big shack that you could put the models
in. When you got ready to launch them, you'd split it and move it
aside. And one little launch pad and a little block house, actually.
We stayed there overnight until we did our work. We had shops to work
in. We worked till ten every night. I mean, it was about the time
we quit. No one ever got any overtime for that, either, by the way.
It was just you worked because you liked to do it.
I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with rockets, for example.
The engineers had to do what they call a CG [center of gravity] weight
and balance on the rocket models, loaded and empty with propellant
in them and propellant out. I used to work with them. It had the term
moments of inertia, for example, and I would help them with moments
of inertia determinations. Everybody pitched in and helped, you know.
It didn't matter whether it was your responsibility or not. Of course,
in doing that, you learn other things, too, which is nice.
The food wasn't that great. We had two or three old Coast Guard guys,
retired Coast Guard guys, who were cooks and watchmen and did every
other kind of job up at Wallops Island. We used to get good clam fritters.
There's a lot of clam diggers up there, and sometimes we got what
they call blackened red fish. These guys were good at blackened red
fish before Paul Prudhomme was ever heard of, in fact. We'd sometimes
catch what we call them drum up there, red drum, but typically it's
the same thing as we call red fish down here. So we ate pretty well.
We ate in cafeteria with the trays, military trays. They'd hit the
spoon and it'd splat on the tray, you know, typical military type
Later on we got, as things improved and we got a little bit more money,
we built some decent quarters for us to stay. We had a kind of lounge
and kitchen. One room was a dispensary and then we had bunk rooms
where there were a couple of bunks to a little cubby hole. So it was
We'd sit around and play cards afterwards and read Amazing Science
Fiction magazines, Amazing and Astounding Science
Fiction were the two things that people used to read a lot of
back in those days. Even Bob Gilruth, he used to read those and come
around wanting to know if anybody had seen the November issue or something
like that. [Laughter]
Did you get any good ideas from those magazines?
Not really. Not in a sense. They were kind of interesting in that
the people who wrote those things were pretty good scientists, you
see. Most people don't realize that Bob [Robert] Heinlein, Bob used
to work up at, I think, [U.S. Navy Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory]
Johnsville [Pennsylvania]. He was a chemist, as I recall. And [Isaac]
Asimov. In fact, I don't know if you've interviewed Dick [Richard
H.] Johnston, but Dick had worked with Bob. They started writing science
fiction, and then later on they started making more money on the science
fiction thing than they were working for the Navy, so they made that
their full-time profession. I remember they asked me to take Bob out
one time. He and his wife were down here for some sort of soiree we
had. Kind of interesting talking with him.
They have groups of people who meet and they get to know each other
pretty much like we did. I remember reading one story in one of the
magazines, and I never saw the guy's name again, and I asked Bob about
it and he says, oh, yes, he knew that guy, and said he committed suicide
after he had written that story.
I know that Heinlein was always a big supporter of the space program.
Well, yes. Like I say, he'd worked up at Johnsville, at the Naval
Research Laboratory at Johnsville, as I recall.
What were some of the other projects that you worked on there? For
instance, the blast research project at Wallops, do you remember that?
Yes. Oh, yes, that was a kind of interesting one. They were getting
ready to do the H-bomb tests at Kwajelein, and what they planned on
doing was they planned on flying the F-80 drones, the F-80 jets, the
drones, into the blast wave to do sampling and get data, actually.
They called Langley and asked for some people to help. Well, the people
who were in charge of that were the people involved—we had a
gust loads, we had a gust tunnel, but fundamentally that's when you're
flying into a wave, you fly into a gust. They were in charge of that.
Hal [Harold B.] Pierce and I forget Morrow's name, the two guys that
I recall working with. They came to me and asked me what can we do
about getting a blast, you see. So I said, "Sure, we'll get you
a blast." They said it had to simulate a bomb, a H-bomb or A-bomb,
you know. So we took a look at all the various parameters, and I said,
"We'll get you a big explosive charge and we'll set it up at
the right height and everything else, how big you want it."
I think we settled on 200-pound, maybe a couple of thousand-pound
charges. Of course, I couldn't handle anything like that, but the
Naval Mine Warfare Depot was up at Yorktown about fifteen miles away,
and I knew they knew something about that. So I went and talked to
them and talked to them about building these charges for us.
So we detonated one of the charges one day, and we didn't understand
some things about sound refraction in the atmosphere. It turns out
if you have an inverted temperature above the cloud layer and the
sun is shining on the top, and it's hotter on the top than the bottom,
that it bends the wave like water refracts light. We set this charge
off, and I think we rattled Philadelphia that day, for some reason
or other. We also knocked a bunch of antique plates off walls of the
local population and a few other little things like that. It looked
like that wasn't really what we wanted, too. You had to hire a preacher
to go assuage the anger of all these folks around, and get you a lawyer
and the whole bit.
We came up with the idea of doing it with basically a big shock tube,
where we'd build a big ten-, twelve-foot tube, and pressurize it and
then put a big diaphragm that we could rupture instantaneously and
let the shock come out. That way we could use stationary models like
in a wind tunnel or we could even fly them through it, actually. The
first ones we actually rocket-launched, timed and rocket-launched
them through the blast wave, you see, but later on we could do it
with fixed models and measure the response.
My job in that was to design the pyrotechnic devices. They had to
pop the big ruptured diaphragm so it would rupture instantaneously.
And to be an advisor generally on that program, but it was mostly
the gust load folks that did that. It was the first big bomb simulation
test facility, actually.
Rather interestingly, I got involved in a huge one here after I retired,
as a result of my experience with the Nuclear Defense Agency, since
they can't do any above-ground testing, wanted to build a great big
nuclear blast facility. It's a thing that's probably thirty meters
wide and a couple hundred meters long and has great big old shock
tubes up at one end, and then they wanted to do thermal simulation.
Somehow or another Henry got them in touch with me because he knew
of my background and I was the architect engineer and reviewer of
that entire design, along with the help of some people here from JCS
and White Sands, actually. That was one of those other duties as assigned,
sort of, you know.
We did all sorts of strange things like that. I had got involved in
a lot of wind tunnel testing. In fact, we actually fired little rocket
models off of airplanes in wind tunnels to see the transient response
to the flow field disturbance, things like that. For a long time we
were doing research in wind tunnels on airplanes that had big turbo
jets on them, but it was rather obvious to me that that wasn't a good
simulation, because the jets weren't coming out, you see. So I got
involved in a project with John Stack, who was one of the assistant
directors at Langley, and we started building turbo jet simulators
which you could put inside the wind tunnel model, actually, to give
you good simulation of the turbo jet exhaust.
I worked with a couple of guys over at the sixteen-foot wind tunnel
there. John Swiehart [phonetic] there, who later on became a big international
vice president of Boeing, and Jack Ronkle [phonetic], who stayed at
Langley and headed up the wind tunnel section there. So we got involved
in things like that.
Then I got involved in building rockets about as big as the end of
my finger that we put on little models in the spin tunnel, actually,
so they could study some of this, really understand more about the
spin characteristics of spin recovery. They were able to understand.
I did a lot of pyrotechnic things for everybody. There was one project
where they had a bunch of old C-46s with varying amounts of flight
time, and they were interested in structural damping in the wings,
to see whether the cycle life had anything to do with how much structural
damping we had. What you had to do is you wanted to get the wings
to flap, and started the response in the wings, see. So what you do
is you put a couple of ton weights on them, and you release these
weights instantaneously and then the wings flap and then you started
the transient response to the wings. So they asked me to build them
some pyrotechnical release devices.
I got involved in more than just PARD. I was involved in dealing with
a lot of organizations at Langley and also at Lewis [Flight Propulsion
Laboratory, Cleveland, Ohio]. I got to know a lot of folks at the
other centers, actually, as a result of working with them.
One other job I remember doing for Lewis, they had slurry fuel ramjets
and they needed something to expel the slurries at a given rate. So
I built basically a positive gas expulsion system which used propellant,
actually rocket propellant then, to generate the pressure to expel
the things, and we tested that back at Langley for them. We put solid
rockets propulsion technology to work in a lot of places, not only
You see, you had opportunities to do that there. I mean, the word
got around, people had ideas, they'd want to come around and talk
to you, or if you could help. There was no constraint on me working
on any project that I wanted to work on back at Langley. In fact,
helping anybody who asked for help or asking anybody for help that
I needed to.
Sounds like an ideal setup.
Well, it was the greatest place to work in the world. I mean, I think
you can talk to anybody that worked there and they'll tell you the
same thing. It was what you'd call a bottoms-up outfit. All the ideas
started at the bottom and came up to the top, and the managers had
enough sense to kind of steer you or guide up, but never interfere
with your work. Just 180 degrees from the way things are right now.
Do you recall who some of your managers were, that type of thing?
Some of the key people at that time?
Yes, my first guy I worked for was a guy named Paul [R.] Hill, a real
weirdo. Oh, boy. But wonderful person. Oh, he was the greatest guy
to have as a boss. He was Max and I's first boss, in fact. He'd go
see a movie he'd like, you know what he'd do? He'd buy two tickets
at the movie, and when he'd come to work, he'd give Max and I tickets
to the movie. If he had a book, a technical book he liked, he'd go
buy each of us a copy and give it to us, you see. He had a sailboat
and he'd take us sailing on his boat. He was very frank and open in
discussions, you know. We used to have job reviews and had various
interests, you know, so many things to be graded on and we'd sit up
there and talk about it. It was really neat.
He had some strange habits. He traveled light. I'll never forget,
I went on a trip to Huntsville [Alabama]. See, you could drive your
own car when you went on a trip. They'd give you the airplane fare
is what they'd give you and whatever, and you could drive your car.
Well, I was taking leave and going back to Louisiana there, so I went
down, and since I was driving my car, Paul rode with us. Well, we
stayed in the same motel there. In fact, we had a kind of suite where
they had two rooms.
Paul got on the car and all he had was a little kit about so big.
That's all the clothes, that's everything he took with him. He had
a bar of soap, a toothbrush, and a razor in the kit. He brushed his
teeth with this soap, he washed with the soap, he washed his underwear
out with the soap, he shaved with the soap, you see. So that's what
you call traveling light.
He wore a tie, and he believed ties changed your luck. So as long
as his luck was good, he wore the same tie, catsup on it, mustard,
whatever, same tie. When the luck changed, he changed his tie, you
He was a great, great boss. I mean, very encouraging and very supportive
in everything we did, for both of us.
Then Bob Gilruth, of course, was our first boss, and he's one of the
most modest guys you ever saw, you know. The greatest asset he has,
he recognizes what people can do and he gets them to do it. [Laughter]
He knows who to pick and who not to pick. He knows when things aren't
going right, but you have to know him in order to recognize he's showing
that, you see. He never gets angry at anybody or anything like that.
He did have one way of letting other people know things weren't going—when
a project didn't work out too well, his only comment was, "We
didn't have enough talent on that job," was his way of saying
that someone wasn't doing what they were supposed to do. Those of
us who knew him, we'd see him fidget and we knew the guy who was making
the presentation was in deep trouble, you know. He was always a gentleman
all the time.
And he was super supportive. There was a time when I had some ideas
back in the early to middle fifties on some fancy new rocket designs,
and I wanted to get a rocket plant where I could manufacture the rockets
there. Of course, Lewis Research Center was a propulsion center, actually,
and we weren't supposed to be involved in doing that kind of work.
So I think we were kind of told no, that we couldn't build one of
them, because Lewis was the place where that was supposed to go on.
Well, Bob told me, says, "Well," he says, "my signature
authority is $999.99," and he says, "if you can buy all
the equipment you need where each piece is under $1,000," he
says, "go build it." He says, "The building's okay,
but," he says, "that comes out of a different budget and
we can call that anything we want."
So I built me a rocket plant by Gilruth signing a bunch of purchase
orders all for under $1,000, you see. That's the way I got my first
rocket plant, and that way I was able to try out some new ideas for
rocket designs and manufacturing techniques which I had some patents
on. Bob was always like that. He always could find a way to get things
done. We'd call that a lot of bootlegging. Well, it really wasn't
bootlegging in the sense of the word, because headquarters is aware
that all this stuff was going on. They never told you no, you know.
They'd let it go on. They wouldn't stop it, because they understood
that in a research organization you have to have a lot of freedom
to explore things, explore ideas before you really want to do something
with them. They kind of turned their head. They acted like they didn't
see what's going on, but they really knew.
The next year after I did that, built that one there, they gave me
$225,000 to build me a nice new plant. Of course, $225,000 was big
money back then, nothing like 225 now. Now it won't buy anything.
Well, if we could pause for a minute so we can change the tape.
His title was engineer in charge when I first went down there. Later
on they gave him a big fancy title called director. I don't know,
that didn't change what he did.
Then he had a chief of research was the number-two in the outfit,
a fellow named Floyd [L.] Thompson, who was another great guy, you
see. Underneath Thompson there were three directors, Bob Gilruth,
John Stack, and Hartley [A.] Soulé. Stack handled all the wind
tunnel, supersonic wind tunnel stuff, and Soulé handled generally
the low-speed stuff that dealt with airplane stability. They were
all tremendous individuals, actually, all different personalities.
Gilruth was very quiet, very modest. Stack, explosive. Soulé
was acerbic. He prodded everybody and probed you all the time.
Turns out, most of those people came out of the flight research organization,
believe it or not, there. It's kind of interesting to make observation
that generally the people who were at the top of the organization
are the people who deal with the complete product, you see, the whole
airplane, not just the wing or the tail or the engine or anything
else. That's the way it worked.
The number-two guy in the NAC, [John W.] “Gus” Crowley
[Jr.], and he was the flight research. Gilruth was flight research,
actually. Soulé came out of flight research. Thompson came
out of flight research, you see. Stack's the only one who didn't come
out of flight research, actually. And all these guys were national
and internationally known people, you see.
John and I got along real well. I don't know why he liked me. Langley
had a funny way of you going up the ladder of success and you never
knew what it was, necessarily, but we used to hold what they called
research meetings once a month, where one of the divisions would give
and present their results to the center, to the center staff basically.
You kind of had arrived when you started getting invited to every
resource meeting. One of the things I noted. It didn't matter—Langley
had a classless society, by the way. If you had an awful big ego and
let it hang out too much, it didn't go very far, you know. It didn't
encourage that kind of behavior. The other thing about it if you did
what you were supposed to do, it took care of you. I mean, it worked
I worked at Langley for, what, seventeen years. No one ever got an
award at Langley. No one ever received an award. And that's the best
thing that could happen in an organization, by the way. All this stuff
that they do these days on awards is the most ridiculous thing. In
fact, I think it causes more grief than it does anything else. I've
gotten I don't know how many awards and I wouldn't give you a dime
for any of them. There's only two awards I ever got meant anything
to me. But they're generally given to people because of the position
you occupy, or that you've got to go round up something, or call to
give an award, so you got to go [unclear], but Langley never did any
of that. You got rewarded by getting to work on the best jobs. You
got rewarded by getting promoted. You were rewarded by being given
They used to always ask Caldwell Johnson how come they see all the
military people getting their work for military installation. My God,
they had hundreds of them. They're getting all these awards in the
newspaper. I asked Caldwell, "How come no one ever gets an award
out there?" He said, "Hell, you've got to be superior just
to work there." That was his kind of comment.
The guy at the shop, the lowest guard, the technician, everybody had
equal status in the organization. They were all members of the team.
They could all express their opinion and be heard. There was never
any type of direction where you direct people to do anything. We'd
walk in the shop, I knew all the shop people. Everybody knew everybody
back there. It made for a very, very nice type of environment to work
in. You never had to worry about stepping on anybody's toes. You could
say anything you wanted to say. Nobody ever had hurt feelings.
We used to get in some big knock-down drag-outs all the time and some
people would think that we were very insulting to each other, you
know, but that was not the situation at all. I'll never forget one
day, for being a chemical engineer and having no talent for drawing,
when you talk to a guy about something you want them to design for
you, you make little sketches. Well, Caldwell used to keep my sketches.
One day I came in there to get him to design something, he pulls one
of these, he says, "Thibodaux, what the hell is all this chicken
scratch here? How in the hell do you expect anybody to know what you
wanted?" [Laughter] You'd go in the shops and the guys would
say, "Why do you want to make this thing? That's a dumb way you
want to make it." And we'd negotiate right there. That's the
way we did things and that's the way we got things done.
I don't recall ever writing—you don't write letters to people.
The management was weird. The only person who could write a letter
that went out of the organization was the guy in charge, the number-one
man, you see. No one had any letterhead stationery. If you wanted
to write a letter to someone, you wrote a letter requesting that a
letter be sent to someone, and then they had an organization called
a Research Staff Office, and the Research Staff Office would research
it, you see. Then they'd come back and they'd give you a draft to
see that if it didn't change the tone or expressed things the way
you wanted. Then the director would sign it and send it off, you see.
If you wanted to work a guy overtime, there was only one man in the
center could authorize you to go on travel or work overtime, that
was the budget officer. He controlled the money. You'd say, "Hey,
I want to work two guys two hours overtime tonight." You'd have
to pick up the phone and you'd call Rufus House [phonetic]. He was
the budget officer.
