Interview with Ed Kilgore,
NASA Langley Engineer during Apollo Program
It is impossible to think of NASA and not remember the incredible achievement of the Apollo Program. From President Kennedy’s bold vision to the final splashdown of Apollo XI, NASA still benefits from the vast contributions of scientists and engineers who made our national vision a reality. NASA EDGE celebrates this incredible achievement by speaking with Ed Kilgore, an engineer at NASA Langley during the Apollo Program and eventual Associate Administrator at NASA Headquarters. On a much, much smaller scale, NASA EDGE also celebrates a 40th of their own.
CHRIS: Welcome to NASA EDGE.
FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.
BLAIR: We’re here at the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton, Virginia.
CHRIS: Which is the official visitor center for NASA Langley Research Center.
BLAIR: Which is very appropriate because we’re here to celebrate…
FRANKLIN: The 40th anniversary of man landing on the moon.
CHRIS: And also… Can I say it?
CHRIS: NASA EDGE’s 40th vodcast.
BLAIR: I’m feeling very festive.
BLAIR: Lots of festivities. Lots of celebration.
CHRIS: Fest events for the rest of us.
BLAIR: And now for the feats of strength where I’m going to lift the Apollo 12 capsule over my head.
CHRIS: Behind us is the Apollo 12 capsule, and this is a pretty cool museum because on the 2nd floor is a new exploration exhibit. If you get a chance to come down to the Virginia Air & Space Center, come check it out.
BLAIR: We’re getting ahead of ourselves because we’re here to celebrate exploration in the past.
CHRIS: Absolutely. In fact, we have an engineering guru with us today named Ed Kilgore, who worked at NASA Langley during the Apollo days and eventually became the associate administrator at NASA Headquarters.
FRANKLIN: His nickname could actually be Mr. Apollo.
BLAIR: He’s a fix-it guy, hands on guy.
CHRIS: The great thing about this is usually all the astronauts get the limelight. We want to go behind the scenes and talk to Ed, who was an engineer, who worked on it, getting the nitty gritty, the nuts and bolts of the whole program.
BLAIR: Sure, behind the scenes.
CHRIS: In fact, we have a celebration at the end because you’re going to get a cake?
BLAIR: Yes. I am going to get a cake.
CHRIS: You got the cake, right?
FRANKLIN: You got the cake.
BLAIR: Yeah, I’ve got the cake but I’ve got an errand to run. Go ahead with the interview and I’ll catch up with you. I’ve just got to make a few preparations. No biggie.
BLAIR: No problem.
CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.
FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.
BLAIR: I need a bus schedule, some tokens and I’ve got to find a bakery.
CHRIS: Ed, how did it feel when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed on the moon?
ED: First, there was euphoria. To me this was the greatest technical achievement that man had ever had. Here was a technology that had been put to use that far exceeded anything that had ever been done in history. And the second thing I couldn’t help but think of was the people who did this, my friends from Langley and Virginia Tech, were just barely out of college for a very few years. The press likes to call these people “rocket scientists” but there’s no such thing. These are rocket engineers. Scientists dream of things and engineers do them. They put them into hardware. Looking back at my lifetime, I think this was probably the greatest time, if I could have chosen to live. I was born in 1923 and since that time almost everything has been perfected in the way of technology. All these things came flooding through my head when I saw that moment on a little, black & white TV screen at home, when I saw that landing on the moon.
CHRIS: Especially with the fact that you did it within 8 years.
CHRIS: Think about that process. In 8 years you went from paper to landing on the moon. What was that like during that time?
ED: It was a little bit more than that because everybody suspected that we’d be doing something like that, particularly people at Langley. A fellow name Max Faget and Caldwell Johnson were designers of the Mercury, the Gemini, and the Apollo. I walked into Faget’s office one day and there upon the board he had a picture of a little capsule and had a guy in a fetal position all scrunched up in there, just barely enough capsule to hold him. I said, Max, what is that? We’re going over to Wallop’s Island and we’re going to put enough solid rocket motor on that and we’re going to fire this guy into space. I said you know he’s going to pass out. He said he’ll come to. Things like that didn’t bother people at all. It didn’t bother the people who were going or the people who were planning it. Of course his proposition of going to Wallop’s island got preceded by the fact that the Mercury came along. The Mercury was a small scaled-up version of what I saw on his wall. Of course the Gemini came along. The Gemini was run by a gentleman at Langley. Gemini was done with just one thing in mind, the fact that you had to rendezvous in order to get to the moon. You had to rendezvous once you got there. That was an interesting story. A fellow name John Houbalt and Michaels (last name) did the calculations that showed you could get to the moon with about half of the propulsion if you rendezvous at the moon and then the small capsule went off. In order to do the lunar orbit and rendezvous, you had to perfect rendezvous, which was never done. So Matthews, he was at Langley, took over the project building the Gemini capsule and planned the mission so you could practice rendezvous. They practiced it and perfected it. That was how Apollo got where it is.
