NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Summer Chick Bergen
Temecula, California –
9 March 1999
Today is March 9, 1999. This oral history interview with Charles Feltz
is being conducted in Temecula, California, for the Johnson Space
Center Oral History Project. The interviewer is Summer Chick Bergen,
assisted by Carol Butler and Rebecca Wright.
We thank you for letting us come here and share in your history. Why
don't we start with how you got into aeronautics.
Okay. First of all, I graduated from Texas [Tech] University, was
Texas [Technological College] at the time, in mechanical engineering,
and because jobs were scarce in Texas in 1940, I came to California
and got a job with North American Aviation [Inc.], October 3, 1940.
I was in the design group and worked on airplanes such as the A-2J,
the X-15, and the [F-]82 and [F-]86 airplanes.
In 1956, I was made assistant program manager on the 86 airplanes,
and in 1956 also I was made chief engineer and management of the X-15
program. I stayed on that program until '62, at which time the president
of Space Division at Downey [California] requested I come over to
We won the [Apollo Command and Service Module] contract then in 1962
for the—well, I guess it was in the latter part of 1962…
The company had already won the program for the S-II at the time,
and there was a question of why. We were not really the front runner,
but for reasons beyond my knowledge, we won the contract.
I was made chief engineer of the Apollo Program for the command and
service module at Downey, and I served in that capacity until 1964,
at which time they made me assistant program manager, turning the
engineering over to other people. My job then was kind of, you might
say, assistant program manager in charge of operations, which I had
under me. They didn't report to me, but they were the chief engineer's
job and the quality-control people and the purchasing people and the
manufacturing people, and one other one, the test people. So the flow
of the system went from engineering to manufacturing and purchasing,
to test after it was built, and the test people then did all the testing
and shipped it to Florida, where it was put together and tested more
and mated with the boosters.
In 1972, we won the [Space Shuttle] Orbiter program, and the integration
of the system was also given to North American at that time, which
I was again chief engineer. Directly after we won, they decided that
I should be program manager on the Orbiter. I held that job for about,
oh, I guess a year and a half, two years, and the program manager
on the Apollo became free at that time. They moved me up to technical
assistant to the president, and I held that job at Downey until 1976.
In 1976, the president of the Downey division was made president of
the Aerospace companies, which was airplanes, rocket engines, energy,
Space Division, … and then he made me technical assistant to
him … at the corporate office, [and] stayed there until 1980.
In 1980, the Orbiter was in a pretty bad situation as far as schedules
were concerned, and they had some technical problems… So they
decided I should go back to Downey as president of the Shuttle Division…
I think it was January of 1980, and I held that job until I retired
in '81, directly after the Orbiter flights was made by John [W.] Young
… who was a good friend of mine.
I guess that kind of wraps up until I retired in 1981, in June, after
the flight, and we moved up here, and we've been traveling the world
since we've been here.
Oh, wonderful. You were involved in so many things, it must have been
a wonderful career.
When you were a child, did you have aspirations—
No way. [Laughter] I was brought up on a farm in Dumas, Texas, if
you know that country, and I didn't go to Tech until 1935, when I
was graduated from high school, … I laid out a year and then
went to Tech, and I spent five years trying to get out of Tech. [Laughter]
You went into mechanical engineering?
Yes, and I don't know why, but that was the only thing I could think
of, so that's the way I went. And I'm glad. During the summers I used
to work on the Highway Department in Texas, and then in September
the Highway Department had finished their particular job that I was
on, and so I left and came to California. Then I went to Douglas [Aircraft
Company] and tried to get a job, and they weren't hiring. Then I went
across the street at that time to North American, and they hired me.
I spent, oh, two or three months in what they called the Education
Group, in which you learned the paperwork that you had to go through
to get engineering done and how it got printed and how it went to
the shop and how the shop then handled it, at which time, after that,
I moved into what was known then as the Wing Group of the B-25.
In that group I spent until they started designing the A-2J. I'm sorry,
the F-2… It was a fighter, a Twin Mustang, what they called
the 82 fighter. It wasn't very successful because of the engines and
a few other things, and so they never did … produced a bunch
of them… North American was a big outfit during the war. They
produced some 50,000 airplanes, and the B-25, you've probably heard
One of the first jobs I had out of the training group, if you please,
… they would farm you out to the different groups. Like the
first job I had was out to the powerplant group, and so the powerplant
group give me a job, and they said, "Go down and look at the
plumbing in the bomb bay and make a drawing of that plumbing in that
area, because we'll make it just like the shop had put it together."
