dogsounds interviews: Sara Howard, Apollo engineer

Sara Howard, aerospace engineer, Apollo, Boeing, MichoudContinuing its celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo lunar landings, dogsounds has an exclusive interview with aerospace engineer Sara Howard, who worked on the Saturn V launch vehicles used in the Apollo missions and who may have been the world’s first female aerospace engineer. Catch the interview after the jump.

With the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings well underway, many people around the world are remembering a time when the world joined up as one in hope for a future that held many promises. For others who were not there at the time it is a chance to learn about what can only be described as mankind’s greatest achievement – the first human exploration on another world, and eventual safe return.  

But for most, the Apollo project is just some apocryphal memory that they learned in school and never really gave much thought to. Today, space exploration is almost routine. In this high-tech age of satellite communications and GPS, technology is just “stuff”, and things like the shuttle and the ISS are relegated to small snippets on the news, if at all. Whilst the fields of physics, astronomy and cosmology have seen a small resurgence over the years with personalities such as Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku thrusting esoteric science into the public eye, space exploration has yet to find a figurehead to re-introduce the wonder and awe that was rife in the sixties and early seventies. Then, everyone wanted to be an astronaut. Now, folks just want to get the latest mobile phone.

 Since Apollo shut down in the face of waning public interest, mankind has stepped away from the kind of exploration that unites continents in wonder. Budgets and financial pressure has relegated man’s activities in space to mostly remote activities. The Hubble space telescope is one of our finest technological achievements. But, despite breathtaking images that get astronomers and space buffs fired up, to the public it is not exciting.

 But there are some who fully understand the importance of Apollo, and what it means for humanity. And not just the people who manned the vehicles that left the earth, or those who sat in CAPCOM monitoring every readout and managing every crisis. There are those who worked to create the technology and the hardware that made it all possible. Those who, directed by John F. Kennedy to “…go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”, set about creating technology that simply didn’t exist, in an industry that simply didn’t exist, with a vision that seemed almost impossible. For these people, these unsung 400,000, despite the questionable true political motivations behind the space race, the importance of Apollo and its directive was the promise it held as the gateway to a whole new future. One that, sadly, would not come to be.

 One of these people – one of 400,000 contractors that worked on the Apollo project – was aerospace engineer Sara Howard. At the time, NASA itself was a tiny setup, ad pretty much all of the actual engineering, design and construction work was carried out by contractors such as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and even Chevrolet. One of only two women working at Boeing on the Apollo project, and probably only a handful more across all the people involved, Sara also has the honor of being the first known female aerospace engineer.

 I asked Sara a little about what it was like being involved with Apollo, what it meant, and how being a woman in a particularly manly man’s world went down.

 DB: For readers who may not know, you are an aerospace engineer, and amongst other things you worked at Boeing, for NASA, from 1965-1967 on the Saturn V launch vehicles (BIG-ass rockets) that launched astronauts into orbit and, eventually, to the moon. How did you become interested in engineering, and what led you to end up at NASA working on the coolest project in history?

 Sara Howard: First of all, I didn’t work for NASA. There were close to 400,000 of us who did not work for NASA. Back in the 1960’s NASA was a teeny pipsqueak. They had to hire 23,000 contractors of which there were four main ones: Boeing, North American Aviation, McDonnell Douglas and IBM. The contractors won bids from NASA so maybe they did work for NASA. In the three years I worked for Boeing I never saw any NASA person. The contractors hired the 400,000 of us. Our paychecks came from the contractors.

 I always have been interested in science and math. There were no aerospace engineering classes in any colleges or universities [at that time]. It didn’t exist. We engineers majored in math, period. I saw President Kennedy’s speech and knew I had to be part of this.

 DB: At Boeing, you worked on the testing of the S1-C stage of the Saturn V rockets. The Saturn V’s as a whole were and still are the largest and most complicated machine ever built by man. Can you give us some background  factoids about the Saturn V that will make the kids go “wooooow” and amaze them into having perhaps a slight trouser-accident?