Well, he had this great system for tracking it. He had a roll of adding-machine
tape about that wide that came down and was flattened out, and he
had the top right desk drawer pulled out, and he'd write down there
he authorized two hours of overtime. That would roll up in there and
then each day he'd clip that off and he'd write the day on it, and
that was his records. So if you wanted to check him, you wanted to
make sure that he authorized that, he could tell you that, you see.
If you had an emergency at night, didn't matter what time of the day
or night it was, one guy you call, he was there, [W.] Kemble Johnson.
You'd pick up the phone at two o'clock in the morning, "Kemble,
I got an emergency. I need some people from the shop out here."
And that's the way things happened. Instant response. And big organization,
too. It was 3,200 people, you know. It wasn't any small organization,
by the way, but that's the way things happened, you see. You never
had to document anything, you know; you just called people and did
it. And that's the way Langley worked.
Another way you kind of realized you were getting ahead is you were
asked to present papers before a national audience, you see. When
you did that, you had to rehearse for everybody from the director
of the NAC and his staff to all of your center staff and then through
every other center staff. So you'd been rehearsed over and over and
over again, and they had certain rules about how you did things, you
see. Your charts had to be just right.
I'll never forget, one time I had a chart that was kind of busy and
I was kind of getting—I was having difficulty dealing with it.
I remember Floyd Thompson's comments to me, he says, "Son, it's
permissible to lie to them, but never to confuse them." He says,
"You'd better get that chart straightened out."
Some of the guys and their comments, you know, looked like they were
attacking you personally. Like Soulé had a habit of doing that,
Hartley Soulé. He was one of the other directors, like Gilruth.
He'd begin to attack your integrity and everything else there and
question you about things. I realized he didn't know a damn thing
about propulsion, so I stomped on him a couple of times, you know,
and he quit bothering me after that, you see.
I'll never forget many, many years later I was out in California,
it must have been '57, I guess. We were eating dinner one night and
I says, "Hartley, you know, I used to think you were the most
vituperous old SOB I'd ever met in my life. You used to challenge
me all the time, you used to insult my integrity and everything else."
I said, "Now, that I've gotten to know you, you're the kindness,
most fatherly old duck I've ever met."
"Hell, yeah, I was just trying to find out if you knew what the
hell you were talking about," is what he said. He said, "Once
I found out, I never bothered you anymore, did I?" And there
are people like that.
Henry [J. E.] Reid there, after he stepped down as director, he became
a kind of human being again. I guess as long as he felt he had the
responsibility for running the center, he felt like he had to remain
kind of aloof to a lot of things.
We had light gas guns that were developed by LX Charters Hopkins of
Aberdeen Proving Grounds, actually. LX had come up with these shock
compressed guns, and we were doing micrometeoroid research. And these
things would shoot up to about 20,000 feet a second, you see. Henry
Reid had been president of the National Rifle Association, you see,
for quite a few times, I believe. And because I had these guns, he
was interested in these guns, so he used to always come, and he'd
sit down and eat lunch with me and we'd talk about all sorts of things
that went on. Some of the things went on back there before were—I
don't think he'd ever permitted during his time as being head of the
organization. We had a lot of very interesting discussions.
Floyd Thompson used to come and we'd all sit down and chat. Floyd's
main claim to fame was he designed the attack submarine, not the fact
that he was involved in aeronautics at all. He tells a story about,
that he was on a bunch of committees with some of the Navy admirals.
He was chastising them about the way they designed submarines for
a number of years. He says, "You designed this thing as a surface
ship, but it spends most of the time under the water." He says,
"Why'd you design it as something that spends most of its time
under the water and it comes up to the surface every once in a while,
sort of like let it fly through the water like an airplane."
And when I first got down there back in '46, they were doing research
on submarine hulls in the full-scale wind tunnel, actually, and the
first attack submarine was design was done at Langley. That's the
type of caliber of people we had down there.
There were a lot of others, I mean, you know, some of them—a
lot of them had some very, very outgoing personalities, too. [John
V.] Johnny Becker, compressibility, was one. Most of Stack’s
people were that way for some reason or other, I guess. People are
like chameleons. They kind of take on the characteristics of their
boss, I believe. I don't know.
It sounds like there was a very high caliber of people there.
Yes, I think the people were all—well, they had something different.
I don't know what it was. It's kind of hard to put your finger on
it. Well, not everybody we had was that great, by the way. There was
a time we had difficulty attracting good people. Probably in the early
fifties the colleges weren't graduating an awful lot, and the American
industry had began to convert back into a peacetime economy. The government
couldn't compete salary-wise for a lot of folks. So we were getting
some people there who I didn't consider really outstanding during
that time frame, but they were about all we could get, actually, to
fill the spaces.
I wanted to ask you about another development while you were still
at Langley, of the spherical solid rocket motor. Where did the concept
Well, it's a fairly simple concept. A sphere actually has the least
amount of surface for a given amount of volume, and what you're interested
in, in any type of rocket, is you want the least amount of inert weight
in order to contain the greatest amount of propellant, you see. Well,
a sphere then would be the lightest weight for a given volume, you
see, and for a given pressure, so that's fairly simple. That's pretty
straightforward. The big question is, okay, now, how am I going to
design something that fits inside that, that's going to meet the general
characteristics that I want? Generally on a rocket, you like it to
operate at a constant pressure, you see, because that way it's always
operating at maximum efficiency at the highest pressure ratio, you
see. So you like it to do that.
This other thing is you'd like it to hold 100 percent environment
would be propellant. Well, of course, in a solid rocket you can't
do that. You've got to have some initial area for the gases to flow
out and you have to have the right type of surface initially in order
where you start out where it's a sphere, but as it burns—if
the propellant burns from the inside out, that the area doesn't change,
this burning, you see. In a solid rocket there, you can design them
to do almost anything you want by going through an exercise in geometry
and trigonometry, you see. You're only limited by the imagination
and ingenuity of the guy who does the charge designs.
I wanted to have the lightest weight container and operate it at a
good high pressure, and I wanted to fill it with the maximum amount
of volume is what the requirements were. So I had just gotten this
young kid out of Georgia Tech [Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta,
Georgia] there, [Robert L.] Bob Swain, and he was an Air Force ROTC
[Reserve Officer Training Corps]. Somehow or other they told him that
he didn't have to go in the Army, but he'd have to go to work for
some government agency to serve some time before, and then he'd be
through, discharge his obligation for that. They assigned him to be
at Langley. I kind of talked to him and told him a few of the ideas
that I had, gave him a lot of different options, various things to
look at. I told him to go ahead and design me an internal burning
charge, which is just a general description of all the things that
work. And he went and designed one of them, you see.
I reviewed a lot of different designs and we picked one of them that
obviously looked like it was going to be the best, but we had a problem.
How you going to make the thing? Because in order to make it, it has
this really intricate internal shape. You don't have a great big opening
there at the bottom of it, you see, because you have to put a ring
around it, adds to the weight. So you have to be able to take this
great big old thing out of the inside and pull it out through a small
hole. We came up with the idea that we were going to make it out of
woods metal there, which melts at about 160 degrees Fahrenheit and
we'd cast it. We'd put that in there and then we'd weld the case around
while that was on. That's one of the things we did. That way when
we got through we'd just melt it off. That was one of the novel ideas,
techniques that we had.
Later on, I got the idea, well, why take the—this internal fairly
intricate shaped is called a mandrel, actually. I said, well, why
should we even take the damn thing out? Let's shoot the rocket, fire
the rocket with it inside of it. We made the mandrels out of the same
stuff that cuff's made out of there, you see. That weighs about three
pounds per cubic foot. I made that mandrel with the central core where
you could slip the pieces in. What you do then is you build the igniter
around the outer rim of the mandrel, you see, and you pull that out.
You shoot it with—you just leave the mandrel inside the rocket.
Well, I made a number of rockets, and back in those days which twin
has a [unclear]. I'd fire one and fire the other one and asked you
which one had it and which one didn't have it, and you couldn't tell
the different in the records, actually.
Somehow that never caught on, though. It was an ideal way for me of
making rockets. It had all sorts of tremendous advantages, but the
closest thing came is Aerojet doing Polaris rockets. Actually use
foam, some foam parts in the mandrel, actually.
Then later on we got into filament-wound cases actually. The ideal
filament-wound thing is not a sphere. [Laughter] It turns out to be
that you have to have an opening, for example, to put the nozzle on
and let the gases flow out. Well, as soon as you put an opening there
in a filament-wound case, the volume of the case and the size of the
opening will uniquely design the shape of the case, actually, so that
we had to come up with some rather unique designs to go into these
things that looked like ovoid, spheroids, actually. It's like the
Earth, an oblique spheroid; they're kind of flattened. It's not exactly
that, it's the solution of a fourth-order differential equation is
the shape of that case, but you can very closely approximate it to
a spheroid. We did a lot of work on that.
In fact, the guy who did most of the analytical work for me on that
is a fellow named Jerry [L.] Modisette, who was one of the early division
chiefs in the science organization here. Jerry worked for me back
then. We found easier ways of building that. What we did is we assembled
a mandrel like a ship in pieces. You'd put it in and you could slip,
they have little things that slip, the external things would slip
in the grooves and you'd put it in there, and then when you'd melt
it, then the core would be small enough to drop out of the hole. We
did a lot of those, a lot of those designs.
So the spheres evolved into these ovoid spheroids. The whole thing
has evolved, actually, over the years into things which don't look
exactly like that. There's still a group of them used, spheres used.
I wanted to build big ones and I couldn't build—the biggest
thing I could build back at Langley would probably be around a couple
of hundred pounds was as big as I could cast at Langley very well.
If I wanted to build a big one, I had to go out to industry. So I
let a contract with Thiokol Chemical Corporation up in Elton. They
picked up on the idea and they started marking a large number of spheres
for a lot of the Air Force projects and for a lot of the satellite
and assertion programs. Then the Japanese copied some of the designs
Well, moving on a little bit, when was the first time you heard of
any serious inquiries into putting a man in space?
Well, that all started—I don't know. I have no idea when it
really started. The official start of it was the week Sputnik flew.
[Laughter] The Air Force had a project. You see, the Air Force, we
had the research airplane projects there that we'd come up with ideas.
Like Max says, toys we'd want to play with, and we'd get the Air Force
to fund them and build them, you see. The Air Force was looking for
something past the X-15 and they weren't quite sure what they wanted
I think Bennie [Bernard A.] Schriever had the idea for a big space
WPA program there, where he was going to have observation satellites,
surveillance satellites constantly flying around the earth looking
at things. It's rather interesting where that grew out of. That grew
out of the V-2 work in Peenemunde, actually. It turns out that von
Braun's boss was a guy named Walter [R.] Dornberger and he was a general,
one of Hitler’s generals. Walter had proposed to build, I forget
whether it was A-4 or A-10, and that was supposed to be able to bomb
New York from Berlin, actually. It was going to be a great big winged
V-2 that would glide in.
The Army got hold of von Braun, and the Air Force wasn't a separate
branch of the service, but it became a separate branch of the service,
and here's all these Germans building all these things in competition
with their bomb airplanes, you see. They didn't particularly like
that, so I think they engaged in a little what I call one-upmanship
and brought von Braun's boss over here. The boss was a Ph.D. engineer,
a real great guy, in fact.
The Air Force sponsored two very top-secret studies at that time called
RoBo [Rocket Bomber] and Brass Bell. One of them was more interested
in the structure and the design of the spacecraft, and the other was
interested in the aerodynamics than the other thing. The Air Force
was proposing to do some of these things, but they weren't sure about
the technical feasibility of it, so they asked the NACA to convene
a group of people out at Ames [Research Center, Moffett Field, California]
in October of 1957.
I think we were out there the week Sputnik flew. Gilruth wasn't there;
he was off in Europe somewhere. Floyd Thompson was there, and me and
Max, Paul Purser, Walt [Walter C.] Williams, who was running—Ed
was at the time. Neil [A.] Armstrong, a young X-15 test pilot, was
there. Al [Alfred J.] Eggers [Jr.], Harvey [H. Julian] Allen, the
guys who came up at the ballistic, blunt body ballistic missile nose
cone reentry thing, which—I don't know all the other folks that
were there. Adolf Bussenbaumer [phonetic], German supersonic scientist
that we got from Germany right after the war.
We all took a look at this "thing." It eventually became
Dyna-Soar [Dynamic Soaring], is what the thing became, but we all
took a look at it, and our conclusion was it doesn't violate any of
the laws of nature as we know them, you know, but there's an awful
lot of tough engineering problems we have to solve.
Max and Al Eggers started kicking around the idea of putting a man
in space. There'd been some talk about it, in fact, quite a bit of
talk about it before that time, in fact. They had arguments whether
it ought to have wings or what shape it ought to look like. I guess
I wanted to do what they called a Scout Program. I had ideas about—Vanguard
was the only authorized satellite launching program we had, and it
wasn't doing too well at the time. I wanted to do the Scout. I'd been
to Denver in July of that year on this one of these SPIA conferences
I was talking about.
Aerojet was building a 40-inch-diameter rocket, solid rocket, which
is known as the Jupiter Junior. It was something for the Navy basically,
and it would be launched either from a ship, an aircraft carrier,
or else they'd put it down where it floated down in the water and
launch it directly out of water. Then Thiokol had been building a
rocket called the Hermes, which was a 31-inch-diameter rocket. Then
Grand Central Rocket Company was building the Meteor, which was the
top stage of the Vanguard.
It didn't take very long, I got home and I started doing a few calculations
on this, and I had three stages and found out that just through—not
serendipity or whatever you want to call it, but I found out that
if you took a 40-inch and a 31-inch and you put that at first and
second stage and you made a four-stage out of that one, that you could
design a third stage where all of them ideally matched, where that
you had a constant mass, constant velocity per stage and a constant
mass for action per stage, which is almost a perfect match. And decided
that, hey, that would be an ideal way of putting something in orbit,
you see, and it'd be a real cheap way, because I already had three
stages pretty much well developed. I only had to develop the other
We kicked that around with Dr. [Hugh L.] Dryden and we were told,
no, the Navy's the only one. [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower said
the Navy's the only one going to put a satellite in orbit. Of course,
they didn't; they let von Braun put it up. By the way, using two stages
of solid rockets is the upper stage. Those little rockets that I had
developed, T-55s, actually, they were done by Thiokol.
So we couldn't do Scout. Well, we went back and we started working
on Scout, and Max wanted to talk to them about putting a man in orbit.
He made his classical statement that kind of almost cost him being
head of NASA. That's kind of like shooting a girl out of a cannon,
you know, and that almost crucified him for the rest of his life when
he said that. It came to haunt him any number of times. Max decided,
well, we're going to put a man in space, and we went back and starting
"bootlegging," I think, from that point on, you see.
The other thing is that after that time, Eisenhower or someone had
decided they wanted a space agency in response to Sputnik, you see,
and they had to choose some outfit that was going to kind of be the
nucleus of it. Well, they happened to pick the NACA as the nucleus
of it. I'm convinced that most of the reason for that is that the
ones who are really space people were the guys at PARD who were going
up, 100-some miles up into space and getting some very, very high
velocities with simple launch vehicles and doing a lot of work like
Crowley decided that what he wanted to do was he got—someone
got wind of the fact that we might be the nucleus of the
space agency. I'm not sure what, but in March of 1958 they formed
a little committee to study the NACA's role in space for budget purposes,
That we met, I think, first meeting at Langley, but later on they
made a permanent group and we met up in Washington. From about April
through almost October, we spent four days a week up in Washington,
four to five days a week up in Washington, trying to work out what
the NACA would do in space, you see, what programs we'd do and budget
for them, and we got people from Lewis, some people from Lewis. Ames
was pretty far out; they didn't send [unclear]. They had a guy assigned,
but he didn't come out and stay with us the whole time.
We worked up NACA's program. We also went through the Pentagon, DoD
[Department of Defense], like we owned the place, you know. We could
attend every top-secret meeting they had. We had a list of those and
we'd go to them, or go to the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] to see
what was going on, what these people were thinking about of space.
The idea maybe since they were not going to be part of it, that we'd
bring this program into the new NASA organization, although we didn't
know it was going to be NASA at the time. So we did that.
I need to stop. [Tape recorder turned off.]
Okay. We were, I think, just talking about—you'd mentioned Scout
and the idea of using that to put something in orbit.
Yes. Okay. Well, Max and Eggers were the ones who kicked them around,
you know, putting a man in orbit. There'd been some things going on,
actually, in the country. We had a delegate to it, a guy name Bill
[William J.] O'Sullivan. They were all sworn to secrecy and Bill wouldn't
say anything about it, but Al kind of got fed up with it and started
kicking this thing around with Max and telling Max what they'd been
looking at. Hey, if the Russians could put a man up, you know, if
they're going to put a man up, we've got to try to beat them, since
they put this thing in orbit.
