Akron native Everett Stonebraker grew up during the heady days of the space race between the United States and Soviet Union.
From his home on Redwood Avenue, he would watch the skies for a glimpse of America’s Echo I, a 100-foot-diameter balloon satellite launched in August 1960 that was used to test radio and radar communications.
"You could see it flashing on and off," Stonebraker said.
It was the spark that set off a brief and unforgettable engagement in space flight history.
“It started when my dad told me about the Sputnik,” Stonebraker said. “I remember going outside in the yard and seeing Echo and I was wondering how that happened.”
Later, like thousands of children across the U.S., he launched his own rockets. He and other children would fire them off on Castle Boulevard near Litchfield School. Still later, he went to the same high school class as astronaut Judith Resnik, who died in the shuttle Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986.
Unlike most of the other young model rocket enthusiasts, however, Stonebraker went on to play a role in the real rockets of NASA — the ones that launched satellites into space.
And as luck would have it, he worked on the Apollo program, including Apollo 11, the mission that landed humans on the moon 50 years ago.
As a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Stonebraker needed to find a co-op job. He wanted one near south central Tennessee, where his family had a vacation home. But a job came through at IBM in Huntsville, Alabama, near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. There, Stonebraker’s brush with history began.
“IBM had the contract for a device called the instrument unit, the brains of the Saturn V,” Stonebraker said. “It was a 3-foot-high ring, 22 feet wide.”
At launch, the ring was positioned above the second stage at the 300-foot level of the massive rocket, packed with computers, sensors, and telemetry and signaling equipment.
The unit sat under the lunar excursion module, riding with it until the third stage fired to enter the moon’s orbit. The unit then dropped off, burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. Until then, it provided vital telemetry to Mission Control.
Stonebraker’s connection to the Apollo program didn’t end there. He stayed with IBM to co-op two other semesters.
During one semester, he ran fight simulation programs based on equations given to IBM.
“I would have to rewrite the program,” he said. “It turned out on the first mission, Apollo 8, it was within 32 minutes out of an eight-day mission. I did that for Apollo 8 and 11.”
The simulations were run on old IBM computers that took hours to process the input.
“They had a computer room that was as big as a house,” Stonebraker said. “We put the data in in the morning and hoped we would get a result by evening.”
In another co-op semester, Stonebraker worked on calculating the placement of ships that would retrieve the moon return capsule.
A half-century later, Stonebraker lives in Florida and is still overwhelmed by the size of the Saturn V rocket, which was about 363 feet tall — 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.
“It’s incredible how big it is,” Stonebraker said. “It’s so huge, it’s a huge rocket. You walk in to the Cape [Kennedy], see the lower end of the Saturn V and it’s amazing how big it is.”
An estimated 1 out of every 6 people on the planet watched the moon landing on July 20, 1969, but interest in the program dwindled. By Stonebraker’s final co-op semester, the program was coming to an end.
“My last co-op quarter there, there was controversy about the space program,” he said. “So they ended up canceling the rest of the Apollo moon program.”
Apollo 17 was the last moon mission, landing on Dec. 7, 1972.
America and Stonebraker moved on.
After college, he worked for a time with a couple of airlines. He then ran the telecommunications department of Florida Power and Light for 28 years.
He retired in 2002, but remains active doing consulting and multifamily real estate investment.
The space program, too, changed direction. Since the final moon mission, America’s human space flight efforts have been confined to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit.
After Stonebraker’s classmate Resnik died in the Challenger explosion, NASA withdrew even more.
The exhilarating era when the agency sent men to the moon with less computing power than today’s Ford Focus became a distant memory.
Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconjournal.