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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Robert Farquhar by David DeVorkin on 2007 November 29,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview Robert Farquhar discusses topics such as: family background and childhood; beginning his interest in aviation; joining the Army and fighting in the Korean War; doing undergraduate work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for aeronautical engineering; George McVittie; orbital dynamics and thinking about getting into cosmology; Sputnik; deciding to go to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to study astrodynamics; working at the RAND corporation; Sam Herrick; Robert M. L. Baker; Stanley Ross; John Breakwell; William Thompson; celestial mechanics; Lagrangian points; Harrison Hagan "Jack" Schmitt; National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); James McDivitt; Ari Shternfeld; working at Lockheed; University of California, Berkeley; going and teaching at the University of London; William Bonnor; Ben Lange; doing his Ph.D. at Stanford University; drag-free satellites; Ames Research Center; Goddard Space Flight Center; Bob Groves; Redstone Arsenal; Hermann Bondi; Apollo program; George Low; Norman Ness; Keith Ogilvie; Jeff Briggs; Joe Veverka.
This is session two of the oral history with Dr. Robert Farquhar. We are recording digitally in his office at the Air and Space Museum. The date is November 29th, 2007. I know you’ve arranged a few things to talk about preliminarily based upon the first interview, but let’s first get some of your thoughts recorded.
Well, I had a very good day yesterday. On the 28th I was a guest of Orbital Sciences Corporation, and they treated me like a VIP, but then when I got home my wife put me in my place by giving me this magazine of Ad Astra that just came out and it has the top twenty space visionaries listed in here. I started thumbing through it and to my amazement I wasn’t one of them. But then after I looked at who they were, I was just as happy not to be on that list, because most of them are not my favorite types of people. Of course, Mike Griffin was on there, along with Elon Musk, and Robert Bigelow, and all these guys, and Burt Rutan and Buzz Aldrin. I’ve never heard of these guys as being visionaries, but there they are.
This is, just for the record, Volume 19, Issue 4, of Ad Astra, the magazine of the National Space Society. This is hardly, I’d say, mainstream engineering, mainstream NASA programming.
Yes, that’s okay, but I thought I’d be there, but I wasn’t. But I didn’t make it.
But is there anyone in this class, let’s say, who — I certainly see, yes, Griffin. Martin Sweeting, I’m not even sure —
Oh, yes, he’s the head of Surrey Space Engineering out in England. Yes, he’s okay. But why do they have Sally Ride on there, for crying out loud? Okay, she’s a great astronaut and everything. She’s the first woman astronaut, but how does that make her a space visionary? See, I don’t get these things.
See, then Anoushen Ansari is on this list. Harrison Jack Schmitt is on this list.
Yes, how does this make him a visionary? I don’t get it. There are a lot of people on this [list].
Yes, well, he could be talked about as a visionary. He’s kind of a crackpot visionary. Maybe he can hear this someday, I don’t care.
But also Neil DeGrasse Tyson is on here.
He’s a nice guy and everything and he runs a nice planetarium, but I don’t know about being a space visionary.
They remark here that he had a hand in shaping the nation’s space policy. In 2001 he served on the Commission on the Future of U.S. Aerospace Industry. Maybe all of this is industry-based?
I don’t know. They mentioned some of the people who voted the people on here. One guy even knows me, so I’m surprised he didn’t [include me]. But he figures I’m not well known, so therefore they’re going to put on people that the general public pretty much knows. Anyway, so my ego was bent a little bit.
You have a number of items here that we wanted to pursue a little further. This is Volume 3 of the Spaceflight Handbooks, that’s a NASA SP-35. This is Part One, Speed Contours and Auxiliary Graphs for Manned Missions to Mars and Venus.
It was done in 1963 for Marshall Spaceflight Center, I believe.
The significance of this for discussion here?
Well, let’s see, that was one of the first things I worked on at Lockheed, missiles and the space company, and the main guy on here was Dr. Stanley Ross.
Stanley Ross, that’s right.
Yes, he ended up being a very good friend of mine. He came to NASA later. He even got me my fellowship at Stanford and I was able to complete my Ph.D. thesis without having to spend a lot of money.
Can you say that this was actually used in planning for missions?
Yes, this was one of the first handbooks, and they had several contracts on this so-called EMPIRE [Early Manned Planetary-Interplanetary Round-Trip Expeditions] Study. There have been a lot of history papers on the EMPIRE Studies that were done.
The first ones, the foldouts, look to me like nomograms.
No, these are plots. I actually had to plot those things up point by point from the data. So I did a lot of those plots. This is hard work.
I can believe it. In that time they didn’t have too many graphing programs on computers.
No, they didn’t have that. I used to sort out all the IBM cards also and get them moving.
How would you actually use this, though, in predicting suitable orbits?
Well, you would find mission opportunities for manned missions to go to Mars in different years. Then you would find out what the arrival velocities were, you’d find out for the launch conditions what launch energy was needed, and they would also tell you the declination launch [asymplots] and things. So it would give you an idea of what kind of launch window you could have to get to Mars and then different transfer times and things of this sort. So you used this in your planning phase.
A person could use this without having to do any orbital calculations?
That’s true, yes. That’s the idea. Yes, you can just go to this book and then he picks out the launch dates he wants and he can work out a launch window and he has all the parameters that he needs to plan the mission, the basic parameters that he needs to plan the mission as far as what kind of launch vehicle does he need and so forth, or how much mass can he get there for a given launch vehicle.
Right. So I guess that’s what I meant by a nomogram. In other words, you have an analytical equation expressed graphically and you can solve it.
It isn’t an analytical thing. These were integrated flight paths out to Mars for different opportunities. So there was a lot of crunch time on the old computers, it was on the mainframe computers.
And your role in this was?
My role was the guy who had to do all the work, you know, as far as having to do all the plotting. Then I would also do some of the analytics to check things. But there were other people at higher levels that did the main organization.
You were basically given specific problems to solve?
I was just given all the grunt work of putting the thing together and doing all these plots and everything from the data, and actually plotting them by hand and things like this. So it didn’t take great brains. Someplace it shows my name in here, doesn’t it?
Here it is, R. Farquhar, yes.
Along with a lot of other people.
Who are these other people?
They’re all from Lockheed, I imagine.
Breakwell, Adams, Brower.
It’s John Breakwell, though, who ended up being my thesis advisor at Stanford. This is before he even went to Stanford. So that’s where I got to know him and then later, then I hired in and worked for him directly.
D. McKeller. Did you work for him at all?
I don’t remember.
I take this V. Whipple doesn’t have any relationship to Fred Whipple?
No, I don’t think so.
So I save all these things, you see.
I save everything.
Well, this is an important piece of history.
Well, you can find this in — you can go over to NASA headquarters and find the actual hardcopies, they’ll be sitting there. They’ve got all this stuff. They never throw away any of this stuff.
Once you published this, was there any aftermath to its life? Was there feedback about it? Did you get a sense of how well it was used? Did it form any visible role in creating plans for a mission?
Well, it was used by some of the spacecraft contractors who were studying missions to Mars. They used this as inputs to their studies to give them opportunities and so forth. If they assumed a certain launch vehicle then they could determine how much mass they could launch and so then they can design it based on that and how long it would take. This was the first of many studies done on this, on the early manned flight opportunities.
Where do you feel it fits in your career? How does it help us understand your career better?
Well, it got me my job at Lockheed. I wasn’t going to go on for my Ph.D. then, and so I was introduced to John Breakwell and got to know him. Then he encouraged me to go on for my Ph.D. So if I had never done this, if I had never been there, I probably would never have gone back for a Ph.D., because I had kind of given up at this time. I’d been to the University of California at Berkeley and gone from mathematics to physics to deciding I’d go overseas to the University of London, and then giving up on that, and then coming back to get a job at Lockheed. So this is the job I had and it seemed interesting at the time, but it wasn’t going to lead anywhere, but I just figured, well, I’ll be doing this as an engineer, as a staff engineer, the rest of my life and working in the trenches and that will be it. But John Breakwell made me get more ambitious, and I did decide to go back to school again.
This is your thesis from UCLA.
This is a master’s thesis from UCLA, yes. The title is “Preliminary Considerations for the Establishment of a Satellite in the Neighborhood of Centers of Libration.” Yes, not a very good title, but there it is.
These are notes. “More comments.” This is a, I guess it must be mimeographed.
Yes, this is the old-fashioned way of doing things. But it’s signed off. Angus Taylor, if you know him, he’s a mathematician.