We went back and Max started "bootlegging," you know, doing
something without asking authorization for it, like we always did
anyway. We were doing that back at home and we were bootlegging, taking
a look at all the concepts for the Scout, formulating what the thing
would look like, what type of control system we'd have, and about
how much we thought we'd put it in orbit, and about how much it would
cost, doing that type of planning. We started doing planning for what
eventually became the Mercury Program.
But during this time frame, Max and I and Paul Purser and Bill O'Sullivan
and Bob Gilruth were on this committee that, you see, one little division
constituted at least a third of the committee, actually, for some
reason or other. We were going through the Pentagon, finding out what
went on in DoD that related to space, with the idea that if they weren't
going to be allowed to do it, we'd pick those things up. Like I say,
a lot of things, military space they were going to keep, actually,
but at least the space program, per se, Eisenhower determined it was
going to be strictly a civilian organization.
We came up with the idea of budget. Pretty soon we realized suddenly
that we were going to be it, you know, that there wasn't going to
be anybody else in space, that this was going to be the space agency.
We kind of finalized what we wanted to do. I wanted to do Scout, we
wanted to do Mercury, I wanted to do big solid rockets. They had some
big liquid rockets there, one of them which became the F-1, was the
E-1 Program. Del [Adelbert] Tischler from Washington was the guy who
was looking after the liquids. I was looking out after the solids
at that time.
Well, the thing I didn't say, this is coming on later anyway, we started
doing all this work back at Langley. We'd come back at Langley and
kick things around, you know. We'd leave instructions for the people
back at Langley what we wanted to do and then we'd go up and spend
all that time up in Washington. We worked a pretty tough schedule,
actually. We'd get up kind of early in the morning and go eat breakfast
and then we were always at the NACA headquarters building right around
the corner from Lafayette Square. We'd go there every morning and
we'd work all day.
We'd go to the Pentagon and spend time over at the Pentagon. I spent
time up in Germantown at the AEC on occasion, talking, looking at
nuclear rockets and stuff, things like that. We'd work kind of late
and then we'd go out and eat. We'd all get together and we'd all go
out and eat supper.
In fact, everybody—we lived together pretty much. We stayed
at the same hotel, a kind of an old flea bag called the Francis Scott
Key over there. It's part of Georgetown University. Now I think it's
dormitories. It was a kind of low-key place. Nice hotel, by the way,
I'm not running it down, but it had no bellhops. You carried your
own baggage. Every room had a stove and a refrigerator. It had a unique
air-conditioning system. It had a big shaft they put blocks of ice
in and they blew over it, and if you opened your window, it let air
blow out of your room and keep your room cool. It was cheap, because
per diem was very low back then. We didn't have a lot of money to
But we always went out. Restaurants, taxis were cheap in Washington
and the restaurants were fairly inexpensive, good food, so we always
used to go out and eat all the time together. Then we'd come back
and go back to the hotel. Stop by a liquor store and get a bottle
and we'd sit around and have a few drinks and sit up and we'd go over
the day's activities with Bob and Abe Silverstein, actually, who was
kind of a—made himself to kind of number-one guy of the space
program. He was director of Lewis at the time. So we'd go over and
kick around the ideas about what we thought we wanted to do and get
some feedback. That's pretty much what went on.
At the same time, we were doing all this work back at Langley on Scout,
what Scout would look like and what the Mercury would look like. Then
Max was kind of going around to the military and various other installations
trying to sell the program a little bit, I believe. By the time the
Space Act was passed and we became NASA on the 1st of October, I guess,
of '58, that we'd done most of the groundwork actually for what NASA
started doing, actually. We started the Scout Program shortly after
we became NASA. That was one of the big funded programs. We started
a big solid rocket booster program. We started some liquid rocket
programs. We started the Mercury Program, basically the man-in-space
program. We were ready. By the time '58 came around, we were hot to
trot, we were ready to go, you know, no problem.
Then shortly after that, they formed the Space Task Group because
they kind of felt it was kind of too big or it didn't belong in a
laboratories, per se, as part of a laboratory; it should be a separate
operation. They formed the Space Task Group back in probably October,
November, of '58. Three months later, I think we had the Mercury under
A very short time indeed.
Well, yes. You see, that shows you, you don't go out and do things
like that if you haven't done a good job of planning. We had a design.
We had everything pretty well laid out. And we'd been doing some other
type of testing, actually, in anticipation of that.
How did the rest of Langley feel about the creation of NASA, being
part of that organization and an emphasis on space flight?
Well, Langley I don't think it bothered. It didn't seem to bother
Langley that much, because NASA is National Aeronautics and Space;
it's not only space. It wasn't going to diminish any of the work they
were necessarily doing in aeronautics. In comparison, I mean, if you
want to compare one or the other, one's a little bit more new and
more exciting, but other than that, I don't think it changed anything,
because the space program was really PARD in there and we always had—we
were always the fair-haired boys and there was always some resentments
for some reason or other, not anything serious or deep, but I'm sure
there was slight resentments in other organizations that felt maybe
we were getting treated better than they were. I don't think it changed
anything, because that little difference, the difference between us
and the rest of the organization, was always a little bit there.
Max is a fairly outspoken person and some of the guys over on the
other side of house were fairly outspoken, so we used to have some
knock-down drag-out arguments all the time. Some differences about
approaches and things went on, but I didn't see any change, actually.
The space part, you know, I think all the space smarts, not all, but
most of the space smarts went with Gilruth, actually. It don't take
an awful lot of people to do the inspirational work or to kind of
keep things moving, you know. It needs a few idea people and some
people who will stick their neck out and sell things. The rest of
the people, if it's worthwhile working on, they all want to work on
it, you know. You don't have any troubles. Like even today out at
NASA, a lot of kids want to come to work out there because it still
seems exciting to some of them.
I didn't see a lot of difference in the way people reacted. There
were a few people that wanted to get into the space part of it, by
the way, from the other organizations. I think the flight people,
Chris Kraft and some of the guys over there. In fact, some of the
guys, actually some of the branch heads over in flight actually had
asked us in PARD to come up and give them lectures in space and in
propulsion and various other things to give their people training.
Most of those guys wound up down here, by the way.
Langley folks were that way, too. I mean, they weren't envious. Like
Thompson has no resentment of the fact that here was a big chunk of
his organization going somewhere else, you know. That was a feather
in his cap, as far as he was concerned, and he wanted to do everything
he could to create or to enhance the thing, you see. The people are
much bigger than they are these days about things like that.
Although you worked with the Space Task Group, at first you weren't
an official part of it.
How did that come about?
How did I become—
How is it that as someone who had been a part of PARD and had quite
a bit of time with those types of activities, that you weren't an
Well, no one ever told me why, but I understood why, I think, that
they needed someone to keep continuity of experience in the organization
who was still there, you see. They couldn't give everybody up. I think
Thompson must have cut a deal with Gilruth that I wasn't going there,
that he wanted to keep me down there. So I wound up getting Paul Purser's
old job as head of the High Temperature Branch, which had a lot of—those
were nice—those were things, too, which helped us get into the
space program, too, a lot of work Purser had done, you see, in his
branch. It turned out that we were trying to get data using these
free-flying rocket-propelled models at very, very high speeds, but
these things were getting bigger all the time and a little bit more
complicated. Gilruth assigned Purser the job of saying, "Hey,
can't we do this on-ground stuff, do materials research, heating and
stuff like that, with reasonable test conditions on the ground?"
So Paul had been pulled out for six, seven months to kind of look
I was in Paul's branch at the time, I guess. They made a shift about
in October, I believe, it must have been about the time we were out
in California, as I recall, that they wanted to get into some high-temperature
materials research, ground research and stuff like that, and high-temperature
structures and various other things, because we were talking about
flying things real fast and you were going to have to protect from
Purser was assigned that job, and when we decided we were going to
do something about it, we came up with the idea of ceramic pebble
heaters, actually, where we used little small pebbles that we heated
to about a little bit over 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, you see, and
they wouldn't melt. We picked zirconium, which would not melt at that.
We designed and built these pebble heaters, and then we came to the
arc jets. We got into the arc jet thing. We got into space radiation.
We had an electron beam radiator which would produce about what you
get from an electron beam radiation in space. We had light gas guns
that would shoot things up approaching meteoroid reentry. You see,
all that in one little branch. [Laughter]
We were kind of pioneers in all that stuff. Those are all the things
you need to worry about when you get into space, too. We'd already
been doing it. See, we were kind of in the forefront of all those
things. We got all those things going, actually. I had all my rocket
work and I had all the high-temperature materials that worked, too,
actually. I headed two sections in Purser's branch.
The first thing that we did to get high temperatures was to activate
this old liquid rocket we had. I gave Bob Sweeney [phonetic] a job.
He's one of the real great guys I had, very talented young engineer
here. He eventually wound up as director of engineering and technical
services at Langley there. I gave him the job of converting this old
liquid rocket there. It was, I think, going in a Gorgon missile, I
believe Gorgon or Locken [phonetic], one of the early Navy pilotless
aircraft things. We converted it over from acid analine and I told
him we wanted to make it an acid ammonia thing. I had some specific
reasons why I wanted it to be ammonia, because there are a lot of
things I liked about ammonia. It's different from hydrocarbon, but
things are much stable in general and they were very, very easy to
work with. You can make them hypergolic, where they ignited by themselves.
We converted this old Gorgon thing to acid ammonia and then we put
little models in it, in the exhaust of it, and it was spectacular,
watching them burn up. We had Life magazine come down there one time
and they shot a bunch of pictures of it. I'll never forget this Life
guy, Life photographer running around with his tam on, screaming,
"Fantastic! Fantastic!" [Laughter] I even remember his name.
Yale Joel [phonetic], his name was. He was a character.
So we were doing all that kind of work anyhow. Matter of fact, that
was probably the most experience I had with liquid rockets till the
time I came down here was dealing with, working with that. We had
a lot of redesign we had to do, you know, and stuff like that, make
sure it cooled properly with the new fuels. So I had to get involved
in liquid rocket design because I wanted to use a liquid rocket, it
was a high-temperature jet.
Anyhow, Paul got that started. We had a lot of other things. We had
some facilities to make protective oxidation-resistance coatings there
that we did, made the small models and protected them with some very,
very sophisticated coating technology. In fact, we made borage, nitrites,
carbides, and oxides and various types of materials here that we used
for coating the little models for oxidation resistance.
We were doing a lot of work on ablative technology, too, by the way.
We did an awful lot of that. In fact, pioneered in a lot of that work.
So I got Paul Purser's old branch, anyhow, that had all that stuff.
My branch was as big as the division I had left out here. In fact,
I had about 120 people in the branch, and we were doing all sorts
of weird stuff. Then the center started setting up other people in
competition with me, I mean, duplicating these things everywhere around.
I was getting kind of fed up, not because I didn't like competition,
but none of us had enough people to do anything with it, you see.
Got a little group of people, well, why not combine all of them? I
told them I'll give up all this stuff, just take it. [Laughter] And
they couldn't understand that.
That's about the time I was starting to get fed up with Langley. They
had no more space people. Most of them were aerodynamics people, you
see. While they were pretty good in their own field, they knew nothing
about any of the things that I was involved in. I always had a saying,
"If you can't pick a fight with your boss, you'd better get a
new one." I mean, if he's too dumb to understand what you're
talking about, you don't want to work for him.
That's the other funny thing about Langley, too, you know. It didn't
matter where you worked, you always had an opportunity to pick your
own boss. You worked for who you wanted to work for, by the way. You
worked with who you wanted to work with. Things work out that way,
anyhow. I had that freedom anyhow, you see. I was always given that
freedom. If I wanted to work for John Stack on a project, I worked
for John. I worked for Soulé. I worked for Mel Rothwell [phonetic].
And no one ever said I couldn't do that, you see.
The same thing when I was up in Washington, even though Silverstein
was in charge, I worked for Bob Gilruth. I didn't pay any attention
to Silverstein at all. That's the way we worked. Gilruth was assigned
to work for—at Goddard [Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland],
Harry [J.] Goett was his boss. He never talked to Harry Goett. He
wouldn't have anything to do with Harry. I don't know how that happened,
but that's fact, you see. That's the way it worked. It's unusual.
That's the unusual thing about the organization.
I forget where I was exactly, but we were talking about me coming
down here, actually. Well, they had some changes. They put a guy in
charge of the division I was in. Joe [Joseph A.] Shortal retired,
actually, and Joe was a nice person, but he was an aerodynamics type.
Even though he was chief of the division, he really didn't know any
awful lot about the things we were doing that well. He was a very
pleasant person. He was an Aggie, by the way, Texas A&M [College
Station, Texas] graduate from way back, I guess. The nice thing about
Joe is he never stopped you from doing anything. You did your thing.
On occasions he was helpful.
It was the next echelon of people up above Joe that I had difficulties
with. Well, you would talk to them about things you wanted to do and
they had no comprehension at all about it, you know. It was blah,
you know, like drawing a blank stare. I just got tired of that. I
like bosses who are worthy adversaries, you know, who you can talk
to, who can challenge you and who you can trade back and forth with,
you see, and where both of you walk away and feel fine about it. That's
the kind of people I like to work with. That's the kind of people
I got used to working with.
When that changed, I decided I had to get out. I had gotten some offers
from a small rocket—I guess medium-sized rocket company out
in Arizona. They wanted me to be chief engineer out there and talked
to me about stock options, all that other stuff. I was almost ready
to go there when I got a call saying they'd reorganized the center
here, just started it, and they were going to create a more functional
organization there, where the project office would be supported by
a line organization across the board. They created an engineering
directorate and flight operations. They split the center up into about
three or four different places.
They needed a propulsion power organization and then wanted someone
to run it, so they called me and asked me if I'd do that. That's how
I happened to come down here. It sounded real great to me to get back
with the old guys again, people I knew, anyhow, and I could talk to.
So that's how I happened to come down here, I guess.
I wasn't first choice, by the way. Headquarters had somebody they
wanted out of headquarters to come down and run it. Somehow he didn't
want to come down to Texas. So it worked out great for both of us.
How very convenient for you that they were opening this job in your
area of expertise.
Yes, yes, about the time I was getting ready to leave. The timing
was right, because if I'd gone it, I probably wouldn't have come down
Well, while we're on the topic of people moving, I think it was in
'59 where a group of Canadians and some Britons came down from AVRO
Did you have a chance to work with them, particularly in the early
Yes, I worked with some of them, yes. In fact, the big guy, the boss
of the outfit, Jim [James A.] Chamberlin, I worked with quite a bit.
I didn't really work with a lot of the others, no. I knew them socially
and personally and I knew what they were doing. Well, yes, I did get
to work with a few of them, too. Yes, Bob [Robert E.] Vale was chief
of structures division later on. When they came down here, I did get
to work with a few of them. Most of them went up in flight operations,
as I recall, and I didn't do an awful lot of work with flight operations.
My guys worked with them, but I didn't. I sent a lot of folks over
there to work with them, but I didn't specifically interface too much
with the flight operations people.
Chamberlin was a real strange, very super strange person, actually.
He was a brilliant guy, I thought, but he was the poorest communicator
I've ever seen. No one could understand him, but I decided I was going
to give him a chance, you know, and I was going to try and understand
the guy. After I figured out how to understand him, we did really
great. His mind didn't work the same way as most people's minds work.
He shot-gunned things. He never did things in a sequence, in an orderly
fashion. If you'd listen to everything Jim told you and you'd go back
and you'd try to reorganize in your own mind the way you would logically
think about it, it came out perfect, you see. But no one else was
willing to make that effort to try to understand the guy. He was always
in hot water because people couldn't understand what he was telling
I had a lot of people working with Jim, basically, when we did the
early Shuttle work over in Building 32, actually. I had a bunch of
guys assigned over there, and I used to call them and try to tell
him how they have to go about understanding Jim, you know, to give
them lessons in how you understand his thinking. Once they did that,
it all worked out pretty good, actually. So I knew Jim and I worked
with Jim after he went to work at McDonnell-Douglas down here, too.
So Jim I knew better than the others.
And Vale. I knew Vale. While he was the division chief over there,
I didn't have an awful lot to do with structures. I think I'm one
of the few people who minded my own business and I only was concerned
about what I was supposed to do. I never had any ideas about everybody
else had to—technically what they should do or how to go about
their business. There are an awful lot of people who want to design
rockets around here, though. [Laughter] Everybody I ran across seemed
like they were rocket designers.
Well, let's talk some about the rocket design on Mercury. What were
the areas that you were responsible for?
Well, they had the retrorockets and launch escape rockets and they
had the little reaction control rockets, actually, there. I wasn't
too heavily involved in that. I was heavy in the original conceptual
study, choices we were going to make, you know, but I didn't get involved.
I did handle the solid rocket part, but the reaction control thing
was actually turned over to engineering. It was more of a mechanical
design type of thing and fluid system design. The only thing we did
is we chose who was going to use peroxide and what type of catalytics
can you use and help with the selection of the contract. Other than
that, I didn't get involved in the day-to-day activities of that,
but I was involved in the day-to-day activities of launch escape and
the retrorockets and all the pyrotechnic stuff on it, too.