 Sara Howard: Ha! Ha! That is funny. The S1-C stage is the biggest rocket stage ever built in history. It still is. Our stage was the largest part of the Saturn V. The Saturn V is bigger than the Statue of Liberty. We had five engines on our stage which still are the biggest rocket engines in history. We used two fuels: liquid oxygen and kerosene. Empty weight of our stage is 300,000 pounds, diameter 33 feet, height 138 feet. Loaded weight is 4,792,000 pounds. Thrust (power) is 7 1/2 MILLION pounds. We boosted the Saturn V up to 38 miles in 2 1/2 minutes at 6,000 MPH. No one in the world can surpass this.

S1-C stages under contruction at the Michoud plant

S1-C stages under contruction at the Michoud plant

DB: I remember you telling me that anything near the engines would quickly become a crispy critter – that sounds about right! Tell us about the part you worked on  – your baby – the S1-C stage of this massive machine. This was the first stage of the rocket that, amongst other things, held the BIG-ASS F-1 rocket engines that started the whole rocket on it’s journey. What part did you play and what did you do in your work on this stage of the rocket? Incidentally, the word “rocket” really doesn’t do the Saturn V justice at all. It makes it sound small!

 Sara Howard: You’re right that “rocket” is a small word for such a huge vehicle. We were called System Test Engineers and we took the pulse of the stage. We measured and analyzed telemetry.  We analyzed data from many transducers. They transmit in a range of 0-5 VDC.  There were over 800 measurements but our team only monitored about 100.  The data was transmitted in Single Sideband (SS/FM), FM/FM, Pulse Code Modulation (PCM/FM) and Pulse Amplitude Modulation (PAM/FM). We tested mechanical movements, atmospheric pressure, sound level, temperature, vibrations, fuel flow, and other systems’ performance. This stage had to be perfect! Lives depended on how we did our jobs. 

F-1 engines on the S1-C stage of the Saturn V

F-1 engines on the S1-C stage of the Saturn V

DB: Now, a little background. The whole “space race” in the U.S. was kicked off in reaction to the successful placing of the Russian satellite Sputnik into orbit around the earth in 1957. Control of space would mean pole position in the battle of wills between the U.S. and the USSR. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech announcing that the United States would not only take to space but in fact land a man on the moon before the decade was out. This was an incredible statement and placed incredible pressure on the newly-formed NASA to deliver the goods, whilst keeping things safe for those involved. Can you give us a feel for what this mindset was like at the time? How did you view your Russian counterparts and their efforts, and what was it like to be under so much pressure?

 Sara Howard: There was no pressure on my part or anyone in our plant, Michoud. Pressure was beyond our pay grades! We joked around a lot. We didn’t even think of the Russians. They weren’t Russians. They were “the Communists”. If one had an ingrown toenail, acne, a bad hair day, a flat tire, got sick or any bad thing, it was a “Communist plot”. Humor is a great reliever of stress.

 DB: Now, to many of our younger readers, technology for the average Joe in the early 1960’s seems like it was pretty basic. To my generation, when they think of the sixties they think that transistors and electronic circuits were relatively new, most electrical equipment used valves, computers were the size of Dallas, clothing generated electric fields like they it was designed by Nikola Tesla, cars pretty much fell apart the moment they left the factory and everyone was black and white. Obviously Kennedy’s promise to reach the moon before 1970 meant that redonkulous amounts of money were passed to NASA and its contractors and you had access to the very latest technology, some far ahead of its time. But, that said, it is often claimed that the total computing power of the Lunar Lander (LEM) was comparable to that of a 1980’s basic calculator. With all that in mind, what kind of technological difficulties did you encounter, and what kind of innovations were you forced to come up with to get around some of the challenges?

 Sara Howard: Sorry, I am going to burst your bubble. I don’t know where you got your info but there are lots of errors. We NEVER had access to the latest technology. There were no calculators. We used slide rules. If there were transistors or electric circuits we or anyone we knew did not know or have them. Any electrical equipment we knew never used valves. Unheard of. Clothes were mostly cotton and never generated any electric fields! Later polyester had static cling out of the dryer 🙂 Cars did not fall apart. I owned a 1965 baby blue Ford Mustang convertible and it gave me many years of safe and comfortable driving.