Yes, and William Thompson.
And William Thompson was my thesis advisor at UCLA.
And Kurt Fortis.
Yes, I don’t remember him, but he must have been in engineering or something. Angus Taylor didn’t like my original version he didn’t like were the conclusions. So I rewrote the conclusions and then he signed off on it.
Was it something mathematical or physical?
No, as a matter of fact there are mathematical errors in there. You should see the paperclips on there, those were the errors. I think it was in the late sixties I went back and I corrected some of the errors that I made in trigonometry.
This is on page 36, there’s one notation.
Yes, it wasn’t a serious error as far as any conclusions were concern, yes, I didn’t do that diagram correctly.
Figure 3.4 is written in pencil there it says, “Wrong.”
So I added the corrections that to the copy that’s in the UCLA Library so someone wouldn’t go back and see that I made a mistake later.
I was looking at the launch conditions for sending something out to a libration point. Yes, something that when I actually did it many years later, I didn’t have to worry about this aspect of the thing, because this was all done automatically with the software we had.
When did you first learn about libration points and how did they become a focus for your research and your interest?
That was when I took my second course in celestial mechanics at the University of Illinois under George McVittie. That’s the first time I learned about them. They were also talked about quite extensively in Moulton’s book on celestial mechanics and I was totally fascinated by his exposition of them, and I thought, “Look at all the great mathematics in here, and look at how these points are somewhat unique, and even though some of the points are unstable clearly you could put something there and if it was right at the point it wouldn’t take any field to keep it there, even if it deviated a little bit off of the point, it still would be easy to keep it there, with very little fuel.” So that fascinated me, because then I started thinking of applications of satellites at these points or close to these points.
Did you read that somewhere or did that just occur to you, or did somebody say that in a lecture?
No, that just occurred to me. Then there were some other papers on it. In ’65 I went to an AIAA meeting in Monterey, California, at the Naval Postgraduate School, and I heard some of those papers by Victor Zebeholy and other people. Let’s see, what was the other guy’s name? Dusek was a guy. These are all in an AIAA procedures volume. But I noticed that none of them really went into very great depth about the subject, and so I thought, “Well, there’s still a lot of work to do here. If I’m going to be working in the field of astrodynamics, it seems to me that a lot of the other areas have been covered pretty well.” There have been a lot of papers on geosynchronous missions and transfers to them and placing a satellite in orbit, and yes, it’s a very practical thing, but there’s already hundreds of papers that have been written on this. I can’t contribute anything new to this, and even if I did it would be just adding a little footnote to something that’s already been done pretty well. I’d rather skim the cream off the top and work on something that really hasn’t been looked into very much. So one of the reasons that liberation points hadn’t been looked into very much is nobody really thought of any good applications for them. The only people really working on it were mathematicians who were interested in the motion of dust particles around the stable point or things of that nature, but purely mathematical types of papers.
Have you ever looked into seeing whether you were the first one to consider practical applications?
Yes, I certainly looked into that. As a matter of fact, they’re all referenced in my thesis. There were some earlier papers, but most of them really didn’t dig too deep into the thing and didn’t come up with a lot of really good applications, things that could really be used. I wasn’t satisfied too much with the work that had been done and I just thought there was an awful lot to do here. One of the first things I came up with that I was pushing was to put something at the center, it’s the L1 liberation point, which is between the sun and the earth. I worked on this when I was at Lockheed and John Breakwell encouraged me to write a couple of papers on it, but they were Lockheed internal memorandums and stuff. I said, “If you put a satellite there, you could measure the input function of the solar wind about an hour before it came by the earth.” So this would obviously be useful for some things. We were talking about practical applications, such as people in supersonic transports flying at high altitudes, if they get an hour warning, then they could go down to a lower altitude so that they wouldn’t get that much exposure to solar radiation, which you can get at high altitudes. Well, that wasn’t a very good application, actually, but the good application was the scientific application, that is measuring the input function of the solar wind to what happens inside the earth’s magnetosphere, where we have a lot of spacecraft taking measurements. So that’s been good up to this day. They want to know what the ambient solar wind is in the vicinity to interpret what they’re seeing as its effect on the dynamics of the magnetosphere and measurements they’re making inside.
Any science fiction treatment of libration points?
Yes, that’s another thing I thought of when I was writing my thesis, because I looked at putting a solar sail at the sun-earth’s L1 point, seeing if I could just vary the reflectivity of the sail or the area. Can I stabilize something, a spacecraft there, without any propulsion, just changing the area of the solar sail, and there was a way to do this in some kind of limit-cycle motion. So you could have a very large structure and not take a lot of extra fuel to keep it there. Then I thought, yes, if you made it big enough you could block out part of the sun and thereby causing a drop in the solar input to the earth maybe by 2 or 3 percent, which would have a big effect on the climate of the earth. That idea then was rediscovered by a lot of people later, and I was involved in some of it. I wrote to a couple of them saying, “Yes, we thought of this idea a long time ago, and we even looked at the possibility of controlling this big shield that they would have.” Because most of the studies that were done later, they talked about putting a big shield up there, but they never did say how they were going to control it, because it’s unstable there. So you have to have a way to control the thing. Then I guess around the early 1970s, I decided that there was a good science fiction movie that could be made of this. That is that you’d have a solar shield up there, because the earth would want to try to control the warming effect, and they would have to have it manned by various people. In my screenplay index that I submitted to this one company—
I tried to get them interested and saying, you could talk about having this solar shield there to control the temperature on the earth, and what happens is the people that are manning the space station and controlling all this stuff at the center’s L1 point, decide that they’re going to blackmail the people on the earth saying, “We’re going to control your temperature if you don’t give us certain powers and money and so forth.” So the people on the earth don’t like this and they’re going to shoot missiles up there to knock down the station so they don’t have to worry about it anymore. But the flight paths going out there are very predictable and they take a long time. So the people on the space station around the solar shield could pick them off one by one as they were coming up. So that wasn’t working. So these guys were still blackmailing the earth, but finally the people on the earth figure out that there’s another flight path that they can take that goes around the back way. When they shoot the missiles out it seems to be going away from the earth, so the people on the station aren’t worried about these, except that they come back again from the backside onto the solar shield and blow it up. I could vision in my mind the movie showing something like the Death Star exploding. I mean, they could make it a very spectacular type of explosion. Then you can put all kinds of characters in here with the usual stuff that they do.
Did you ever see the use of libration points in the writing, science fiction writings of others, though?
Later on after I thought of this idea of the solar shield there was a paperback book, kind of a cheap pulp type thing, and it was on something called Sun Stroke or something like that. I wish I could find the title. I looked it up on Google, but I could never find what it was. I used to have the paperback, but I don’t have it anymore. This guy also thought of the idea of having a shield up, not at the center’s L1 point, but someplace else, but it was shielding out the sun to control the temperature on the earth. There was some evil genius that was planning to blackmail everybody. So the idea isn’t that uncommon.
What about the use of solar sails for propulsion, did that interest you at all?
