After the junior year in college, many engineering students can find “semi professional” employment for the summer. Employers, interested in developing relationships with good schools and good students. When I was finishing my junior year in college, I was searching for just such an assignment.
An opportunity that I noticed (I can’t remember where I noticed this) was with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which, of course, became known to the layman as NASA.
The opportunity was for summer technical work at Huntsville Alabama.
This was in the summer of 1965. At that time the country, led by NASA, was well on its way to meet the pledge that John F. Kennedy made in the early 1960s when he said: “before the end of this decade, we will land a man on the moon and return him safely”.
I applied for, and was accepted into this program. I was excited.
There was some bad news (life is always good news/bad news). Because of the US government’s fiscal year allocations, the funding for this summer program at NASA Huntsville did not begin until July 1. Therefore, the first month of my summer vacation from college would not be this “semi professional” employment.
But, as in all things, this was acceptable, inasmuch as I had, in the previous two summers, been employed at the local General Electric parts warehouse. So, I was accepted for summer employment at this General Electric parts warehouse for the month of June 2016, with all awareness that I would be departing come July 1.
This first month of the summer of 1965 was relatively uneventful. In previous summers, we had been employed as night janitors. The“we” included my good friend Mike, a fellow who graduated high school with me and was a student at Ohio State. In both of the two previous summers, we had worked nights as janitors. What that meant was that during the day, we were able to enjoy summer time , going to the beach and relaxing in the summer sun.
But, for reasons relating to the organization and management of the General Electric facility, Mike and I were not able to get evening employment this first month of the summer of 1965. Instead we had daytime employment. We were not janitors, but we were assigned to work the assembly line.
I couldn’t wait for July 1!
Assembly line work was really all that it has been made out to be! Lucille Ball, in her assembly line work with the chocolates, immortalized the process!
Some of my extended family became aware that I was going to Huntsville Alabama on July 1. My uncle Pat took me aside to give me some “Dutch Uncle” advice. The summer of 1965 represented, in the light of history, a significant turning point for the civil rights movement. The Freedom Riders were showing up across the South to break down segregated interstate travel, and further to help with voter registration. The consequence to some of these initiatives were, however, quite frightening. The northern liberal students participating in these activities frequently beat up by the natives. Some were actually killed in the summer of 1965
Many of these were idealistic college students. My uncle Pat was concerned that I, too, was an idealistic college student. He admonished me to not go to Alabama. He was concerned that I might, in my naïve idealism, participate in some of these civil rights activities.
But I went anyway.
At that time, my “middle-class” family had 2 family cars. One, a 1957 four door Chevrolet, was “surplus” enough that I could drive myself to Alabama and use the car for the last two months of the summer.
Driving on my own to a new and different destination was thrilling at the time. I recall in particular the sense of excitement, of being in a different place, when I got far enough south to be in the land of orange clay soil. Where I come from, soil is brown and black. In the cotton belt, the soil is orange.
The NASA program for engineering students beginning their senior year in college was relatively well organized. There were at least 50 students in this program. It was essentially an attempt to recruit full-time employees for students who would graduate in 1966. Part of the structure was that every Friday morning all of the special summer college employees would be given seminars relating to NASA, the space program, and the activities at Huntsville.
My particular assignment was with the Avionics Laboratory. Avionics, as I came to understand, had to do with the guidance systems for the Saturn V rocket. The Saturn V rocket was being designed, developed, and tested in Huntsville in the summer of 1965. Before the end of the 1960s, it would prove to be the rocket of record for the Apollo program, eventually leading to the Neil Armstrong moon landing in 1969.
The primary responsibility I had that summer was to assist in the testing of the gyroscopes which would be the inertial guidance system for the Saturn rocket as it lifted the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.
Huntsville Alabama was the NASA site responsible for the development of manned spaceflight rocketry. It was an outgrowth of the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal.
