Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Call Sign: Rocket Robyn


Recently, it was my distinct pleasure to meet one of the few female scientists who worked in the Apollo program, providing one of the many puzzle pieces that would combine to land humans on the moon! Robyn Villavecchia was in the thick of it all in the mid-1960s, and described things about the space race I can only imagine (quite literally, since I wasn't born yet!)

As many longtime readers know, I love seeking out all kinds of workers around NASA. This particular exchange has been one of the most educational and nostalgic for me, so instead of editing the interview, I asked her permission to print all that we discussed and emailed. Because of course, it's impossible not to ask questions of someone who can casually say, "Oh yeah, I hung out with Gus Grissom."

Rocket Robyn
Heather & Robyn at NASA Ames Research Center

I try to keep blog posts around 700 words or less on most days, and the "lite" version makes up today's regular post. For the entire interview, see the separate page about Robyn at Pillownaut.com.

I was honored to meet you at Ames, and hear about your experiences with Saturn V rocket development; your knowledge of the hardware is impressive. What were you doing before the Apollo program got rolling at NASA?
ROBYN: Like some 400,000 others I was contractor personnel; work assignments were at White Sands Missile Range and our instructors were the scientists and engineers in the earliest days of our military missile program, many of whom were Operation Paperclip refugees from the WWII German rocketry programs.

Sounds exciting! What took you to Cape Canaveral in 1964?
ROBYN: I was only 25, reporting to a wonderful guy named Dan Kime. My office was a back bedroom! Did I mention it was formally the Merritt Island Chicken Farm, on the Titusville causeway? Kime told me I would find catalogs, from which to order lab glassware, pipettes, balance scales, whatever... and oh yeah, then he said: "You have 60 days to spend 28 million dollars or we lose our appropriation!"

Read more detail to these answers and other questions at Pillownaut.com ...

Cape Canaveral 1968
The Office

What did you do in this division?

ROBYN: We determined the density, viscosity and purity of the propellants to be loaded for flight to the moon. We needed to know this with an extreme degree of accuracy, first because the lives of the astronauts were at risk, and secondly because we could not afford to load excess mass aboard the vehicle. Lifting just a few extra pounds up out of the gravity well, and trucking to the surface of the moon was the limiting factor.

It's always a delicate balance, isn't it?
ROBYN: Indeed. When you and I went to the Ames Fluid Dynamics Lab, I was struck by the CEV launch escape system. Back in my day, we did not have anywhere near the computational muscle to model flight dynamic loads. We stuck a "boilerplate" Apollo Command module with its escape system atop a Little Joe II rocket, launched it and at test altitude, fired the escape system. If it worked, fine. If not, back to the drawing boards! We had to rely in great degree to empirical data!

Read more detail to these answers and other questions at Pillownaut.com ...

From Little Joe II to Saturn V

Not too shabby for someone who started out at the old chicken farm! Did you get to meet members of the astronaut corps at the time?
ROBYN: Yes, I did know a number of the early astronauts. I even had the pleasure of flying with Pete Conrad, Fred Haise and my personal favorite, Joe Engle! I knew Gus Grissom pretty well. He would come through the lab from time to time leading a party of "suits". I had a little demo routine where I would release a cloud of Nitiogen Tetroxide in a fume hood and using a big horse syringe full of Hydrazine, would squirt it into the cloud and write my name in fire. Usually was good for a few jaws falling on shoes, LOL...

When you say FLYING with Pete Conrad, you mean he actually took you up in a jet? Or do you mean you were at mission control somewhere when he was flying?
ROBYN: The three guys I mentioned flying with, in their "spare time" flew airshows in vintage aircraft. I flew with them in the same shows on occasion, so no, nothing so exciting as a ride the a T-38, lol I should have explained better what I meant. Pete was famous for his practical jokes. One day, I was tooling down final approach, fat dumb and happy. Suddenly I hear in the headphones...

Read more detail to these answers and other questions at Pillownaut.com ...

Thanks Robyn! I will never have a story as cool as being shot down by Pete Conrad, LOL... and readers, you can follow Robyn's Twitter feed @fizzviic, and also see her amazing essay "The Meaning of Apollo" – both discussed in the UK Urban Times, and also printed in entirety on Waddell Robey's great Explorology Blog.