Yes, I was interested in that, too, but that seemed like it was a ways off, and that wasn’t my primary interest. I pretty much stuck with libration points, because I didn’t want to just write papers about them, I wanted to see a mission actually happen and I wanted to push this thing. As soon as I finished my thesis at Stanford,’68, and I was resuming my work at NASA, the first thing I wanted to do was to convince everybody that they should really do these things. The first thing I was pushing was the communications satellite for the far side of the moon that would be in a halo orbit around the earth/moon L2 libration point. I started working on that and pushing that hard starting in ’66. I sent memos and things into George [M.] Low when I got back to the Electronics Research Center, where I worked in, let’s see, that was 1969. But George Low sent me back a nice polite letter, “Yes, thank you very much, we’ve referred this to Chris Kraft and various people, and they will get back to you.” Well, of course, they never got back to me. But we kept pushing it more. When I went to Goddard Spaceflight Center about a year later, they were interested in the concept also. We actually went down to Marshall and to Johnson Space Center and there were various working groups there with the Manned Space Program, and they thought, yes, it is a good idea. Yes, we should do it. But, well, we don’t have to do it right now. But when the Apollo 13 event happened, they realized that they really could have used a communications satellite for the far side of the moon, because they had to do that critical burn out of sight of everybody. Of course, nowadays that would never be permissible, but in those days they took a little more risk. But that was something they’d overlooked early in the program and they didn’t want to spend another several hundred million dollars to fix this. They kind of ignored the problem. But then later, in 1971, I just published this one NASA TN about using the earth-moon libration points for future lunar transportation systems, using them as staging locations, and also for the communications. I even talked about going through the crater Tsiolkovsky on the far side, that that would make a great place for a human mission. At the same time, independent of what I was doing, Jack Schmitt, for Apollo 17, decided that he wanted to end the Apollo Program on a high note, is the way he put it, by going and landing on the far side of the moon. Let’s not do the stuff that has been done over and over again, let’s do something different here. Then it was clear that he needed a communications satellite and he heard about my idea and they invited me to come down to Houston. I got twenty-four hour notice. I quickly gathered all my view graphs together and got down there. First, I had to give a briefing to Jack Schmitt and a whole bunch of other technical people. In those days I was a little nervous about giving presentations like this, but I managed to do it anyway. But it was funny because I showed the obvious way to do a transfer from lower earth orbit out to the earth-moon L2 libration point. If you want to put a communication satellite there, just a straight transfer, not going by the moon or anything like that, just an impulse in low earth orbit, and then one to retro into the earth-moon L2 point or that vicinity. The only trouble is, is that that cost an extra kilometer per second of ΔV compared to doing a swing-by, a powered swing-by of the moon, and then going out and retroing [?] into the earth-moon L2 halo orbit. Well, Jack Schmitt says, “Yes, that’s very good that you can do it cheaper and this is the optimal way to do it.” But for the presentation in the afternoon, he says, “Oh, my God, don’t show that view graph,” because he was worried that it would make things look too complicated. He wanted to dumb it down a little bit, for the higher-level managers that we were going to give the presentation to; that they would not question the feasibility of the idea.
Did you feel comfortable doing that?
Well, I had no choice. So we went ahead and it was mainly JSC people giving the presentation and I was sitting up in front in the audience. James McDivott was the chairman of the meeting or whatever it was and there were a lot of people there. It was a room full of people, maybe about fifty to a hundred people.
Were these astronauts, like McDivott and others, were they taken seriously by the engineers and bureaucrats?
Well, yes. I guess, I don’t know, Jim McDivott had some big job there, because he had already done all of his flights, I guess, and he was now kind of a senior guy. He was chairing the whole meeting.
But was there something like their being a celebrity there or a Lindberg that gave it more poignancy?
Yes, I’m trying to think. Buzz Aldrin was there at an earlier meeting I had there. I remember seeing him walking around. I remember he had a nice sports coat on. That’s the only thing I remember. [laughs]
But the point I’m raising is NASA’s interest in involving the astronauts in this management positions. Was this generally accepted by people such as you as the fact that they were the most effective people to create the flight parameters for these missions?
Well, I guess I look at them a little differently. I didn’t think they were always the greatest experts, but they were the guys flying the mission, so they had a big input on how things should be done and what should be done. Certainly, a guy like Jack Schmitt, he was a scientist, a lunar geologist, and if he thought that going to the far side, going to crater Tsiolkovsky, and he even picked out a certain place that was just on the northwest side of the central peak of that crater, and that’s where he wanted to land. I remember looking at high-resolution photographs of that area that the JSC people had, and I was thinking, “Boy, people are really going to go there. This is great,” you know. All they need is this communication satellite to put there. So at the meeting then I’m sitting there and McDivott asked the question, he says, “Well, who’d build this satellite?” There were two contractors that were there. I can’t think of their names offhand. [TRW and Hughes] It’s in a book I’ve got. But they had some defense satellites that they were going to modify so they could do it quickly, within a year. They talked about a launch vehicle. But then there had to be some NASA center that was involved and they thought, “Well, obviously, Goddard should be doing this since it’s an unmanned spacecraft. Are there any Goddard representatives here who could speak for the center?” So I was the only one there. I wasn’t sure what to say at first, because they said, “Well, do you think Goddard can put this thing together within one year and be ready for this flight?” I was going to say, “Everything is well in hand,” and then I was also trying to say, “It’s well understood,” but then it ended up coming out like, “We have everything well underhand,” or something and everybody started laughing. I felt embarrassed.
You mentioned before that you were a little apprehensive of giving a presentation to this group. Was this part of your history of stuttering?
Yes. I was still a little nervous about getting in front of a big group of people, especially something as critical as this. But if it’s important, I was going to say, “Oh, to hell with it, I’m going to have to do it anyway, because if I don’t do it who else is going to do it? So I’ll just have to ignore that.” It wasn’t as big a problem then as it was earlier in my life.
How serious was it, just for the record?
Oh, pretty serious. I still have the problem.
Well, I don’t notice.
Well, yes, you don’t notice, but I notice it, certain words come to mind and if I think about them long enough then I can’t say them too well.
If you think about them long enough then you cannot say them?
Yes, if I’m thinking I have to say a certain word, then I kind of stumble on it, and I think, “I can’t say that word,” and pretty soon I convince myself I can’t, and then I usually switch the word.
Did your mother or teachers ever suggest speech therapy or any kind of regiment?
My mother did early on, but at that time, back in the 1940s, I guess there weren’t that many, and besides there was a war on then.
Sure. But you mentioned after the first session that the stuttering could possibly be a reason why you didn’t have as satisfactory a social life as you’d wanted. Do you have any thoughts on that?
That was part of the reason. The other reason was the fear of rejection by women, which is a pretty common thing.
Yes, but could it have been exacerbated by the stuttering?
It was exacerbated by that, yes, that would be the word. Yes.
How did you work out of the stuttering, because you evidently have?
Yes, well, I haven’t worked out of it that well yet you’re just seeing a certain aspect of me. Maybe in certain situations I’d have a big problem. As a matter of fact, I’m just thinking of the time I was here at the National Air and Space Museum and I had to give an acceptance speech for that award, and I had to get up there, and I thought, “Oh, how am I going to do this?”
The NASM trophy?
Yes, right. But I managed to get through it. There probably is a video of that.
We don’t always record them, but there might be.
I think I might even have it. I don’t know, though. I can’t find anything anymore now that I’ve just had a big move and everything.
We’re, of course, ahead of the game a little bit here, but the third thing that you have out for me is your images of model airplanes.
Yes. Yes, I think that was a big thing, because when I was in high school I didn’t like the formal drafting courses and things that we had, because I thought, “Why am I doing this stuff, this is boring to be doing drafting of boxes and desks and things like this. I’m not interested in that, but I am interested in airplanes.” So I liked to build the model airplanes, so I learned how to scale up a three-view drawing and then I could put all the construction details in, like, how many ribs do I want in there, and how I would actually build this thing, what is the construction going to be like? Is it going to be solid? Then I’d have to make it lightweight and the painting schemes I’m going to use, I want it to look realistic, so I want it to be like the camouflage that they used on World War I airplanes. I liked World War I airplanes in particular. So finally I worked my way up from smaller ones. Okay. I’ve forgot this one. What is that? Do you know this plane? This is Volsin or something. It’s a French thing.
Okay. It’s labeled number two on the back, but I’m going to label this as picture number one.
Yes, that’s a pusher airplane. They put the propeller in the back because they couldn’t figure out how to synchronize the machine gun to fire through the propeller early on in World War I.
So you made models of actual aircraft? You didn’t dream them up yourself?
Yes, this is the Fokker tri-lane, which is a popular kit model in those days. That’s [Manfred] von Richthofen’s plane. Then the Fokker D-7, which was another one. These are all flight models and I actually would — my big goal was to get one to fly across Normal Boulevard, which was out in front of my house. My bedroom was the front bedroom on the second floor, so I would launch it off of the roof there and then hopefully it would fly across Normal Boulevard. Then I’d think of myself just as the guy who flew the English Channel for the first time.
Were these rubber band ones?
Yes, they were just rubber band things.
But they look really quite detailed.
They’re scale models, yes. There are some other little small ones and one of these is even — it’s a Newport tri-plane, which is kind of unusual. Then I was tending towards the very unusual ones, not just the ones that they have in kits and stuff like that. So then finally I decided, well, now I’m going to do something really different, I’m going to build a World War I German bomber and put gasoline engines in it and radio control and the whole works. It was a great idea and I actually built it. It took one year to do all the plans, the drawings, and everything.
Is this it here?
That’s it here. There’s a couch behind it, but it’s a five-foot wingspan.
You laid everything out and then you put a sheet on — this thing is almost as big as the couch.
Yes, it’s five feet wingspan.
Now, did you go to the model shop and buy the parts?
