Retired Las Cruces rocket engineer recalls mission

“While the rest of the world was glued to their television sets watching as Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon, all of us at NASA were breathing a sigh of relief,” retired Las Cruces NASA engineer Ray Melton said.

Part of retired NASA engineer Ray Melton’s extensive collection of Apollo program reports and documents. Photo by: Mike Cook, Las Cruces Bulletin.

A 1966 graduate of New Mexico State University, Melton was part of the NASA and contractor team at White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) working on the spacecraft propulsion systems that landed the Apollo 11 lunar module (LM) on the Moon July 20, 1969 – 50 years ago this week.

Melton remembers having tears of joy in his eyes as he watched the Moon landing at his in-laws’ house in Las Cruces. “We all had our fingers crossed and were holding our breath,” he said. “We felt enormous pride and relief that the landing was so successful and nothing went wrong.”

At the peak of employment, there were about 1,600 NASA civil service and contractor employees working on the Apollo program at WSTF, he said. Their mission was completed at 2:17 p.m. MDT on Sunday, July 20, 1969 – when the LM successfully touched down on the lunar surface. “We knew our job was entirely to support the landing on the Moon, and we were all immensely proud of our tiny part in that historic accomplishment.” he said.

“Our job was to prove that the propulsion systems on the command/service module and LM could safely take our astronauts to the Moon and back,” he said. “We wanted to beat the Russians. We wanted to honor Kennedy’s goal.” But, he said, “amid all the tears of joy during the tense crescendo leading up to the landing, we knew we’d just worked ourselves out of a job. And we were joyful, not sad, at that prospect that we all knew was coming since the day we joined the team – we knew the mission of the entire installation would be essentially completed with the successful landing on the Moon.”

Within 18 months of the moon landing, Melton and about 1,400 of the NASA and contractor employees who worked on the Apollo program at WSTF would be laid off or reassigned to jobs elsewhere.

Melton accepted a job at NASA in Houston in aerothermodynamics, working on re-entry heat shields for the infant Space Shuttle program. He stayed in Texas for about a year before returning to WSTF to work on the Sky Lab project and subsequently on the Space Shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System. Melton retired in 2005 as technical assistant to the manager at WSTF after more than 40 years in the civil service.

The people at WSTF worked on all aspects of the Apollo spacecraft propulsion system, he said, particularly focused on safely delivering the LM onto the Moon’s surface. They used full-scale test articles of the service propulsion system and its 20,000-lb-thrust rocket engine and also employed full-scale test articles that were replicas of the propulsion systems aboard the LMs built by Grumman Aerospace Corporation in New York and shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the launch of Apollo 11, as well as redesigned LMs for subsequent missions through Apollo 17 in December 1972, the final American manned mission to the Moon.

Melton holds fond memories of his work on the Apollo program and his entire career with NASA, including:

  • When Grumman, the New York-based private contractor that manufactured the LM, decided to send engineers, technicians and support personnel to WSTF in the early 1960s to work on Apollo program propulsion systems, many were reluctant to go, Melton said. “They thought this was the wild, wild West,” he said, wondering, “’Do we need to convert our dollars to pesos?” and fearing that southern New Mexico was a desolate place, home to nothing but “coyotes, jackrabbits and rattlesnakes.”

The mantra of many Grumman (New York) employees was, “Hell no, we won’t go!” So, Grumman came up with the 10-40 incentive program that gave their personnel who came West a 10 percent raise and up to 40 hours of overtime a month, which made them among the highest paid people working on the Apollo program at WSTF, Melton said. “They were able to buy the nicest houses in town and very willingly integrated into our society, “learning to love Mexican food, country-Western and Mariachi music, our more relaxed way of life and how gentle and polite people were out here.”

Like most NASA and other subcontractor employees at WSMR, virtually all Grumman employees were laid off or offered employment back in New York within 18 months after the Moon landing, he said. But instead of going back East, many said again, “Hell no, we won’t go!” this time opting to stay in their newly adopted home in Las Cruces, where they took a variety of jobs before returning to WSTF  in the 1970s to become the core cadre of workers on the Space Shuttle program.

  • To come up with ways to reduce the LM’s weight, Grumman created the Super Weight Improvement Program (SWIP), offering to pay an ounce of gold for every ounce anyone working on the LM could save in its overall weight without changing the design.

“Suddenly, the ideas started flooding in,” Melton said.

