The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 22, 2009


Carlisle’s Dave Reed reflects on NASA career

As a teenager in Billings, Montana, Dave Reed built and launched rockets from his own backyard. “I was like that kid in [the film] October Sky,” he says, “except I set the neighbors’ porch on fire.” The budding young rocketeer sought an aeronautical engineering degree at the University of Wyoming. As he approached graduation in 1964, he knew he “would work for peanut butter and jelly” if he could work for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and one day he got the call. Would he come and work in thermodynamics on heat shield technology? “For some reason I’ll never understand,” says Reed, “I said I would think about it and call back in the morning. I hung up and couldn’t believe I had said that to NASA! But then a funny thing happened. The following day, NASA called back. I thought they were going to tell me to forget it, but they asked me to come and work in mission control on trajectory on the launches of the Saturn V rockets and the Apollo program. I couldn’t believe it. How could I be that lucky?”

Reed started right away in Houston at mission control as a trajectory specialist, responsible for using radar to track and calculate the path a spacecraft would follow and the way it would return to earth. “The re-entry corridor is tricky. If [the space crafts] fly too high, they spin out and wind up flying around and around in space forever. If they fly too low, they burn up.” This would become a particularly dicey issue with Apollo 13, but before that would come the rendevous and landings that were integral parts of Apollo 11 and 12. Reed logged countless hours simulating launches and charting trajectories.

Apollo 11: Lost and found

Apollo 11, the moon landing that became “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in 1969, was not a perfect flight, but its faults provided invaluable information for the trajectory specialists. Astronaut Neil Armstrong had to fly the lunar module, Eagle, wide of the original landing site on the moon, to avoid crashing into a large crater that no one had known about. In addition, it had been difficult to track the flight because large concentrations of heavy metals known as mascons on the moon’s surface made the lunar gravitational field uneven, changing the orientation of an orbit. Despite a dwindling fuel supply and an inexplicable backward drift, Armstrong managed to maneuver the craft away from the large crater, set it down on the Sea of Tranquility and announce to the world, “The Eagle has landed.” The problem was that no one knew where the Eagle was, including Armstrong and his copilot, Buzz Aldrin, who viewed the lunar landscape and could identify nothing that they could use to pinpoint their location. As it turned out, they were about four miles from their planned landing site. Armstrong knew that mission control would have all its available resources working on locating Eagle and later said to Reed, “I wasn’t lost; that was your problem.”

It was, indeed. Astronaut Mike Collins, in the command module Columbia, needed to be able to sight Eagle in Columbia’s navigational sextant in order to set up the rendevous of the two vehicles after Armstrong and Aldrin launched Eagle from the moon’s surface, and Aldrin needed to track Columbia as well. Reed says, “We wound up running the computers backward” and sending up vector coordinates to Aldrin and Collins. Alone in Columbia, Collins completed a lunar circuit every two hours. When mission control radioed a set of coordinates to him, he would search for Eagle with the sextant, but it was not until Eagle launched from the moon’s surface that Collins was able to spot it. The rest, of course, is history. Columbia and Eagle made a successful docking and the three astronauts returned safely to an exultant country.

Jubilation at Mission Control after the 1969 Apollo 11 successful landing. (Courtesy photo)

Apollo 12: You got it, babe

Reed’s own mission after Apollo 11 was to master the moon’s gravitational field and other variables and be able to affect a pinpoint landing. Astronaut Pete Conrad, who would pilot Apollo 12, and Reed worked closely to be sure everything functioned perfectly. Conrad needed to land his lunar module close enough to the unmanned probe Surveyor III that had been placed on the moon three years earlier so that he and his copilot, Al Bean, could walk to it and collect samples. After many conversations and much work, Reed famously said to Conrad, “Where do you want me to put you down?” Conrad asked him to target Surveyor III itself. “You got it, babe,” Reed said, promising accuracy that seemed impossible at the time.

Apollo 12 lifted off on November 14, 1969 and was struck twice by lightning early in its flight, knocking out the power for the guidance computer platform. Fortunately, the problem was corrected and the mission proceeded. When the lunar module, Intrepid, separated from the command module, Conrad would be able to control it manually and maneuver the craft closer to Surveyor III. To Conrad’s surprise, however, Reed’s calculations were so accurate that he had to maneuver Intrepid away from Surveyor III so that he wouldn’t actually land right on top it. The pinpoint landing had been achieved.

Dave Reed points to an autographed photo of the Apollo 12 moon-landing. (Photo by Beth Clarke)

Reflecting on these two missions, Reed said, “One thing you have to understand is that the average age of all the men in mission control was 28. It was astonishing. We just came to Houston and did the job. The second thing you have to realize is that all of the computers we had to run these missions, on the ground and in flight together, didn’t have as much horsepower as you have in your cell phone today.”