No, all you could do is buy sheets of balsa wood and stuff, and then I would have to make up my own airfoils and everything else, how it was done. But I had all the drawings for the sections of the fuselage and things like this.
We’ll label that number four. Where did you get the drawings or did you make the drawings?
Yes, I scaled up the drawings. All I had was a 3-D view drawing of the airplane and it also showed sections of the fuselage, what they looked like.
Here’s another one taken from the back.
That’s another picture. Yes and a picture from the side. These aren’t as good as the ones in front.
Did this fly, as well?
No, you see it was too heavy. That was one problem. Then I got into systems engineering problems early on in my life, because I had to figure out some way to make the two gasoline engines, they’re on both sides, cut off at the same time, because somebody told me, no, it’s not going to work if they don’t cut off at the same time, because the plane will start spinning. I thought, well, how am I going to do this? How can you cut off these engines at the same time? So I was trying to think of some crude way to do it, because they had a common tank, a common gasoline tank. But I never could really figure out how to do that, as far as the hardware, as far as actually implementing it.
I mean, if you had some sort of timed electrical circuit.
Yes, if I could do all these — but you had to physically cut off the fuel somehow. So that’s not so easy to do.
Yes, it could still sputter.
Yes. So I was wrestling with that when I finally gave up about then. Oh, that’s just a picture of John Breakwell that was in this pile.
Oh, that’s when they did the blow up of the original.
The print, yes. When was this dated for?
It was probably 1964.
Well, there was a radio astronomer named Ronald Breakwell, is this —
He was at the same place, right. Yes.
Is this the same Breakwell?
No, this is Breakwell. As a matter of fact, they’d always get each other’s mail. They were in the same building and they knew each other quite well, but one was a radio astronomer and John Breakwell was a mathematician and engineer.
Well, there are other pictures of you and we’ve covered the war here.
There’s a nice picture of me there.
Now, you’re sitting in front of a god of some sort?
Yes, this is at a hot springs in Beppu, Japan, which is in the southernmost island of Kyushu and I’m looking pretty confident there, a lot more confident than I really am. This is just before I went to Korea, looking kind of casual, pretty proud of myself.
And this one you’re in your fatigues with a parachute?
Yes, I’m getting ready to make a jump, a practice jump, at Oita, Japan, the former kamikaze base. That’s where they took off and then they’d come down and have some more guys jump. We had to get our jumps in at least once every three months to get our extra hazardous pay.
Are there more to look at? There are quite a few more.
These are other pictures later on. I was an astronaut here, never mind that.
Okay. These are colored pictures of you in Japan. Here is a framed picture in a large paper card. It’s a good friend of mine. You’re sitting with two Japanese women.
Yes. Well, one is my girlfriend. There we are. That’s also in Ueno Park.
This is Mrs. Yoko Matsuoka.
Yes. Her name was Connie. Here’s another picture of her. Don’t let my wife see these pictures. [laughs]
Well, you weren’t married at this time, were you?
No, no, I was still in the Army there. But this is the first girl I proposed to. My parents were horrified that I’d marry a Japanese lady.
So what stopped, what didn’t work?
Well, I came home. This is another Japanese girlfriend. That was in Kyushu.
She looks happy and cute.
Yes, she’s — I can’t remember her name now. Then here’s a picture I took just for the fun of it. That’s a picture I took and we were driving along in a taxicab and all of a sudden there’s policemen coming out and all the lights start flashing and everything, and what’s happening here is the Emperor coming out of the palace.
In his big limousine.
Yes, what is that? Must be a Rolls Royce.
Oh, heavens no. It’s marked 77 on the back, just to be sure.
This was taken in 1953. And he’s sitting there in the back.
Let’s go back to where we stopped off, which was you’re moving to the Redstone Arsenal. Could you sort of reconstruct how that all took place?
It’s the summer of 1960. I was at UCLA and I was finishing up my Master’s thesis. I hadn’t completed it yet, was still working on it. I had interviewed with the Redstone Arsenal people and they offered me a job and I thought, “Well, this would be fun,” because there was a rumor that they were going to become part of NASA at the time. So I got in my car and with this other friend of mine, he also had interviewed there, he was going to UCLA also. We had both finished all of our coursework for a Master’s degree, but we both had theses left to finish. But we got in our cars and drove east, which was a nice drive through the Mojave Desert and through, Winslow, Arizona, a nice place. It was so much nicer after the desert, because you’re up in the mountains. And then going through New Mexico and Texas, the panhandle of Texas, and then through Mississippi and then into Alabama. I remember going by the railroad crossings in Mississippi, “Stop, Mississippi State Law,” or something, like if you don’t stop we’re going to do something bad to you.
Now, how did you learn about this job when you were at UCLA?
Oh, they had various representatives coming around from different places and Redstone Arsenal was one of them.
Were there formal meetings where you were encouraged to go and talk to these people?
Well, no, you weren’t encouraged. I mean, you can do it if you want to get a job for the summer, which a lot of students wanted to do at that time, because how else were they going to support themselves. I was fortunate in that I had the GI Bill paying for part of my education anyway. So that was a good thing. And I had worked for the RAND Corporation the previous summer, and so then I thought, “Well, okay, let’s try going to one of these centers that all the space work is really going on and get some hands-on experience.” So I went there and I was working for a guy by the name of Rudi Houlker, who was one of the Peenemunde people. I think he was a major or a colonel in the Army when he was in Germany, and then he came over with [Wernher] von Braun and all the people. Unfortunately, when he found out that I was working on my thesis primarily, he didn’t like that idea too much. I was supposed to be doing some things for them. So therefore he had me transferred over to work on the Saturn V rocket. So that was fun for about a week, but I wanted to finish my thesis, because if I didn’t get it done before school started again, because then I was going to go back to the University of Illinois for a master’s degree in mathematics.
That was still your plan?
Yes, that was my plan. So I thought, “Well, I better leave early to do this, and I don’t want to work on the Saturn V, I want to work on my thesis,” which was on libration points. There were some other three-body experts there at Redstone Arsenal, which then became NASA and Marshall Spaceflight Center, while I was there that summer. One guy I remember his name was Schulz Arensdorff and he was a mathematician who specialized in the three-body problem, and he took a look at what I was doing and he said, “Oh, this isn’t important at all. What you have to do is to get into this really complicated mathematics to try to solve problems of periodic orbits in the three and four-body problems,” and so forth. I thought, “Well, that’s not what I’m interested in, I’m interested in applications of this thing. I’m interested in controlling a spacecraft at the point.” He didn’t seem to have any interest in that, so his influence was somewhat negative. I thought, “Well, he doesn’t understand what I’m trying to do,” I could see that.
That’s quite interesting that you’re sitting there as a summer student and you’re more interested in application than someone at the Redstone Arsenal itself.
Yes, well, the guys in Rudi Houlker’s place, and Rudi Houlker himself, who did a lot of NASA technical notes later on motion and three-body problem and around libration points and stuff, he was interested in the mathematics of the problem and not in the applications, which is the reason, I think, that he was kind of asked to leave Marshall and he went to the Electronics Research Center, because he wasn’t doing some of the things he was supposed to be doing. But he didn’t want me working on my problems, either, so anyway.
So it wasn’t what you would call an academic or even collegial atmosphere, even though they were interested in mathematics?
Just a few of the people were interested in it. There was a Professor Ainsworth from the University of Alabama, who was also there, and I was questioning some of the things that he wanted to do and he wanted me to work on things. He was used to telling people what to do and not having students talk back to him. So we didn’t get along at all.
Did you know at that time, or maybe this is even before it started, that Yale had a summer school in celestial mechanics?
No, I didn’t know anything about that.
Yes, okay. Dirk Brouwer, Gerard Clemence and people like that?
Well, I’d heard of Dirk Brouwer, but that was about it. But, as I told you, I was at UCLA, and I worked with Sam Herrick a little bit, but I didn’t like his approach to celestial mechanics, which I thought was a little bit old-fashioned by that time. But Bill Thompson, who was my professor in attitude control, wrote a book on spacecraft dynamics. So this seemed to be more what I was interested in. He was interested in transfer orbits and things of this sort. He was one of the guys who figured out why Explorer tumbled like it did, because of the energy dissipation of the antennas, which they didn’t quite understand it when they put it up there and they were surprised that it tumbled right away, but it was easy to see later as to what happened.
What about among the German staff at Redstone? Were they using more modern techniques, or were they just as conservative as Herrick?