Sara Howard and Dr. Wernher von Braun

Sara Howard and Dr. Wernher von Braun

Dr. Wernher Von Braun designed the entire Saturn V. He and his team were based at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He brought his team to Michoud and they built the first S1-C stage. Please read about him and how he and his team designed the most perfect rocket of the time. There were no technical difficulties. If any occurred, Dr. Von Braun and his team solved them.  Our team was a test team. Design engineers would have created innovations. As to the LEM, I never heard of that. It did not have computing power of a 1980s calculator.

 There is one thing I know: a cell phone has more computing power than the entire Saturn V.

 DB: What was it like to watch your first manned launch? Were you able to be there in person?

 Sara Howard: I never saw a live launch. I never got to see one in person either. Think about it: there were close to 400,000 people working on Apollo. We were scattered from sea to sea and border to border. Could we all go see a launch? I know a few people who saw launches of the Saturn V and they all lived and worked on the Cape.

 DB: What was life like in the NASA extended family at the time?

 Sara Howard: I don’t know – I never saw or met anyone from NASA. NASA was a tiny unknown entity to most of us 400,000. Today NASA touts itself as the be all and end all of Apollo. Irks us who worked for the Contractors. Extended family? Bah!

From the minute the NASA idiots put the guys of Apollo 11 into quarantine [after they returned to Earth], I thought it was the stupidest move I’d ever seen. I am also an amateur astronomer and built my own telescope around 1959 or so. I have studied astronomy most of my life and it was my minor in University. I know Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. He is one of the foremost Astrophysicists in the world. Here is what we all know: the moon has been bombarded with cosmic rays, gamma rays, meteors, micrometeorites and all particles from the sun for BILLIONS of years. It is STERILE!  We astronomers were saying “Ggrrrrr”…stupid!
 
I bet you didn’t know that the Astronauts were totally miserable in that damned trailer. When NASA realized there was no danger, they let them out. I bet the air was turning blue! 
 
I forgot to tell you that we called NASA “Never A Straight Answer”. 

DB: How did people react when you told them what you did for a living?

 Sara Howard: When? For the past 40 years, indifference. No-one cares.

 DB: Now something very interesting: it has been said that from start to finish, over 400,000 people in total worked on the whole Apollo project. Your own research has led you to the conclusion that you were perhaps the first female aerospace engineer, and only one of two women that worked on the Saturn V. That’s an incredible thing. Given that life at the time was very male-oriented – women were the home-makers, women’s lib was still a far off event, and without a doubt your field of expertise was the remit of men with pipes, curly-wurly hightower engineer-hair and, needless to say, the “right stuff” (it was essentially boys and their toys) – how were you perceived by your male colleagues? Were you judged purely on your expertise and skill, or was there always that “pretty good…for a woman” mindset?  Did you have to battle to be heard or was the culture on the project such that it didn’t matter who or what you were, you were just one of the team?

 Sara Howard: All of the guys were great. No problems. I was just “one of the team”. I have worked for many companies for 25+ years in technical jobs. I was the only woman in many. I was treated with respect and courtesy. I have lots of self-esteem! Also, the guys realized I was good at everything I did and was very productive. There is no conflict in any job if you don’t act like a jackass.

The Saturn V. A big chicken indeed.

The Saturn V. A big chicken indeed.

 DB: It cannot be denied that during the Apollo project, a big chunk of the world came together as one. For a brief moment, may differences were forgotten and the world united in gluing themselves to the TV to watch the adventure unfold. For a lot of people, the message was clear: this wasn’t simply an American achievement; it was a human achievement. But, as with all things, it also cannot be denied that over the life of the project, public attention waned, everyday issues such as Vietnam, civil rights and all manner of hardships and political wranglings took front stage again and what was mankind’s greatest achievement slipped off the front pages. How did this brief moment of unity feel, what did it make you think of the future? And how does the ambiguity about Apollo today make you react?

 Sara Howard: Unity was exciting. It gave us all a sense of pride. We really didn’t give a damn about public opinion. Still don’t. I didn’t really think of the future. I was having babies.

 I have never seen the ambiguity of today. Either people like Apollo, refuse to talk about it or hate it. I will never change people’s opinions and I don’t care what they think. My friends and I know what we did.

