The Institute - June 2019 - 6

Two IEEE members share
their firsthand accounts


O MARK THE ANNIVERSARY of U.S. human space

flight, the IEEE History Center invited members to post
their space-program experiences on the Engineering
and Technology History Wiki. Dozens have done so
already. Two were life members Rufus Chavez and Carol Crom.
Chavez began working at McDonnell Aircraft, in St. Louis,
in 1959. The company was NASA's primary contractor for
the manufacture of 20 Project Mercury satellite spacecrafts.
Mercury was the first human spaceflight program for the
United States. McDonnell also produced the launch vehicles
for the spacecraft-which carried supplies and were modified
from Redstone and Atlas D missiles. Chavez was a member
of the engineering design group.
Crom worked from 1956 to 1958 as an antenna engineer at the
Tulsa, Okla., division of Douglas Aircraft, now part of Boeing.
He was responsible for the telemetry range safety and the
C-band FPS-16 radar transponder antennae, which provided
data and range safety for missile launches.

In the mid-1960s, Chavez was transferred to the Cape Kennedy Air Force Station, in Florida. There he designed modifications to the Mercury-Atlas spacecraft. The Mercury-Atlas
3 test flight took place on 25 April 1961. Seconds after takeoff, the spacecraft went off course, Chavez says, and the
range safety officer ordered its self-destruction. Each spaceTI-6


JUN 2019



craft has an escape system to keep the crew safe. The system can quickly separate the capsule from the rocket in
case of an emergency.
According to Chavez, the blast propelled the capsule to
a safe distance away from the rocket as it exploded. As the
capsule jettisoned, its parachutes opened, and it safely
landed in the Atlantic Ocean. A helicopter later recovered it.
Following the explosion, astronaut Alan Shepard, who was
in the blockhouse, the concrete building used to observe
the proceedings during the launch, quickly walked to the
periscope and described the rescue operations to Chavez
and other engineers who were monitoring the test. Shepard
was the first American to travel into space.
After firefighters made sure the area was safe, the team held
a debriefing session. Blockhouse personnel presented what
they had observed, and it was suggested that a gyroscope in
the rocket might have failed, Chavez says. A gyroscope guides
the rocket-which explains why the rocket went off course.
The moderator wrapped up the session, and then Shepard
addressed the group. According to Chavez, Shepard said he
noticed the team was upset by the failure, but he said he
was satisfied with the safety measures in place and was glad
the engineers were able to assess the escape system, since
it had never been used before. Shepard ended his speech
by pounding his fist on the podium and saying, "I'm ready
to go on the next flight."

Chavez had the opportunity to interact with Shepard again
when they shared an office in the blockhouse. One day, an


Behind the Scenes

The Institute - June 2019

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