The most famous member of the scientific team at Redstone Arsenal and NASA Huntsville, as it later became, was the German rocket scientist Warner von Braun.
Doctor Von Braun had been responsible for the development of German rocketry during World War II. At the end of the war, the Americans and the Russians both wanted to “capture” von Braun and his rocket team. The Americans outmaneuvered the Russians and spirited von Braun and many of his scientific cohorts to the US, eventually assigning most of them to be the key leaders and managers of the Saturn rocket development at Huntsville.
So, the manager of the avionics laboratory was a German from the von Braun team. His name was Doctor Panzer. I had few interactions with him. But one was memorable.
I recall the day that he entered our work area and discovered that my supervisor (a full-time NASA employee) was spending his time working on his own electronics project in the top drawer of his desk. Doctor Panzer caught Mister Sam Romanzi in the process of working on his electronics kit. Mister Sam had a process of sitting up straight and allowing his body to push his desk drawer closed whenever he sensed Doctor Panzer approaching. However, he didn’t hear Doctor Panzer approach on this given day. Doctor Panzer was angered and animated. His accusation to Mister Sam was that Sam was a “SHPY”, “spy” pronounced in a strong German accent! This was still the era of the “arms race” with Russia. And, the facility had a number of posted warnings regarding the potential of Russian spies. The sugar packets at the cafeteria all had messages and warnings. “Loose lips sink ships” was one of those messages
There was a section of Huntsville Alabama where many of the von Braun team took up residence. The locals called this “Kraut Hill”. It was a promontory overlooking the city of Huntsville with many fine homes. These were the residences of the von Braun German team.
I was able to find very economical living accommodations in Huntsville, nowhere near “Kraut Hill”. On the first day of work, I met three other students participating in this special program. Together, the four of us rented a two-bedroom apartment for the two months of July and August. We ate most of our meals at home, and spread the living cost over four people. It was a very economical arrangement for each of us, struggling college students.
But it was in the relationship and camaraderie with my housemates that I was drawn to a dramatic experience with the Ku Klux Klan.
The civil rights movement, and especially the “northern liberals” who were coming as freedom riders and assisting with voter registration, provided an incentive for the locals to put on their Klan uniforms and rally for their cause.
One of my housemates had heard about a scheduled cross burning at a Klan rally in Decatur Alabama. Decatur was the next town to the west of Huntsville. Cross burnings were outdoor rallies where the Klan stirred up the common people against the “invading” civil rights troublemakers.
So my housemates and I drove over to Decatur to witness the class burning on a Friday evening.
It was a rainy Friday evening. We assembled in an open area where the crosses had been set up, but the rain became too intense for the outdoor ceremony. So an announcement was made that the rally would continue in the banquet room of a local restaurant. The assembled crowd moved into this restaurant room, and we, who had been somewhat distant observers, decided to tag along.
Once we got in the banquet room and the doors were closed, I was scared. Standing just to my right, in full Klan regalia, was a local who was tall enough without his white pointed hood but who, with the hood, towered over me by at least 2 feet.
As the program began I decided to play it safe and applaud when everyone else applauded.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that the fundamental underpinning of the Klan’s activities and energies was ignorance. The speakers, including the grand Dragon of the state of Alabama, were illogical and frequently incoherent. But, with fear filling me, I applauded anyway.
But the level of ignorance and hatred that was being espoused eventually overcame me so that, towards the end of this rally, I found myself minimizing my applause, while watching the super tall Klansman out of the corner of my eye.
Yes, retrospectively, I am critical of my participation in the applause. But, I did survive the summer in Alabama as a northern idealistic and liberal college student. A number of other northern idealistic liberal college students died in the South that summer.
The work in the gyroscope lab testing area was quite routine and generally boring. The test would be run, we would record the data, and my supervisor would write the reports.
However, there was one memorable day in our workstation. We became aware that some of the Apollo astronauts were making the rounds at the Huntsville facility. And, sure enough a handful of them showed up in our laboratory, receiving a briefing from Doctor Panzer.
