Rocket man

Published 11:59 pm Monday, July 20, 2009

It has been 40 years since the Apollo 11 astronauts first walked on the moon, but without the contributions of one Andalusia man, Neil Armstrong may have never taken that “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Wyley Ward worked in the aerospace industry as an engineer for almost 36 years, making design contributions for a variety of projects, including Skylab and the SR-71 spy plane. It was his work on the Saturn V rocket, however, that helped the U.S. win the “space race” with the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

“I went to work with a company in 1959 named Pratt & Whitney, and they were designing the first liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen rocket engine,” Ward said. “This is the first experience the U.S., or anyone else, ever had in the use of liquid hydrogen. I got very familiar with liquid hydrogen, and got to know a lot about rocket engines.”

Ward said NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) officials in Huntsville contacted him in 1963, and convinced him to move there to work as a consultant.

“The first job I was given was to look at the design of the Saturn V,” Ward said. “They had a procedure for it, where it had to coast for three orbits, and then re-ignite and go to the moon. I was given a job to look at the control of the propellants, during that coast period.”

Ward said he and other engineers studied the procedure for about a month, before determining that a change needed to be made to the design. His name is on the official memo that recommended the changes to NASA.

“I worked in the propulsion vehicle engineering department, which was headed by a German named Hans Paul,” Ward said. “I wrote the memo recommending a major change to the third phase of the Saturn V. This change was to get rid of the system they had proposed for settling and venting the tanks, and instead go to a continuous vent system. I went and made this presentation to five people — including my two NASA bosses above me, and Hans Paul was also there.

“He sat back in the back of that room, and every once in a while as I was giving the presentation, he would just nod his head and go, ‘ja, ja (German for “yes”)’ He understood everything that I was talking about. When I got done, he didn’t ask a single question, he just looked over at my boss and said, ‘Write the memo and order the change!’”

Ward said NASA was not as mired in bureaucratic red tape in those years, so it was easy to execute major changes to the program.

“Back when the Germans and (Wernher) von Braun were in charge, you didn’t have any congressional hearings or committees or any of that nonsense,” he said. “If they wanted the change made, it was made.”

Ward said the design changes were made right away, but to prove the rocket would work under the suggested plan, he and other engineers designed a series of experiments to test their theories. The experiment was given the call sign of “AS-203,” but is often referred to as the Apollo 2 mission.

“We prepared a test to be flown in space,” he said. “We already had the Saturn IB rockets designed, and we were going to take a Saturn IB for the experiment, because the second stage of the Saturn IB vehicle is almost identical to the third stage of the Saturn V.

“So, we rigged up an experiment to fly on the Saturn IB vehicle. We put a lot of instruments on it, including two cameras that were actually designed at Auburn University. We collected a lot of data from that experiment. The hydrogen had to boil off, because it was very cold, and you were going to lose it. We just continually vented the tank, and we ran the vent gasses down through propulsion nozzles, which kept the vehicle accelerated slightly.

“The argument was, ‘that slight acceleration’s not going to hold the liquid down in the bottom of the tank.’ But our science and equations said the fuel was going to be held down because of the surface tension.”

Ward said the experiment was a monumental success and showed the design changes were necessary.

“That thing was a 100 percent success,” he said. “Not only did we control the propellants, we chilled down the engines. We were able to show how to re-ignite the engines and everything.”

He added that the design changes instituted in the Saturn V’s third stage rockets were a major contribution that enabled the U.S. to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.

“The Russians (Soviet Union) wanted to make it to the moon using just one rocket, with no re-ignition along the way,” Ward said. “They were going to take a straight shot to the moon, and it took a 32-million pound thrust engine to do it. You could only get one shot off every two months, and you only had a five-minute window to get it off the ground and get it to work to get you to the moon.

“But we could shoot the rocket off at any time and get it into orbit. And then from orbit, you can fire from any position to go to the moon. The Russians were able to reach space first, but that’s easy, all you need is a powerful rocket to get you up there. But they were never going to get to the moon first because they didn’t know what we knew.”

Ward worked on additional projects for NASA, before retiring and leaving Huntsville in 1996 at the age of 62. He said he has been asked back since then to offer advice and consultation, even as recently as 2007.

He added that he believes the modern NASA will not be able to reach its maximum potential unless it streamlines its current organization.

“What they’ve done, is they have it set up where they look at each group of engineers and they say, ‘You design this piece, and you design this piece and you design this piece,’” he said. “But I said, you can’t do it that way. You’ve got to allow the engineers to look at the whole thing from front to back, and they wouldn’t take that recommendation.

“Right now, all the top managers at NASA in all the companies are corporate people — they’re not engineers. The Germans (who led NASA during the space race) were, first and foremost, engineers. Trained engineers don’t get to be in the management positions anymore. And unless things change, I guarantee you that we won’t make it back to the moon.”

Ward has written a book about his time at NASA, titled, My Role in the Cold War and Space Race. For more information, call Ward Publishing at 222-4194.