See, most people don't understand, there are hundreds of little pyrotechnic
devices that go off. The only ones that ever hear about it are the
astronauts, when they go off they get a bang and they understand that
all these things go off. You never hear anything, any discussions
about that as a system, but it's a very large system. It's one of
the most important systems on a spacecraft because it's the only thing
that has to have 100 percent reliability in the fact that—in
two ways. Number one, it can't function when it's not supposed to
function, and it must function when it has to function, you see. Both
ways. It has to be totally out of the way until it's called off. It
can't inadvertently function. There are hundreds of these devices
all over, and there's a vast number of different designs. In fact,
from initiators to tension tie cutters, to explosives, to bolts this
big to release the SRBs [solid rocket boosters].
With the pyrotechnics on Mercury, did you have problems with electromagnetic
interference setting them off?
Well, no, but we had one big problem within Little Joe, actually,
that we had an inadvertent launch because someone had overlooked something
in the design of the system. They were charging the batteries up,
in fact, and when the battery voltage got high enough, it fired the
system and it took off by itself. It wasn't the design of the pyrotechnic—it
was the design of the pyrotechnic circuitry, actually, that caused
that particular problem.
I did have one bad accident up at Wallops Island as the result of
some weird pyrotechnic stuff there. See, I had to design all the pyrotechnic
stuff back in the early days. There was no pyrotechnics industry.
So whenever we needed something, we had to come up with the design
of it ourselves. This particular case, a guy was working on a rocket,
actually, was up on the launch and he was checking the telemeter route,
and when he touched the pin to the rocket motor case, it went off
and it cut his hand off here. Fortunately, it didn't do any more damage
to him than that. But that was the only accident we've had that I
know of. It was a very weird sneak circuit that we finally psyched
out what it was.
Like I say, we did our part. In fact, I even went and gave a paper
over at AGARD [Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development]
over in Holland on all the pyrotechnic stuff there one time many,
many years ago, in the early sixties, I guess.
My chemical engineering experience, being a chemist and chemical engineer
was very, very helpful in all that stuff, too, by the way. I did some
other weird things at Langley, too, which involved getting really
into explosive design, actually. I had an idea that we wanted to shoot
things bigger than these little BBs about a sixteenth of an inch in
diameter, fairly high velocity, but I wanted to get something big
going. So I conceived the idea, well, let's get a gun to shoot a bullet
through a hole, but then explosives actually have detonation, can
go up to detonation velocities up to about thirty, thirty-five thousand
feet a second, you see. If I can put this bullet through this barrel
and then I could squeeze the barrel around, see, peristaltic action,
sort of having to squeeze, that it would accelerate the bullet. And
if I had an accelerating detonation wave in here, that then that would
accelerate the bullet to a higher velocity.
Well, when I finally got one of them going 10,000 feet a second, I
think, one day, but then the explosive charge would get big and they
were rattling everybody's cage, for one thing. And then I couldn't
do it every time. But I had a tremendous amount of research I had
to do as to how you can build something which has an accelerating
detonation wave that starts out at the velocity that it enters the
barrel and comes all the way out to the end, then make sure that that
thing, that that wave is traveling normal to the axis so that it squeezes
uniformly. Well, the barrels used to come out and they were nothing
but a solid rod afterwards, you see.
I kind of got out of that business, because I didn't have anyplace
to work anymore. I was going to try to get it up, go up past 10,000
feet a second, which would have meant that I'd have been dealing with,
you know, quite a few pounds of super high explosives. That people
didn't like to hear, the glass rattling around there.
So I developed a pretty good insight into how explosives work and
how I could build things where I could get actually an equilibrium
detonation velocity which is as low as—it's very difficult to
get it as low as 5,000 feet a second, actually. We worked out all
the techniques for that, and that was one of the places that I learned
an awful lot about explosives, about high explosives there, about
the theory of high explosives and things. That's the pyrotechnics
With the Mercury solid rockets, you mentioned the launch escape system.
Where did the concept for that using a tractor rocket to pull the
Woody [Willard S.] Blanchard [Jr.] is the one who came up with that.
Actually, the kid who Max used to fly model airplanes with over at—he
came to work for us. Woody had been a B-54 pilot in Italy, I guess,
during the war and he finished school after me and went to VPI [Virginia
Polytechnic Institute & State University], I guess, and finished
school after the war. He came to work for us as soon as he got out
of school. He had the idea for a tow rocket, you see, put the horse
before the cart, you see, because one of the big problems you have
trying to boost things which have wings is that you have to have very,
very large fins on the booster, you see, because that's like canards
on the airplane, you have to have some oversetting moments in the
back so it doesn't flip.
We were getting some kind of models that looked like they were going
to have large lifting surfaces in one plane, you see, which is real
bad. Symmetrical things are much easier to handle than non-symmetrical
things, just like the Shuttle. Although we actually had flown similar
configurations to the Shuttle back in the fifties, early fifties,
probably, that particular piggyback configuration is not foreign to
us, but it was very difficult, much more difficult to do than just
flying with the fin. But we almost had to do it because the fins were
getting so big and heavy, it was cutting down on performance.
So Woody got the idea of towing it. So what he did is, I got a couple
of rockets and we tied them together and I cannoned the nozzles out
and I built him a little pyrotechnic of a cable to pull it and then
the cable had a little pyrotechnic device that would separate it,
you see. So the tow booster was Woody's idea and that's where the
idea came from. We flew some of those at Wallops Island. By the way,
they worked. It's one of those ideas, fad didn't catch on real well,
but it did come up when the Mercury Program came up and we wanted
to get the Mercury capsule off. How are you going to get it off? So
the tow booster that Woody conceived of is where the idea came, where
Max got the idea for the launch escape system.
Fortunately we never had to use it during manned flight, but tests
Well, we did have an inadvertent firing where it worked great.
Out at White Sands, as I recall, I believe, on one of the Big Joes,
I think. We had a Big Joe came apart, I believe, and the launch escape
system worked like it was supposed to.
You know, that's another system, too, by the way, that has to work
all the time. It can't work when you don't want it to work. It has
to work all the time. If you don't get it off, you lost the whole
thing, the crew and everybody. So pyrotechnic device is something
that you have to be real careful with.
Well, it's interesting because on Gemini they didn't have the launch
That's because Chamberlin didn't want one and he got his way.
Could you tell us about that story?
Well, I don't know the whole story. All I know is Jim wasn't buying
into a launch escape system, though, and I think he—I'm not
sure whether they—I think they had ejection seats on Gemini.
Yes. He's an old aircraft type, you see, and all the things he designed
had ejection seats. I'd rather take my chances with the launch escape
rocket, but Chamberlin's the one who insisted it be that way. And
he was program manager, I guess, at the time, so he got his way on
that one. Fortunately, never had to use any of them. I just don't
think I'd like to have to bail out of that thing with one of those.
Jim's the one that—that's why Gemini had ejection seats.
Did you have a lot of involvement with Gemini in general?
No, not that much, actually. You see, Gemini was a transitional thing
and I was still back at Langley pretty much when Gemini was conceived.
I did have an awful lot to do with the reaction control systems on
Gemini, actually, because they were both being done on two separate—Apollo
reaction control system on the command modules very similar to the
Gemini and they were diverging. When I first came down here, Gilruth
said, "Get those things back together again."
Then I had a lot of trouble. Walter [F.] Burke wanted to start the
McDonnell Propulsion Company up there, because he didn't think Rocketdyne
was doing a good enough job, you see. Walter was one of the real great
guys in this business. He was just as honest as the day is long. Wonderful
person. He'd also been in charge of manufacturing, vice president
of manufacturing for McDonnell-Douglas before he got to work on the
Mercury Program. So he had the idea he could build these things better
than Rocketdyne, actually. I don't doubt he could have, but I couldn't
see getting another new outfit in the business. I thought we could
get Rocketdyne to straighten up and fly right.
So I did get involved in that to some extent, the cryogenic storage
and supply system, but those things were pretty well—they were
done in an adequate way. The fuel cell was in terrible shape, and
we did get involved in a little bit of that activity.
Gemini was really run, it was a totally different program, it was
run totally different from any other operation we ever had around
here. It was not a team effort. They wanted to be across the street.
You could take the Gemini Program and move it across the street, as
though the center didn't exist, is the way they wanted to run it.
Later on, I guess, it changed a little bit when [Charles M.] Mathews
started running it, I guess. I saw some changes in the operation from
the way Chamberlin was involved with it when Mathews took over.
Any thoughts on the paraglider or parasail for Gemini?
No. I know a good bit about parasails, actually. I say "a good
bit." About the history of them. They were invented by Francis
[M.] Rogallo at Langley. Frank and his wife used to manufacture these
kites in their attic, and they used to roll them up in cardboard baling
tubes and they used to take them over to Virginia Beach during the
summer and sell those things as kites to kids, is what they used to
do. That's how the Rogallo thing got started. He was head of the seven-by-ten-foot
wind tunnel, you see. I guess he got involved. They decided they wanted
something that wasn't going to come straight down, but that they'd
be able to kind of maneuver a little bit.
I don't know. We did some tests on it at White Sands. I got involved
in retrorockets and things like that on some of the things that set
down when they were running some tests out at White Sands. I don't
have any opinions about it. I mean, it was a good kite for kids to
fly. First-class kite, in fact.
Well, obviously it never made it to the flight stage on Gemini.
No, it didn't. There are a lot of things, you know, they're not bad
ideas, but they're just not good enough to last long. I think of all
the things that—so many of the things that people started that
sounded good at the beginning, some reason or another didn't fly.
Some things we've been working on for fifty years and we still haven't
gotten there yet.
Sort of like Dyna-Soar, you see. Dyna-Soar eventually got—the
Shuttle's a Dyna-Soar. Max don't like me to say that, but the Shuttle
is nothing but a big Dyna-Soar, exactly. It's launched into orbit
and it glides back in and it lands. That's what Dyna-Soar is supposed
to do, except this is bigger.
The thing that happened, while we were doing Mercury, Gemini, Apollo,
and all these other programs, we developed all the technology that
Dyna-Soar needed, that we knew Dyna-Soar was going to need, you see,
in order to be able to fly.
See, you get all these wonderful ideas. I see a billion of them, not
a billion, but millions of them, hundreds of them, coming around all
the time. People have these wonderful ideas about how they're going
to do things. Well, most of them are scientist types, they're far-out
thinkers, but in order for things to happen, there's a lot of "collateral
technology." There are a lot of things down beneath the surface
that have to constantly come up and they all have to be ready when
you're ready to do this thing.
You see, I see this astronaut over here talking about these super
space propulsion systems, you see. Well, he's working on the wrong
end of the machine, you see. We know those things ought to be able
to work, but where's the energy coming from? See? You can't do anything
at all. You can work on those things until you're blue in the face,
but until you have the energy system, which can provide the energy
to make the thing work, you can forget about it. You're just whistling
Dixie, you see. It's very premature. You ought to be putting
your money on the other part. We do that all the time, you see, in
response to ideas people have.
You can't force technology, see. The big mistake, the reason things
cost so much is people—there was a mind-set in this country
started by, I guess, Benny Schriever some of the people back in the
early Air Force days is that you take on an impossible task, you see,
that you know ain't going to work the first time, but what you're
going to do is you get it going and then you find out that you're
missing all this technology. So what you're going to have to do is
develop the technology to make that work. So in order to do that,
you got to get more money, you see. You got to authorize more and
more, so you kind of use that kind of as bait. Then you bring the
technology along that allows you to do the thing you said you could
do already that you know you can't do. There's too much of that goes
It's one of the reasons why at least my part of the Shuttle was so
successful, there was nothing new in it. It's all the same stuff we
had in Apollo. A few new things, but they are things, by the way,
that I had had money to do research on, not with the pressure of a
program saying it has to happen now, but that I could do research
on, so that by the time the program says we need it, I had it ready,
you see. That's the cheap way of doing it, you see. I don't have to
worry about all the paperwork and I don't have to worry about all
the inspections, I don't have to worry about all that stuff that all
costs a lot of money. I do it off-line and then what you do when the
technology is ready, then it lets you do the things you want to do.
That's one of the big mistakes we make all the time, I think, is not
doing things that way.
The best example I know is the fuel cell on the Shuttle compared to
the Apollo fuel cell and the OMS [orbital maneuvering system] engine
there. We talked about reusable rocket engines. Well, OMS engines
have been flying forever, you see, and it's totally reusable. The
fuel cells are at least ten times as good for the same size as the
Apollo fuel cells were, ten times as good in many ways, you see. The
first thing is they can produce ten times the amount of power. The
lifetime is about ten times as long as the Apollo was. The other thing
is, from an operational standpoint, if you want to use them, you turn
the switch on, and if you don't want to use them, you turn the switch
off, you see.
Well, Apollo it took twelve hours to start and twenty-four hours to
shut down, you see. Then for every three of them you built, you only
flew two, because you always screwed one of them up in the process
of either starting it up or shutting it down.
I had a very interesting conversation with Pratt & Whitney, who
developed the fuel cell, a guy named Stu Conley [phonetic] over at
my house one night telling him what he was going to have to do and
what was important about fuel cell design, because, to me, the Apollo,
while it worked and it did its job there, it was certainly very, very
deficient in many of the things I thought they ought to have. One
of them was ease of operation. Turn it on, turn it off. You don't
get instant results. You turn it on, it takes a little while for it
come up, but it's a very short period of time, but you don't have
to worry about it, about it failing when you try to start up. When
you turn the switch, you don't have to worry about it failing when
you shut it down.
Then the OMS technology we developed, we paid for, was what they call
platelet technology and that's where you make the injectors by a series
of little thin plates that you do photo etching all the little things
and then you diffusion bond the things together, actually.
See, I might not have known an awful lot about liquid rockets when
I came down here, but it didn't take me long to figure out what was
wrong with them. The biggest problem with the Apollo liquid rocket
design was the fact that the rocket injector is like a carburetor
on an internal combustion engine. It's got to mix the fuel with the
oxidizer and it's got to do it in a very efficient way. In a rocket
engine, the injectors are something which you bring both the fuel
and the oxidizers down from the tanks and they go over into some circular
passage, and then it finally winds up in little holes that are usually
pointed at each other or something like that, you see. It should be
a precision piece of hydraulic machinery, that it should do exactly
what the design intends it to do.
What they kind of overlooked is that fuel comes down, you see, and
it changes direction, it accelerates the flow and the pressures change
so that the difference in pressure distribution so every hole in there
is going to see something different in the flow velocity. If the holes
are this way, the velocity going in the direction, or this way it's
the opposite direction of it. So none of these—hardly any of
these things behaved the same way, you see.
Then to worsen that, they drill the holes—they weld the injectors
up, and in the process of welding you get weld splatter all over and
sometimes you drill a hole that's got a little weld bead right next
to it. Then you drill the holes with drills and the drills have burrs,
you know, as they come through they get a little lip on it or something
like that. So it's not a precision piece of hydraulic machinery at
all. It's kind of catch as catch can that each one of these things
behaves a little different.
So we used to go through injector after injector design. Fundamentally
I think what we were doing is we were finding the particular injector
pattern design that was more resistant to all the flaws in the flow.
Well, we changed all of that, actually, in one program. It's when
we had the LM [lunar module] program, we had a problem with the LM
ascent engine, and we decided we were going to go get a backup, and
we started manufacturing in a totally different fashion. We used electron
beam welding to weld the things, get rid of the weld splatter. The
other thing we used is the process of electro machining, actually,
where you use a high-frequency electric arc to nibble away at the
materials. They're an electrical discharge, discharge machine. You
get very consistent holes with no burrs on the end or anything else,
so that you do have a—and then you take a good look at the other
aspects of the injector design. Consequently, you get something that
behaves the way the designer designed it to behave. Then you'd have
a baseline to start doing your studies with.
Those are some of the improvements that we made in the way you manufacture
things to get them where they are a little bit more precise, actually.
That was a big difference, actually, in the whole philosophy of how
you go about things, designing and manufacturing things.
Well, if we could, we'd like to pause so we can change the tape.
We were just talking about the manufacturing on the injectors, and
you had mentioned that there were some problems with the ascent engine
on the LM. Could you tell me about that a little bit?
Well, of all the rocket engines we had there, the one, I think, we
made—I don't know if it was an arbitrary decision or not, but
the one that was going to have to be the most reliable was the LM
ascent injector, you see. I don't know whether you call it psychological
or political, but if we got all the guys down on the moon, the worst
situation, scenario we could come up with is that you can't get them
back, or you wouldn't get them back, you see.
One of the things that plagues a lot of rocket engines is combustion
instability, you see. It's the ability, if you get a little disturbance
for that thing to damp, it will return back to its original conditions
in the engine. A lot of them, if you disturb it, then they go into
cyclic combustion, and that generally results in a lot of problems.
Sometimes it results in more throat erosion, sometimes it eats the
walls of the chamber up, sometimes you get excessive heat in areas
where it melts parts and things like that. So it's the additional
high heat transfer rates that go along with that.
