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The Aero Experience is a celebration of Midwest aviation and aerospace achievement. We invite you to join us as we explore the treasures of Midwest aviation through first-hand experiences. Our contributors take turns flying lead, and we are always looking for new destinations. Check in with The Aero Experience frequently to see where we will land today, and then go out and have your own aero experiences!

Blue skies,

Carmelo Turdo, Mark Nankivil and Fred Harl - The Aero Experience Team

Friday, June 2, 2017

St. Louis Space Pioneers Relive Early U.S. Manned Space Programs at International Space Development Conference

By Carmelo Turdo
The National Space Society (NSS) wrapped up its 36th annual International Space Development Conference (ISDC) last weekend in St. Louis, the birthplace of the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft that propelled the U.S. into manned space exploration.  The ISDC was hosted by the local NSS chapter, St. Louis Space Frontier, and held in the historic St. Louis Union Station hotel and convention center.  A full agenda of presentations attracted attendees and exhibitors from around the world, and St. Louis aerospace education organizations were there to support the weekend's activities.

Of special interest was the Saturday Panel Presentation with members of Mac's Old Team, a group of St. Louis-based McDonnell Aircraft engineers who helped design, build and launch the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft at the dawn of the U.S. manned space program.  Saturday's Panel Presentation, moderated by Amy Shira Teitel, featured a two-hour session with Mac's Old Team and Gemini and Apollo Astronaut Thomas Stafford.  Here are some excerpts from the program that illustrate their experiences from the early years of U.S. manned space flight.    

The Panel Presentation with MAC's Old Team and Thomas Stafford

Moderator Amy Shira Teitel checks on the panelists

Bob Schepp 

Bob Schepp was attending Washington University and was working in the evenings doing pre-flight inspections on the jets at McDonnell Aircraft at the dawn of the space age.  He was very familiar with the F-101 Voodoo autopilot, which would be used for the Mercury spacecraft, and so he was moved to the Mercury program.  "We didn't think anything about whether this was history.  We were working 12-hour days, seven days a week...It was an engineering job.  Later in life we realized how historic these events were."   

The Gemini program was an essential step toward the successful Apollo lunar landings. "Had the Gemini program not been successful, we would not have gone to the moon.  It developed the capability to rendezvous two vehicles and also to rendezvous and dock...That's how important the Gemini program was"

Jerry Roberts

Inspired by Buck Rogers comics and the impact of the 1957 Sputnik 1 launch, Jerry Roberts joined McDonnell Aircraft to work on the Mercury spacecraft stabilization and control system in 1959.  "The big attraction was here's a chance to do something that had never been done before."   

Launching a man as a warhead on a missile with the technology at that time was a significant accomplishment.  "It's hard to imagine now just how primitive the technology was...We had a long way to go and really didn't know what we were going to end up with...We had fifteen minutes of flight experience when he (President Kennedy) said we were going to the moon."

"The thing that made it possible in the time frame was the dedication of the individuals...An engineer knows that sooner or later, every system and every machine will fail.  But every engineer that worked on that (Mercury spacecraft) said, 'The failure is not going to be my fault.' The actual design intent was to postpone that failure until they were back home."  The long work days and time away from families resulted in a 48% divorce rate for McDonnell engineers on the program.

Thomas Stafford

Thomas Stafford, a 1952 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was a U.S. Navy test pilot when the call for another class of NASA astronauts was made in 1962.  This group of nine astronauts made many of the Gemini and Apollo flights in the race to the moon.  "The event that changed the world was Sputnik, because after that, the Congress, the Administration started DARPA, started NASA and the National Space Council."  He credited Senate Majority Leader, later Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, with accelerating the manned space program development to accomplish the moon landing mission ahead of the then Soviet Union.       

"The main thing was President Kennedy's speech on May 25, 1961, that we would go to the moon and safely return.  Alright, we WILL go.  But the question was HOW?"  Several methods were discussed, with multiple boosters, earth orbit rendezvous, and other complex maneuvers.  The method that was actually used, lunar orbit rendezvous, was to be learned through the Gemini program.

Three developments made the lunar landing missions possible: development of the F-1 rocket engine, the management and use of liquid hydrogen fuel, and the lunar orbit rendezvous.

Stafford worked on backup procedures for failures that may occur involving the radar, the inertial platform or the computer during rendezvous maneuvers in the Gemini program.  After Stafford and Wally Schirra requested assistance during dinner with James S. McDonnell, he arranged to provide the computer resources needed to compute the backup data charts.  "Mr. McDonnell was such a wonderful person - he was a hero to me.  He said, 'Any time you boys have any problems, come and see me.'  So we all got to know him very well."  Schirra and Stafford would fly the Gemini 6A mission that rendezvoused with Gemini 7 to prove that capability.  

Norm Beckel 

Norm Beckel recalled an interest in the Buck Rogers and other space-based comic characters of his youth, but did not think it was ever going to happen!  In 1957 and beyond, the first U.S. Vanguard satellite program failure and the Soviet Union's Sputnik 1 success began the Cold War space race.  The U.S. manned space program received a new urgency, and history was made.   

"What made the Mercury and Gemini programs so successful was the engineering leadership that we had...They brought us along (young engineers), let us do our thing as far as design, and corrected us when we needed correcting.  The thing that really made the program work was that we were always allowed to fail.  If you did something and it didn't work, you didn't cover it up.  You put it out on the table and say, 'Here I am, this didn't work.' This is the type of leadership we had, starting with Mr. McDonnell coming down to the lower-level engineering at that time.  We learned a lot.  Our main thrust was we were not going to fail.  We did not want to let these men down (the astronauts) in our spacecraft."

"As an engineer, it was a time that could never be repeated again.  We were able to do things very quickly, make changes very quickly, and do what was right."

Dean Purdy 

Dean Purdy joined McDonnell Aircraft in 1955 to work on the F-4 program, and maintained a casual interest in the developments for satellite launches planned for the International Geophysical Year 1957-1958.  Manned spaceflight was the next logical step. 

The evolution of the launch vehicles was a critical, and unknown, variable in the success of the manned space program.  From the Mercury Redstone sub-orbital flights and the Atlas orbital missions to the Gemini Titan II and later Apollo Saturn V, missile development progressed at a rapid rate beyond the capability of the Soviet Union's launch systems.  Purdy worked on, and later managed, the major space programs at McDonnell Aircraft and McDonnell Douglas including Mercury, Gemini, Manned Orbiting Laboratory, Space Shuttle and International Space Station.  

Earl Robb

Earl Robb joined McDonnell Aircraft in 1952 to design airplanes before the manned space program developed.  Company founder James S. McDonnell was already planning to get into manned space flight, and in 1957, Robb became part of the team to develop the Mercury spacecraft.  

Robb credits Dr. Wernher Von Braun for the success of the U.S. Apollo lunar space program.  He met Von Braun while working on the Skylab program at the twilight of the Apollo missions.  He recalled that Von Braun was personable and would discuss issues with young engineers like himself, and that his staff was "great to work with."

A brief time to visit after the session

Mac's Old Team with Thomas Stafford and Amy Shira Teitel

The Aero Experience was honored to be a co-sponsor and attend the Saturday sessions of the International Space Development Conference in St. Louis last weekend.  We thank the conference organizers, St. Louis Space Frontier and MAC's Old Team for their hospitality.

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