FRANKLIN: Ed, what does it feel like to be part of the Apollo project from the beginning to the end, having been there the whole time?
ED: As I said that’s almost euphoria again when you think about it. It’s something that will never happen again in my lifetime. It’s an amazing thing to think it happened and I was some small part of it or I at least got to observe it.
CHRIS: You had an opportunity to work with some of the Apollo astronauts, especially Neil Armstrong. In fact, you said off camera you shared an office with Neil. What was it like working with him back in those days?
ED: My office was right next to Neil’s. In fact, there wasn’t an hour of the day that some senator or congressman was coming into his office with a bunch of people to get his autograph.
CHRIS: You were telling a story where he actually put his feet on your desk. You had a chance to see the footprint.
ED: Yeah. In Washington almost no one leaves at quitting time because that means gridlock down below.
ED: We’d stay till about 6:30 every night. The telephone would stop ringing and he’d come in my office. I never went into his office because everybody always descended on it but he came into my office. That was the invitation to talk to him. He would put his feet on my desk and rear back and talk. He told me some interesting things. One was I didn’t put the “a” in. The second thing he told me was the most interesting site was not the moon itself but looking back at the earth was the most beautiful site you’ll ever see in your life. It’s a beautiful colored marble out in space. It made me realize that we have to protect that marble in every way that we can. In having his feet up on my desk, I was snickering. He said what are you laughing about? I can’t ever look at your foot when I don’t see that big footprint on the moon. When he left Washington, he gave me a big picture of his footprint.
FRANKLIN: Going back to the beginning of the Apollo program. Can you talk a little about the sense of urgency that you felt on yourself and the team after the Russians put the Sputnik into orbit?
ED: Sputnik triggered a lot of things. As a matter of fact, it would take something like that now, if we talk about a Mars mission, if it looked like the Russians or somebody was going to out class us technically in order to make that a possibility. It was an opportunity with the Apollo to not only politically but technically do something that would leapfrog the Russians by a long shot. Nobody else anywhere in the world has done it today. There was a real sense of urgency to do this behind the scenes that the Russian would plan some of this. Later on they did try to exceed us on the shuttle. Theirs was a flop fortunately.
FRANKLIN: Because they didn’t have engineers that went to Virginia Tech.
ED: That’s right.
CHRIS: That’s true.
ED: They didn’t have Hokies.
CHRIS: I think we have… Blair’s back.
BLAIR: This is perfect. I hope I’m not out of time.
CHRIS: What’s this?
BLAIR: Happy 4… There was another cupcake but I had to give it to the bus driver. It was quite a trip.
CHRIS: In celebration of Apollo’s 40th anniversary and the NASA EDGE’s 40th show, we were going to give you a cake. But I can see the co-host…
BLAIR: It’s a representative cake. It’s representative of a much bigger cake.
FRANKLIN: Well, since we knew you were going to come up short, we went and picked up a cake before we got here.
CHRIS: We knew you were going to fail.
BLAIR: There’s nothing wrong with that. Oh.
CHRIS: On behalf of NASA EDGE, we’d like to offer you this 40th Anniversary cake and all the folks that worked on Apollo during the days. Thank you for everything that you’ve accomplished in your time. What a wonderful time period.
ED: That’s beautiful. I appreciate the time spending with you.
BLAIR: Happy Anniversary. That’s a pretty good cake, Franklin. Not bad but I would not sell the cupcake short.
CHRIS: I think I’m going to take this cake over that.
FRANKLIN: Can you at least go get a knife?
BLAIR: Yeah, and when you cut it….
CHRIS: Happy 40th Anniversary Apollo.
BLAIR: … make sure you’re careful. There maybe water ice under the icing.
RON: Everybody look this way. Happy 40th!
GROUP: Happy 40th! Yeah!
Page Editor: Blair Allen