One idea resulted in strategically hollowing out parts of many heavy structural attachment pieces on the LM without reducing their strength. Legend holds that another employee came up with an idea, called chemical milling, that saved more than 13 pounds and earned him 13 pounds of gold for his proposal to  use  an acidic solution to literally eat away unnecessary thickness and weight from strategic areas of the LM’s stainless steel  tubing and aluminum structural paneling, Melton said.

“It is said that SWIP eventually reduced the weight of the LM (ascent and descent stages) by over 1,770 pounds,” he said. “At the 2019 price of gold, that’s nearly $30 million, and NASA was happy to pay it! “

  • Gold also figured in a technique called induction brazing that used a gold alloy to join the LM’s stainless steel tubing components, Melton said. The gold had a low melting point and wouldn’t react with the rocket propellants, so a ring of the gold alloy was inserted into welding sleeves on the tubing, and then heated with microwave clamps to flow the molten gold into permanent welds.
  • There were no personal hand-held computers available in those early days of the Apollo missions (much of the design and evaluation work was done with slide rules), so Melton and other spacecraft system teams in the Mission Evaluation Room in Houston during a Moon mission sat at long tables “like a big cafeteria,” he said, and were issued binoculars so they could read the systems data displayed on 21-inch black-and-white television sets 25 feet away at the end of each table, and transcribe hand-written data from the TVs into their log books.

The only computers at the WSTF location were used for data analysis of rocket engine tests and took up about 1,500 square feet of floor space, Melton said, with large under-floor ventilation systems to keep them cool. “They were virtually all analog systems (digital technology was still in its infancy), using large reels of magnetic tape recorded at the test stands and transported to the data reduction facility located in another building at least a mile from the test stands,” he said. “Propulsion system data from a two-minute firing would be printed out on large sheets of perforated-edge paper often stacked nearly a foot tall.”

  • Very little of the Apollo mission work was classified, Melton said. “This was the civilian space program and with rare exceptions, everything we were doing was in the public domain,” he said.
  • One of Melton’s early projects at NASA was to design, build and operate a sub-scale rocket engine to generate the exhaust gases necessary to determine what kind of contamination the LM descent engine would deposit onto the lunar soil so scientists could eliminate them from the samples they brought back to Earth.

“This was pretty cool,” Melton remembers thinking about the project very early in his career. “They’re giving this young rocket engineer the opportunity to build my own little rocket engine that can perhaps improve the analysis of Moon rocks and soil brought back from every mission.”

  • Before Apollo 11, WSTF engineers conducted the crucial “fire in the hole” tests, which simulated the explosive separation and firing of the LM ascent stage rocket engine, Melton said. They used the descent stage as the launch pad, verifying that the LM’s structure and vital foil insulation would survive the explosive high-temperature and high-pressure environment upon liftoff from the Moon.
  • WSTF also performed “LM Lifeboat” tests in 1968 that demonstrated that the LM’s descent propulsion system could fulfill trajectory requirements if there was an engine failure, he said. When an explosion of an oxygen tank disabled the large rocket engine as the Apollo 13 spacecraft was on the way to the Moon in 1970, engineers at Mission Control in Houston knew that WSTF tests on the LM descent engine two years earlier proved that it could serve as backup, so the team could then focus on the critical issues of getting the crew safely back to Earth.
  • Following the disastrous explosion (and miraculous recovery) of the Apollo 13 mission, the flight plan for the Apollo 14 mission was revised, Melton said. However, scientists at WSTF realized that the newly printed flight plan had not been subjected to an odor panel evaluation, as required for all materials flown in Apollo crew compartments. A WSTF odor panel discovered after a “single brief sniff” of vapors off-gassed from a sample of the reprinted flight plan that a different ink had been used, and it contained chemicals that caused significant throat and nasal irritation (blisters and major mucus discharge) that could have aborted the mission. The flight plan was reprinted with compatible ink and no problems related to the new printing were noted during the Apollo 14 mission.

Melton’s Apollo memorabilia collection includes many photographs and documents of the entire Apollo program, especially some official training manuals describing the construction and operation of every LM system, the official Apollo 10 and 11 flight plans and a small silk American flag that was flown to the Moon and back as part of the final mission, Apollo 17.

Melton said he and his NASA and contractor co-workers at WSTF were only “a tiny, tiny part of the whole project.” But they were immensely proud to be an important part of the team and of the work they did, which included many “tiny little details that contributed to the success of the entire Apollo Program.”

Fifty years later, Melton said he is “just the storyteller,” relating the work that so many did as part of the historic mission to the Moon.  

Mike Cook may be contacted at mike@lascrucesbulletin.com.


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