retired nasa engineer

IamA retired NASA Engineer. I worked for NASA in its infancy beginning in 1954 up into the shuttle program. AMA!

**My short bio: I was an RCA engineer contracted to work for NASA, from 1954 until 1988. I worked in the Range Safety division for NASA before the Mercury program even began. I was able to witness firsthand the race to space, landing our men on the moon and more. I rubbed shoulders with Von Braum, I’ve shaken hands with John Glenn, Alan Shepherd and more.

My Grand-son is helping my answer questions.

My Proof:

How was a normal working day?

Working day with no launch: My job was to ensure equipment was in good shape for the next launch. Very procedural.

Working day with launch: Filled with checks and tests being done on a very rigid schedule. Everything had to be done at an exact time with certain checking being done and done successfully. They had to be done at the exact right time to fit in with the launch itself. There were times we couldn’t test for things if the ‘bird’ wasn’t in configuration for it. So we had very narrow windows to test for things. Otherwise, we’d set off bells and sirens across the area.

Do you have any cool pieces of space/NASA memorabilia?

I do. Here’s one: People have asked me if we really went to the moon or not. I always said, the math never lies. If you can prove one error in the math, you can prove we didn’t go to the moon.

I also have a block diagram/schematic of the command and control system we used. The system was a single point of control for the range control system. We used this to ensure that we could detonate any errant missiles in case something went wrong. We also used it to control airplanes by radio remotely, or turn off/on switches. We even used it one time to send a signal remotely cut a ribbon to open a state fair in another state.

When took the job, did you think the moon landing was an actual possibility, or a crazy goal that you could only try to achieve?

When I took the job, I didn’t even know a moon landing was on the table. We were just busy trying to keep the Russians at bay. It was strictly a defensive job at first. Initially it was a joint program for testing long range missiles for Army, Navy, Air Force together. In fact, before NASA, we were called the “Long Range Proving Ground”. NASA came after all this.

When you were hired on, did they ask pointed questions about communism and socialism? Questions that would not be asked today?

Believe it or not, no. But I went through all kinds of security checks and I was military.

How were people after a failed mission? Was there a lingering sadness or were people ready to go, determined to have the next one be successful?

When there was loss of life, there was deep sadness by most everyone that I knew. The reaction was always “What do we do to prevent this from happening again?”

There was so much testing from everyone to make sure a mistake never happened again. So much investigation and testing.

What was the atmosphere at NASA like during the moments before the moon landing? What was it like witnessing it and what were you thinking?

It was very intense. We really wondered if they were going to make it alive. It was extremely dangerous. It gave us all heart attacks. When the landing occurred, I was actually at home. We had made the launch so my duties and responsibility were over.

What inspired you to go into engineering?

Good question. When I went into the Air Force in 1945, I was assigned to a B-29 Radar tech. So this was my world. I just continued on afterward. Even as a boy, it all started because I was always interested in wires and basic electronics.

What was it like waiting 3 days for your men to get to the moon? Any trouble sleeping? Where nerves high?

I wasn’t too nervous really. My part was over after they were safely off the ground and into space. My nerves were high up until that point.

Are there any movies that accuratly depict what NASA is like; the look, the everyday activities?

I’d say Apollo 13. That’s really the only movie. That movie was well done and very believable.

In terms of the Astronauts being ‘womanizers and playboys’ the movie The Right Stuff got that right.

What is the most memorable point of your career?

People forget how much testing we did for things no one had tried before. During a Navy launch, the main stage the missile came up and started cartwheeling over our building. The second stage of the missile went up and landed just a couple thousands yards away from us. The funny thing was, the press was there and quite a lot of photographers were with us at the time. At T minus 5, we turned off the radar so it wouldn’t interfere with the launch. Right as the rocket went haywire and flipped end over end a message came on the radio “Take cover!” The rocket hit the ground and rocked us. It was the nearest I ever came to being hit by a missle.

When the Challenger accident happened, did you have a say in the launch / no launch discussion? If not, what would you have advised?

No, I didn’t have a say. To tell you the truth, I would have had no advice. To me, it was just another launch. I didn’t know questions were being asked already. (Grandson: See his other answer on the o-rings.)

Even when I saw the disaster, I initially had no clue what happened.

What has been the biggest change in NASA from its start to present day that you have seen?

So much became more streamlined over time. At the beginning, so much was “We have this problem, how can you find a way to fix it?” We had no precedent for a fix. But over time, methods became so streamlined and tested.

What do you think about the rocket company, SpaceX?