Bell was having some problems. We had a very, very strict criteria
that you had to meet. What you had to do is you had to put basically
a little explosive charge, which would give it this certain type of
disturbance of a certain intensity and shock, basically. Then you
started this response to that disturbance. Well, if it doesn't damp,
or it doesn't—very quickly there, that's some indication that
you could have some problems with it. Bell's injector there was still
having problems pretty late in the different types of instabilities.
There are two types of instability. One of them is you get pressure
variations in the manifold that actually feeds back and that's low-frequency
instabilities, and then you have high-frequency instabilities, which
are characteristic of the dimensions of the chamber and the properties
of the gas in there. It's sort of like an organ pipe, basically, or
like an oboe or something, where you change frequencies. On oboe,
you finger. You don't change the frequency in rockets. Although we
used to do that in solid rockets, by the way, is that's the way we
handled it, we'd drill radial holes in it. We had a lot of other techniques
to handle the solid rockets that you really don't have available in
liquid rockets, actually.
We couldn't get Bell's attention. We couldn't get Grumman or Bell's
attention on this, and it was getting late in the game. Since we couldn't
get their attention, we didn't know what we were going to do about
it, you see. They wanted to dismiss the thing, and we decided, well,
we really need to get something we have absolute confidence in, so
we decided we'd go out and get a backup.
George [M. Low], Bob Gilruth and I, and Joe [Joseph G.] Gavin had
been up to Bell, I guess. We flew a Gulfstream up to Grumman and had
a meeting up there and then we went up to Bell. I didn't think we
were getting anywhere as a result of all these conversations. George
asked me what should we do about it. I said, "Well, let's go
get a backup." He wanted to know how long it was going to take
and how much money it was going to cost, and I gave him my best estimate
right on the airplane. I said, "We can do it in about a year
and it can cost us about a million dollars a month," because
I'd taken a look.
The way you make estimates is based on your experience. You know about
how much it costs for a man year, for you to hire a company with their
overhead, you see, and you've got a pretty good idea how many people
you're going to have to put to work on it and stuff like that. I knew
about how many man years that would buy me, for example, at that particular
time. So I told him a year and 12 million dollars. He says, "Well,
when can you have someone on contract?" I said, "Well, we've
got to go through the whole source board, you know." I said,
"Give me thirty days to run a whole source evaluation."
I wanted to have bidders' briefings, and, number two, write a set
of specifications, send them out to the bidders, come have bidders'
briefing. Get proposals in. You evaluate the proposals and then go
up to headquarters and be ready to get the administrator's decision,
since it was enough money that he was going to have to decide.
That had never been done before and it's never going to be done again,
because we had Cecil [R.] Gibson wrote me a set of specs. It took
him about two days to write those set of specs. By the end of the
week, I had a bidders' briefing down here for the contractors. Picked
up the phone, called one of my buddies in the rocket business and
said, "Hey, this is what our intention is, this is what we intend
to do. Are you interested in bidding on it?" He said, "Yeah."
I told him, "We're going to have a bidders' briefing, if you
want to come down to the bidders' briefing."
We gave them a week to prepare the proposals and told them, "You're
going to limit your proposal to seventy-five pages. That's all we're
going to allow you and we're going to take a week to evaluate it,
So we did that whole job. George got me on [James E.] Webb's calendar,
says, "If you're going to do it, I'll get you on his calendar."
I went through that whole process from cradle to grave, getting a
decision from the administrator, in probably about thirty-two, thirty-three
days, actually. You don't do things—there's no one ever did
that and no one will ever do that again.
Number one, I had the entire support of the entire system there. Number
two, I didn't have to report to anybody. You see, source boards, they
used to have a little blue manual to show you how to manage a source
board, and they gave the source board chairman, he was almost God.
You had all sorts of freedom to do—the sole purpose of the source
board or source evaluation is to get the best deal for the United
States Government, not what someone tells you is going to be the best
deal, but what you feel is going to be the best deal, you see.
Some of those proposals were some of the best I'd seen, by the way.
Seventy-five pages. There wasn't a lot of boilerplate or anything
else, and it told you how they were going to design the thing, how
they were going to go about it, and who was going to run the job,
The interesting thing is that the president of Rocketdyne came down.
He said, "We have a question-and-answer period." The way
you ran a source board back in those days is, after you viewed the
proposal, you made a bunch of notes about questions you had about
it. I don't know whether I did it the way everybody else did it, but
I felt that what you do is you tell the people, "These are the
questions we're going to ask everybody, identical questions for everybody
who proposed, you see, so you'll know that. Then there's some specific
questions we're going to ask you, which is strictly related to your
proposal." I said, "We want you to bring whatever key people
you want who are going to answer these questions."
Well, Sam Hoffman came down as president of Rocketdyne, the only one
of the guys that high up in the organization. When Sam walked by,
he said, "You know, this is really refreshing." He says,
"You know, I been bidding on jobs for the United States Government
as long as I've been at Rocketdyne, and this is the first time I've
ever had an opportunity to talk to the people face-to-face about my
proposal and what they're concerned about." He said, "I
really like that."
So that was something that I thought was kind of unusual, that we
did business that way. By the way, I didn't think Rocketdyne was going
to get it. I thought Aerojet was a shoo-in for the job, by the way.
Aerojet didn't think we were serious, I believe, because I remember
Aerojet's the only one who wanted a bidders' debriefing, you see.
Bob Young was president of Aerojet. Bob had been in charge of the
Saturn Program at one time, and he went back to Aerojet. He said he
wanted to know how come they didn't get the contract.
So I was talking to the local rep, and I said, "Well, ask him
how he wants it. Does it want the lawyers, does he want a group of
people, or how does he want to do it? Would he like to come and talk
to me with a cup of coffee? He can bring one other guy with him."
Finally, Bob said, "Yes, a cup of coffee and one other guy would
be all right."
We came down and we talked about the contract, and it turned out he
didn't think we were serious and he didn't put very good people on
the job. He finally got to where he looked at me and the light shined,
he says, "Well, you know, I'm the one who misread it."
So we had the whole rest of the day, he couldn't fly out till that
afternoon. I said, "Well, what can I do for the rest of the day?"
I said, "Let's go play some golf." So we went out and we
played a round of golf. He had a little putt about that long and he
missed it. I said, "Bob, that's how come you lost the contract.
You misread the green." [Laughter]
Now when you have a debriefing there, you know, you've got to have
a battery of lawyers and a million people. It's the biggest mess I
ever saw. Fortunately I've never had to handle one of those, but I've
been on some source boards where someone else was chairman, where
they had to handle all this stuff. Two of them in particular, I guess,
the two biggest we had, the SSME [space shuttle main engine] and the
SRB were two of them that had a big protest. But no one protested
this little job, this job we had. I've never been involved in a protest
on any of the boards that I've personally chaired.
In this particular example it seems like an amazing amount of time
to get that type of job done, but looking at the bigger picture, of
course, getting a man to the moon in the amount of time given before
the end of the decade was certainly a remarkable achievement. Do you
remember your thoughts when President Kennedy made the announcement
that we would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade?
No. Well, I'd seen challenging things done before. You know, I didn't
have any doubts we could do it. You just let us go at it, you know.
I didn't think it was stupid or anything like that. He just pulled
that out of a hat, by the way, you see. It's the thing to do. He didn't
have any idea. He shook up Gilruth a little bit, but, you know, Bob
was going to be responsible for the whole thing.
Well, we did it. What else can you say? And we did it on time. We
had the kind of support from the administration and the public that
I had back at Langley as a young engineer working at Langley is what
we had, you see. I always had that kind of support. The reason I retired
is I no longer had that support here at JSC [Johnson Space Center],
you see. For me, it quit being fun anymore, so I decided I might as
well go out, you know and do my thing, whatever it is, or do nothing,
if I choose to do it. But I was spending more time trying to get authorization
to do the things I knew needed to be done than I was doing them, and
that was kind of a negative reaction on my part. I couldn't keep that
What do you think the biggest technical challenge you faced in getting
Apollo to the moon?
The biggest technical challenge.
From the perspective of your division specifically.
The biggest one. Well, they all seemed about equal. I don't know.
I didn't think there was anything as being bigger than any of the
other ones. We kind of rolled with the punches. We did things and
we saw which way it was leading us and then we took action to get
it back on track again.
The biggest challenge? Well, the biggest challenge was in getting
Apollo to the moon. I would think of the biggest challenges are the
type of people problems you have, not within my own organization,
but dealing with people out in the industry, actually. Then the local
project office on occasions, too, by the way. Not Apollo, no. George
Low was super. I can't say about [Joseph] Shea, but George was no—there
was no problem in dealing with Low. Low was great and Gilruth was
great. But there are some people, some people who I dealt with out
in industry and other people who were problem areas, that's all.
Did you find that a particular company was more difficult to work
with than another?
Well, the best company I ever worked with was McDonnell-Douglas, actually,
period. They were kind of unique in that they were in St. Louis and
they were kind of the only aerospace outfit in St. Louis, you see
and they had a kind of loyalty. The people that they had had been
used to working together for long periods of time. When they cut down,
they'd drop people off, but they were always the first ones who hired
the experienced people, you see. They had a camaraderie that was different
from the other companies, actually.
Walter Burke was a prince of a guy and he was accessible to everybody
in the organization, you know. Anybody could talk to Walt. Walter
knew everybody. He wasn't just sitting in the little ivory tower there,
where everybody had to go to the secretary and get permission to talk
to Walter, you see. Anybody in the organization, Walter knew who they
were, you know. In fact, he knew everybody in the manufacturing line.
I never went to McDonnell-Douglas where Walter didn't grab me and
say, "Let's go out in the shop." He'd go out in the shop
and he'd say, "Hey, Joe, how's Mary doing?" Joe would get
the old wipes and wipe his greasy hands and he'd shake hands with
Walter. Walt said, "Let me see [unclear]." He'd talk about
things and he'd walk all through the whole plant. They had a very,
very—looked like a very efficient manufacturing operation, you
When you'd talk to some of his people, he'd say, in essence, if you
questioned them, they'd say, "Well, I can't tell you that. Walter
told me that we're not ready to talk about that yet." They wouldn't
give you any facetious answer or try to lead you around. That told
me, hey, maybe if I don't like the answer, I'll go talk to Walter
about it, you see, which was real nice, you see, that they were honest
people, is what they were.
Other people, other organizations, there was no company loyalty at
all, you know. On the West Coast generally, there was a bunch of job
jumpers there. The contracts were changing all the time and people
moving around, and I didn't see any of that type of loyalty amongst
some of the employees, actually.
Some outfits were pretty good. I liked Rocketdyne. Mr. Sam Hoffman
was one of the finest guys I know. He was honest as the day is long
and he was a straight-shooter, period. You could trust Sam. You had
no problems trusting Sam, period. Sam always did what he agreed to
do, whether you had a contract or not, at least when I was working
with him on the ascent engine. He also told me the ascent engine was
the finest contract he ever had with the United States Government,
too. Said he made every cent of profit he bargained for, and he said
it was the finest contracts he ever had. Dollar-wise, he said, it
was piddling. He said he had billion-dollar contracts, that's just
a little 12-million-dollar thing. A drop in the bucket. But he said,
"It's the best contract I ever had."
Certainly something for you to be proud of, having put it together.
Yes. Well, in fact, the whole organization should be proud of, because
the reason the program succeeded is because everybody in the program
office thought it would fail, by the way. [Laughter] Not George. I'm
talking about the other people in the program office. Consequently,
I never got any help. It turns out that they assigned one guy, I guess,
in the program office who stuck with me, and he was the kind of planning
and program type of guy. He was an Air Force guy. Dennis Johnson.
We did things different on that job from what anybody else does, in
order to make it work. We have all this paper, more or less, we have
a change control board, you see. So the first thing we had is we had
to have a change control board. The account was so small there that
nobody in program office wanted a manage change control board, so
they told Max, "You run the change control board." Knowing
Max, Max don't mess with stuff like that. He says, "Guy, you
run the change control board." I says, "Great."
So we ran the change control board on the floor of Rocketdyne, is
where we ran the change control board, with the two guys who were
responsible to me were getting the job done. There was a guy name
Bill Liston [phonetic] and Cecil Gibson down here. They were the change
control board. They got together with Rocketdyne and they decided
the changes and they authorized the changes.
The other thing Sam told me, he says, "You know, you technical
guys take a lot of credit for a contract, but what you had, you had
one of the best contracting officers I've ever dealt with." He
says, "The reason he was a great contracting officer is that
the paperwork always followed the decision." You see, "I
could decide, but I knew the paperwork would follow and I would be
covered." He said, "I could trust." He says, "My
own people didn't trust him, and they told me, 'Hey, Sam, you can't
do this. You don't have the contract. You don't have the change.'"
Sam says, "We're going to go ahead and do it anyway."
So he trusted us and he trusted the contractor. Unfortunately, because
of what [William M.] Chastain did, they put nasty letters in his 201
file about him doing things that he wasn't supposed to do here. I
had to write glowing tributes to Chastain to put in his 201 file to
counteract some of that stuff, you see, because he was doing things
as we wanted them done.
I'll never forget the first—oh, there was a couple others, some
other interesting stories. First day I went out after we got the contract
underway there, Rocketdyne came by, says, "You know, there's
one thing we overlooked. That facility we have out at Reno, it's just
not capable of testing an engine this big." He says, "We're
going to have to do something about that."
So we asked him, "Well, what are you going to have to do about
They told us. "How much money you want for it?"
"Go ahead. Start now," you see. And those types of decisions
they got were really great.
The guy running the program was an Air Force general, Bolender, Carroll
[H.] Bolender, "Rip." Rip was a kind of interesting character.
He had been running Air Force projects. All during this process of
making decisions on the ascent engine with Rocketdyne, Rip came to
every meeting we had.
The other thing, Charlie [Charles M.] Duke was the astronaut who was
assigned to work with us, and Charlie's one of the real great guys
I admire as an astronaut. So Rip used to go to all these meetings,
but Rip never attended the meeting, you see. Rip would get out there,
and pretty soon the phone would ring and Rip would be on the phone
here. He's coordinating twelve-, fifteen-page telegrams and he's doing
all this other stuff on there. And he's missing the meeting, you see.
He calls me and says, "Hey, I want to go to the plant at two
o'clock. I want to see how it goes." I says, "Go."
[Laughter] I wasn't going to go with him. I wasn't going to look at
no plant at two o'clock in the morning.
Every meeting he was in, he was on the phone all the time, so he was
riding back on an airplane one night, coming back, he says, "Hey,
how do you think I'm running the program?"
I said, "I'm glad you asked me. I'm the only guy who would tell
He says, "What do you mean?"
I said, "How in the hell did you ever get to be a general?"
He said, "What?"
I Said, "I thought a general knew how to delegate responsibility
and authority." I said, "You know, you come to all these
meetings and you're supposed to be paying attention to what's going
on, and you're on the phone all the time coordinating all these damn
papers and telegrams and letters. Do you ever hear me get a phone
He says, "No."
I said, "Good reason for that." I said, "I've got a
guy you call the deputy back there, and when I'm out of town, he takes
care of everything. So why don't you go get you a deputy."
Well, he went back, and Owen [E.] Morris became his deputy. After
that, he never attended another meeting. So there are things that
are kind of funny little things that happened like that, kind of amusing
You mentioned Charlie Duke. What sort of input did the astronauts
have, and how valuable did you feel their contributions were in your
He was very supportive. We needed his support, actually. They were
going to fly the thing. George Low was looking for astronaut office
support. They gave Charlie— Charlie goes talks to them about
what’s generally going on. He was the spokesman for the whole
crew. Likewise, he had a desk in my division, in fact. He was over
there all the time. He attended every meeting we had, participated
in the meetings. He was the only astronaut we had.
[Charles C.] Pete Conrad [Jr.] used to come to meetings for social
occasions there three years ago when he was assigned to it, but I
don't recall Pete ever spending an awful lot of time at that. But
Charlie participated in the meetings. He asked questions and he was
a real participant. He was pretty much living with us as much as he
could during that time frame, but never missed a meeting, always there.
He's just a nice person. In fact, he's one of the few guys still married
to the same wife, I believe, he and Dottie. He's got a house overlooking
the first hole on Orlando Park Golf Course up in New Braunfels right
now. Charlie, like I say, was a really—lived with us. He was
part of the project. He was a member of the team, a real member of
the team, not just lip service to it.
Fantastic. In the beginning of 1967, obviously, they had the Apollo
1 fire. What was the impact of that on your division? What are your
thoughts on that particular incident?
Well, the impact on the division was I had the only facility capable
of running all the tests there to figure out what went wrong and how
to fix it. I wasn't in charge. By the way, structures and mechanics
division was in charge of it. Dick [Richard W.] Bricker was the guy
in charge of it. He was section head over in structures and mechanics.
But we had the only facilities you could do the work in, you see,
so all the work on Apollo 5, the fireproofing it, to check out the
theories as to what caused it there were all done out at the Thermochemical
Test Area. A group of my people are the ones who did all the effort,
we set up the tests. They were in charge and they told us what they
wanted, but we did fundamentally all the hands-on types of operations
there for that.
