Rocket scientist recalls early NASA days

Retired NASA engineer Norman Chaffee speaks about his time working for the space agency on the Gemini and Apollo programs as a propulsion engineer Wednesday at Prodigal Son in Pendleton.

Beer and space travel don’t usually go together, but they paired nicely Wednesday evening at the Prodigal Son Brewery.

Retired NASA engineer Norman Chaffee opened up his brain and let its contents pour out to those packed into the pub’s tiny theater. Chaffee is a rocket scientist — the archetype for an ultra-intelligent person — so brainy, in fact, that he simplified complex ideas for his audience, sans jargon. Out came recollections of the early days of aerospace in the 1960s, when he worked on the Gemini and Apollo programs as a propulsion engineer. He retired in 1998 but continues to do consulting and education outreach.

Chaffee, an Oklahoma native who grew up in a family of engineers, said his scientific adventures started in boyhood when he loved taking things apart and “trying to put them back together.” A chemistry set offered tons of fun.

“I set the house on fire a couple of times,” he said. “In high school, we blew up a chemistry lab table trying to make dynamite.”

He turned his mother’s kitchen bright purple after he used the stove to heat potassium permanganate. When it reached its boiling point, it exploded.

Chaffee started as a propulsion engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 1962.

In a world of thrusters, pressure regulators and propellants, Chaffee and fellow engineers attacked problems that threatened the success of space missions.

Chaffee clearly remembers the day in 1967 when Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee (no relation) died in a fire that erupted in their command module during preflight testing. The trio had been preparing for the first manned Apollo flight.

The death of Roger Chaffee especially saddened him. Because of their common name, they often got each other’s mail and phone calls and had developed an easygoing kinship. The three men died when a circuit shorted in an atmosphere of pure oxygen, igniting highly flammable materials in the cabin. Norman Chaffee and other NASA engineers tested different materials inside a faux command module, initiating fire and measuring temperature, pressure, smoke patterns and chemicals in the atmosphere for a variety of materials and scenarios until they came up with something that worked.

Chaffee’s favorite moments include the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. In his living room with his two children on his lap, he watched astronaut Neil Armstrong take the first step.

Another favorite memory is of Apollo 8. On Christmas Eve in 1968, Chaffee sat with colleagues in Mission Control and kept track of data as the spacecraft orbited the moon. As it came into view about midnight, a high-fidelity camera showed the surface of the moon in muted colors of grey, brown and black.

“The entire world could see the moon from an American spacecraft in orbit,” Chaffee said.

On the screen, Chaffee spotted a bubble of green and blue on the horizon. A murmur of speculation, then someone said “That’s the rising earth.” For the first time, Chaffee said, people on earth saw the rising earth from the moon. The astronauts — Commander Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders — took turns reading the first 10 verses of Genesis.

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth…,” Chaffee said. “What an emotional moment for everyone who was there. Tears were streaming down. You’re trying to watch your data and trying to watch the TV and your heart is throbbing.”

A photograph of the moon with the earth in the background hangs in Chaffee’s home along with the text of Genesis 1:1.

He remembered another mission that involved Scott Carpenter, a Navy test pilot who became the second astronaut to orbit earth. During his Mercury flight in 1962, Carpenter practiced orienting the ship with a series of yaws and rolls and pitches. The test pilot/astronaut did so much switching back-and-forth between regular and manual control that his fuel supply dropped low enough to threaten reentry. The astronaut came in at a worrisome angle.

“If the angle of reentry is too narrow, you hit the atmosphere and skip like a stone,” Chaffee said.

Carpenter made it back into earth’s atmosphere, but overflew the splashdown site in the Atlantic Ocean by 250 miles. The astronaut waited three hours for Navy divers to arrive.

Chaffee also talked about the logistics of being an aerospace engineer before the beginning of the computer age. To illustrate, he unsheathed his old slide rule from a leather case and held it up.

“I didn’t have a four-function calculator until 1973,” he said. “I went to the moon with a slide rule.”

One has the sense that Chaffee could go on for hours, telling one interesting story after the next.

He now serves as something of an ambassador for NASA, visiting schools and other venues in a quest to spark excitement about space exploration. He oversees a weekend-long competition for high school students at the Johnson Space Center. This year, four teams of students designed settlements capable of housing 700 people on the surface of Venus, a hot and inhospitable planet. During the weekend, each 50-person team submits a project proposal and students transition from enthralled visitors to scientists working under a deadline.

“They come in bright and bushy-tailed and depart as zombies,” Chaffee said.

Chaffee plans to keep sharing his love of rocket science with whoever will listen.

“I’m not through,” he said. “The sun is not yet set.”

He ended the pub talk with a request: “Write to your Congressman and urge full funding of NASA.”


Contact Kathy Aney at or 941-966-0810.

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