Seems like they are doing a great job, in my opinion. I don’t read the paper much anymore. But I see it on TV and I think it is wonderful. I’ve been away long enough to not have much inside knowledge.

What was your impression of von Braun?

Very very knowledgeable. Extremely knowledgeable. He had in his brain the things that ordinary people had to carry around in their notebooks and “computers”. One time at the block house, where it was crowded, and the entire crew was off the pad and in the blockhouse, I was standing right next to von Braun and Kurt Debus and von Braun looked at a chart and said “the missile will hit right HERE.” Just in his mind. And he was exactly correct.

What were your feelings while trying to beat the Soviets to space, and how did the Agency as a whole react to the first few “failures” where the Soviets managed to be the first to accomplish those certain milestones in spaceflight?

We were very disappointed that we were not first. We knew we had a lot of catching up to do. Our space program, politics entered into everything. It seemed that the Russians were more reckless than we were to win. We had no idea how many people they may have sacrificed to get men into orbit. Not for us. We were careful, we started with monkeys and then men. Then we finally put a man in orbit. Everything was a study to be sure. Very methodical. It was the German way. Even the Gemini program — it had steps, one at a time. The American way was to be patient and do it the right way. And that sacrifice meant we weren’t the first.

How hard was it to get a job at NASA in the 50’s compared to today?

I don’t know much about today. But back in the 50’s, it wasn’t hard at all. I interviewed, took a short test and that was that. They sent me the whole package and a short time later, I was a contractor at RCA working for NASA. At that time, they were hiring just about anyone that showed interest and had any sort of aptitude at all. And as we grew, we had to do all the training.

How was the culture there as the history of the space race went on? Could you sense a change of attitude as time wore on? How do you feel about the cutbacks towards NASA?

It started out intense and ended up more intense. The more people we put into space, the more challenging it become, safety-wise.

As for the cutbacks, I feel that we should continue all the exploration that we can. I don’t know that I would cut back on anything else over priority to this.

What was your (or someone you know) most expensive mistake?

During a launch one time, I made a mistake. They asked me what I could have done to prevent the mistake, and they asked me what could have been done. I answered. (Story below)

I had four recorders I used to match up a flight path for a missile. We used paper to do the calibration checks. The paper was very short. I’d roll up the paper and put it on the coordinators desk. At some point, someone came up and picked up the papers and put them down in the wrong place. So when we picked up the papers again, everything came out wrong. I told them this wasn’t right and the recorder was wrong for the flight pattern. They ignored me and launched anyway. Everything went right of course, as the problem was the flight papers were out of order, that was all.

I got a reprimand for this for one year. They asked me how I messed up so badly. I told them they needed to number the flight papers 1, 2, 3 and so on so this couldn’t happen again. At the time the Air Force didn’t allow writing on papers like these to keep an order. It was budgetary. They wanted to save money (even though it was pennies.)

They saw the relevance. And they took my advice.

What were your interoffice relationships like with your coworkers given the gravity of what you guys were trying to accomplish?

Relationships were very, very good. We had people that weren’t so technically apt, not like we needed them to be, of course. We had one guy that used a hammer to put in a $1000 lamp into a system. Just an example. And that was frustrating, when people operated like a bull in a china shop.

What was it like to have to help the Apollo 13 mission?

To me, it was successful because it got off the ground. That was my job. For NASA, it was a disaster. But for NASA to get those men back home, it became successful all over again.

What do you think lies in the future of space travel? How soon will I be able to buy a ticket on a shuttle and vacation on the moon?

My knowledge is very limited about this. But presently, I know we are wanting to go back to the moon and then mars. From there I have no idea. Sorry.

Any habits inside of nasa that the outside doesn’t know about?

We all put our pants on one leg at a time. I don’t have much to say about that, except that we were just very methodical. Most people didn’t know about the level of testing we did and our slow but sure methodology.

It is difficult to comprehend all of the variables involved in getting men to the moon. NASA must have been a chaotic beehive full of the most brilliant people. within that massive symphony of thought, there must have been people who disagree’d with major engineering decisions. Do you have any examples of engineers going against the grain?

I really wasn’t exposed to that level, really. Keep in mind, I worked for RCA, so we were often told what to according to their guidelines and specs.

There were lots of arguments of course. But we had so much quality control, too. So tests got ironed out and the best way would almost always win.

If you had the chance would you go to space yourself?

No. I’m too old. I couldn’t make it.

Back in my day, I had no desire to. I had a wife and kids that depended on me. And in those days, being an astronaut was a death wish. In the early days, most of the missiles we used exploded. So in my mind, I always thought (in the early days): “Another launch, another explosion.” So that’s what was ingrained in my mind.