We also were doing some work for the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]
on fireproofing airplanes. There used to be an old Boeing 737 fuselage
out there in the Thermochemical Test Area at one time that we used
to do fire tests on, which was a follow-on, actually, as a result
of the work we did on that Apollo fire test. We weren't in charge
of it. We were just the agents of the organization that did the operations
and the testing for them. They wrote the requirements and the data
they required, and we ran the tests for them.
So that's the basic impact on me, anyhow, and, of course, it slowed
things down. But in retrospect, it didn't come as a big surprise.
I think a lot of folks knew that was a problem. I think Joe Shea had
a problem understanding what he was being told. He took it very hard,
which he should have. Joe was the type of person that he had to make
every decision himself; he couldn't let anybody else make any decisions.
He had such a big ego about it.
Gilruth and I and a few others have some opinions about people's backgrounds,
for example. Bob calls them electronickers, you know, and they're
used to dealing with little—not big hardware, but they're used
to dealing with little circuitry and they're very highly mathematical
and everything else, but they don't really know a lot of about mechanical
things, fluid systems, or thermal protection or anything else.
Joe was warned, I believe, but he just wouldn't listen. He was a tough
guy to work for. I could never work for him, in fact. Fortunately,
I worked for Max. Like I say, you could pick who you worked for. I
worked for Max, I worked for Gilruth. I picked who I wanted to work
for, whom I'm going to report to. Joe [Joseph N.] Kotanchik went over.
Shea wanted Kotanchik to go over there, and Kotanchik couldn't take
it. He left after a short period of time. I know other people, the
more competent people I know, who couldn't work for Shea.
A young fellow, Harry [L.] Reynolds, he brought down here to run the
LM program. Well, Harry lasted a few months and went back to California,
saying his wife didn't want to move down here. Harry was a very good
propulsion man, too, by the way. He was good all-around. He'd been
in charge of the nuclear ramjet program, which was a real beast to
try to work on and develop.
In 1968, Apollo finally got off the ground with Apollo 7, and the
next mission, Apollo 8, where they were sending the command service
module to the moon without the lunar module. How did you feel about
that decision, without having that backup?
Didn't bother me a bit. I'd have flown Apollo myself. Shuttle, I don't
think I'd ever get anybody, and I don't know why, but the Apollo I'd
have flown. I'd been willing to ride it as a passenger or anything
else. I had absolute confidence in the Apollo Program.
The Apollo was done pretty much with what I call us, you know. The
NACA people were in charge of the thing, Gilruth, Max, a bunch of
guys who grew up in the environment that we grew up in. I had absolute
confidence in the decision-making capability. I can't say I had that
in too many other programs.
Of course, we didn't have a lot of financial constraints either. That's
the other thing. We went down a lot of—I won't say blind—we
did a lot of things we didn't need to do. We weren't sure of what
we had to do, but we did a lot of things we didn't need to do. Like
these ideas you get to where you go off on tangents, you know, and
you find out, no, that's not what you really want. So we did a lot
of work, collateral work, off line, that didn't show up in the program,
and for good reasons. Everything wasn't perfect. We made a lot of
mistakes, but we didn't make any of them that kept us from getting
to the moon, except once.
Yes, we didn't make any mistake that kept from getting to the moon.
Do you remember where you were when you finally did make it to the
moon, when Apollo 11 landed?
Yes, I was in the viewing room over in Mission Control. I had a lot
of folks living over there. I had some reporters living over at my
house, the spillover there, asked us if we could furnish a room for
some of them, I guess. Me and my wife had a lot of guests over there,
I guess, relatives who wanted to be close to the action. I don't know.
[Laughter] But I was in the viewing room when Apollo 11 landed.
What were your feelings at the time?
Well, I was just happy as hell. I mean, why not?
We finally did it, you know. Gilruth said after 11 he wanted to can
the program. He was finished with it. He said, "It's all just
a waste of time and money to keep on going back to the moon."
He might be right, I don't know, you know.
Did you sense that there might be some waning interest in Apollo after
the first landing?
Yes, it was downhill from then. Yes, it had to be downhill from there,
you know. That's the pinnacle and everything. It's a tough act to
follow. You do it once, and, like Gilruth said, why do you want to
do it again? He was ready to quit Mercury after John [H.] Glenn [Jr.]
flew. He said, "Why would you want to do it again? Let's get
on with something else."
I don't know if you've ever read his interviews on the National Air
and Space Museum. He had six of them there that he did. The last ones,
I can see Alzheimer's coming in in his last few, you know, as he progressed
there. I can tell that he was a little bit slower on the uptake and
he's got to be questioned a little bit extra about a lot of things.
But I think they ended in '87, as I recall, they did the last interview.
We did things out of sequence, is what happened. Kennedy got us in
trouble by getting us to do the big thing first, and then, you know,
it's kind of a tough act to follow when you get down to it, as far
as manned operations go. If I'd have been doing it, in charge, the
next thing we'd have been doing is we'd have been building a colony
on the moon, you see, not going back to a Space Station. That would
have been a big challenge, you see, because we—well, I'm not
too sure the agency could do that.
The biggest problem is the mind-set people have these days. You see,
when we colonized the country going from the East Coast to the West
Coast, we didn't have to have Howard Johnson's and hotels, you know,
the Holiday Inns and everything else for those people to stay at.
Well, the way we want to run this program is we have to do that way.
See, the astronauts should have been in the infantry in World War
II and they'd have learned a little bit about some things that people
don't understand. In fact, everybody should have been there. You learn
things about trust and camaraderie, and you learn how privacy is so
damned unimportant, you know. [Laughter] When you live in adverse
situations there, you get down to the fundamentals, you see.
In my wartime experiences I lived amongst a bunch of very primitive
people where survival was the name of the game, when you really get
down to it. It was different when I went to school, in fact. When
I went to school, you see, my total college education cost my father
$1,040 out of his pocket, the entire thing, and then I earned whatever
it was to make up the difference, you see. The difference is I never
had less than three roommates and I lived in a little room that was
about this big and it had two double-decker bunks, it had a table
and four chairs, it had four lockers on the wall, it was bare. It
didn't have air-conditioning, it didn't have none of that stuff. We
had a communal bathroom across the hall, because that's—and
there's absolutely nothing wrong.
Everybody wants their own room and they all sorts of stuff that goes
on these days. They've got to have a car. They can't do anything these
days. They got to have all these—it'd be real nice to put everybody
in the same situation as I grew up in, and they'd a learn a few things
about the fundamentals of life that I don't see anybody learning these
days. You learn what's important and what's not important real quick.
Sure. Well, getting back to Apollo, during actual flight operations
did you have any involvement with the flights at all?
Not personally, no. I had a whole group of people in Building 45.
That's where the brains of the operation is. It ain't in flight operations,
by the way. All the subsystem managers and the people who started
out with the thing from the concept of where it started through all
design, development and know everything about every test phase and
operation, all the real knowledge of the systems rests right there.
Whenever anything happens there that nobody else can handle, they
have to call up 45 and they talk to the people in 45. So that's fundamentally
what—so I had relatively little to do except to go relax in
the viewing room and watch the operations for a while until they got
boring, and then go do something else I was supposed to do.
What about during Apollo 13? Did you have involvement with that?
[Laughter] Yes, I was very heavily involved in that, yes. I was up
in Washington when that happened. We were doing a source evaluation
board on Phase B Shuttle studies, I believe, and I was up there when
that came apart. I got a call and came home immediately. Bob Gilruth
was—first thing I did, I got involved in taking a look at everything
that went wrong and why it went wrong, you see. They had a great big
investigative board, I guess. Ed [Edgar M.] Cortright, I believe,
was in charge of that. They had every center director on the board,
Hans Mark, Jack Clark. Who else? I'm not sure. They had this big board
to try to figure out what went wrong.
We were the ones that figured out what went wrong and fixed it, actually.
We were responsible for it. They had people from all over, Marshall
people down here. William Rosnick [phonetic] was kind of chief engineer
at Marshall, he came down. He took one look, he says, "We don't
need to be here." He says, "You've got everything you need
and you know what you're doing." He said, "We're going home."
He never came back.
I'm convinced if I had sent my subsystem manager, Shelby [L.] Owens,
down there that would have never happened. I'm absolutely convinced.
We always had a struggle with the Cape people. They never wanted us
around for some reason or other. They said, "We're big boys and
we can handle everything. We don't need you down here." We were
getting a little tight on travel, and we were trying to handle all
these problems over the telephone, actually. I think if I had insisted
that George send Shelby down there, he'd have picked that up and could
have figured that whole thing out.
It was a funny sequence of three or four things we stacked up that
were not very probable that it would happen. It goes back to a long
time ago when somebody made a decision on putting the kind of heater
they put in there and then putting the kind of thermostatic switch
there to make sure that they didn't get overheating in the tank. Plus
some real bad decisions by the Cape, actually.
The biggest problem I have with the Cape, particularly [G.] Merritt
Preston, I guess, always wanted to run tests on everything, flight
test everything down at the Cape, you see. He wanted to pre-flight
them, take the Apollo command service module and have it tested, and
fire that one before it launched. Well, the first one he tested, he
screwed up. When it flew, it had a failure, actually, as a result
of the testing, by the way. He wanted to test all the lunar modules.
I finally got my way when I told him, "No, we ain't gonna do
that." So we didn't do that.
The reason the thing failed is that they had to run one of these tests
they call a countdown demonstration test, where they roll the whole
thing out to the pad and then they put all the fluids in and check
everything out, the loading and the servicing and everything else.
Then they detank it and roll it back, you see. Well, I guess that's
all right to check out the GIC, but the basic problem was, there was
a flaw in the tank, one problem we had, and the other problem was
procedural errors there.
The tank has a standpipe that comes down to the bottom and there's
a little elbow in there that's made out of Teflon that goes into the
fill and drain thing. That little elbow was loose; it didn't fit tight
on there. Normally the cryogens in the tank normally are set up to
what they call a super critical state. They're basically a very, very
dense gas, is what they are. As soon as you drop the pressure, it
all reverts back to a liquid. The way you detank is you put pressure
on the top of the liquid and you push it down and you push it out
that pipe, you see. Well, if the pipe is broken up at the top, you
don't push down on it, you push it out the pipe.
So the only way they had to get rid of it is to boil it out. They
start to boil it out in the normal procedure, 28 volts, and it's taking
too damned long to boil it out. So they said, oh, well, let's go look
at the specs on the heater. The heater says it will take a lot more
voltage than that, so if we double the voltage there 56 volts, that
gives us four times as much as energy in the tank and we're going
to get it out four times as fast.
They had this switch in there that was going to tell it to shut the
heater off if it overheated. Well, they didn't realize the switch
wouldn't take 56 volts. So when they put 56 volts on it, it fused
the contacts shut, so that they kept on supplying heat, and long after
the thing had gone out, the temperature in the tank probably got between
six and nine hundred degrees. I'm not sure exactly what the number
is. It damaged the insulation on the wires, is what it did.
What happens is the wires have Teflon around it, Teflon-coated, and
they have oxygen in the tank. Well, one thing most people don't understand
about Teflon, they think it's inert. Teflon's a very powerful oxidizing
agent, you see. I used to use Teflon as an oxidizing agent in rocket
ignitors, for example. Magnesium and Teflon is a great explosive mixture.
Same thing with freon, by the way. People don't understand that either,
you see. They normally think of these as inert. Well, they're not
inert in certain circumstances.
What happens, Teflon and copper will react, for example. Teflon, at
elevated temperatures, will react to things like Teflon and magnesium
blows up, you see. It's a pyrotechnic mixture for setting off rockets,
in fact. They have fans in the tank, actually, to circulate the fluid,
because in zero gravity there you get what you call stratification,
and when you put heat into the heaters there, if there's no swirling
around, it just travels through conduction, you just get a hot gas
bubble that moves around, you see. So in order to get everything the
same temperature, you turn the fan on, it swishes it around and mixes
it, you see.
What happened when they turned the fan on, basically, they got a disturbance
and some of the wires shorted out, and then that started the fire.
The wire came up through the wiring bundle and into a little pipe
we have that all the wires came through with a connector on it. All
that did was actually overheated that in-canal tube to where it couldn't
stand the pressure. The tube is what burst. There was no big explosion.
The problem was a little tube about half-inch in diameter, five-eighths
inch in diameter is what burst. Of course, with full vacuum on one
side and the fact that here it is spewing out this hot gas in there
with oxygen, we had a lot of combustibles inside the bay, and it just
blew the door off, is all that happened. So there was no huge explosion.
We were able to go in a ground test, actually, and almost duplicate
that time line perfectly, actually, and prove beyond a shadow of a
doubt what happened as a result in ground test. It was a brilliant
piece of detective work, with that little information, to be able
to come back and know exactly what happened and why it happened and
The way to fix it was to spend a few bucks on changing one procedure:
don't ever do that that way again. Number two, put a new switch, you
see. Well, of course, it happened before God and everybody and it's
politically incorrect to just make a little fix like that. You've
got to make a big hullabaloo about it, spend lots of money. So we
went and redesigned the guts of the tank, which to most of us technical
folks was totally unnecessary to do that much redesign.
I saw an interview Chris [Kraft] did recently, he agrees with that,
too, and George Low agreed, said, "Ain't nothing I can do. We're
going to have to do more than that to satisfy everybody."
Did you get involved with any earlier studies to use the LM as a lifeboat?
Yes, not studies there. We always knew that was a mode, using the
descent engine, for example, the way we did, and the descent engine
was qualified for all that. We did all the tests on that in anticipation
of something like that happening. So that was no big deal in my way
of looking at it, because we really had planned for the system to
have that capability. It's just nothing new to us, for example, that
it was going to do it. We never thought we'd have to do it.
There are a few things I never thought I'd have to do either. I never
thought I'd have a LM entering the Pacific Ocean, you see, because
I had a big battle with the Atomic Energy Commission over that radioisotope
thermoelectric generator, you see. We got tied up with AEC on development
of that, and they still wanted to do more tests on that thing, you
know, and we were getting ready to fly Apollo 11. We went round and
round over that. I remember talking to some guys, telling them, "Well,
you know, we're not going to go those tests."
"Well, you ain't going to fly it."
I said, "Well, we'll see about that." I says, "You
tell me that Seaborg [phonetic], the head of the Atomic Energy Commission,
and Webb are going to get together and Seaborg's going to say, 'You
ain't going to be able to go to the moon, because I don't think this
thing's ready to fly'?" I said, "It'll be ready to fly."
And it was.
But I could never conceive of that thing ever coming back in the Pacific
Ocean, either. Of course, it didn't break apart or anything. The whole
thing they were worried about was it coming apart and doing all those
extra tests. So that was one big surprise I got.
Then we had another LM landed in Colombia, I guess, where some of
the natives brought some of the cryogenic storage tanks back of the
Colombian jungles there one time.
But those modes of operation had all been thought up beforehand. I
don't know why everybody was surprised about that, and we'd actually
tested the system for that. One of the reasons I told Merritt we're
not going to do any LM testing, I see an awful lot of wasted stuff,
you see. Turns out it's kind of funny, but from an operational viewpoint
there, as soon as the LM is buttoned up on the Apollo, until they
come back ain't nobody touches it. Nobody services it. You can't do
anything about it. You're stuck with it. Since you can't do anything
about it, you have to accept the fact that's the way it is and it's
going to work.
So from the time we loaded it up at the Cape until the time it came
back, there's no operations people, there's nobody can do anything
to it. It's either going to work or it's not going to work. So why
do you have to fire it? I mean, you know, once you fire it on the
moon to see whether it's going to lift off, I mean, it may never get
off. There is certain testing that you have to do, but there comes
a time where you have confidence that what you've done is the right
thing and that you don't need to do anything more.
I know Chuck Mathews never wanted to do any testing on anything after
a certain point. He had a good reason for that. I didn't always agree
with him, but from a programmatic viewpoint, if you find anything
that causes a problem in a condition that it's not going to operate
under, that you don't think you're going to see in a spacecraft, it
causes him problems to try to answer all the press and everybody else
who creeps up out of the woodwork, you see. So you have to be very
careful about the testing you do after you think you're ready, because
you should have found all the problems up to that point.
Chuck never wanted us to do any testing. Kenny [Kenneth S.] Kleinknecht
is that way, too. Kenny was a real guy, too, by the way, to work for.
He probably was one of the best and most experienced program manager
we ever had. He started work on the X-15 and he was involved in Mercury,
Gemini, and Apollo, you see. I don't know why he never got the job
of running the Shuttle Program. He'd probably have been really ideal
to do that. He's a guy I liked to work for. I could choose him to
work for, you see, because he's an old NACA type, too, and he understood
the ways we did business, you see.
With one of the other flights, Apollo 16, there was a little bit of
a problem with the service propulsion system engine, I think a gimbal
problem while they were in lunar orbit. Do you remember anything about
There was an oscillation with the SPS [service propulsion system].
What kind of—I don't remember anything about that. If it was
the gimbal, the gimbals weren't my problem.