 DB: Regular readers of this blog will know that I view the tinfoil-hat wearing conspiracy theorists that believe the Apollo missions were all a big hoax (despite the mounting evidence to the contrary) as idiots. From your writings it is clear that you are passionate about what you did and what you took part in, and what it meant. Following on from the last question, how do these people make you feel, and what would you like to say to them?

 Sara Howard:  These people need to be blasted to the moon so they can see our equipment.  To the unbelievers: Get a life.

 DB: Do you think we will return to the moon someday? 

 Sara Howard: Of course.

 DB: Doubtless you often get caught in discussions with people who say “we should stop doing all this space stuff and solve the problems on Earth here first. It’s a waste of money”. How do you respond to this argument? Why should we continue to push out from Earth, what benefits does it bring to the human race, in your mind?

 Sara Howard: I haven’t heard this argument in 20 years!

 Look at the spin-offs of our space programs. There is tons of stuff that has made life easier for all of us. No one can argue with an idiot about a waste of money. If we all thought that, we would still be naked and eating raw mammoth.

 Technology developed by scientists and engineers all over the world has brought us civilization. I have news for those who think that throwing money at poor people will solve anything: there are people that a famous writer has called “People of the Fringe”, who will never grow, never have a civilization, starve to death and kill each other. This has existed for thousands of years.  Why do they think they can solve these problems?

 Dr. Stephen Hawking (whom I greatly admire) has announced that the human race had better start searching for another habitable earth-like planet. We are. Planetary scientists have discovered several things, [one of which is that] among the great extinctions of the past our own planet was the culprit. The asteroid may not have killed the dinosaurs. Our universe is a dangerous place, as I show in my book, “The Biggest Explosions in the Universe”.

 And the benefits? Safety. More great technology. Advancement.

 DB: Describe the sound of an F-1 firing up. Would I need to bring spare pants?

 F1A

Sara Howard: One does not just fire up one F-1! Maybe where they were built in California. I have a video of testing the F-1’s. It is very loud. But what is so cool is you can hear the harmonics of the engines. That is when the sound comes together. It is vroom! Vroom! Vroom! on and on. Everyone that hears it is really enthralled. The folks who watched a launch of the Saturn V told me that the noise is deafening.

 DB: Do you have a moon rock?

 Sara Howard:  No. I wish! Moon rocks are locked up. Some are in the Smithsonian. Even the Astronauts do not have any.

 DB: Did you somehow ever get to ride the vomit comet (this is the plane that was flown in parabolic arcs to simulate zero-g)?

 Sara Howard: That is only for Astronauts. I did have my own plane (I am a pilot) and I flew hammerhead stalls which causes zero-g.

 DB: Tell us about your career after Apollo. Did you work on other NASA projects, or was your future work more earthbound? Did anything you worked on afterwards ever come close to giving you the sense of pride and accomplishment as your beloved Saturn V?

 Sara Howard: After Apollo I had lots of great jobs. I worked on the Trident Nuclear Missile Submarine (in a building – not in a ship yard). I worked for some guys analyzing data, who turned out to be the CIA 🙂

 I worked for Utility companies. I turned to business computer programming. There was not much call for aerospace engineering after Apollo.

 DB: What are your fondest memories of your time with the Apollo project?  

 Sara Howard: All of them. I loved every minute. Every year was precious and a gift. The people were the very best that I have ever worked with. How does one describe nirvana? Paradise?

 DB: Sara, thank you for your time!

 For the hidden contractors like Sara, they know what they wrought. They saw the potential of the future that their work enabled, and felt the dismay when that future, for the greater part, faded away.

 So, whilst we remember the legends of the astronauts and the folks in CAPCOM, the tension and drama, the heroics and adventure, we should also remember that none of this would have been possible without the hard work, vision and dedication of a lot of people whose names you will likely never know.

 About 400,000 of them.

 

 Sara Howard runs her own blog over on http://apolloproject.wordpress.com/ and http://www.insidetheapolloproject.com/ and you can follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/sara1861.

 She has also written a delightful book entitled “The Biggest Explosions in the Universe” which looks at the wonders of our universe in a way that is perfect for younger readers. From stars that sing to those that throw temper tantrums, the book looks at many of the most phenomenal things to be found in our backyard. You can buy “The Biggest Explosions in the Universe” from Amazon here

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