The Eagle Has Landed

Georgia Southern Alumni Reflect on Work with NASA Space Program

The Vertical Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center

In the summer of 1967, Georgia Southern graduates Bob Pound (’67) and Charlie Abner (’67) hopped in a car and headed for Cape Canaveral with one mission — to “fix NASA.”

In January of that year, NASA was conducting a pre-flight check for the crew of Apollo 1 — the program’s first crewed mission — when a fire broke out in the cockpit and killed its three astronauts.

“After that, we said ‘Let’s go down there and put the space program back on its feet,’” said Pound, a native of Statesboro.

They didn’t call. They didn’t have an appointment. They just pulled into the badging station on U.S. 1 and figured they’d found their destination. “Wasn’t a very big building, but it had some rockets out front,” said Pound.

“What can we do for you?” the attendant asked.

“Well, we came down here to get a job,” said Pound.

“Okay, who with?”

“Well, NASA, of course! Isn’t this NASA’s place here?” Pound said they didn’t realize it at the time, but there were several hundred contractors coming in and out of Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

“Uh, let me make a few phone calls,” said the attendant, and motioned them to wait in the lobby.

Pound listened as the attendant talked on the phone.

“No, they don’t have an appointment….they’re here! They’re sitting right here! No, they just came in and said they’re looking for a job…. No, they’re here already!”

“They said that over and over,” recalled Pound, laughing.

The attendant hung up the phone and said, “They’re going to call me back.”

Pound and Abner waited and waited, wondering with each passing minute if they’d made the trip for nothing. Then the phone rang.

It was a call that not only changed their lives, but also carved a path for several Georgia Southern graduates who would follow in their footsteps.

Get After That Aerospace

Pound and Abner were the first graduates of Georgia Southern’s physics and mathematics degrees to join the ranks at NASA, and the tale of their success quickly spread through the small department.

Sonny Belson (’68) traveled down to Cape Canaveral the next summer and showed up unannounced the way his classmates had. He interviewed and was offered a job the next day. Chris Fairey (’69) skipped class to drive down to KSC and get his name on the list, and he was hired the summer after graduation.

“It was absolutely amazing that you literally walked in, a cold call off the street, and here I am,” said Belson. “And I’m still at it after all these years.”

Though they all graduated with the same degrees, they were each assigned to wildly different roles within the Apollo program. Pound says this was a testament to the college and its faculty, especially Carroll W. Bryant, Ph.D., professor emeritus and head of the physics department at Georgia Southern from 1963-1975. He passed away in Statesboro in 1988.

Bryant was an accomplished physicist who served as a scientific advisor to the U.S. Armed Forces and most notably worked on the development of the atomic bomb. He was not only a knowledgeable physicist, but also had the wealth of experience to convey physics’ practical use for his students.

“He was really an amazing man in terms of what he could convey to us in terms of theory and physics and his own application….” said Fairey. “You ask yourself, ‘How am I going to use all of this?’ And what you realize at the end is that what they’re teaching you are the tools. You may not necessarily use a particular theorem or a math equation, but you understand how it evolved and why it’s there and how it can be used.”

This is Going to be Big

Georgia Southern’s NASA alumni stand under the
Saturn V rocket on display at the Apollo
museum at KSC. Pictured are (L to R):
Chris Fairey (’69), Bob Pound (’67), Sonny Belson (’68)

When Pound, Abner, Belson, Fairey and other alumni joined NASA, they were thrust into a workforce of more than 400,000 employees, contractors and consultants working all over the United States to achieve one goal, set by President John F. Kennedy: “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

Pound was assigned to the Ground Instrumentation Systems technical staff in the Central Information Facility (CIF). His team collected real-time telemetry data surrounding the Saturn V rocket, and displayed it on the huge Eidophor Projectors in the Control Room. Abner started as a ground station engineer, working up to ground station manager before leaving to join the Air Force in 1968.

Fairey joined Pound in the CIF, the entire second floor of which housed two giant GE 635 computers that were responsible for managing data for Apollo. “Today, you have more computing power on your phone!” said Fairey.

Belson went to work with the design engineering directorate in the communications electronics area, where he installed and designed the operational television system at the launchpad and towers around the complex, and the mobile television vans for use during launch and events.

