An Apollo and Space Shuttle diary
“The details Clemons provides are what make the book so memorable. . . . The main story is economically and briskly told, bolstered by a thoughtful, helpful appendix, as well as a collection of direct questions (‘Did Apollo 10 Almost Crash into the Moon?’) and frank answers.”—Publishers Weekly
“An engineer and software manager who worked on both the Apollo and space shuttle flights rehearses some behind-the-scenes activity during the decades he worked with
NASA. . . . A narrative rocket powered by experience, intelligence, knowledge, and gratitude.”—Kirkus
“History well remembers the excitement of what was happening ‘up there’ during the spaceflight golden years of the Apollo moon landing and the early Space Shuttle program. In a lively, rollicking, and intimately personal memoir, Jack Clemons pulls back the curtain on what was happening ‘down here,’ with an insider’s look at what it took to bring the astronauts safely home.”—David Hitt, coauthor of Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972–1986
“A fascinating read. Part memoir, part behind-the-scenes history, Clemons’ perspective on the development of the U.S. space program is one which has always deserved far more attention than it has traditionally received.”—W. D. Kay, author of Defining NASA: The Historical Debate over the Agency’s Mission
“The incredible story of the small team that gave astronauts something to fly. A wonderfully revealing and entertaining page-turner.”—Mike Mullane, retired Space Shuttle astronaut and author of Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
“Tells how a nation starting essentially from scratch accomplished the ‘impossible’ feat of landing a man on the moon in less than a decade.”—John Aaron, former flight controller and project manager, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs
In this one-of-a-kind memoir, Jack Clemons—a former lead engineer in support of NASA—takes readers behind the scenes and into the inner workings of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs during their most exciting years. Discover the people, the events, and the risks involved in one of the most important parts of space missions: bringing the astronauts back home to Earth.
Clemons joined Project Apollo in 1968, a young engineer inspired by science fiction and electrified by John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation to put a man on the moon. He describes his experiences supporting the NASA engineering team at what is now the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he played a pivotal role in designing the reentry and landing procedures for Apollo astronauts. He went on to work on Skylab and the Space Shuttle program, eventually assuming leadership for the entire integrated software system on board the Space Shuttle.
Through personal stories, Clemons introduces readers to many of the unsung heroes of the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions—the people who worked side-by-side with NASA engineers supporting reentry and landing for each Apollo mission, and the software team who fashioned the computer programs that accompanied the crews on the Space Shuttle. Clemons worked closely with astronauts who relied on him and his fellow engineers for directions to their destination, guidance on how to get there, control of their fate during their journeys, and a safe return. He reveals problems, challenges, and near-disasters previously unknown to the public and offers candid opinions on the failures that led to the loss of 14 astronauts in the Challenger and Columbia tragedies.
Highlighting the staggering responsibility and the incredible technological challenges that Clemons and his colleagues took on in the race to reach the moon and explore the mysteries of space, Safely to Earth: The Men and Women Who Brought the Astronauts Home is a fascinating insider’s view of some of the greatest adventures of the twentieth century.
Jack Clemons was a lead engineer supporting NASA’s Apollo program and senior engineering software manager on the Space Shuttle program. He was part of the mission control backroom team that supported the NASA flight controllers on both the return of the Apollo 11 crew from the first Moon landing and the rescue of the Apollo 13 crew. A former senior vice president of engineering for Lockheed Martin, he is a writer, consultant, and speaker about NASA’s space programs.
In this interview Jack Clemons talks about his new book and about his career working on the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
What first made you interested in space exploration?
I have been stirred by science fiction stories of humans traveling to the stars since my early teens. My brother-in-law was a skilled amateur astronomer who pointed out the constellations and the Milky Way. He shared his telescope so I could discover the wonders of the Moon and planets closer up. Still, traveling into space seemed like science fiction until 1957 when the Russians launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth. That’s when I realized it might happen.
What is the biggest misconception people have about your job as an aerospace engineer?
People often ask me if I was a science nerd growing up. Not really; I never set off small rockets in my backyard or played with chemistry kits. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college, when John F. Kennedy gave his “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, that I turned my studies, and later my career, to join the team who made human space flight possible.
What were some of the biggest technological advances you witnessed over the course of your career?
The biggest single technical advance I witnessed was the change within a dozen years from considering space travel a science fiction dream, to being a member of the team who supported Neil Armstrong’s one small step onto the Moon. Beyond that, it was the incredible speed at which computing technology evolved—from using slide rules on Apollo to building highly advanced flight software programs for Space Shuttle.
You left the field after working on procedures and software for the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs for 16 years. Were you ever tempted to return?