Were you all very worried that your calculations would be wrong/off and it would cause someone to die? I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a part of the team that has to calculate those trajectories, timing, and physics of flying to another object in space.

I don’t know what anyone was particularly worried. But we did lots of checking and rechecking.

I am a young adult from Huntsville, AL (a place that was basically built by NASA) and the other day my mother and I were talking about the direction our space program is headed, which is seemingly only being pushed forward by private industry now. How do you feel about the direction the US space program is in now and the current amount of progress we are pushing for?

In my opinion, the government really has no definite program that we can aim for right now. The only thing we really have going for us right now is civilian and private endeavors. But that won’t give us a direction anywhere except where they themselves want to go. I hope that makes sense.

What is your favorite book?

The Bible.

Other than that, my favorite book was “Hidden Pearls” by Abbie Benton Bonsteel. When I was a teenager, this was the best book at the time. It wasn’t technical, but it was wonderful

Shortly before the challenger disaster Thiokol engineers warned, that the O-ring that ultimately failed wasn’t tested for the occurring low temperatures and would likely fail, but NASA went forward with the launch anyway because is had been delayed multiple times already. Do you think NASA was too reckless because they had so much success in the past and felt “invincible”?

That’s a question I’m not qualified to answer. But I can say that the o-rings were not tested at low temperature. Thiokol may have done their testing, but to my knowledge we did not. I need to mention that I was ONLY involved in the electronics and not the hardware end of things. It was need to know. So I can only say what I infer. I do agree with you that NASA was aloof about this, and they may indeed have felt “invincible”. But again, this is beyond my pay grade.

Did you rub shoulders with any other Project Paperclip (read: German) Scientists? And if so what was your impression of them?

Haven’t heard that term in a long, long time. There were a lot of Nazi’s that we wanted to bring here, such as von Braun. There were all ‘paper clipped’ to avoid them going to trials so we could get them. The only one I ‘rubbed shoulders’ with was von Braun (Grandson: Story above.)

Peter Haufmann-Haur (Grandson: So very sorry I am botching this, and he can’t remember how to spell it) I also worked with. He would come and bring parts to me to build a circuit of some sort for whatever he wanted to test and I’d build it to his specs. He was very nice. So very likable, one of the best kind of people you’d ever want to know. Didn’t seem like a Nazi at all. And he really knew his radar, too.


I was married to one. (Grand-son note: She was from Roswell, NM.)

How involved were young engineering students in the Apollo program? Was it mostly a closed-doors, professional affair, or a massive, open effort from all parties?

Young students did come in to work with the engineers. As long as they could get in, they were treated as students, but given lots of opportunities to learn. They applied to get into the program and were assigned to us. The specifics of how they got in, I’m not sure about

Perhaps a more dreary question, but were you there the day the Challenger broke up? What was your perspective on that event, and the decision to detonate the remaining pieces of the launch vehicle, knowing that the crew was lost?

It was my system that detonated it, but of course, I didn’t pull the trigger. That was the Range Safety Officer that did that. Only he had that authority. It was 99.9% sure they had passed already. It had to be done due to the boosters running amok.

I was on the console when this happened. I knew the malfunction had happened. But I had no clue the magnitude at the time. All we saw was a ball of fire. It wasn’t until I went outside that I saw the debris that I knew how bad the explosion was. My hope was that the shuttle had peeled off and was going down to land on the skid stip.

EDIT I remember after we assembled all the debris and shrapnel together to analyze, it explosion must have been terrible. Seeing switches, for example, that were just completely destroyed. I really didn’t want to see the wreckage at all. It was so sad.

One story: Where I was, we had no observation deck near to us. So we would all run over to the men’s restroom and look out the window. It was the quickest way we had to see a rocket launch.

A friend of mine wants to do what you did and she doesn’t know how to get there. Is there any advice about schooling or any advice in general that you can give her?

Study study study. And study some more. My route was military. But these days there are so many routes to get there. I am too old now to have much of good advice for you.

What kind of education do you have and how did you get the opportunity to work at NASA?

Mostly Air Force. I volunteered for Air Force in 1946. Many courses through this and RCA kept me continually up to date. I went to Howard College (which became Samford University) and I studied pre-med.

Why did we let the shuttle program shut down without a replacement? It’s embarrassing to have to use Soyuz to get to the International Space Station.

I have often asked that question myself. I don’t know why they didn’t do this. I retired in 1988, so this was a while ago.

