Sunday, August 26, 2012

Podcast Interview

Space Race, Apollo Moon Program, & R/C Aircraft

Have you ever been curious what it might have been like to work behind the scenes during America’s Space Race? Today’s show brings you an inside look from the perspective of an aerospace engineer on designing and building the very systems that put our countrymen into outer space, including his participation in saving the lives of those aboard Apollo 13. Join us as we interview Harlan Neuville about working under NASA contract and much more!
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Cruise Flight

Engineer steered Americans to the moon

October 26, 2011

By Joe St. Henry

Review Editor

Each January, Lake Orion resident Harlan Neuville, 80, and his family clear snow on the frozen lake where one of his ten children lives and enjoy a day of firing model rockets high into the sky.

Watching the streaking toys undoubtedly brings back memories of Neuville’s days working on NASA’s Apollo space program. He played an important role in launching America’s astronauts into orbit and then taking them to the moon and back.

“President Kennedy had no choice but to say we’re going to the moon (in 1961), since the Russians had already beat us to Earth’s orbit,” he said. “This would take entirely new technologies and systems. He said we would accomplish it within ten years and we made it.”

Neuville was an electrical engineer at the time, working for Delco Electronics in Milwaukee. He was building guidance and navigation systems for the Titan ICBM nuclear missiles. The navigation technology employed to navigate a ship through space was similar, so he started working on these systems for the Apollo program.

“I definitely thought it was possible to send a man to the moon,” he said, noting that the many engineers on the Apollo project regularly worked 60-70 hour work weeks. “We had a three year jump, since we’d already developed a system like this for the Titan program. It would have to be adapted for the Apollo program, but we were always working with the latest technology available.”

Neuville said hundreds of thousands of engineers and support staff mobilized across the country – most of who worked for private companies and universities – to develop the space ship, booster rocket, command center and launch tower. The U.S. government engaged the scientific community to reach the moon much like it did to build the atomic bomb, Neuville said.

The question on everyone’s minds, Neuville added, was would the Saturn V rocket work? Smaller booster rockets had put one- and two-man space capsules into space, but a moon shot would require a three-man orbiter, plus landing module and other equipment.

During the Apollo program, Neuville was in Mission Control to manage the space ship’s navigation and guidance systems. His team helped astronauts orbit the moon for the first time. In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on its surface.

“We were just relieved that the technology worked,” he said. “It got them there, but now we had to get them home. We weren’t sure if they could actually get off the moon.

“Nobody celebrated until they splashed down in the ocean,” he admitted.

There were plenty of nervous moments for the engineers, none more unsettling than during the Apollo 13 mission, where an explosion onboard the space capsule on the way to the moon severely damaged the ship and endangered the crew.

“We had to shut the navigation and guidance systems down to conserve power,” he said. “These were very delicate components and were designed to stay on the whole time. Once we shut them off, we had to sweat it out because we weren’t sure if they would turn on again.

“We took a big chance, but there really wasn’t an alternative.”

Fortunately, the engineers’ gamble paid off. The ship eventually returned home five-days later with the astronauts’ oxygen supply virtually exhausted.

Neuville supported a total of six lunar landings, the last of which took place in 1972. After that, he worked on navigation and guidance system-support for Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz space mission with the Soviet Union.

Delco Electronics did not win the contract to help build the space shuttle, so Neuville was assigned to parent company General Motors Corporation’s technical center in Warren, Mich., in the late 1970s. He worked on various transportation systems, as a director.

He watched the shuttle program, which ended this year, from a distance.

“I thought the space shuttle was really cool,”Neuville said. “We took people other than test pilots into space. They were scientists with a different outlook on why we should be there.

“We’ve learned more from the Hubble telescope (put in orbit by the shuttle) than anything else,” he added.

Neuville retired from the automotive industry in 1995. In addition to teaching computer science in the past at Oakland University, his love of flying and space has never waned. He likes to fly radio-controlled airplanes – some with wingspans as big as 12 feet – as well as launch his model rockets.