So I'd go down and get a mental picture of it and come back and make
a drawing, and then by that time that airplane had gone out the door
and the next one would come by, and it was all different. [Laughter]
So I had a heck of a time getting that information put down on paper.
Then I was moved to the Wing Group.
In those days, they had all the information on drawings, of course,
and when the drawing paper wore out, you had to re-draw it. You couldn't
go get data and reprint it. So one of the first jobs I had in the
Wing Group was—they gave it to me and another guy—to re-draw
the center section of the wing. It was 150 foot long, and we re-drew
that, and I don't know if you know, but in engineering, they write
what they call engineering orders, and they go out as a sheet of paper
about the size of this to tell the shop what else to do or whatever,
and those things were running against this 150-foot drawing so fast,
we could barely keep up. That's just a little bit of experience I
Then I got on the 82s, and then I went from the 82 to the 86 airplane,
and I was in charge of design of the first swept wing in America.
It was an 86 airplane. It started out to be a straight wing, then
they decided to build a swept wing. They swept it thirty-five degrees,
I believe. So we designed that, and directly after that I got on the
assistant program manager to the A-2J, which was a Navy bomber that
had counterrotating props and had an Allison engine … [with]
these counterrotating props, if something went wrong, they were supposed
to feather. When that engine died, they were supposed to feather real
quick, because they was like a blank wall [if they didn’t feather]…
Well, it flew nineteen times, and we had a pilot and a co-pilot on
it, and the co-pilot sat and watched the engines and he kept his finger
on the button to feather the engine that went out, if it did, and
we had timed it so that his reaction time from the time he saw something
happen was a half a second.
The most unusual thing, I guess, when the pilot was flying it from
the south base at Edwards [Air Force Base, California] up to the north
base where the NASA operation is, … he says, "I'm going
to land," and he says, "And don't wave me off."
The tower says, "Are you in emergency?"
He says, "Anytime I'm in this damn airplane, it's an emergency."
My eyes water all the time.
… I was assistant program manager on the 86 airplane until the
X-15 came along. We won that contract. I think they forced us to win
it, because we won it at the same time they won two other airplane
contracts, and it kind of was a burden on the Engineering Department
with three airplanes going at the same time. So they said, "We
don't want it," our company did. They said, "You're going
to take it anyway."
So they decided they would form a project group. Now, the project
group, it consists of the people that was going to design it and the
manager and the chief engineer. The technical people such as the structural
analysis people and the thermoanalysis people and the aerodynamic
people wasn't a part of that, but they supported us.
I had two assistants. One was a propulsion man and one was a structures
type, and I had a pilot that they hired, named [A. Scott] Crossfield,
and he was kind of an advisor to research airplanes. Then we worked
very closely with NASA at Palmdale [California], and it was a very
experiencing job. We never knew how to build anything with steel,
and we were not familiar with building it hot, because the temperature
of the airplane was supposed to get up to 1,200 degrees in spots,
and it was supposed to go 6,600 feet a second—that's six times
the speed of sound—and it's supposed to go at least 270,000
feet in the air. … [I]t finally went over that amount, and it
was the first airplane in space, space being defined at fifty miles,
and it still is, I think.
… [W]e couldn't get much advice from the people that made the
material. … [W]e had to experiment on our own. We started in
like '56, the first of '56, and we rolled the airplane out in
October '58, just about two years or so after we started, and [then]
into tests. It had some problems that … [had to be] fixed…
I left there in …
Am I boring you?
No. No. [Laughter] During the time you were working on the X-15, did
you keep up with what was happening in Project Mercury?
Yes, a little bit. As a matter of fact, the Project Mercury people
from St. Louis came out to see us, and I went there once. They came
out to see us because they didn't know our attitude-control engines
were hydrogen peroxide engines, … [it] used a catalyst to start
the [engine], and … had piping all over the place. We made that
piping steel, and I think St. Louis tried to make it aluminum. They
came out to see [us], and we told them what we did. They went back,
and I suppose they changed to steel or whatever they was doing. That's
about the interface we had with Project Mercury.
We had originally bid on Mercury, but they rebid it after NASA took
over, I think. The Air Force started that, didn't they? I believe
they did. Then NASA took over, and they rebid it, so we didn't get
that, thank goodness.
Why do you say that?
Well, we got better jobs. Moving to Downey, now—
Did you see the first test, the first successful completion of the
X-15 flight before you left for Downey?
