NASA Engineer, Former Von Braun Team Member Phil Sumrall Leading Development of NASA's Future Heavy-Lift Launch Vehicle
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
News Release: 06-127
Phil Sumrall was a junior engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., in the 1960s when he helped build the Saturn V rocket -- the most powerful launch vehicle ever developed -- used by the Apollo Program to take the first humans to the moon.
Nearly a half-century later, Sumrall is helping NASA return to the moon -- this time leading development of NASA's next generation heavy-lift launch vehicle.
Sumrall, manager of Advanced Planning in the Exploration Launch Projects Office at the Marshall Center, is responsible for development planning for NASA's Ares V launch vehicle and Earth Departure Stage, needed to leave Earth's orbit. Ares V will deliver large hardware and supplies to space for use by exploration missions on the moon and to extend a human presence throughout the solar system.
"This is a new golden era for space travel as we prepare to go beyond Earth orbit, live off the moon and travel beyond," Sumrall said. "During Apollo and the Saturn projects, we knew we were part of something special. Today, that feeling is back in the air."
That excitement is building across NASA and the Marshall Center, Sumrall said, thanks to ongoing development work tied to Ares V's sister vehicle, Ares I, the crew launch vehicle that will transport the Orion crew module to space. Marshall's Exploration Launch Projects Office is responsible for design and development of both Ares vehicles.
"The Ares vehicles share key components -- the J-2X engine and five-segment reusable solid rocket boosters -- so there's a strong tie between the two," Sumrall said. "What we learn in developing Ares I will affect planning and development of Ares V."
Sumrall's passion for space travel began at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, previously known as Central Missouri State University, where he graduated in 1961 with a bachelor's degree in math and physics.
"I was in college when Russia launched the first satellite into space in 1957 -- the birth of the Space Age -- and I was hooked," he said. "In 1962, when I was offered the chance to join the Wernher von Braun team as a young engineer at Marshall, I jumped at the opportunity."
Von Braun, known as the father of the Saturn family of rockets, served as the Marshall Center's first director. Sumrall was part of the von Braun team from 1962 to 1976. He held several positions, including flight dynamics specialist for design, development and flight planning of the Apollo Program's Saturn I, Saturn IB and Saturn V rockets. It was a job that let him see his work tested, up close.
"At the time, we conducted development testing of the Saturn first stage at Marshall," Sumrall said. "The bunkers were only 800 yards away from the test stand. You saw the fire and felt the heat, vibration and pressure waves with every ignition. It took your breath away."
Sumrall said that with so much work being performed at Marshall at the time, it wasn't uncommon to run into von Braun. But the center director was rarely alone.
"One of my most vivid memories is of him coming off an elevator at Marshall with a gaggle of media photographers and television crews on his heels," Sumrall recalled, "yelling out questions while the old, big camera light bulbs popped, and the blinding flash with each picture. It was amazing to see -- you knew this was history in the making."
Since his days working on the Saturn rocket, Sumrall has spent his NASA career developing future space transportation systems. At Marshall, he led research into space transportation systems to expand human exploration of the solar system, and later oversaw agency space transportation concept studies and development activities. Sumrall spent several years at NASA Headquarters in Washington, helping create the program to develop reusable launch systems, such as X-33 and X-34. He also managed advanced studies at Marshall of launch vehicle and lunar and Mars transportation concepts for future exploration systems.
As one of the few engineers still working at NASA who also worked on the Saturn projects, Sumrall knows he's been given a rare opportunity.
"I remember the first human steps on the moon in 1969," Sumrall said. "The grainy, black-and-white TV image was amazing, and I was part of that achievement. Years later, I am about to see it again -- this time as manager of a project that will help carry us back to the moon to explore and live off the lunar surface."
As for the future generation of explorers, Sumrall encourages students to live their dream. "It was always part of von Braun's dream to explore the solar system," he said. "Ares V gives us the chance to regain our momentum and take the next step. The young people of today are the ones who will make that dream come true and fulfill NASA's exploration goals -- to go beyond the moon to Mars and destinations beyond."
+ Ares V Fact Sheet (4.6 Mb PDF)
+ Sumrall Biography