Each of the astronauts was wearing a name tag. We might have been introduced to them, but I cannot recall that specifically. What I do recall is that one of those astronauts had the same last name as my brother-in-law, who is Jack Armstrong.
So, before he touched the moon, Neil Armstrong had visited my place of work!
The Friday morning special briefings were, initially very intriguing and sometimes exciting. A memorable briefing was about food for the astronauts in space. With the early experiences of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts, they were developing a new generation of food products. One of the deficiencies of the earlier foods was that, although they were appropriately nourishing and somewhat tasty, the astronauts identified a missing satisfaction in chewing the food. So the next generation of food was not going to be eaten directly from a tube in a fluid form, but prepared in such a way that it could be chewed and the chewer could have that satisfaction. We were able to sample some of this new generation food.
However, as the summer wore, the Friday morning lecture series became less exciting and intriguing. The classic presentation form at that time were slides on an overhead projector. For the best visibility of the slides, the overhead lights in the conference room would be turned down or turned off. This was generally a signal for myself and my cohorts to close our eyes and catch up on any missed sleep.
Somewhere in the course of my travels through the Huntsville facility, I had the opportunity to view a historical location. A NASA employee who I had somehow befriended asked me to come with him as he wanted to show me this historic spot. So, I went with him. He took me into a vacant room and identified the back corner of this room we entered as the site where the first US satellite to be put in space had been sitting for months before it made its spaceflight.
At first I couldn’t believe this. The United States was embarrassed by Sputnik, the first satellite which was put in the Russians. How could it be that we were actually ready and able to put up the first satellite, but it remained sitting in the back of this room?
This is a fascinating piece and hit of history which has only come to light in later years with the declassification of government documents from the administration of President Eisenhower.
These documents described this back story. President Eisenhower was aware of the developments in rocketry that were leading to a satellite launch for both US and Russia. At the time, President Eisenhower was seeking to slow down what had become the nuclear armament race between Russia and the US. Since the early 50s, both the US and Russia had been building more and more nuclear weapons.
In 1957 – 58 the worldwide scientific community was to come together to declare a year of science where all would collaborate for scientific development. Historically, this has been called the International Geophysical Year.
It was at this time that President Eisenhower became interested in using this international scientific collaboration as an effort to work with the Russians and to reduce the tensions of the nuclear armament race.
Towards that end, he had identified that the US first satellite should not be put in space by any military operation. He wanted the US satellite to be put in space by a civilian activity, not a military one. In that way, he believed that the international pursuit of the science of space might overshadow the pursuit of armaments in space, leading to a safer world.
It out as also been stated, in historical documents, that in order to engage the Russians in scientific pursuit of space, that President Eisenhower was comfortable if the first space satellite was a Russian effort. (I have attached a document which describes the story in more detail.)
The Von Braun scientists at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville in the 1950s had developed the Redstone rocket. They were convinced that the Redstone rocket had the capacity of putting a satellite in space. They had even fired up the rocket in such a way as to launch a satellite. Since they had been told not to do so, the cone of the rocket contains sand, rather than the satellite. They had created a small satellite capable of communicating from space at Huntsville. It was this small satellite that sat in the back corner of the room that I was shown by my friend.
As the story unfolded, American efforts at putting a satellite in space were initially embarrassing. The civilian organization that Eisenhower had preferred used the Vanguard rocket which had been developed by the U.S. Navy, not the Redstone rocket which had been developed by the von Braun scientists at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.
That program was an embarrassment to the country. The first few rockets exploded on the launchpad or after leaving the launchpad.
So it was, that with this embarrassment, that the Eisenhower administration agreed to allow the von Braun scientists at Huntsville to launch the Explorer 1 satellite at Cape Canaveral using the Redstone rocket. It was a success on first try!