As each took on their small piece of the larger puzzle, they couldn’t immediately see the true impact and scale of what they were doing. It wasn’t long, however, before the picture became crystal clear.

“Well, at the time, of course, it was just a job,” said Pound. “Then we saw how big it was and what all it encompassed, and we thought, ‘Wow! This is going to be something big!’ And we felt like we were doing a pretty important job.”

It’s easy to get lost in the massive scale of NASA. There, everything is big.

“Anytime you put together a large program like the Apollo program that involved human spaceflight as well as the manufacturing of the launch vehicle and the facilities that manage it, you realize the scale of the vehicle itself,” said Fairey.

The biggest part of the Apollo program was the Saturn V rocket, which is still the most powerful rocket ever built.

The Saturn V was a three-stage, expendable, super-heavy lift launch vehicle that was used to send Apollo missions into space between 1967 and 1973. It was 363 feet tall, weighed more than 6.5 million pounds and reached speeds of more than 17,000 mph to break free from earth’s gravity. To house the construction of these rockets, NASA constructed the Vertical Assembly Building — the VAB — which is still the largest and most visible complex at KSC. The building is 526 feet tall and covers 8 acres of square footage. It’s a vast cavern with 40 floors of scaffolds and railings that allow thousands of technicians to reach every part of the spacecraft.

Once the Saturn V was built, it had to be moved to one of two launch pads, the closest of which was 3.5 miles away. To accomplish this impossible task, NASA used one of two machines called “crawlers,” weighing 6 million pounds each, to carry the launch vehicle — fully upright — across the complex, traveling at less than 1 mph. The journey took roughly 8 hours to complete.

Even more impressive was the level of detail involved in creating these rockets and executing their missions. Each stage of each rocket was built by a different American company, and each wire, duct, nozzle, rivet and screw was carefully designed by engineers who were armed with nothing but slide rules and an expert grasp of their field.

For each Georgia Southern alumnus, their role supported one step in an impossibly large number of procedures and processes that all came to fruition on July 16, 1969. The launch of Apollo 11, which carried the first men to step foot on the moon, was a history-altering event each of them witnessed firsthand.

“It’s kind of hard to describe until you see it,” said Fairey.

“From a mankind standpoint, this was a significant achievement,” said Belson. “You know, if you look at where we are today in all of that, it’s based on how we got there. So it’s very, very important for mankind overall that we were able to go do this. And somehow we played a part in that.”

One of two “crawlers” at NASA, which carry the launch vehicle to the launch pad.

Space is A Risky Business

Accomplishing the goal of manned space flight came with difficulty and sometimes tragedy, however.

In 1970, while more than 210,000 miles from earth, the crew of Apollo 13 was doing a routine stir of the oxygen tanks on the service module when a faulty wire ignited and caused an explosion. With the service module inoperative, the crew of three astronauts had to use the lunar excursion module (LEM) as their lifeboat home, but it was only designed to support two men for two days.

Back on earth, engineers at Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston worked around the clock to create procedures to reprogram and modify the LEM to support all three crew members for four days, and communicated the plans to astronauts who had limited power in their craft, a cold and wet cabin, and a shortage of potable water.

For Pound and others that worked in the Launch Control Center at KSC, these types of events meant quick decisions and immediate action — both of which would mean the difference between life and death for the flight crew and ground personnel.

Chris Fairey, Albert Morrison, Bob Pound, Johnny Wilkerson, Jimmy Dobson (star baseball pitcher for GS), Danny Johnson (last to come), Jim Winn, Sonny Belson Charlie worked in film library — bottom floor of the student center — Pound’s dad director of
student center

“We used to say it was hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” said Pound. “And we had to be able to make decisions pretty quickly without talking to the other people. And then we had to know who to talk to in case we needed answers to get things done.”

While the story of Apollo 13 ended happily, there were other space program missions that did not.

In 1986, Fairey was the shuttle project engineer for the Space Shuttle Challenger, and one of the key figures involved in its launch. On Jan. 28, 1986, he was in the control room of KSC when, only 73 second into liftoff, a leak in one of Challenger’s rocket boosters caused the external fuel tank to explode, disintegrating the shuttle and killing its crew.