I think, no, they were interested in practical spaceflight, but they were mainly rocket guys. These were the main people down there. They weren’t so interested in the trajectories, although Ernst Stuhlinger, who was there, who was kind of one my heroes, who was interested in low-thrust spaceflight. As a matter of fact, he’s still alive, I understand.
He was an old guy at that time, but he was one of the Peenemunde guys, also. Well, there were quite a few of them there.
Well, I was thinking of Rudi Houlker and people like that. You said that he was much more interested in the pure mathematics side of things.
Yes, him and a guy by the name of Bob Silbur who was in our group, they had rediscovered the bi-elliptic transfer, which was a transfer between two circular orbits in the same plane, and everybody thought that the Hohmnan transfer was the most economical transfer, but they did this so-called bi-elliptic transfer, which does an extra impulse. It does three impulses to transfer between the two. If you go out far enough and there’s a certain ratio of the radii of the two circular orbits where this works, you can get a more economical transfer by first transferring beyond both of the circular orbits and doing an impulse at a great distance away and then coming back. But it turns out; as I learned many years later someone else by the name of Ari Shternfeld from the Soviet Union had done this earlier. I guess Houlker and Silbur didn’t realize this, and probably never realized this. But I just found out about this just a few years ago. I never really heard too much about Ari Shternfeld. He wrote a lot of books in the Soviet Union and I saw one of his books and, yes, he looked like he knew quite a bit about astrodynamics. So I put him on the plaque along with other people, with eight other people that was carried by the New Horizons spacecraft and is on its way out to Pluto and out of the solar system. So he’s one of the nine pioneers of spaceflight mechanics that I placed on the plaque. Then someone who is writing the biography of Ari Shternfeld, a guy by the name Michael Grundman who was the Head of Aerospace Engineering at University of Southern California. I met him at a conference and he told me he was writing this paper, and I said, “Oh, I put his name on the plaque.” So he asked me to send him a photograph of the plaque, which he then gave to the granddaughter of Ari Shternfeld. So she’s very happy to have this. Michael Grundman just put out a paperback book with the biography of Ari Shternfeld. I noticed he put a photograph of the plaque in the back of the book. He also has a photograph of Ari Shternfeld’s grave, which is in Moscow at this famous cemetery there that they have for generals. Khrushchev is buried there and famous aircraft designers and people that have accomplished things in the Soviet Union. Ari Shternfeld has, a fairly modest gravestone by the standards of the cemetery, but on that gravestone it shows his bi-elliptic transfer. So he’s very famous for this.
Now, one of the questions I have, and I’m very much aware that you’re writing a memoir and I would like to encourage you to provide assessments of state-of-the-art in this field at different times and what you thought was the most effective way. Now clearly you were gaining an opinion on this quite quickly in that you knew that Herrick was using outmoded classical techniques and that sort of thing. How aware were you of what the most effective way to go to increase the facility to do orbit prediction was at this time when you were at the Redstone Arsenal?
Well, I could see Herrick’s stuff was quite useful as far as the motion of natural bodies were concerned, but it wasn’t that useful for applications of spaceflight trajectories, where we’re interested in ?V costs and flight times. It was more like perturbation theory and stuff, and they were interested in very accurate orbits that they could get for natural bodies. I thought, “Well, this stuff is kind of dull.” They had gotten it down to such tremendous accuracy that the advances that you could make were not that great and you have to do an awful lot of work to make any advance at all or to make things more accurate.
I take it you were using double precision by that time?
No, besides I was more interested in not the analysis so much, People give me way too much credit for my great expertise in celestial mechanics and trajectories of spacecraft, and I’m not that much of an expert. I mean, there’s many, there are thousands of people that know how to do this better than me. I’m basically an idea man, I think of ideas. I think of things a lot of people don’t think about for some reason or another.
Did you feel that way about yourself when you worked on this Planetary Flight Handbook project?
The Planetary Flight Handbook, no, probably not. No, there I was just a journeyman engineer doing what he was told.
So what we would call the grubby grind out?
Did you know that term at the time?
No, I didn’t know that, but I was one of the guys that would be working in the bullpen. Usually, as a matter of fact, that was one of my first jobs at Lockheed; I was in a big bullpen with about hundred guys in the place.
So how did your plans change as a result of your summer at Redstone?
Well, at that time I was aspiring to do something more mathematical, so I’m going back to take more applied mathematics courses at the University of Illinois.
That’s what you were planning to do?
Yes, right. So I went back there and I wasn’t going to go into aeronautical engineering now, or Astronautical engineering, whatever it was, no, I was going into mathematics. I’m going to really learn mathematics quite well. I’m also then going to get into relativity theory. Of course, one of the reasons that I decided I’d do this is because I fell in love with this nice English girl who was fascinated with relativity and she was taking cosmology courses, and so I wanted to take the same courses as her. At Illinois and we were both going to make great advances in relativity and cosmology.
Who was that?
Pamela Grey was her name. She actually did write some papers on this later on. I did see.
Under that name?
No, she got married there to somebody else, not me.
Do you know her married name?
I don’t know it offhand. I got some record of it someplace, but I don’t know it offhand.
Was she a student of McVittie’s, as well?
Yes, she thought quite highly of him. Actually, we had a guy who took McVittie’s place for the relativity course that year, a guy by the name of William Bonnor and he was from England. Later on when I left Illinois and I went out to the University of California at Berkeley, I decided to go back into relativity and I wrote to him and he offered me a job as a teaching assistant at the University of London, and what was really good about it was it was Queen Elizabeth College, which was an all-girls college. I thought, “This is for me.”
Did you go?
I went over there on the Queen Mary, yes, because I was afraid of flying at the time. Of all things, I mean, yes, I was a paratrooper, but I still didn’t like to get in airplanes. I mean, it was fine if I had a parachute, but I didn’t like to get in them otherwise.
You were talking before about how you wanted to be a pilot.
But you were afraid of flying?
I was afraid of being a passenger. I didn’t like being a passenger where I had no control over the situation.
So you wanted to be in control, okay.
I wanted to be in control. It’s like when I’m driving in a car, I’m horrified to ride with somebody else, especially my wives, any of them. Yes, I can’t ride with them and they’re always trying to get in the driver’s seat, and I say, “No, I’m driving.” But I’ve gotten over that fear somehow.
How did you stay in Illinois?
I was at Illinois for one year. And I stayed in mathematics the whole time and I took all the courses I needed to and got good grades, tensor calculus, lots of courses in advanced differential equations. I can’t remember all the courses.
But you were doing okay?
Yes. Oh, yes, I was doing fine there, except that in order to get a master’s degree I had to take, let’s see, real variables and complex variables, pure math courses in these, and I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to do this. Forget it.” So I left the University of Illinois.
So that would have been a second master’s degree at this time?
Yes, it would have been a second master’s degree and I could be catching up with Mike Griffin here, all his master’s degrees, but I didn’t. [laughs] But it would be good. This is 1961and I got a job at Lockheed in Sunnyvale, California. I drove my car west and got there. I worked at Lockheed for a while and then I decided I’d go back to school again and I applied at University of California at Berkeley.
What were you doing at Lockheed?
I was working with Hunt Small, who later became a good friend of mine and went to school with me at Stanford. But he was my supervisor there and we were working on real problems of space missions that Lockheed was interested in and they were interested in low-thrust missions and missions to go to Mars and to Venus, and also earth orbital missions. I kept talking about libration points and stuff, and they had some interest in this, and they had me do some survey papers on optimization of trajectories and so forth. But I thought to myself, I don’t want to stay working as an engineer at Lockheed all my life. No, I’m going to go back and study more mathematics and get into cosmology. So I applied at the University of California at Berkeley in mathematics and I was accepted in mathematics.
Well, what happened to the University College London?
No, that comes afterwards. I go to the University of California at Berkeley, where I stayed at the International House, which was kind of fun. I’m in mathematics and after I’m there for a couple of weeks, I’m thinking, “This is crazy, I don’t want to take these math courses. I’d be better off taking physics courses.” So I managed to talk them into transferring me and letting me get into physics.
What was turning you off?
Well, Berkeley was even more pure mathematics, and that’s what I had to do, and I thought, “This isn’t going to work.”
But you wanted to get out of engineering into?
Into either physics or math all this time, right.
But it was always in a way applied?
Well, applied to cosmology or something else, yes. Well, I was interested — I thought I had to get into cosmology and I had to get into relativity, and I thought, “That’s the thing for me.”
Did you ask McVittie or anyone else where to go or the best places to go?
