We Have Liftoff

People think the man on the moon was made in Hollywood.  I can vouch they are 100% wrong,” says John Myers, who worked for a company that made heat tiles for space shuttles for 32 years.  He worked as an ultrasonic quality control inspector for a company called North American Aviation Inc. whose name was later changed to Rockwell International and then to Rockwell.  He sent the raw material of glass fibers through an ultrasonic machine to see if the material was oriented in the right direction before went through the process to be machined to make the heat shield tile.  Black tile is the high temperature tile while the white tile is the low temperature tile.  Tiles, which have a coating of 1/15,0000 of an inch and are easily damaged, are always replaced between launches.


First beginning as a diesel mechanic in the navy, John heard about North American Aviation hiring mechanics.  In 1957, he began as a night shift employee at $2.22 an hour.  This was before NASA had even sent a man into space.  Later, he worked on the Mercury, the Apollo, the Columbia, the Challenger, and the Endeavor.


In 1958-59, he moved to Edwards Airforce Base on the rocket sites in Antelope Valley, California, where Chuck Yaeger broke the sound barrier. It was a testing ground for jet pilots.  There, he was a rocket test technician working on the engines for the Saturn, which powered the Apollo to the moon.  One engine develops 1,750,000 pounds of thrust.  The Saturn takes 5 engines.  Liquid oxygen and rp1, rocket fuel, a highly refined kerosene, ignites with pressure.  “When that thing went off it felt like it blew your trousers off.”


The Apollo project ended in 1968-69, and John was called back to help build 9 B1 bombers.  First, he built a complete wooden mock-up.  He was out on the runway Christmas Day when they first flew the B1A.  “That was a proud accomplishment,” he says, “that we could do something like that.”  He worked on 9 bombers and then moved on to building shuttles.  “I was right on the ground floor when they started building the Columbia.”


He built the Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, and, along with his son Gerald, who worked as a tile bonder, built ¾ of Endeavor. He built the Columbia Challenger, Atlantis, and, along with his son Gerald, who worked as a tile bonder, built ¾ of Endeavor.  John’s brother also worked for Rockwell on the Apollo project for 7 years.  John retired in 1989, before the Endeavor was completely built.  The Atlantis is scheduled to fly one more time.


John cites highlights of his career as the space race where the Russians and then the Americans put the first dog and then the first chimpanzee into space.  Also, he includes high points as the first man in orbit and the first man on the moon.  “There are so many,” he says.


The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that was responsible for the loss of six lives was a real low point of his career.  He says, “It was a bad situation.”  It was a cold year, and “they knew they had problems with an O-ring leak because they had seen some fire on the flight before.”  He says NASA insisted on flying because of their schedules but he is still upset that they didn’t incorporate an escape hatch into the Challenger.  They didn’t, he says, because it was too expensive.  “That made us so mad.  They already had the technology. . . . Boy, I tell you that Challenger disaster, it just killed everyone.”  He says the loss was not only the loss of life but also the loss of the ship, which took 3-4 years to build.  “I’ve seen a lot of grown men and grown women cry outwardly when that happened.”


Since John’s retirement, he says there have not been any major developments in the field.  Now they do use a large electrical hydraulic arm to inspect the shuttle.  They’ve also developed a way to make repairs on the tile out there in outer space.  If they had had that system, the Columbia, which blew up over Texas, might not have had that outcome.  “If they had an escape system they wouldn’t have lost those people.”


Even though he says he loved his career, one regret in addition to the destruction of the Challenger is he still has is that he has never seen a live shuttle launch.  He has seen the  launch of a titan, an unmanned missile, but he was never able to see the launch of one of the shuttles he helped build. “The only way I’ve watched it is like you do, on TV.”


A room in his house is devoted to memorabilia, which includes walls of pictures, including some looking at earth from space.  It also includes drawings and photos he took of various shuttles and astronauts, including some of the first astronauts, John receiving the company pin, and the engines that powered the Saturn, which took the men to the moon.  About the end of the shuttle program, he says, “It’s kind of saddening.”  But, about his career, he says, “I liked it.  I really enjoyed it.  It was a real interesting career.”


In his retirement, he rides a motorcycle, hunts, fishes rides an ATV, plays electric guitar at the wilderness gateway music festival, and plays golf.  As a pioneer of the Gold Wing Road Riders of America, he spent years riding around the desert in California and continues to ride on the back roads of Idaho.  He says people –in Idaho and elsewhere — still tend to say the man on the moon didn’t really happen, but, he says, “I’m a witness here to say it actually happened.”

Appeared in The Ruralite July 2011

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