“It was a horrible day — especially due to the fact that I had trained with the crew. I knew the crew,” said Fairey.

“I was midfield of the shuttle landing facility, and actually was there with some of the astronaut family,” said Belson. “It’s very close and personal and, you know, I still won’t watch the video. I won’t watch it today. Yeah, it was very emotional.”

Fairey and his engineers spent the next two years going over the accident, learning what happened. As a result, they completely reworked all of their procedures, software and training and then completely retrained with their colleagues in Houston and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“You do all you can to minimize the risk, but it’s risky business,” said Fairey. “I mean, you’re sitting on top of a bomb — liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. It took a lot of people checking a lot of things, double checking, lots of tests and test firings. This is a risky business, and when you commit to human spaceflight, you have to be willing to take the risk.”

A Place in History

Through both tragedy and triumph, mankind’s pursuit of space changed the world forever.

Since its establishment in 1958, and its charge to reach the moon within a decade in 1962, NASA has been a place where scientists and mathematicians can dream big. The space program enlarged those dreams, broadened them far beyond the bounds of earth, and made people believe that they could achieve anything to which they set their minds.

In addition to space exploration, however, the NASA space program also pioneered new technologies that people around the world now take for granted in their daily lives. Whether they use solar panel technology, cordless and battery-powered tools, reflective vests or even memory foam, they can thank NASA and the space program for these inventions.

“The technology that came out of this program was awesome,” said Fairey. “It advanced the United States exponentially in terms of computing capability, material science and all those things.”

“The technology that came out of this program was awesome,” said Fairey. “It advanced the United States exponentially in terms of computing capability, material science and all those things.”

During his tenure in the Apollo program, Fairey worked with researchers from the University of Arizona to pioneer a lightning detection system at KSC as lightning was an especially dangerous hazard during launch. Fairey worked on all the mathematical algorithms used in the system.

“It was so accurate that you could actually see the electrical potential build up if a storm was coming from Orlando or out in the ocean,” he said. “And you could calculate when it would get here and make a determination of whether or not it was safe to launch. And so they use that today for all the launches.”

Fairey passed away on April 8, 2020, but left a great legacy at NASA. He finished his career as the flow director for four missions of the Space Shuttle Discovery, an orbiter that launched several satellites and other hardware into space, including the Hubble Space Telescope. Most notably, Fairey arranged for Discovery astronauts to fly several Georgia Southern University flags on one of their missions, and then presented one of the flags to the University.

After more than 30 years of service, Fairey retired in 2002 and became a docent at NASA, sharing his knowledge and his love of teaching with camp participants and museum visitors, and inspiring the next generation of students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

In his interview, he reflected on the program and the impact it had on the world.

“You’re proud to have been a part of a team that worked so hard for so many years that achieved this unbelievable goal that many people thought was not even possible,” he said. “So you’re very humbled in the aspect of you being such a small portion, and just one individual of a very large team that achieved this magnificent goal.”

Abner returned to NASA in 1974 and finished his career as the chief engineer for the Space Shuttle program. He is currently “semi-retired” as a staff engineer at the United Space Alliance.

Belson worked with the design engineering directorate throughout his career at NASA, and helped design the video systems that film the countdowns and launches, as well as the video simulators that astronauts used to train for their missions in space. He left NASA after the Challenger accident and went to work for the Department Of Defence supporting Expendable Launch Vehicle satellite programs being flown from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Station in California.

“It gives you a certain sense of fulfillment that we had the opportunity to even participate in this,” said Belson. “When I go back and look at the history, I remember watching Dr. Wernher von Braun on TV talking about rockets and going to the moon and landing on the moon. So it’s not a job, it’s more of a vocation, you know?”

Pound finished his career as chief of the NASA Test Director’s office, the culmination of his many roles in coordinating and planning for all the missions at KSC. He worked at NASA for 28 years and retired in 1995.

“I hope it makes Georgia Southern feel proud of us,” said Pound. “That’s what I’m hoping. I think we did a pretty good job while we were down here and glad we could do what we could. And then the Georgia Southern people looking at it and looking at us saying, ‘Well, we were part of that.’ So Georgia Southern was a part of it, too.

“It was a really fun career,” he added. “I enjoyed every minute of it, except for the moments of sheer terror.” — Doy Cave