No, I didn’t ask. But then when I was at the University of California, Berkeley, I decided that I really want to go over to England, because that’s where my old girlfriend probably was. That’s part of it there — part of the reason part of the rationale was her. See, these things influence me a lot. So I went over on the Queen Mary then. I was at the University of California, Berkeley, for, a couple of months. I got the offer to go to the University of London, because I had written to William Bonnor. As soon as I got that I had no more interest in staying at the University of California, I wanted to leave. Fortunately, they let me leave without giving me failing grades or anything, because I pulled out early. I went home and I started studying on my own, I wanted to bone-up on tensor calculus and all the mathematics that I’d need for relativity theory, and thinking about what kind of thesis I would be writing and so forth. What I wanted to write was a thesis on using Newtonian cosmology. There is such a thing. I was going to solve the rocket equation with Newtonian cosmology and then talk about flights out to stars and so forth. So I’m still on kind of an application bent here. I really didn’t know. I was in a spot where I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I could make money. So I took the Queen Mary over anyway, and that was a nice trip. That was an interesting trip, about six days.
Was there any special student ticket?
No, I went in the lowest class. What do they call that thing?
No, it wasn’t steerage. I was in the front of the boat, actually. We ran into some rough seas and I met a nice lady on the boat that was nice, from England. I did see her once while I was over in London, but I only stayed in London for three days, after all this. I got an apartment. I was going to be in with a couple of German students. I saw how the students lived over there, and I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to go through this for a couple of years.” So I decided to leave and I took an airplane back. I wanted to get away so badly, I just thought, “This is a crazy country.” All the food they had there was kind of crazy and everything, and I just didn’t like it. I could see this wasn’t going to work for me.
Was this kind of bothersome to you or to your parents or something?
Yes, a little bit. [laughs]
I mean, yes, what are you going to do next?
Yes, a little bit. So I took the airplane home.
Did you have any stern talks with your father or mother?
My mother was wondering about me, but I was old enough at that time that they’re not going to give me a lot of stern talks.
Were they paying for it?
Let’s see. How old am I here? I’m about thirty years old now.
Yes. But you had the G.I. Bill?
Yes. I don’t know if I still had a lot left in it. I don’t think I did. No, I just saw that I wasn’t going to be living very well with the meager funds that I had, and I thought, “This isn’t going to work. I want to live better than this.” So I came home. This is ’62. I flew home, as I said, I was anxious to get back. Bought a used car, a used Ford, I remember the little thing very well, got in my car drove west to San Francisco and met a few of my friends there right off the bat. Then went down to Palo Alto and I thought, “Well, I’ll just walk into this different places and see if I can get a job.” I had enough money to last me for two months. I was a little nervous, but —
So this is around ’63, ’64?
This is ’63. ’62? No, it’s probably ’63. Yes, this is ’63 now. Is that right? Let me think.
You were already a veteran, you didn’t have to worry about deferments or being called up or anything like that?
No, I didn’t have to worry about it.
Vietnam was still a ways away.
Yes, that was quite a ways away.
Okay. So nothing else was really going on, so you were still exploring.
Didn’t have any girlfriends or anything, I just went out in a whole new world and just drove west, figuring, well, I can at least get a job at Lockheed or something. So I went down to their employment office and told them that I was interested in a job with them, and it turns out that I got a job at the research laboratory, which is in Palo Alto. That led to that Planetary Flight Handbook. They needed somebody to start drawing up all these graphs and everything and I’d be working for John Breakwell, and I knew who he was. I’d never really known him, but I knew that he was highly thought of at the place.
Now, we’re coming up to that.
So that was the first thing I started working on. I became good friends with Stan Ross, who was the head of the project, and he and I hit it off right away. He had a Ph.D. from Harvard working under Arthur Bryson, who’s relatively famous for his work in optimization.
But my question was more on William Bonnor at this moment. Did you talk to him? Was he disappointed that you didn’t stay in London?
Well, I tried to contact him and I could never find him. I don’t know where he was. So I thought, “Well, to hell with you then.” But I could see that this thing wasn’t going to work, yes.
Okay. So you applied at the employment office just straight, cold?
Yes, just walked in the employment office and they said, “Yes, we think we — we’ll circulate your application,” and so forth. The next thing you know they were making me an offer. Of course, I would have taken almost anything, because I was getting down to my last dime.
But they didn’t require references? Did you have references?
Yes. Well, they knew I had worked at Lockheed before and they were wondering why I went — I didn’t say too much about going over to London and coming, because I thought, “Well, this is going to look like I’m an unstable person.”
Yes. Well, I was just going to ask, you know.
And I was. [laughs] And I was, yes. So I really didn’t know what I wanted to do about that time. So that’s when I got, so I got back to Lockheed, worked on Planetary Flight Handbook, and then I decided that I’m not really going to go back to school anymore, but John Breakwell encouraged me and helped me out with the libration point work. I wrote a couple of internal documents and that was interesting. Then he introduced me to the control of these bodies a lot, you know, Routh criterion. It’s a common thing to use to see if a system is stable. I started learning about root locus plots and things of this sort, and I thought, “Well, I need to know more about this. I need formal training in this, so I really need to go back to school again.” If I’m going to go back to school, well, Stanford is the right place for me, because it’s right next door, and John Breakwell is over there now. So I went over there to Stanford and there was no problem getting in. So I started taking some courses part-time. I was working at Lockheed and Lockheed was paying the way. In the meantime, I got married in February 6th, 1963, that was a big event.
How did you meet your wife?
She was the wife of my former close friend at the University of Illinois. We both took McVittie’s celestial mechanics course together, when there was like three people in the class. This was the advanced course. His name was Robert Johnson. He was a naval aviator and he was going to school, I guess they had some program where they send them to school for a year or two. So he went to the University of Illinois and then later he went to the Naval Postgraduate School. He and his wife then settled in Seaside, California, which is right next to Monterey, where the Naval Postgraduate School is at. So I would send them Christmas cards all the time since they were very good friends. I knew both of them quite well. I would always get a Christmas card back saying, “How are you doing,” and so forth. This year, though, I sent the Christmas card in and I heard back from his wife, Bonnie, and she said that he had been killed in an airplane accident in California. That happened I guess, that happened in ’61. [Crash happened on September 12, 1961, my birthday] Yes, I came back and then when I came back, see, I’d written back to Bob Johnson’s wife and she hadn’t sent me back a letter right away, but when I came back to Illinois from my England trip there was a letter waiting for me that had come through the mail, and it was from her, and she said that she’d like to see me again and so forth. So then I saw her again. I actually went down there and after about two or three months I asked her to marry me and she did and we got married within about a couple of weeks of me asking her. She had two children. One was three years old and the other one was under a year.
Did you know them or did they know you?
No, no, they didn’t know me. No.
What is her full name?
Bonnie Gail Johnson at the time.
What was her maiden name?
Pruiett. She was from Illinois, from Alton, Illinois, so we had something in common, we were from the same place, but obviously, I had already know her before and I knew she was very good-looking and everything and vivacious. I was a little nervous about taking over two kids, since I could barely support myself. I had just gotten my job at Lockheed and stuff.
Did she work at all?
No, she didn’t work at all. She was taking care of the kids. But they had social security from her husband’s death, so they had some money coming in.
Was her husband killed in a civilian air crash?
So he probably had a military pension, too.
It wasn’t the pension; they got social security, though, for orphans or something. I think that was it.
So you got married.
So I got married and then we rented a house there and everything in Palo Alto.
How did your family feel about your marriage?
Well, they thought it was great, because they had always wanted me to get married and they were thinking there’s something wrong with me that I’m not getting married.
No issue about having two kids right off the bat like that?
That was my problem. They weren’t going to worry about it. So we didn’t get any help from the parents as far as that goes, I mean, nobody to watch the kids and that was always a problem getting babysitters and stuff like that.
So where actually did you live in the Stanford area?
I lived in Palo Alto. This time I’m working full-time at Lockheed; taking some courses. She had money from the life insurance. So there was some savings. So then I decided that I’d try to go back to school and she supported me in that area and we were getting money from social security and stuff for the kids, so we weren’t really poor. But I mean we had to watch our money, yes, but it was okay. I was only going to go back for a certain amount of time. As a matter of fact, then the money started running low and that’s when I decided to go back and get another job while I was going to school, and I went out to Ames Research Center.
Which is right next to Palo Alto?