I was honored to have the chance to be part of both the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, and extremely proud to have had a role in making them successful. But by 1984, with the Apollo Program over and the twelfth launch of the Space Shuttle completed, I felt it was time to move on. I’m not by nature one to live in the past; I always feel the urge to try something new. I loved those programs and that challenging work, but I haven’t wanted to return.
What was the proudest moment of your career?
I’ve played a role in supporting both Apollo 11 and Apollo 13, and I was part of the team that made the Space Shuttle fly. It was not one individual, but a team of dedicated and resourceful people who made those programs a success. I am proudest of getting to work beside the most outstanding men and women professionals I’ve encountered in my career.
You are the author of several science fiction stories and novels. Did your work for the Apollo or Space Shuttle programs inform any of these works?
For the most part, my later science fiction wasn’t informed by either my Apollo or Space Shuttle experiences. I went back to my passion for writing in 1984 when my days on the space program had ended, and as I said, I felt it was time to move on. My first published story was about a time traveler who returns to the Lincoln assassination. A later story was about a blue-collar space crew mining an asteroid, for which I called on my collegiate studies of orbital science, so there was some connection. It wasn’t until my agent convinced me to recount my experiences on Apollo and Space Shuttle that I returned to those programs with this book. Fortunately, I had kept profuse and detailed notes during my time working on them.
Do you have any advice for those considering careers in aerospace engineering or other space-related fields?
Although NASA’s human space flight program is suffering from uneven Congressional funding at the moment, NASA’s unmanned robotic exploratory space programs are alive and well, and planning exciting things—from exploring the Moon and outer planets, to launching deep space telescopes, to rendezvousing with asteroids that pass close to Earth. And private industries such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK are filling the void in near-Earth orbit travel that NASA has moved beyond. There are many opportunities in the U.S. and abroad requiring the skills and credentials of aerospace professionals, and fewer people available with the qualifications to fill them. If aerospace is your passion, embrace it—we are on the threshold of a new and exciting era of space flight.
Are you in favor of the private space companies you mention, such as SpaceX?
I’m very much in favor of SpaceX and other companies traveling into space. NASA’s role was to develop the new and untested technologies required to put humans into orbit around the Earth. This is what government-funded exploration is about, and must be. No private enterprise would have had the expertise, the financial resources, or the business motivation to undertake the task. Now that NASA has made that investment of resources and people, and the technology has been thoroughly tested and proven, the future of near-Earth human space flight is, as it should be, in the hands of private industry. NASA should focus on the next great challenges: returning to the Moon, putting humans on Mars, and detecting and deflecting asteroids that threaten Earth.
Do you think NASA can ever recapture the glory days of the Apollo program?
I hope so. NASA has ambitious plans to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars. The biggest drawback to success is a severe lack of adequate funding, and lukewarm support from Congress, the President, and the general public. One would hope that, in time, common sense and sound engineering will prevail. I believe such a plan successfully carried out with international cooperation and involvement could rally public interest and support to the levels of Apollo’s “Golden Age.”
What, in your opinion, was the most positive impact that “Golden Age” had on the world as a whole?
The Space Race of the sixties was justified by pointing to our ongoing Cold War threat from the Soviet Union, but in the larger view it enabled the first human beings in history to leave our planet and set foot on another world. Since that time we’ve been to the Moon and back nine times and walked and drove on its surface. We’ve launched a fleet of winged spaceships and used them to build an orbiting multinational space station. We’ve turned over the business of near-Earth travel to private industry. The space program has often broken through political divisiveness to unite us in common cause and pride. And perhaps most important of all, the space program has given the human race an option for long term survival. As President Kennedy said at the outset about the challenge of going to the Moon, “That goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” I believe it did.
What can readers who may already be familiar with the Apollo and Space Shuttle stories hope to discover in Safely to Earth?
There have been a number of books written about, and by, Apollo and Space Shuttle astronauts and the specialists in NASA Mission Control who supported them. Safely to Earth is unique in its coverage of both the Apollo and Space Shuttle Programs; it discusses the corresponding transition of technologies and human skills required to move from one program to the other successfully. Readers are taken even further behind the scenes than in other books, by someone who was there and who worked side by side with amazing yet unsung professionals. I recount the stories of some of the many unheralded men and women who supported NASA’s heroes—of the inventive and resourceful work they did to ensure the missions were successful and to return the astronauts safely.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing on a non-fiction book for the University Press of Florida about the potential threat of an asteroid impact on Earth and what we can do about it. I’m also finishing up two novels; one science fiction and the other historical fiction.