Did you find that the organisation changed in a positive or negative manner during your time working there?

I didn’t know much about the politics since I wasn’t that high up. But the attitudes among our fellow people I knew quite a lot. Many NASA employees didn’t even know the full extent to what we were doing (in terms of missile launches, etc.)
(Grandson note: He won’t say more as he doesn’t want to implicate. Sorry.)

Keep in mind that NASA wasn’t the beginning. I remember back when the Navy and Air Force were doing the testing, no one really knew what we were capable of. We just wanted to stop the Russians. I remember the very first satellite we sent up, crashed back down, hit the ground and kept on beeping. It was all just testing, trial and error.

But eventually, everyone saw the relevance and the military technology morphed into NASA. People like Von Braun already had all this in mind, I think. They just waited their time until this could actually happen.

How did the systems track the relative orientation of the craft? I understand that in aviation gyroscopes can be reset in extreme turns. I’m very interested in the on-board/ground control operation. Do you know how maneuvers are conducted? Is the vector continually corrected or intermittently corrected?

I really don’t have knowledge on the avionics side. My background was in radar and wireless communications. That was my job for Range Safety. The closest I came to navigation at the cape was when I worked to adjust compasses for aircraft, but they were all magnetic.

Have you ever been to Area-51?

(he laughs.) Almost. Been on the same base.

Did it disappoint you that NASA only went to the moon a handful of times or do you think there is really no need to go there?

I was disappointed when the program ended. But I didn’t know of anything further they really needed to do with it at the time. Above my pay grade. The transition to the shuttle program was for near space exploration, and set up of things like Hubble and building ISS. Just a new program for a new transition and R&D.

How do you feel about being a part of something that so monumentally changed history? Do you feel that the ‘space race’ occurred at the right time in history or do you feel it was purely politically based and forced technology to catch up?

It happened at the right time in history for my benefit. I am just happy that I had a small part in it.

One story, when I was in the block house with von Braun and a few other of the Paperclips (and many others) and a janitor walked up to me and said “Well, Bill, we got another one off, didn’t we?” And I remember that Janitor saying.. “we” got another one off. Yes we did. From von Braun to the lowest like me and this janitor, we all did it together. Everyone played a part to get us there.

In the second photo that you posted, do you remember what project you were working on? Or what you were specifically doing?

This was in the communications room. It was actually a marketing shot. We were posing. Every picture you see from these times, almost all of them are like this. Just made up for press.

What does an RCA engineer do? That abbreviation isn’t familiar to me. In the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, The Rogers Commission and Richard Feynman in particular criticised the NASA management for having a bad, unsafe culture. It’s my understanding that this was not the case earlier in NASA’s history, that during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects safety was a high priority (though there if of course some unavoidable risk with literally ground breaking research and development like this). Do you know when this bad culture developed, and how did it affect the engineers and other normal ground workers?

(Grandson: he laughs heartily. Continues laughing.) These kids are young, aren’t they? RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America. I could give them an earful that would spin their wheels for a while on that one.

Back in the 20’s, General Electric had an electronics division that did nothing but electronics. They had a lawsuit against them where RCA split from GE. So RCA become its own company, built radios, TVs, you name it. They also had a national broadcasting system (think NBC tone… the notes were G..E..C… General Electric Company.) When RCA broke away, GE kept the tone. In 1988 when I retired, GE bought RCA back again. But I think its been sold off again and I don’t know what it is anymore. It means nothing any longer.

(Grandson: his job with RCA in Range Safety is described earlier I believe.)

What was the initial attraction that took you to NASA? Without their track record of going to space, how did they advertise positions?

Keep in mind when I joined up, NASA wasn’t even in existence. Back then it was called “Long Range Proving Ground.” I was working in Birmingham at the time, and I saw an ad in the paper for RCA jobs for a missile range in Florida. I read the article, and it said they were interviewing in a hotel here in Birmingham. So I called my wife and said I was going to apply later that day. I showed up, filled out an application, took a test. The rest is history.

It’s been said that we couldn’t launch a mission to the Moon again because we don’t even have the plans for the Saturn rocket. What are your thoughts? It seems so unlikely that we couldn’t do it.

I feel that we could. If we wanted. I don’t know as much about what SpaceX is doing, but we did it back then, why not now? As I understand it, we want to use the moon or Mars as a launching point.

I actually did not know the plans for the Saturn rocket were lost. I’ve seen at least partial plans at KSC up until recently, even. Can’t necessarily say it was full plans.

But if we did go back to the moon, it would shock me if we used Saturn technology to do it.