Looking back on working with Wernher von Braun and the Saturn rocket program, Robert “Bob” Luther said getting the job done was the mantra each day.
Luther moved to Huntsville to work at SPACO and the rocket program in the early 1960s after earning his engineering degree from the University of Tennessee. He ended up in the Quality and Reliability Assurance Lab at NASA. He was responsible for supervising the Instrumentation and Calibration Lab in building 4708. The SA-3 was at the high bay area of 4708 when he arrived. The first Saturn rocket, SA-1, had just been launched and SA-2 was at the Cape being set up for launch.
“The lab and I, with a staff of highly qualified technicians, did the final calibration on most of the instrumentation before it was installed on the vehicle,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to make mistakes.”
Von Braun made regular visits to the lab, and Luther attended meetings with him. One time, a group of Swiss Civilian Air Cadets was at Marshall Space Flight Center on a tour, and Luther arranged for them to meet with von Braun.
Luther knew von Braun through work and aviation.
When it came to work, von Braun was serious. He was also “just one of the guys” when he went to the old Huntsville airport on Airport Road. Luther is a longtime pilot.
Luther recalled von Braun working to upgrade his pilot ratings with Instructor Bobby Horn when he couldn’t get the engine started on a Cessna 310.
“I was standing by the wing with a fire (extinguisher) and started laughing at him, and he turned around and gave me a hard look and then he started to laugh too,” Luther said. “When he turned around and tried the throttle again, it worked.”
Von Braun gave an air pump with his arm and continued his lesson.
Back at work, Luther designed and built some of the test equipment on
the Saturn V and various satellite programs. He designed and had built three instrumentation test consoles for the Rocketdyne F-1 engine, one each for Marshall Space Flight Center, Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Flight Center and Stennis Space Center.
“We knew what we were doing was important,” Luther said. “We had a job we were determined to do, and we all went to work and did it, with each person doing his or her part.”
He said testing was critical to the mission.
“Much of the instrumentation on the vehicle went through my laboratory,” he said. “A lot of the electronics were tested in other areas because we couldn’t do everything since there was too much of it. Everyone had to work together, share data and discuss the different effects of this or that.”
Overall, he said, throughout the launches not much was lost. There was an occasional measurement that was lost because of the tremendous vibration, but all things considered, the systems worked.
“Nothing took it down,” he said. “It worked.”
After a few years with SPACO, Luther went to Boeing, where he worked on the beginning of Saturn V.
“We had to figure out what it would take to launch it,” he said of the time he worked in launch systems engineering. “We had to figure out how to assemble it, certify and check it out. All the test procedures had to be written by the responsible areas as to how we had to perform each task. It was a pretty interesting job actually.”
Luther worked for Lydia I. Pickup, a Navy chief petty officer and “a damn good engineer,” he recalled.
“We had a lot of women engineers in that area and Lydia was good. She was the section supervisor and did a good job,” he said.
Once the contract was completed, Luther didn’t want to relocate, so he went to work with Planning Research Corporation on Army tactical and NASA support work.
On the launch date of the moon mission, Luther was working for the Army on classified programs he still won’t discuss, but he was proud to see the successful launch and mission.
In time, Planning Research Corporation got back into the space program and Luther worked with central systems command where he received an award for engineering excellence. Luther led several integral projects as the space program evolved to the space shuttle program. Through the years, companies he worked for always wanted to relocate him to another part of the country. He wasn’t going.
Luther started an engineering and security management company in 1986. He grew Paragon Systems, Inc., from a one-man show to a corporation with more than 1,400 employees. He retired in 2005 and now is president of the Hazel Green Airport. He’s written three books: “Skybolt,” an aviation adventure; “Corporate Space,” which theorizes the engineering efforts, heartbreak and tragedies of a space program gone wrong inside of Space Corp., a company engaged in designing and building solid rocket boosters; and “Tramp Printer,” a memoir of a road warrior who met newspaper deadlines.
Looking to the future, Luther, 88, said he worked on a study for Control Dynamics that looked at the feasibility of whether to launch from a satellite or the moon to get to Mars.
“I worked as part of that team and it concluded that it will absolutely work,” he said. “It’s a mission I wouldn’t mind making myself if my wife would go with me.”
At the very least, he hopes he will be around to witness it.