Oh, yes, several.
Tell us about it.
Scott Crossfield flew the airplane as long as … it was in the
company's hands, and we turned it over after a few flights. We originally
flew the X-15. We didn't get the engine that we were supposed to…
We had to use some little engines, … we put eight [of] the little
engines, … they'd … used on the X-1… [W]e put them
in the X-15, … we flew with that several times. About the second
or third flight, I'm not sure when, the engine caught on fire. Immediately
they dumped the fuel, … landed it at Mudlake in place of the—dry
lake, …when [it] landed, [it] had too much fuel [as] it didn't
all come out… Everything didn't work quite right, and it busted
the airplane right in two behind the pilot, and it bent the liquid
oxygen tank up a little bit.
So about a day later, we picked that airplane up and brought it back
to the factory, and the first thing we said we was going to do is
see if we could straighten the oxygen tank out. We … [decided
to] pressurize it up to the limit pressure. Then there an old German
sheet metal worker there, [would see if he could straighten] when
we got up to pressure—well, first of all, let me tell you, the
safety people wouldn't let it go up to pressure, and I got mad and
went home, and my assistant told me as soon as I got home that they
finally agreed, … they checked with stress, and stress says,
"If Feltz wants to do that, you let him." [Laughter]
So we pressurized it, and it popped out a little bit. Then the factory
manager there was helping us out Saturday, it was a Saturday, and
he says, "Well, let's let that guy hit it and see if he can straighten
it out better," but he says, "I'd like to reduce the pressure
about 5 psi."
I said, "Okay."
So we reduced the pressure about 5 psi, and this sheet metal guy went
in and hit it with a mallet, I don't know whether it was rubber or
not, and he straightened it out pretty well, said we could put it
back together and put the rivets back in it, and we delivered it back
to the test in six weeks.
Great. And then after those tests, you went to Downey?
Yes. I went to Downey in '62. Those tests happened probably in, oh,
'59, something like that.
What was your job when you went to Downey?
I went to Downey as chief engineer on Apollo. I went to Downey during
the proposal stages, and they, fortunately, won the contract, and
then I went over there as chief engineer in the first place.
Tell us about the proposal and bidding stage.
On the Apollo?
Well, I went over to Downey in '62, and they were well into studying
this proposal. The RFP [Request for Proposal] had already come out.
I concentrated, myself, on seeing the systems and how well they were
designed, whether or not they were over-designed. I'd had a lot of
experience with NASA, so I kind of knew the way they thought. Frankly,
I don't know if they knew Walt [Walter C.] Williams or not. He was,
at the time, head of the test people at Florida, and I think he went
on up to chief engineer, and he thought a lot of North American. Whether
he was incidental in us getting the contract, I don't know, but we
won the contract over Martin [Company] and, I think—I don't
remember who all was in it. Well, Martin was favored for the contract
because they'd done the most study.
Well, after we won the contract, we went to Williamsburg [Virginia]
with the Engineering Department from Langley at that time. We went
over and come up with the specifications that we were supposed to
start with. The original Apollo service module was solid rocket. I
think it had about eighteen of those solid rockets to help go to the
Moon and to give it thrust coming back. We hadn't been on the program
over—I don't know, three or four months, five months, six months,
and NASA decided they'd rather have a fuel rocket engine. So we changed
all the solids to a fuel system, which burned hypergolic fuel, if
you know what that is. It's a fuel that kind of burns on its own as
it goes through.
Later, in the early days of Apollo, they had ejection seats and blow-out
panels for the ejection seats to go out. We originally tried to have
a landing system that would go land on the Earth. It had a bunch of
springs, but it dropped a big heat shield down and landed on the heat
shield, but they got completely disenchanted with that because they
didn't know how accurate they could land on terrain that would be
stable. So they decided to land in water. So we changed the design
so it would land in water.
… [D]uring the early phase of it, we said, "Well, we don't
know what a water landing is, so let's test it," test the vehicle,
not necessarily the—test the boilerplate, if you please. So
we dug a ditch about fifty feet long and about fifteen or twenty feet
wide and filled it full of water, and then we swung the boilerplate
into it, and immediately it sunk.. [Laughter] So we had to modify
the design, or thinking, at least, so that we could land in the water
and not sink.
During the phase of the thing, I think—who was the guy that,
when he landed, the door blew off?
Gus [Virgil I.] Grissom.
