Norm Crabill Goes From Driving a Taxi to the Virginia Aeronautics Hall of Fame
By: Jim Hodges

A freshly minted engineer from Catholic University was looking for a job in a new field when he first came to Langley Research Center. Norm Crabill had seen a helicopter land in Washington, D.C., and decided that he wanted to work on those new flying machines.

It was 1949.

But Langley had no work for him until, after months of driving a cab in Washington, he was summoned back by telegram.

"I said, 'oh, boy, I'm going to work on helicopters,' " Crabill remembers.

No. He was assigned to work with an organization that was a forerunner of NASA's space program. Thus began an engineering career that is ongoing for Crabill at 82, and for which he will be honored on November 8 when he is enshrined in the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society's Hall of Fame.

That honor follows work on Lunar Orbiter and Mars Viking, both among NASA's most renowned successes. His was a career that began on Oct. 17, 1949, when he reported to duty at Langley and was told that he would be working with PARD, a National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics program.

Norm Crabill.

Norm Crabill works on an active ride improvement system to decrease flight turbulence for ViGYAN, Inc., an aerospace and information technology company in Hampton.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Click on image for a larger size

"Now, Pard was the name of a dog food back then," Crabill says. "What the heck was PARD?"

Pilotless Aircraft Research Division.

Crabill still remembers the dialogue.

" 'But what do they do?'

" 'Well, they shoot models of airplanes and rockets and test them.'

" 'Rockets? I'll take it.' "

Like so many then, he had been introduced to space through Flash Gordon comics. Now he was going to work on rockets. That meant research at Langley and testing at Wallops Island. Then came the hard part.

"Whenever we wrote a report, there was an editorial committee," Crabill says. "Guys from the Transonic Tunnel were ready to tear us up. You learned a hell of a lot interacting with those guys on the editorial committee, and they learned, too."

There were supersonic airplanes, rockets … and then there was Sputnik.

"The day after Sputnik was launched, I went to the field and put aside all my other work and started calculating orbit periods vs. altitudes, just because I needed some background," Crabill said.

In the early '60s, he worked on Shotput, which was part of Project Echo, charged with putting balloon satellites into space to bounce signals back to Earth. Its first attempt produced the largest man-made light show in history when the big silver balloon burst and the sunlight reflecting off its particles shown from Maine to Georgia.

"I remember because it was my 33rd birthday, Oct. 28, 1959," Crabill said.

But the rocket worked, and by the third launch, Project Echo was a success. "This is President Eisenhower speaking," said the voice relayed from space for the first time. "This is one more significant step in the United States' program of space research and exploration being carried forward for peaceful purposes. The satellite balloon, which has reflected these words, may be used freely by any nation for similar experiments in its own interest."

By then, NASA had supplanted NACA and the operative word at agency facilities was "space."

With Shotput on his resume, Crabill headed a branch of the Applied Materials and Physics Division. He was told on a Friday that, by Monday, he needed to name one person from his branch to join the new Lunar Orbiter Project team.

"What's the Lunar Orbiter Project?" Crabill asked.

"He told me, 'Five space craft to the moon to find sites to land Apollo.' "

The choice was easy. "It was me," Crabill said. "I said, 'What's your own future, Crabill? This is space.' "

Thus Crabill became head of Lunar Orbiter's mission design team.

"We flew five space craft, five lunar orbiters to the moon," Crabill remembers. "We were five for five. They all worked. Fact is, the first three worked so well that Apollo said, 'Look, we've got enough information to find landing sites.' So Cliff Nelson, the project manager and my boss, said, 'What should we do with the other two space craft?'

I had it right on the tip of my tongue: we're going to map the moon. Not just look at specific sites, the whole moon."

Lunar Orbiter mapped 99 percent of the moon. Crabill and Tom Young were on duty 12 hours a day each, for two weeks, approving exposure and lighting for every photo the two orbiters shot.

Crabill and Young have become a mutual admiration society. "He could handle any problem that you threw at him," Crabill said, "and I kept throwing problems at him."

"Norm is one of the best systems engineers I've ever seen," said Young, who later became chairman of Lockheed Martin and head of a NASA-commissioned Mars Assessment Team.

"I knew that guy was way beyond me," said Crabill. "He worked for me. He saved my butt. I had lots of guys who saved my butt. You get good guys and stay out of their way and they solve problems."

When Orbiter 4 came back with sharp pictures of the moon, "we laid out all the photos in the hangar at Langley, right behind headquarters, on the floor and invited everybody to come and walk on the moon," Crabill said.

There was no time for Crabill and others involved in Lunar Orbiter to rest on their laurels. Instead, they were sent, largely en masse, to Mars Viking. Crabill was put in charge of orbital mechanics and took part in selection of the landing site.

Viking was largely the end of space for Crabill, who moved back to aircraft with the Storm Hazards Program before retiring from NASA in 1986.

He patented an airplane cockpit device for advising pilots of weather and is working now on flutter in airplanes. Crabill goes to an office nearly every day, still tries to learn.

In 2003, research on the Wright Flyer in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of flight told Crabill that some of the information the Wrights generated was wrong; but that "they were superb pilots."

It's all part of a process that he learned while working on Mars Viking.

"One of the biggest things I got out of my experience with Viking was that everything is interconnected," Crabill said. "All knowledge is interrelated.

"That is a powerful concept, at least to me."

It keeps him going, seeking more knowledge to link with the vast storehouse he already has, almost 60 years after reporting to Langley, only to learn that he wasn't going to get that helicopter job.


NASA Langley Research Center
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Lineberry