Apollo 13: averting disaster

The mission of Apollo 13, launched in 1970, was to lengthen the time of a moon walk and to allow the astronauts to collect samples. Reed says, “Except for a couple of small changes for drama, the movie [of the same name] was pretty dead-on accurate.” Reed handled the smooth launch, but about two days into the mission, astronaut Jack Swigert flipped a switch at Houston’s command to turn on fans in the service module tanks that stirred cryogenic liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Swigert’s action triggered an electrical short circuit inside a tank full of cold liquid oxygen and caused the ship’s second oxygen tank to explode. The crew could see something “outgassing,” Reed said; actually leaking oxygen into space from the tank, but “they didn’t have rear view mirrors,” so it was not until they jettisoned the service module later in the crisis that they were able to see what had happened to it. In addition, they had to conserve power and rig up something to deal with the carbon dioxide concentration forming in the cabin. Reed’s part in this mission was to keep the crippled spacecraft on course as the astronauts orbited around the moon and returned on their path to earth. Burn times (rocket thrusts to give the craft power in mid-flight) were critical, as trajectory corrections had to be done after each. Since the craft was crippled, figuring the trajectory and steering the craft accordingly was extremely challenging. Mission commander Jim Lovell reported later in Andrew Chaikin’s 1994 account of the Apollo missions, A Man on the Moon, that steering the craft was “strange and awkward, like steering a loaded wheelbarrow down the street with a long broom handle…it was like learning to fly all over again.” Reed says that astronaut Ken Mattingly, who had been grounded from the mission because of exposure to German measles, sat directly behind him during the whole mission, offering his professional knowledge of the spacecraft and working with the trajectory specialists nonstop to bring the craft safely down. Reed came up with a plan for Lovell to steer the craft by sighting the points of the earth’s crescent (which appeared to the crew in the shape of a crescent moon) in the cross hairs of their sextant so he could maneuver the ship manually and see where it was going. “They were off-course all the way back,” he says. “Only three ounces of fluid could cause the craft to move, and they were leaking a lot more than that. But the re-entry corridor was the most critical. Here, the trajectory had to be on target,” and once a craft enters the re-entry corridor, “ionization of the air around the spacecraft creates a communications blackout for about two minutes maximum. If it’s longer than that, we’d get nervous.” Apollo 13’s communications blackout ran over three minutes, during which no one knew whether or not the crew was still alive. At last, however, Swigert’s voice was audible over the radio system, television cameras picked up the craft and its open parachutes, and Apollo 13 splashed down.

Apollo 14: Reed Crater

Even though Apollo 13 ended well and the team, including Reed, received Presidential Medals of Freedom for their work on it, Reed “didn’t want that to be my last mission.” In January 1971, Apollo 14 launched with veteran astronaut Alan Shepard in command. It was a geological mission, designed to gather specimens from the lunar surface. It, too experienced problems, but accomplished its goals and brought back a surprise for Dave Reed: the crew had named one of the craters on the moon for him.

To Carlisle and a new career

Reed left NASA after Apollo 14 and began using his technological skills for the State Department and Department of Transportation. Based in Massachusetts, where he met his wife, Florence, he traveled widely, helping these agencies to “enforce sanctions in Serbia, Montenegro, Haiti, Mogadishu (Somalia), Korea and [a number of other hot spots] through communications and tracking. We worked border control in Croatia and Hungary, for example, stopping people bringing things like cardboard and soap [bomb ingredients] through the borders.”

“Yes,” adds Florence. “For the next ten years, you were always somewhere else.” Gradually, Reed’s skills brought him a little closer to home in Carlisle, where the Reeds raised their son, Jason, who now works for the Institute for Health Care Improvement. Some of Reed’s old colleagues and cronies from NASA days also relocated to the area. Here in town, Reed managed to invent and patent a process for creating indoor and outdoor lamps that look uncannily like real seashells, rocks and wood. “I wanted to live in a place with land and water that I could see around my house,” Reed says, and “I needed some garden lamps.” Sure enough, the Reed home looks out on a lovely garden area that slopes down to a large, duck-filled pond, doubtless a great lure for their golden retriever, Apollo.

Most of us in Carlisle know the Reeds as the folks who chair the Old Home Day Committee and send us every year on a trajectory of events, activities, and re-connection. Reed encourages everyone to participate in Old Home Day and promises another great experience for all this year. And the Reeds, at the helm, can confidently say, “You got it, babe.” ∆

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