So the fundamental story of the back corner of that room at the NASA facility in Huntsville Alabama was that the US could have launched the first artificial satellite into space before the Russians by using the Redstone rocket and the Explorer 1 satellite that sat waiting in the back of that room!
In the summer of 1965 the development of the Saturn rocket and it’s very powerful engines was in full swing. The Huntsville location is a very large acreage which included, in its remote corners, static test stands for firing rocket engines. A static test stand is essentially a huge piece of concrete, with sufficient weight to keep the rocket engine from lifting off when it is fired anchored down to this concrete mass. So, they could test these rockets (specifically test one of the rocket engines) at the Huntsville site in a large static test stand.
During the summer of 1965 there were a few of these rocket tests at Huntsville. These tests occurred after the end of the regular workday, and in a remote corner of the spacious Huntsville facility. The rocket would fire for a short period of time, but it would be a “complete” test inasmuch as the rocket engines themselves when lifting the Saturn rocket had only a limited time firing. These static tests during the that summer might not have lasted more than a few minutes. But they were dramatic!
We were not able to get anywhere near the static test stands at the time of these test rocket engine firings. But anyone could feel the reverberations of the ground as the rocket engine fired its flames downward in a futile attempt to lift its massive concrete base. The other dramatic part of these test firings was the steam emission that took place because, at the time of firing, the concrete had to be protected from the flame of the rocket engine that it was holding. The flame was aimed downward, but during the rocket engine firing, a large volume of water flowed across the concrete base to preserve the concrete base from the extreme heat of the rocket engine.
We were far in the distance at the time of these static test stand rocket firings during the summer of 1965. We could vaguely see the flames that would go downward and then be bounced upward by the curvature of the concrete stand over which was flowing huge amounts of water and generating large clouds of steam. We were limited insight. But the shaking of the ground was dramatic.
It turns out, that, as this testing developed further, the Huntsville site was no longer deemed suitable, because of the collateral damage that sometimes occurred in the environs surrounding the Huntsville NASA property. The locals complained about the occasional wineglass that would be vibrated off the cabinet shelf and land on the floor. So a separate testing facility was later developed in the swamplands of South Louisiana, far from any population center.
At the end of August, as our summer program ran down, my housemates, one by one, departed for their hometowns to get ready for their senior year in college. My schedule was such that I was the last one living in our apartment for a period of about 4 – 5 days by myself.
We had been economical and buying food and had lived off very simple foods throughout the summer. When my three roommates had departed, I was left with a healthy supply of baloney. In order to assure our continued economical living, I decided that all of my meals for my final week would be based on this baloney supply. Fried bologna for breakfast. Bologna sandwiches for lunch. A baloney casserole with spaghetti for dinner. Next day, repeat the same.
After 1965, I never ever ever requested baloney. I may have eaten some, inasmuch as it was all that was available, but I had my fill. This baloney experience possibly contributed to my desire for vegetarianism later in life!
I returned to Huntsville Alabama in 2015, 50 years after my summer as a rocket scientist.
Because of current concerns about terrorism, access to the NASA Center in Huntsville was significantly restricted. There was a bus tour that stopped at a few locations where we could get out and visit a building or a site. I was not able to discover the building which would have housed the Avionics Laboratory 50 years prior. Furthermore, I was really not able to make any visual recall of anything during that visit.
Between 1965 and 2015 the space-age came… And went.
As a nation, and as a civilization, we realized that we could go into space, we could go to the moon, we could have a space lab to conduct experiments continuously in space, but that was about all.
As we visited Huntsville we were exposed to the possible dramatic future for man’s exploration of space. There were a number of exhibits relating to the future (long-range future) plan for a Mars exploration, possibly in the next 10 – 20 years!
I was getting excited again about the future of spaceflight!
But I am sure I could never be as excited as I was when I headed out for Huntsville Alabama in the 1957 Chevy on July 1, 1965!