The Race to Space

A Langley engineer provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of NASA’s early days.

A Bunch of Plumbers

by John Newcomb

High Tide Publications, $15.99

Before Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” NASA laid the groundwork for the Apollo moon landings with the Lunar Orbiter missions: unmanned spacecraft that orbited the moon to map out potential Apollo landing sites. When NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton was tapped to head up the project, not everyone in the scientific community thought this was a good idea. Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Harold C. Urey complained that Langley was incapable of the task and called them “nothing more than a bunch of plumbers.”

Though it was rather insulting at the time, John Newcomb, one of the lead engineers on the LO project, can now look back on Urey’s aspersion with a smile. In fact, he appropriates the phrase as the title for his memoir, A Bunch of Plumbers. Much of the book reads the way you’d expect an engineer to construct a memoir—with heavily referenced text, annotated diagrams and technical explanations. In a few places, he even stops writing in paragraph form to relate a detailed conversation in a two-columned chart. Unusual? Yes, but effective.

While there is enough science to appease the geekiest among us, Newcomb breaks everything down into simple explanations that a layperson can understand. He concludes one passage describing photographic capabilities of that era saying, “Even with the best resolution we had from Earth at that time, you could have several aircraft carriers sitting on the moon and we could not have seen them.”

Newcomb’s story begins in the early 1960s with his first participation in a rocket launch, when he quickly learned the dangers inherent with this line of work. At the time, he was a Virginia Tech engineering student working in a program with NASA. Regarding his first trip to the facility, Newcomb writes: “I asked Derwood, the lead technician, if I could arm the rocket. Derwood said, ‘Sure.’ … Derwood had a wooden arm from the elbow down, as the result of an accident on the job. One day when he was arming a Deacon single-stage rocket, the rocket decided it was time to leave and fired prematurely. The tail fin of the Deacon caught and launched Derwood’s hand along with the payload.”

The nervous college student armed the rocket and moved to a safe position to watch the launch with Derwood and his wooden limb. But he harbored no second guesses. His only thought: “This is heaven.”

After graduating, Newcomb became a rising star inside of NASA and landed a key role on the LO project, which not only accomplished the mission to map the Apollo sites, but mapped the entire moon and shot the first-ever photo of Earth from space.

From his home in Gloucester Point, Newcomb recalls his apprehension when the Earth picture was suggested. “I’d been tugging at the project manager’s sleeve, Cliff Nelson, saying, ‘Cliff, this is a wonderful idea, but we didn’t develop the software to do that. Our software can only take pictures of the moon. If we want to take a picture of the Earth, we’re going to have to jury rig the software. That’s something you don’t do in the middle of flight operations.’”

They spent many long nights figuring how to make it work, and on August 23, 1966, the “Earth Picture” was shot. There was only one thing the engineers forgot to do: notify the photo processing lab about what was coming.

“So John Graham [photo processing lab technician] started putting together the film strips,” Newcomb explains. “The first thing he saw was nothing but the black of space, and he thought, ‘Oh, crap, these guys missed the whole damn moon.’” He kept going says Newcomb, “and then, all of a sudden, ‘Holy shit!’ John Graham realized he was the first man on this planet to see the first picture of Earth taken from deep space.”

After the great success of the Lunar Orbiter mission, Langley was put in charge of the Viking mission to fly a spacecraft to Mars and land on the red planet. Newcomb was named trajectory design manager. “We didn’t know anything about Mars. We went into an atmosphere of unknown pressure, of unknown constituency, to land on a surface of unknown height, of unknown bearing strength, of unknown slopes and accesses.” Newcomb pauses, then adds with a laugh, “But other than that, we had it made.”

As with the LO, all of the Viking missions—two landers and two orbiters—were successful. This was unprecedented. Other NASA rockets had failed to escape Earth’s gravity or burned up on reentry. Two other surveyor spacecraft had even crashed into the moon. In the race to Mars, the Russians had launched 14 rocket missions, but every one of them failed.

Meanwhile, Langley successfully managed five Lunar Orbiter missions, shot the “photo of the century,” and placed two landers on the surface of Mars. Not bad for a bunch of plumbers.

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