Right, yes. This is in ’66. They had lost a lot of contracts and everything and they were laying people off. I remember that because I’m in the office with two other guys, and when the phones rings, it was going to be the supervisor calling somebody in to tell them that they’re laid off. So it was funny, because the phone rings and the guy says, “Well, you answer the phone. No, I don’t want to answer it. You answer it.” Like it’s going to make any difference, you know. So the one guy in my office did get laid off and I did not. They finished the whole, all the layoffs and I did not get laid off. But then about four or five days later I decided that I would go back to school full-time and they were going to give an assistantship at the school. They gave me an assistantship, a research assistantship at the school. Under a guy by the name of Ben Lange. He was another Professor who I worked with at Lockheed also. He was working on the drag-free satellite, and Stanford was going to be doing simulations of the spinning drag-free satellite and so I was the Research Assistant, and they asked me to work on analog computers and simulate the motion and the control of these things.
What is a drag-free satellite?
A drag-free satellite, it’s the satellite inside of another satellite and so you thrust with the outside satellite so that the inside one then follows a pure gravitational orbit without any drag on it. You see what I mean? As a matter of fact, this was actually done in the newly DISCOS Program that the Navy had, they did a drag-free satellite.
Yes, I’m baffled as to how that works.
This is Gravity Probe B. This actually led to Gravity Probe B about thirty years later.
So is it gyroscopic? I mean, there is some sort of spinning —
All that they were talking about to begin with was a proof mass on the inside, and they had to then carefully calculate all the attraction of the other satellite on it and work out all the forces and everything. But they got rid of the drag aspects or any radiation pressure thing that controlled this outside spacecraft with thrusters to make sure that it never touched the other one. So they had a feedback a lot in there.
So there was no physical connection between the inner and the outer one?
That’s right. Yes.
Because once it was in orbit it would just sort of assume — what was the relative size of these two bodies?
I don’t know what the Gravity Probe B ended up being.
I mean, was it like a — I mean, the deviation couldn’t have been that much between the —[two bodies]
The inner spacecraft then was very small. I think at the time they were talking about a sphere with a little flat on it that they used to readout where it was or something.
It was just a fraction of the size of the chamber of the outer one?
Yes, but I wasn’t into the actual hardware of it, I was more into the control system, the control laws that you’d use. We used an on/off control system with hysteresis and dead band in there.
Yes. This is how a lot of things work with your thermostats and so forth, by the way. I mean, this thing doesn’t go off right away, when it hits on a certain place it isn’t an on/off system. It’s an on/off system, but when it hits the temperature of 72, it doesn’t go over right away, it might go down to 70 and then it kicks in and pushes it back up, and it has to go past that then and it kicks the other way. That’s a dead band in there, in other words. Otherwise it’d be doing chattering all the time; it’d be going back and forth, because the temperature is going to fluctuate real fast. So you’ve got to get rid of that.
You were doing applied mass, doing satellite orbit work and you’re at Stanford as a Research Assistant.
Yes, I left Lockheed then and I went full-time. This is the second time I left Lockheed, but this time is with the Research Laboratory. Yes, I went back full-time at Stanford with the Research Assistantship. That was all good. I was able to make ends meet until 1966. I’m taking coursework and so forth and thinking about a thesis that I’m going to work on. I’d actually started to work on the thesis a little bit. Then I was running short of money, so I thought, “Well, I’m going to have to get a job.” So I walked over to Ames and I met a guy by the name of Sy Sybertson, who later became Director of Ames. Don’t ask me what his real name was, we called him Sy Sybertson. He was the head of the Mission Analysis Division, which was a branch of NASA Headquarters stationed at Ames. They had representatives from all the NASA Centers, was the idea, but it didn’t really pan out the way they wanted it to, because most of the centers would not give up billets to go out and work for this headquarters outfit. So what I ended up working for, the Electronics Research Center in Massachusetts, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So I had to go back there several times to report in as to what I was doing out at Ames working for the headquarters for Ames. It was a little weird situation.
So you were essentially a contractor?
No, civil service, but I was assigned to the Electronics Research Center, which was the center, but I was then given temporary duty with this Mission Analysis Division, at NASA Headquarters. They were going to do mission analysis and they were working on some other versions of the Planetary Flight Handbooks, more advanced versions of it. What the heck was I doing there? I did various things looking at future missions that could be done for humans or robotic spacecraft.
Let me just fill in a few gaps. Your Research Assistantship at Stanford, do you know how it was funded?
Oh, that was with a NASA grant. I even put out a report [Stanford University Report] on analog studies of a controlled drag-free satellite. That was one of my first publications, as it were. That was about ’65 or so, I don’t know, somewhere in there.
So you needed more money, you went to Ames; you got pretty much detailed then to this project.
What happened is I was interviewed by Sybertson and he says, “Bob, it’s going to be kind of a strange thing. I don’t really want somebody for Ames; I want somebody who is really working for the Electronics Research Center.” And then, lo and behold, the guy I’m going to be reporting to at the Electronics Research Center is Stan Ross, the guy I worked for at Lockheed. This has happened a lot in my life, you see, with my wife and everything; different people have come back into my life after they seemingly left forever.
That’s amazing. You don’t have your Ph.D. at this point?
No, I don’t. No.
Now, you were getting, back in Massachusetts, you’re awfully close to Yale and to the celestial mechanics group there. Were you ever in contact with them?
No, we were very close, though. I mean, we were right next door to MIT and also Harvard. Well, I really didn’t interact that much with them. Rudi Houlker was back at the Electronics Research Center working there. I talked to him for a while.
What was the Electronics Research Center part of?
It was a NASA Center. It had been recently established there, it was relatively new.
Was it on the MIT campus?
No, they were in separate buildings at Technology Center, which is right next to MIT. This place, it was closed down in 1969, and I’ll get to that in a little bit, because I was working there at the time and I’d just left a month before they were given the word that they were closing down. People thought that I knew something, but I didn’t know anything, and I had transferred to Goddard Spaceflight Center. But I was at the Electronics Research Center.
You took your family with you, right?
Yes. Okay, now I go to Ames. I go to Ames and I’m trying to finish my thesis. I had all my coursework done. It’s 1966 and I’m working for Electronics Research Center and flying back there and I hated that. I mean, I didn’t like flying at all and now I had a family and I was worried about something happening to me. I still remember them looking at me when I took my first flight back to Massachusetts, and I was saying goodbye to them like I’d never see them again. [laughs] I was hyper about airplanes.
I can imagine that feeling, sure.
I’d made several trips back and forth and working with Stan Ross and I’m working at Ames doing my thing there, but I’m not getting my thesis done. I’m thinking, “How am I going to get more of this done?” Then along comes this idea of getting a fellowship from NASA, and Stan Ross went to bat for me, and he got me a fellowship to go back to Stanford and work full-time on my thesis. So I’d be paid full-time. So I had one year, is what I thought. Actually, I had more than one year and I didn’t realize it. If I would have known that I would have taken two years, but I got the thesis done in the one year. I worked my ass off, but I did it. I really worked hard and I got a lot done and I pretty much got the whole thing done and it was even published in a NASA report, in a contractor report, or it was a Stanford report done by a NASA contract. It had nothing to do with my job at NASA.
What was the title of your thesis?
The title of the thesis is “The Control and Use of Libration Point Satellites.” That, I guess, more than anything else, established my priority in a lot of areas for libration point missions. A lot of ideas were in there. I published a couple other short articles on things, but most of the stuff was in this thesis.
So you were still, and by libration points you’re talking about the earth, sun, moon, typically?
Or are you looking at other kinds of things, like the Trojan asteroids or deep space missions and that sort of thing?
I’m looking at all the libration points. As a matter of fact, I did a table in the thesis that has the libration points for all the solar system bodies and planets and moons and stuff like that. That’s fairly easy to do once you’ve worked out the general theory.
I’m just wondering, I mean, since you’re interested in application, were you thinking about deep space?
Right. Oh, yes, I was thinking of applications and things like this and I’d already done all this stuff on the lunar communication satellite. That was a paper I did in 1966 while I was at Stanford, and I got a lot of notoriety about that, because there was a lot of interest in that. They were interested in that work out at Goddard Spaceflight Center, for instance. Let me think how all this works out. Then I figured my time was just about up for my thesis, and well, I’d done the report and there were many, many copies done. I remember that the pages in most of them were not collated properly. So my wife and I had to spend two days down at the bindery going through 250 pages of stuff and getting each page sorted out properly. They didn’t collate them right, I don’t know. And they were going to do it that way. It was really a sloppy job.
How many copies?