“I don’t build rockets now,” he said. “I just like to fly the plastic, assembled ones. Those are a lot easier.”

Neuville hopes the United States returns to space someday. “Man is curious,” he said. “We gotta go.”

Surprisingly, he said he never wanted to step foot in the shoes of the astronauts he worked with during the Apollo program.

“No, I couldn’t tolerate the training,” he said. Those astronauts were very motivated people. Heck, they were fighter pilots and had that mentality. You put me in 10gs (ten times gravity) and I would die.”

Today, Neuville speaks in front of groups about the Apollo space program, his small role and the technology involved in putting people on the moon 50 years ago. His next presentation is on Oct. 27, at the Orion Township Public Library.

“People are just awed by my stories,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. We were just ordinary people doing our jobs. But, given the right organization, we did an extraordinary thing. We sent man to the moon.”

Born to Fly - Excerpt

Born to Fly

I don’t believe I had a choice but to love airplanes as a child, it was either that or to attempt to block out all of the animated aviation talk around me.  The most important men in my life are aviators.  I’m glad the passion for flight is in my blood; it has brought me so many places, connected me with unforgettable people and has taught me life lessons that are simply irreplaceable.

On my father’s side is my grandfather, Harlan.  When he was “young and daring” he flew a Piper Cub under a fellow engineer’s instruction regularly between Madison, WI and Milwaukee, WI while working on an advanced servo project.  He recalls, “I landed several times without breaking a thing!”  He later joined a flying club to keep the passion going, training in a stripped down T-6.  He ended up only logging around eight hours, “I was lucky I didn’t kill myself,” he remembers.  Harlan gave up flying when his career “became more interesting.”

Harlan: Center bottom
When I was a child, my room had two unique decorations hanging from the ceiling.  One was an airplane and when you turned it on it will fly around in circles, I believe that to be my father’s influence.  On the opposite end of the room was an inflatable astronaut, where that ‘becoming an astronaut’ dream was brought on completely by my grandfather.  Harlan’s work became more interesting because it brought him straight to the ultimate flying machines at NASA.  He headed the engineering group in mission control for all of the Apollo missions as well as Skylab, the first manned space station launched by the United States.

“We had designed and manufactured G&C equipment in partnership with M.I.T Cambridge Mass. We were responsible for the guidance and navigation equipment (GNC) on both the LEM and the Command module,” my grandfather tells me, “whenever we heard G & C from mission control; my group had better get it right!”

His most tense moments in the program were when trouble began on the Apollo 13 mission. “We had to shut off the power because the explosion wiped out the fuel cell. By shutting this elegant guidance system off, we weren’t certain what it would do because they required such a delicate balance.  However, we didn’t have a choice but to shut it off because they were running out of power. We were worried about what would happen with trying to turn back on these systems.  All our science told us it was unlikely. 

What we didn’t know was that the spacecraft was kept in a BBQ mode; it rotated really slowly, exposing its surfaces to the sun. It turned out there was enough heat convection from having done these rotations that this compartment the gyros and accelerometers were in was kept warm enough to get started again. 

As we approached the earth we had one shot at turning everything on and finding out that the instruments would reactivate and work properly.  When they fired it all up it again, everything came up right on the money.  Upon reentry the spacecraft was surrounded by a plume of fire from the disintegrating heat shield that disrupted communication entirely.  So for ten minutes we didn’t hear anything and then eleven and twelve and it finally came on.  There were several moments there that we were all pretty shook up. That took all the luck I ever had,” he retold me emotionally.

Harlan now enjoys visiting local schools and flying clubs to share his exciting experiences during such a historical time for NASA. He continues to indulge in aviation through building and flying the R/C aircraft I remember filling his entire basement when I was younger.  He is very involved in a local R/C flying club and has served as the president.

The stories my flying relatives have told me make me smile tremendously, for I have been touched by that joy of flight myself.  I thank these excellent role models for getting me where I am today.  Here is the proof that flying is in my blood. Even if I didn’t have this excellent and inspiring background, I know deep within my heart that I would have found my path to aviation some other way.