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Launch Operations Manager Donnelly was a Space Program Pioneer
March 31, 2014


By Bob Granath
NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

Paul C. Donnelly, a former NASA manager from Project Mercury through the Space Shuttle Program, died March 12, 2014. He was 90. A resident of Indian Harbor Beach, Fla., Donnelly worked in increasingly responsible roles for the space agency from 1958 through 1978. He was then employed by United Space Boosters, Inc., or USBI, until his retirement in 1989.

"Paul Donnelly was a true pioneer of America's space program," said Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana. "In the early days everything was new. All the procedures and processes had to be invented from the ground up. From Project Mercury all the way through the Space Shuttle Program, he helped lay the groundwork for where we are today."

Donnelly was born March 28, 1923 in Altoona, Penn. He was studying for a business degree at Pennsylvania State University when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Like many Americans he joined the war effort, enlisting in the Navy in 1942.

During his time in the Navy Donnelly married Margaret Mary Boyle, a registered nurse, in 1944.

After attending the Navy's electronics and guided missile technical schools, he helped develop the U.S. Navy's "Bat," the first radar-guided "smart bomb" initially used in 1945.

Following World War II, Donnelly became a Navy civil service employee assigned to aircraft and ordnance testing at the Naval Air Ordnance Test Station at Chincoteague Island, Va. and the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.

While assigned to the National Bureau of Standards' National Hydraulic Laboratory in Washington, D.C., Donnelly worked for Hugh Dryden, who became NASA's first deputy administrator when the space agency was formed in 1958. Dryden recommended him to Robert Gilruth who had been appointed to lead NASA's Space Task Group at the Langley Research Center in Virginia.

"They sent me directly down (to Cape Canaveral) to help set up operations," Donnelly said during an interview for an oral history project in August 2003.

He served as a spacecraft test conductor for all Project Mercury launches, the program that placed the first Americans in space between 1961 and 1963.

"I was the only spacecraft test conductor during (Alan) Shepard's flight, (Virgil) Grissom's flight and (John) Glenn, (Scott) Carpenter, (Walter) Schirra and (Gordon) Cooper."

Astronauts Shepard and Grissom flew suborbital flights in 1961 and Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra and Cooper piloted orbital missions in 1962 and 1963.

Following the completion of the Mercury program, Donnelly was named chief test conductor for the Manned Spacecraft Center's Florida Operations during the Gemini program which flew 10 piloted missions in 1965 and 1966. He was named launch operations manager for the Kennedy Space Center during Apollo, responsible for prelaunch processing of the spacecraft and launch vehicle, a role he held from the first piloted Apollo flight, Apollo 7 in 1968, through the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

Donnelly considered the final push to place the first astronauts on the moon during the early months of 1969 as one of the significant periods in American spaceflight history.

"The thing that I always remember in the total (lunar landing) program, was Apollo 9, 10 and 11 that were launched 60 days apart," Donnelly said. "(For) the rest of the world, Apollo 11 was important. But for people like me, 9, 10 and 11 were (all) important."

Apollo 9 was the first test flight of the Apollo lunar module in Earth orbit with the command and service modules. Apollo 10 involved a crew flying both spacecraft in orbit around the moon and Apollo 11 was the first lunar landing -- all flown between March and July 1969.

Donnelly continued as launch operations manager through the final Apollo mission during which three American astronauts linked up with two Soviet cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in 1975.

In 1977, he led the NASA team conducting approach and landing tests of the prototype space shuttle Enterprise at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

"I took the group out to Edwards' Dryden Space Center," Donnelly said, "and did the drop tests of the Enterprise. That was my last (NASA) project."

Donnelly retired from the space agency as director of Space Transportation System (space shuttle) Processing at Kennedy in 1978. Soon after, he was named vice president of Florida Field Operations for United Space Boosters Inc. The company was the prime contractor for space shuttle solid rocket booster assembly, integration, checkout and refurbishment. He retired from USBI in 1989.

Donnelly was the recipient of numerous awards and recognition, including two NASA Distinguished Service Medals in 1973 for his role in the Apollo Program and in 1981 for STS-1. He was presented three Exceptional Achievement Medals in 1969 for Apollo 8; in 1969 for Apollo 11, and in 1978 for the shuttle Approach and Landing Tests. In 1995 he was a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Space Club Florida Committee.

Tom O'Malley, John Glenn and Paul Donnelly
Prior to John Glenn's historic flight as the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962, NASA spacecraft test conductor Paul Donnelly, right, posed with General Dynamics chief test conductor Tom O'Malley, left, and Glenn in front of the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft.
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Paul Donnelly
NASA Launch Operations Manager Paul Donnelly in a 1969 portrait.
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Paul Donnelly and Apollo 11 Saturn V
Paul Donnelly stands in front of the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo 11 mission as it rolls to the launch pad on May 20, 1969. Two months later, Apollo 11 completed the first moon landing with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin exploring the lunar surface as Mike Collins orbited in the command module.
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Page Last Updated: March 31st, 2014
Page Editor: Bob Granath