See, if for some reason or other there that I—that was the guys
in navigation control, since that took all its input from everything
they had, and their net result reacted to do it, but I didn't do anything
about that, the gimbals. All I did is I had a hard point between the
spacecraft and the engine for it to work, you see, and I always try
to separate things out into where they belong. [Laughter] There's
no reason for me to get involved in that gimbal thing.
There are other reasons, for example, in some systems that I do have
to get involved in, like on the Shuttle, the hydraulic system, the
actuators, I had to worry about that, because we had the entire hydraulic
system, you see, or things like that. The important thing is to design
what I call clean interfaces, you see. If you don't have a clean interface,
it causes nothing but problems, you see.
One of the worst interfaces we ever had is that on the Shuttle, Marshall
has the external tank, you see, and Marshall has the SSME, the Shuttle
main engines. The Shuttle main engines are bolted to the Orbiter and
the tanks bolt to the Orbiter. But all the pieces and everything which
connects those two together is part of the Obiter, and I was responsible
for it, you see. So I got interfaces on both ends. I got the SSME.
We had to have a big committee of us and Marshall and everybody involved,
and all the contractors sit up here and they haggle about who's responsible
for what and who's going to do what and who's going to make what work,
The main propulsion system, we treated the entire thing as the main
propulsion system. I was kind of caught in the middle between the
two Marshall things, actually. Then all the contractors, by the way,
too, so that was a big bag of worms to try to deal with. You know,
dealing with the physical interface is having to deal with the people.
You asked if I had any problem. Yes, the people, just trying to get
people to work together and to recognize their responsibilities. That's
what the big problems are. The technical problems are fairly simple,
in a way, in a lot of ways. You just don't stick your neck too far,
When was the first time you heard the idea of having a Space Shuttle?
What was your involvement with that?
Well, I guess '68 or '69. You're talking "the Space Shuttle,"
yes. It was something that was going to be manned and NASA was going
to do it. Yes, probably '68. Well, Max was trying to decide what we
were going to do next, you see, and then in '69 he set up this bunch
over in Building 32, I guess, where we all furnished people to. I
furnished some propulsion people and some design and structures, and
they all got together with Chamberlin kind of masterminding the whole
thing, trying to come up with a first cut at what the system might
Later on, the Air Force got into the act and put all sorts of requirements
but no money into it, and then backed out in the end. That complicated
The Shuttle is a more difficult thing to do, by the way, than the
Apollo was, believe it or not. Far more difficult for me, anyway.
In what regards?
Apollo, we knew exactly what we had to do. Shuttle was everything
for everybody, you see. The Air Force wanted cross-range. It had to
be able to land all sorts of different sites. It had to do all sorts
of different missions. Apollo, the whole goal was to put a man on
the moon at this spot and get him back. That was very distinct and
something anybody could understand. The Shuttle, no one knew what
it was going to be used for, so it had to be everything for everybody,
you see. You had to provide all this capability anybody wanted, no
matter what mission they wanted to do or where they wanted to land.
That's particularly the Air Force's requirement for 1,200 miles cross-range
is what really drove a lot of the design, actually.
Then the other thing made that difficult was, I don't know who was
responsible for it, I hate to give anybody credit for it, but the
most important thing that happened in the Space Shuttle is the fact
that it was managed in a very, very weird, totally foreign environment.
All the other programs we ever did there we started out and we build
up to a great big peak during development and then we dropped way
off towards the end. The Shuttle was done with fixed-year dollars
over the entire part of the program, and that makes it where you have
to fit all the little pieces of this jigsaw puzzle together. The most
efficient way to run a program is everything has to run at a dead
heat at the finish line, you see. If you'd have one system that's
way advanced of everybody, you have to shut that down and wait for
the others to catch up, and then you have to reactive it. A big waste
of money and time and effort, you see.
So that from a management viewpoint, the most efficient program you
can run is to plan everything so it runs a dead heat to the finish
line, and that way nothing gets out of kilter. You don't have to put
more money in to accelerate something, or you don't have to slow it
There are a lot of things that I don't know whether you could have
done it any better or not. You'll never have another chance, see,
to figure it out, so there's no point—that's kind of a moot
question whether you could have done it any better, because you'll
never get a chance to see. You can only have opinions about that.
But the Shuttle, if I say the most significant thing about the Shuttle
is the fact that it was done in that environment, you see. But I'm
sure that it caused—I know it caused a great deal of inefficiencies,
particularly after the program was over. The biggest problem they
have is spare parts, you see. No one ever wanted spare the thing.
When one of them breaks down, they would cannibalize the other spacecraft
all the time. See, that doesn't make it a little bit better.
Then there are a lot of things that were wrong with the basic design,
wrong in the sense that, no, it doesn't mean it's going to kill the
program or be super dangerous, but that there are some simple things
you could have done earlier in the program that would have cost less
to have done then than it costs to do later on. There were quite a
few deficiencies or things that they couldn't quite do as well as
they should have done. The brakes were bad and they had to go and
fix the brakes. There are other parts of the system there that it's
been a little bit more money to break down, but it resulted in less
cost in the long run.
You said earlier from a propulsion prospective you used a lot of the
Apollo hardware for that?
Well, the technology. You use the same propellants systems, for example.
They all use hypergolics in there and we used hydrogen and oxygen
fuel cells that were very similar. They're basic fuel cells. We had
two options, in fact, for fuel cells. We had GE under contract as
well as Pratt & Whitney, and they were both running neck and neck,
but GE had a damn failure, a critical failure, in the later development
testing, or crossover there, where the hydrogen and oxygen got together
and started a fire within the system. Then that kind of was a black
mark for GE.
I remember Joe McNamara was heading the Apollo Program at the time
for Rockwell, I believe, and we went out there and they were kind
of waffling about what decision, whether we wanted to go GE, one of
the people we had under this. This R&D contract we had, actually,
that I had out of the center was GE and Pratt. They were kind of wanting
to put the screws to me in helping me help them make that decision.
I told I wasn't about to, that was their responsibility to make the
damn decision, and they were going to have to live with that decision.
I wasn't going to tell them who they ought to pick.
So they decided, well, Pratt & Whitney was their contractor, there
wasn't a problem and they'd pick Pratt & Whitney. That was perfectly
all right with me. It didn't make any difference. I thought GE had
a little bit more potential, actually, in the long run.
I believe in that sign Joe Shea used to have on his desk, the motto
of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and something that everyone should
believe in, and I'm sure Kleinknecht believed it. "Better is
enemy of good." It only has to be good enough, it don't have
to be the best, you see. That's got to be good enough where you have
confidence in it, but you don't have to keep on throwing money after
something to make it better than it needs to be.
For the reaction control system or the OMS engines, were there alternatives
that you explored?
Yes, we had R&D contracts. R&D contracts, actually, with people.
We had some with, I think, TRW. I had a number of very small offline
things, R&D-type contracts. One of them in particular was with
Aerojet, was for this platelet technology. The way it turned out was
nothing what they intended it to be. We had to kind of straighten
them out on that. It turned out to be an injector with much more conventional
mode of operation than they anticipated, actually.
The only problem I had with Aerojet and with this platelet technology,
what's so great about platelet technology is that since you use a
photographic process where you draw pictures on a piece of paper and
then you photograph that and then you project that on sheets of metal
and you etch it and then you diffusion-bond it, you can get an entirely
new injector design built in two weeks' time. See, the others, it
took months and months. The biggest problem I had with Bell, they
could never turn an injector out. It took months. Well, this way you
can do that.
My problem was to keep them from trying too damned many different
designs, you see, I mean to settle on one, because before, you had
to try different designs, because so many of them didn't work. Well,
now you could do this instantly, you see, or with a very short turnaround
time. It was one of the best things I saw about the technology, in
fact, from a development standpoint. It's so simple to try different
things, you know. It doesn't take you a lot of time. And that's what
appealed to me with that technology.
TRW had a—they tried to ride the LM technology for a long, long
time, actually. The LM technology is kind of interesting in that the
LM is a throttlable engine, you see. It's the only engine we had throttlable
and it throttled over a very wide range, ten to one, you see. It's
difficult to do because all these things happen in a rocket engine
there as you throttled. You could run into all sorts of problems.
So it's a very difficult job. You pay a penalty in performance for
that, you see.
TRW kept trying to sell that for fixed thrust injectors all the time,
you see, and it just couldn't meet the performances. A few seconds
of specific impulse can make a big difference, actually. So I had
problems convincing TRW that they shouldn't use that technology, and
they were pretty adamant that wanted to continue to use that.
I don't know who else we had contracts with, but the Aerojet contract
was obviously the—the R&D contract we had with them surfaced
this technology, which looked from a reusability—people said
you couldn't reuse the thing because the plates would separate after
a while. Well, we didn't believe that, so we ran enough tests where
that didn't happen.
The other thing on the Shuttle, for example, was the zero-G technology
we developed in the tanks, you see, for the propellant tanks. That
was probably a big deal, actually, because in Apollo we had part of
the displacement tanks, we had bladders that you just crushed the
bladder around a pipe and it squirted everything out, you see. Well,
the bladders are not reusable. You use them two times and they develop
cracks, and pretty soon you're in deep trouble, so that we had to
have a reusable technology.
The other thing is try and push it out with pistons, you know. That's
too heavy and it's a very poor design. So we had to use basically
what we called capillary-action tanks, where we used capillary action
to suck, to get the propellant into a position where it sucks it out
where you want to suck it out, where only liquid flows out and not
gas. That was one of the big challenges, I think, where we did things
totally different than Apollo for a good reason—I mean in the
Shuttle, than we did for Apollo for a good reason.
We had zero-G cans, we called them, screens in there, but none of
the sophistication like we have in the Shuttle. It's quite a bit different.
So that was probably where we went out on technology.
We also got involved in the Shuttle on some turbine work, actually.
All of our previous systems, we basically used gas pressurization
to force the fluids out there, you see, no pumps. We had no pumps
at all. We got involved in the hydraulic system and we had to have
pumps, and at the same time we had to have something to power the
pumps. So we got involved in some turbine technology on that and we
did some R&D work, in fact, on that before we got involved in
There were a number of commercial aircraft, actually. The Concorde,
for example, has something to give them power enough to land the airplane
in case they have an electrical failure. There are two or three things
like that around, and we took a look at some of those and didn't particularly
like those for the Shuttle. But we picked one concept there that's
flying right now that looks pretty good and has been very successful.
The only problem with that is that Marshall uses for the SSME, for
the hydraulic system, they use essentially the same system we use.
Theirs has to run for 110 seconds. Ours has to run for a lot longer
time and be totally reusable, you see. We had two separate contracts
at Sundstrand with contract dollars and everything else, and they
had one difference in what they wanted in the design. They wanted
their valves designed differently from ours, and they wanted a way
to put an edge to spin the turbine up to make sure it spun, which
I thought was asinine.
Consequently, we went to all the expense of building two separate
units with two separate project offices. There's no reason why. If
I'd have been running the program, I'd have said, "Hey, you're
going to use the same one, and we're going to have one do it, and
that way we save an awful lot of money." I never could understand
the logic for letting them go ahead. Same contractor, same identical
size unit, same everything else, but two totally different management
systems for such very, very small differences. Our was a driving requirement,
actually, you see, and they could have very well used ours. We'd have
saved a mint on that.
Earlier you mentioned the APUs [auxiliary power units] and the flight
control hydraulics. Was there any thought given to using an all-electric
Oh, yes, yes, sure. Jim Ackerman wanted to do that in the worst way,
and we even had a system operated behind guidance and control there
that was actuators and motors and stuff like that. That's a long time
ago, long before anybody else was ever doing that, too, I'm talking
about. I've been retired twenty years now, and that must have been
another seven or eight years before that. Yes, they were coming out
with new electric motors, that had a horsepower per pound, [unclear]
cobalt horsepower motors. You had new gear train systems like that.
The thing that killed that was Bob Gardner, who was director of electronics
over at the center, and he said, "You can't find any diodes which
will switch that amount of current that fast." Inability to have
switching currents to switch large amounts of current as fast as you're
required was the one long pole in the tent at that time. I'm not sure
that was the whole reason why we didn't do it. There were probably
a lot of other people didn't want to do it either, but as far as I
was concerned, it was a doable thing at that time. You have to furnish
electric power for it instead of hydraulic power, that's all. It would
have a simple integration of the G and C. It would have been simple
integration all the way around, too, I think, to do that.
We hadn't thought of it long before we came up here. That was a definite
consideration. We debated that quite a bit, in fact, with the various
people. So it's not anything new. I get tickled while young engineers
come up with all these ideas, and I tell them, "Well, what you
want to do is, there's a place, a little building over there behind
Building 45, and what you do is, before you have these brilliant ideas,
what you do is, you go do some research on it. The place you do your
research is called the library, and you go find out maybe somebody
else thought of that twenty years ago, or thirty years ago. And see
what happened to it then." [Laughter]
Well, we certainly spend a lot of time over there.
Well, you know, very few engineers go to the library anymore. Now
we got computers and the Internet where people have a much bigger
tendency to do research now than they ever did before, by the way.
I mean, it's so much easier to do, you see. It won't be too long before
they're going to have so many more things on the Net there that you
can find. If you know your way around, you can find anything you want
to find. I know I'm a big Net fan, and I use it a lot.
Earlier you said you retired in 1980. What have you been doing since
Same thing I always did: whatever I feel like doing. [Laughter] I
did a little consulting work, but my power base has died or gone away.
No one knows who I am anymore or no one wants old guys, anyway. I
did some consulting work after the 13 fire, actually. When Henry was
running the center, he knew a lot about my background and there were
a lot of things that he wanted me to kind of research for him, or
at least do battle with against other folks who were trying to do
the wrong thing.
I worked for Thiokol. I worked for the National Academy of Public
Administration, looking at whether NASA's losing its technical edge
there, with a team of people. I looked at that big nuclear blast facility,
I did that. I did some consulting work for Thiokol. After the Shuttle,
I was kind of the key guy on taking a look at some nuclear techniques
for failure analysis there, probability risk assessment there, that
we did on some Shuttle components there.
The answers were very, very interesting, actually, that we got. I
learned something from it, too. I learned some very important things,
for example. We spent an awful lot of time doing all sorts of detailed
testing of qualification of components, you see. Our problem is, we
only built fifteen or twenty or a hundred of things. You see, the
Air Force does this for millions of things, you see, and they have
a test base that they use, of failure rates and things like that.
I found out that our failure rates are no better than the Air Force's
are, no matter how much work we do on it, number one.
The second thing I learned is what I already knew: the cause of most
of the failures of the systems I have are leakage. Whether it's leakage
through an O-ring in a liquid rocket, in a solid rocket, or whether
it's a liquid rocket or whatever, if there's leakage, things that
can cause explosions. It can result in refrigeration and freezing.
There are a million different things leakage can cause, so that the
primary failure that I had in all of the systems that we had to worry
about is things leaking.
The Apollo 13 was a leakage. We had a leak in a line, is what caused
that problem. What caused the leak is different. There are three things
if I could handle, that I could save the government billion of dollars,
and those three things are compatibility, contamination, and leakage.
Those three single items are the most difficult problem I've had to
face. Those are the most difficult problems I had to face. Not solving
the problem. Not only solving a problem, but setting realistic specifications,
you see. It's the tendency of people to set a specification based
on the minimum measurable quantity with the technology you have these
Like yesterday I got a thing on all the contaminants in the water
I drink, and it's ridiculous when I look at it. I've been drinking
that water for years, you know. When they want to measure a fracture
of a part per billion of something, you know, when I take a look at
all the requirements of all the ninety items that they measure in
the water I have, I ask, "Well, why is it set this way?"
The requirements set for the minimum thing, the lowest thing you can
measure, is what you need to have. In other words, nothing, you see.
So leakage, we say is we have no leaks. It's hard for you to find
no leakage. Well, it's the minimum amount of leakage you can detect
is no leakage. So if I have an instrument that will test to 10 to
the minus-8, well, that's what the requirement is, you know.
Then contamination is the other big problem, you see. We have quite
a few. In fact, Gemini 8 had a contamination failure, actually, where
the thrusters stuck, I guess, on Gemini 8. I had a lot of problems
with tanks blowing up at one time due to contamination. That was a
weird problem, too. It had something to do with specifications on
the color of nitrogen tetroxide, believe it not. We had tanks blowing
up on the East Coast and then not too many are blowing up on West
Coast, and then we had tanks start to blow up on the West Coast. We
did all sorts of research on that, and we fundamentally found that
what had happened is that the one Air Force inspector took a look
at the nitrogen tetroxide, and nitrogen tetroxide normally is brown,
see, in liquid state. This particular one was more greenish than brown,
so he complained to the people who manufactured it, "The color's
wrong." Well, they knew how to fix the color, you see, all they
do is bubble a little extra oxygen in it to oxidize that nitrogen
dioxide, and it turns brown.
Well, some people were using the green stuff, some people were using
the brown stuff. The people using the green stuff never had a tank
failure. The people using the brown stuff had tank failures. So it's
all over. One of the inspects the color, nothing else. Everything
was inspected except the color. It turns out that NO, that oxide of
nitrogen, is an inhibitor to stress corrosion.
Another example of little things like that, now that I'm thinking,
is pyrotechnic failure. The tension tie cutters for the LM were failing.
They were dudding, actually. They wouldn't explode. And we couldn't
understand why. Well, we have a very detailed inspection process on
these devices. Number one, we X-ray all of them, and then what we
do is we use neutron radiography to inspect them. Neutron radiography
looks at all the light elements and X-rays look at all the heavy elements,
so you can look and see things in there.
We had neutron radiographs of every one of these detonators. I had
my own engineers there, so I told them I want them to read the neutron
radiographs and the X-rays themselves and tell me they're okay, you
see. All you have to do is have common sense and a good eye to be
a good X-ray reader and understand something about the design of the
system, see. So all of a sudden they started looking at these. This
one particular one, we could pick out the one that failed and in the
explosive mix it was darker than the others. Then we saw some others
that were darker, you see.
So we chased that back to one little lady who was building the things.
She was putting this material in there, and there was a little bit,
around the edges of it, there's a little powder there that's high
explosive, and she knew that was dangerous, so the way she got rid
of that she is got some isopropyl alcohol and a little paintbrush,
and she got in there and she dipped that in. Well, some of that isopropyl
alcohol was getting into the regular mix, you see, and so consequently
the isopropyl alcohol in there, which has a lot of hydrogen and stuff,
it was showing up as dark on the neutron radiograph. That's what was
causing the dudding. She was doing something she thought was perfectly
all right, you know, and she thought she was doing something to help.
Part of the problem when you go to set a specification or procedures
there, is you can tell everybody what they should do, but you can't
tell everybody everything they shouldn't do, you see. This is one
case where this lady, in all honesty and sincerity, thought she was
doing everybody a big favor making them safer to use there. What she
was doing is she was causing it to fail.
I don't know, I can't recall all the things, but there are many, many
things like that in the program which cropped up, that required a
tremendous amount of detective work, you see, on our part.
Now, why did that pass the inspector? Well, I'll tell you why it passed
the inspector. This particular plate that comes out there requires
thirteen or fourteen signatures on whether it's good or not. Unfortunately,
the first guy who signs the plate, the okay on the inspection, all
he's doing is certifying that the quality of the neutron radiograph
is good enough to read. Well, of course, the system, all of a sudden,
the next guy coming in, he's kind of lazy, don't care about what he's
doing. "Oh, this guy said it's fine. Hell, I'll just sign off
on it, too." So thirteen other guys sign off on the damn thing,
none of them ever taking a look at it to understand what the hell
the problem was.
So I started having my guys read every one of them from that point
and trying to get the message back to our people. So you can make
errors of commission as well as errors of omission when you do things.
Well, if we could stop to change the tape.
—who was also one of my bosses. He's the guy who hired Max and
I, Paul Purser. He was another great guy to work for, too, by the
way. He also was very talented. He was, I guess, head of the general
aerodynamics branch back at Langley. It was a section, I guess, when
Max and I first went there. Then Max and I got to be section heads.
Max and I and Ray Watson were section heads, and Paul Hill’s
propulsion aerodynamics branch, and Purser had the general aerodynamics
branch. Then we had a stability and control branch. Three branches
within the division.
We had two or three reorganizations, I guess. One of the reorganizations,
I'm trying to think which one, I think that it's when we first started
this high temperature branch, actually, which was somewhere in '56,
maybe, I guess. They took Paul's old general aerodynamics branch and
they took Max and I out of propulsion. I guess we didn't have a propulsion
branch anymore, propulsion aerodynamics branch. They combined that.
Max picked up part of what was the propulsion aerodynamics branch
and part of Purser's old general aerodynamics branch, and then Purser
picked me up. Max was my branch head then. We've had either parallel
positions or he's been my boss over the years.
They transferred me over to Purser's branch, actually, and then I
brought my rocket work over, and then took over what they called the
materials application section. I don't even remember the name. Materials
research or application, whichever it was.
Paul, he could flood you with a lot of ideas, had a lot of good ideas
and a lot of them crazy ideas, you know, but we were very fortunate
that if you didn't have any ideas of your own, you worked on the boss'
idea. If you had your own, you worked on your own. It was perfectly
all right with him. It was always your option, for example, at least
for me, and for a lot of the other guys, it was our option what we
were going to work on, because I guess they sensed if you were working
on things you really believe in and you want to work on, you're going
to do a good job. If you're working at some other jobs that you don't
like, you're just not going to produce, you see.
Paul was a very good planner. He could visualize things. He could
see. He planned this whole high-temperature work and did a beautiful
job on that, you see, of what we needed. He didn't do it alone, we
all worked together on it, but we came up with these facilities and
all the things we really thought we were going to need. Paul was a
very rapid writer. He could write a report quicker than anybody I
ever saw. He was very concise and he's a good editor, for example.
He reads very rapidly, but he's a good organizer.
At one time he headed up the budget office. They used to rotate the
engineers back at Langley, try to get some engineers into administration
work. So Paul was budget officer for a while. He didn't like that,
and he got a chance to go to work for Gilruth, actually, then. It
turns out Sherwood Butler was an electrical engineer and he went to
work over in the procurement office and he wound up being the procurement
officer, actually, for Langley, but he's an electrical engineer, who
was a classmate of my CO [commanding officer] in Burma, in fact. [Laughter]
Paul, as I say, he was a great planner, you see, and he also was a
guy Gilruth trusted. A lot of things Gilruth didn't care to do, you
know, like I don't care to do a lot of things. Plenty of things Gilruth
didn't like to do. He didn't like to mess with all this nitty-gritty
stuff. He liked to work with people. He liked to work with projects,
programs, and he could care less about how many pencils you needed
or how much office space or what kind of building you needed. He cared
nothing about that. Paul could handle all that, for some reason or
another, you see.
So when we were up in Washington this whole time trying to work out
the stuff between NASA and NACA, you see, Paul was kind of working
on stuff for Gilruth. Whatever Gilruth wanted, Paul was doing. He
wasn't doing a lot. He didn't participate in an awful lot of the technical
planning, but the facilities planning and the administrative and the
organization stuff Paul worked on.
When he came down here, I'm pretty sure Paul's the guy who built the
center for us, you see. He's the guy, since he was able to plan all
this high-temperature work and all this other stuff, I'm sure he—he
didn't build it, you know, but he got the architects and the engineering
and all these people together to decide all the things we need and
to come up with the right answers, you see.
He did such a good job on it, that the University of Houston wanted
someone to help them with this, and Paul was the guy responsible for
the University of Houston at Clear Lake, in fact, that he was on loan
to them at the time. He had a brain tumor, and when they removed it,
it paralyzed half of his face and it took him quite a few years of
therapy and nerve reconstruction before he got well again. He never
did come back to the center, actually. But he was one of the key guys,
as far as I'm concerned.
His title was special assistant to the director, but he was more than
that. He was more than the deputy director was, in fact, as far as
I was concerned, you see. If you had a problem you needed to have
solved, you just picked up the phone and you said, "Paul, I got
a problem." He says, "What is it?" And he says, "I'll
take care of it." And that's all you had to say. It was that
simple, you see. That's the way we worked back at Langley. Got a problem,
call the right guy. "I'll take care of it. Forget about it."
Paul was tremendous at that, in addition to being a real good research
type, wrote a lot of reports, did a lot of research, but he was also
a very good overall planner.
You see, when we first started out at Langley, the deputy division
chief we had was originally the deputy chief of construction at Langley,
and the reason he was deputy division chief is we were building Wallops
Island. Gilruth didn't give two hoots about what you have to do to
be—"I want an island, I want a lunch. I can't tell you
all the things I'm going to need." So he got Ray [W.] Hooker
to do that.
Then when we were having troubles with the instrument people because
we didn't feel they understood all of our problems, the guy who was
chief of the instrument research division shows up as our deputy for
a while. So he can come over and live with us and understand what
our problems are, and go back a little later on and fix them. Then
we were having problems with the stability and control branch, so
they brought Joe Shortal in, who was a stability and control type,
Whenever Gilruth needed a special type of assistant, they gave Gilruth
that special assistant. Well, Paul became that general special assistant.
Like I say, he had more power, I think, than anybody, other than Gilruth
up here, you see, as far as what went on at the center. He's the guy
that I always, when I needed something done, while he was around,
pick up the phone, call him, that'd take care of it.
So that's what Paul's strength was, and he was a very important person
in this whole overall thing, the planning of the activities up in
Washington, the big-picture-type stuff, working, trying to get Goddard
going, interfacing with all sorts of people. That was Paul's real
He was kind of strange, too. I mean, not in the sense like Paul Hill
was, but he suffered very much from the heat. I don't know what was
wrong, but he always wore a towel. We didn't have an air-conditioner.
He always wore a towel around his neck and he never wore a tie. His
office, his whole branch was in one big office where he could look
out and see every desk in it. He was at the head of the room and he
could look out and see everybody.
Sometimes he'd have this thing, when guests who came into town, and
he didn't have a tie on, but he always used to keep an old seersucker
coat hanging on a coat rack in the office. He'd grab that coat and
he'd grab the first kid who had a tie, and said, "Hey, I want
your tie." [Laughter] He'd grab his tie and he was putting it
on while he ran out of the office, so he'd look like he at least dressed
up to meet these big shots or whoever it was. That's one thing everybody
remembers about Paul, is he always had this towel around his neck.
Still had it around here, too, while [unclear]. In fact, when we did
these first interviews, I got started on my own over here and Paul
shows up with a towel. [Laughter] But he's one of the real keys to
the whole success of the operation, too.
The other thing I didn't tell you about, I guess that I told you in
the other interviews about von Braun and me meeting von Braun there,
was a kind of interesting deal. Dryden had gotten wind of the fact
that the Army couldn't use von Braun anymore, because the Army wasn't
going to be involved in building missiles to launch into space. The
Air Force won a battle between Thor and Jupiter, you see, so they
were not going to be building anything past Redstone down there.
Dryden kind of got wind that he was going to have to pick up this
whole operation down there, so he called me in one day and he says,
"Hey, I want you to go down to Huntsville and find out what's
going on. Tell me how many people they got and tell me something about
the operation down there, because we may have to bring them into the
I flew down there, and I was the only guy on the airplane. That's
kind of unusual, you know. You normally don't have people show up
where you're the only passenger on the airplane. I was a GS-15 at
the time and that meant they had to have a bird colonel meeting me
protocol because I flew into the arsenal airstrip. No one knew what
I was down there for, but somehow or other they got the message that
they were supposed to talk to me, whatever I wanted to talk about.
So I talked, went and talked to the Army people for a while, because
they had a lot of weapon systems, Lark and a lot of antiaircraft things
and small things, other things used in propulsion, and then they had
the von Braun operation, which built a big liquid thing, the other
part of it.
I had to listen. I knew I wanted to talk to von Braun, but I couldn't
give it away just by going and talking to him, so I had to spend a
little bit of time listening to all the stuff going on on the Army's
side of the house, and so I didn't give away what I was up to. Then
I went over and talked to the von Braun people. I had a good tour
by von Braun's folks. In fact, I got to crawl all over Redstone, inside
that top and everything. Willi [A.] Mrazek gave me a run around. I
talked to Frank Williams, who was kind of the guy for von Braun, like
Purser was for Gilruth.
Then I met von Braun, and I was kind of tickled as I walked down the
hall, because I could hear—you didn't hear it or see it, but
you sensed all the Germans snapped to attention. As soon as I walked
down the hall, I could just sense that in everybody. You just get
a feel for it.
Then we went to eat at the big executive dining room, and everybody
sat very prim and proper and no one picked up a fork till Von Braun
came in and started to eat, you see. So I learned a little bit about
the German hierarchy there.
Then later on I was having lunch with Walter Dornberger up at Bell,
and Dornberger had been von Braun's boss over at Peenemunde. I didn't
know von Braun was up there that day, but he showed up in the dining
room, and as soon as the two of them's eyes met, all Walter did was
go [demonstrates] and von Braun comes over and talks to him in German,
and clicks his heels, bows, says hello or something in German.
I've seen other cases of that happening. I remember when Wernher was
talking up in Washington at one of the big hotels there at a conference
and they had a guy that was jackhammering outside, hammering away.
His deputy was Eberhard Rees, and he was disturbed by it. Von Braun
looks down, he says, "Eberhard, go stop that!" [Laughter]
So Eberhard goes out and he somehow or another talked the guy into
quit using the jackhammer until von Braun finished, anyhow. It was
kind of interesting to see that.
Later on I got to know all these guys, and they're real fine people.
I mean, they're real nice. They're just like us and they have the
same—I got to know a lot of the Japanese the same way, you know,
even though I fought against the Japanese. They were all victims of
whatever the political system is, like we were. They're not bad people
I had to live with these guys for almost a year on all these source
boards. When you get cloistered in a room for hours on end with people,
you kind of get to know a little bit about them. I got to know a lot
about Willi. Willi was probably the best engineer that they had. Willi
was Bosnian, in fact. He was from Bosnia. He wasn't a German. The
guy who they put up in front was Hermann [K.] Weidner. I think Hermann
spoke better English than Willie did. Willie never did speak super
English. He spoke good enough English to understand, but he always
had a kind of accent. So he kind of ran the engineering and Weidner
was kind of the head of the operation, I guess. Weidner was very suave
and he was, I guess, an old Prussian.
Years later, Willi had a stroke. I went to see him after he had his
stroke, and he was telling me, he said, "When I woke up, I couldn't
speak English anymore." I said, "Well, what's new?"
They were all very nice people. I got along with them fine. There
was always friction between JSC and Marshall. At my level I never
had any of that. It was a very, very nice relationship we had with
all of them. Some of the lower levels, I had trouble with some of
the lower levels, but none of the management guys. They were very
easy to talk to and get along.
The other thing, I guess, Dryden sent us down later on to talk with
General [Donald N.] Yates, who was running the Cape, to talk about
launch sites and things like that. I went down with Joe Shortal and
Ray Hooker, who had been chief of our construction organization there.
We went down to the Cape and spent a little time down there, kind
of casing that joint, too, and taking a look at the operations down
there, get some feel for that.
I don't remember any other things I got involved in there. Those were
very interesting times, by the way.
Dryden was the other guy who was a nice person, too. He was a super,
super guy, actually. If you read any of the interviews of people who
were even much closer to him than I ever got, they'll all tell you
he was a really tremendous individual.
Out of all the administrators, Webb's the only one who wins any prize.
[T. Keith] Glennan is passable, but Webb's the only one who anybody
would really have an awful lot of nice to say about. I thought he
was a real special individual.
I'd like to close today with a question about the future of manned
space. Where do you see manned spaceflight headed now, and what do
you think the biggest technical challenges they face are?
Well, I'm sure we'll be doing something. I'm not a big fan of the
Space Station. Gee, I've been retired almost twenty years now, and
on my watch we did Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Apollo-Soyuz, Skylab,
and the Space Shuttle. In nineteen years since then, we launched one
little piece of a Space Station. I mean, you know, I don't know what
that tells you. It tells you there's something wrong somewhere as
far as a manned operation goes. We've been flying the Shuttle. We've
been doing some things, sure, but, hell, that's what we designed the
thing to do. It's only doing what we designed it to do. It's not doing
anything different. I mean, those are all the goals and all the missions
we had envisioned for the thing, you see. That's what it's doing.
We finally got a little piece of Space Station up here and we have
trouble getting all of it up. I don't know what that tells anybody,
but it tells me there's something drastically wrong somewhere. You
know, how many billions of dollars we spent and I don't know what
we have to show for it.
We have a few things going, you know, like Hubble [Space Telescope]
and some of the other interplanetary things. Those are all done pretty
much by JPL ever since, you see, and JPL's a different outfit from—see,
it's what you call an FFRDC, federally funded research and development
center. It's got to get along with Washington and it's got to convince
someone to give them some money and contracts, but after they get
the money and contracts, they don't have to listen to anything the
rest of the people do. They've got a board of directors that reads
like Who's Who in Industrial America, you see, fundamentally,
a board of regents. They don't have to pay much attention to technical
direction from anybody else, you see.
Most of the stuff I see that been done since I retired, not only that,
most of those projects were started probably about the time I retired
or before, when you really get down to it, too. It's taken that long
for them to come into being. Part of it is public support, administration.
It's gone from a bottoms-up organization to a top-down organization,
where the people up above have all the smarts and tell you what you're
supposed to do and how you're supposed to do it. That just doesn't
work. It may work in the business world, but it doesn't work in the
type of world we live in. I'm not too sure it even works in the business
world. I think we're getting fooled a lot, you see. I'd like for Harvard
Business School to take a look at the NACA and see what they think
about how that operation went, for example, in comparison with what
they teach people to do these days.
It would be interesting, indeed.
Yes, well, maybe we can get something done on that, I don't know.
Maybe Ken and I and Robbie can get something done on that.
All right. I'd like to thank you for sharing all your memories with
Okay. Good enough.