Hundreds. Oh, yes, but my wife went through the whole thing again on her own. I couldn’t believe that she did that. Yes, she was a good wife. Anyway, I’m going to start crying here in a minute. Let’s see. I’m finishing my thesis there and we had to collate.
Did you have to negotiate with anyone for your thesis topic?
Oh, no, there was no problem there. First I was working for Ben Lange and he and I had a falling out, because I had all these ideas and he thought, well, you can’t do all this. I’ll have one of my other students work on this idea. I thought, “Wait a minute, this is my idea, you can’t do this to me.” So I was a little upset with him and so then that’s when I talked to John Breakwell. I never did want to use my friendship with him to put pressure on him. He had a lot of students who wanted to join him and work under him. But now I was desperate because I didn’t want to work for Ben Lange anymore, since he had betrayed me a little bit, is the way I looked at it. So I talked to John Breakwell — would he be willing to take me on as his student? He was happy to do that and there was no problem and we made the transfer and I told him what I wanted to work on my thesis on and he said, “Great, do whatever you want.”
So you were working very much independently?
Yes. Nobody gave me a thesis topic if that’s what you’re talking about.
Right. But you had to have a committee of some sort.
No, there was no committee, just one person. You work on your thesis, and — you have to do your qualifying examination. At that time I had already switched over to John Breakwell and I picked my thesis. I was working with John Breakwell in ’66, right, that’s when I did my paper on lunar communication satellites on the far side. So I’d already switched over thesis at that time. John Breakwell then became my main advisor. So that was a big point, of course. Well, he’s such a nice guy anyway. And he and I liked to play golf together, we’re both terrible golfers, and so they were good matches, though, because we were evenly matched. My friend Huntsmall [Hunt Small?], who I worked for at Lockheed, was also going back to school again, working on his Ph.D. at Stanford under John Breakwell doing optimization theory. So this was all one big happy family. I still see Huntsmall [Hunt Small?] all the time.
That must have been a good time then for you.
This was a good time, yes, except that I had a lot of work to do. It was busy, but I still managed to get out and play golf once a week at Stanford Golf Course, which is a great course, by the way. So anyway, I’m finishing my thesis now, but it’s not submitted formally. I haven’t taken my final Ph.D. orals, right, and the thesis defense. Okay, I’m going to come back and do that later, I told John Breakwell. He was not too happy about that, but he sees that I have to go forth.
You have to go to?
My year was up for the fellowship and I didn’t think I could extend it, but I actually could have. Okay, so I have to go back to work at Ames. I go back to Ames, oh, no, you’re not going to come back to Ames you’re going to have to go back to the Electronics Research Center. I thought, “Oh, wow, I don’t want to do that.” But if I don’t go back, I was under the misconception that for every year that they gave me on a fellowship then I had to give back to the government three or four years. You know, it’s like in the military academy, you go there and you have to give them so much time back.
How did you get that idea?
If I didn’t do that, then I had to give them back all the money that they paid for my tuition at Stanford. But later I found out that that was only my tuition at Stanford which was only $200 because I was in the final phase of my thesis and you just had to pay a nominal fee. So all I had to do was give them back two hundred, but I didn’t realize that, and so then I went all the way back to Massachusetts and I probably didn’t have to go back there. I could have stayed in Palo Alto, but I didn’t know that then. Since then I’ve been on the East Coast, which I hate. I would much rather be back working back there. So that’s what happened. That’s how I came back east. So I got the job at the Electronics Research Center and I was there for almost a year. About a year and I decided that they weren’t doing things I was too interested in. They weren’t in the mainstream of what NASA was doing.
What were you doing?
I was in the Office of Control Theory and Application, which was kind of a theoretical group. These are mainly mathematicians and they were doing their thing. They were mainly theorists and not so much in applications. I guess NASA, well; the Electronics Research Center was still trying to find its role within NASA.
Who set that up? Who created it?
Well, NASA decided they’d have a center in electronics research.
Somebody in NASA?
Yes, and let’s have it up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a good place.
Now, is this the first time you went there or the second time you went there, the Electronics Research Center?
No, I was there when I hired into Ames, remember, they told me I was assigned to the Electronics Research Center. But then they sent me back to school for a year and I thought I’d come back to Ames and work in the group there, but, no, now you had to go back to the center, that was it. They were taking that billet back from the Mission Analysis Division.
Right. And that’s when the center closed down during the time you were there?
That was a year later that they closed down. I was there for a year.
During the time that they closed? That’s why you went to Goddard?
Yes, then I went to Goddard after that. Yes.
Were you offered a job at Goddard or were you searching for jobs?
Well, the thing that happened in the meantime was, while I was still at Stanford, Goddard was interested in my paper that I wrote in 1966 about communications from the far side of the moon. They wanted to get into that area and they put out a big contract to General Electric to do a thorough study of this. Well, they put out an AO or whatever they do, and about six or seven companies responded to that. I still have all their proposals, by the way. They all reference my paper and saying what a great job it is and so forth, so naturally I kept all that. [laughs] But the whole thing was based on my paper, on my idea. So they were going to do a more thorough study, but I was also doing my thesis and finishing up on that. I was in a race to finish my thesis before their final report came out, right, because I didn’t want them to scoop me on anything. I managed to beat them and sent them a copy of my thesis as the winner, which was GE, and they used a lot of that in their final report also. So this was done for Goddard, but I went back to Electronics Research Center. But then I thought, “Well, you know, I really ought to be working for Goddard,” but I couldn’t just pick up and leave, I have a family, and I have a big house now and everything.
You had a house in Massachusetts?
Yes, in Bedford, Massachusetts. So how am I going to do all this? Well, I wrote to the guy who was in charge of the contract and now he became a branch head down at Goddard. Bob Groves is the guy’s name. He still lives out in Columbia, Maryland. He said, “Yes, we’d like to have you down here.” He said, “We can probably fix up a transfer and everything.” So he worked on it and everything and I got transferred down here. In December of 1969 I went down. I actually moved everybody, and that’s a long story, how I bought my house here. I was trying to get rid of the other house and it was right at the last minute, around Thanksgiving, I finally got an offer on the other house. It was close. I was borrowing money all over the place to make the payments down here, but I managed to pull it all off and I moved down here in December of ’69 and went to work for Goddard.
So it was through Bob Groves.? Did they see you as some sort of a contract monitor for the GE contract?
No, that was already over.
What specifically did Bob Groves want you for?
He wanted me for lots of things, but they liked the thesis I put out and everybody thought I was a pretty smart guy. They wanted to have people like me working in the Flight Dynamics Division. The Head of the Division was Fritz Von Bun. He was kind of a, what’s the word, a hard-driver. He was a German. He was a German Messerschmitt pilot in World War II, as a matter of fact.
Now, you got there in ’69 then?
Yes, December of ’69. The Apollo Program is still going on. And Goddard manages the network, it’s called STDN network or something of the antennas that are tracking the Apollo stuff. Not the deep space network. This is different than the deep space network. They had a different network. They have stations around the world. So they were heavily involved in the Apollo Program, but mainly in the tracking and data handling area. So then they were naturals to try to push this idea of the communication satellite. And I got in with some of the guys working in that division and they liked my ideas so much that they helped me try to convince the powers that be that this is the way we want to go. We made trips down into Marshall and Johnson and tried to convince them of this, but it wasn’t going to happen and that’s a long story. That’s Chapter Two of my book, I believe. Yes.
Well, maybe that’s a good place to pick up next time.
Yes, Chapter One and Two and Three are what we’re going to get into here. Yes, with the stuff we’ve already talked about. Yes.
Okay. Well, maybe a good place to start next time is with arriving at Goddard and the definition of the work that you’ll be doing, who you’re working for, who’s working with you, and then a general state-of-the-art of where your discipline was at. What could you do? What kind of computers did you have? What were the big problems to overcome, the technical problems to overcome?
Yes. Yes, there’s probably a lot of stuff we left out, though, in between Electronics Research Center and while I was at Stanford working on the thesis, but it’s okay.
We can go back and pick it up if it comes to mind.
Okay. So thanks for this session. You’ve gone —
I’m just thinking about one thing before I forget, I just had it on the tip of my mind and now it’s disappearing again. Okay, we’ll have to do it some other time. I’ll think of it in a minute, but —
Well, we’ve gone about just over two hours, two hours and ten minutes.
Okay. This is hard work.
Yes. That’s why a two-hour session is pretty good, because then it gets pretty rough after that. Okay, thanks a lot.