Gus Grissom, yes. Well, when Gus's door blew off—I don't think
they ever found out why or when—they decided they didn't want
ejection seats and they didn't want doors that opened with the fire
[device], and they didn't want doors that you could get in and out,
and somebody could hit the handle and the door would open, because
you had pressure inside that would try to force the door open. So
they'd asked us to put in a door that would open in and be sealed
against the pressure so they couldn't have an accident. So we did,
and, unfortunately, we lost three astronauts because they couldn't
get them out. I don't want to go into that, frankly, but that was
an unfortunate situation on the Apollo.
But we were kind of neophytes in the design of Apollo at the beginning,
too, like we were on the X-15, because, at the same time, the outer
cover of the command module was honeycomb steel, and we got the information
at the same time that the people at Los Angeles in the airplane business
were designing some honeycomb steel, so we cabbaged on to one of their
designers and brought him over, and so he was then the primary designer,
then, on honeycomb steel.
On the honeycomb steel, we had to have an ablator. In those days we
didn't have insulation that we could put on the vehicle, so we put
ablator. Now, the ablator was done by a little company back East,
and I don't remember the name now, and what they did, we shipped these
outer pieces of hardware to them, and they glued fiberglass honeycomb
to the outer shell. They glued that fiberglass honeycomb to the outer
shell, which had little honeycombs of about a quarter inch, like a—you
know what a bee honeycomb looks like. It was about like that size
of a honeycomb, and they filled that, then, with ablative.
Now, how they filled it with ablative was, they had a whole bunch
of little people, like girls and boys and all, with kind of like eyedroppers,
and they put it down there and filled it with this ablative material.
After they got it full, they machined it to the proper contour, and
they X-rayed it to see if there was any voids in that ablative down
in the thing, and if there was, they dug it out and filled it again.
So that was a big operation, to getting that heat shield [complete].
Let's see. Rather than jump around so much—
I was wondering if you could tell us about how North American hired
engineers and people to do such a big job.
Well, okay. [Laughter] It was like open season, hiring people. They
all wanted to work on it, and they all came from different parts of
the friendly Western world, from different companies. We hired people
that we had to get rid of, finally, but they just weren't hacking
the course. I was chief engineer, and I didn't interview the guys.
The guys were interviewed by my group leaders, and they knew they
weren't any good after a while, so they had to get rid of them.
The same thing was happening, in my opinion, with Houston [Johnson
Space Center]. They were hiring people all the way from the friendly
Western world from different people. One of the major problems we
had with Houston was they wanted to talk to our engineers straight.
They didn't want to have to go through anybody; they wanted to talk
to them. So we said, "Okay. You can talk to them." Well,
the first thing you know, my engineers was working for their engineers,
and whether they were doing the right job for me was two different
things, see. So we had to set up a system. The system was that when
my staff approved a design, they were not allowed to change it, regardless
of who told them to. If they thought the conversation they had with
people was proper and they should change, then they brought it back
to us and we communicated with them with what we called an MCR, master
change record. We would describe on that piece of paper what the change
was going to be, and I would sign it. If it involved the program manager
or the manufacturing guys, we'd have a little meeting and agree that
that's okay and it wouldn't affect the schedule and all that good
stuff. Then we'd issue it to the Engineering Department, and they
would go change it, and everybody knew that that particular part was
being changed and they had to coordinate that design change.
After a while, it wasn't instantaneously, but after a while, the Engineering
Department become accustomed to that method of operation and NASA
become accustomed to that method of operation, and so then we started
all walking down the same path, and I thought it was very good. I
had brought that system over to Downey from L.A. [Los Angeles] because
we had the MCR system in L.A. ever since I was there, but Downey didn't
have it, and Downey was lacking in a lot of systems operations like
MCRs and all kinds of different paperwork, and we finally worked …
One of the things that was a problem was our subcontracting effort.
Now, in those days we didn't really—and our engineers didn't
really know all the details of what they were subcontracting for,
and so they'd write a specification and it would go out, and they'd
get bids on it, and we'd pick the bidder on whether or not it was
the low cost or not. It was evaluated as a bid. Well, the purchasing
department wasn't set up to manage that, really, because the engineering
would have to give them more data as the thing was developed.
So I designed a system that said that we would assign a program manager
to each project that was a major item, like 10 million dollars or
[more] or something like that, we'd assign a program manager, and
he would be an engineer that was in charge of it. The contracting
officer would be a purchasing guy, and he could communicate any way
he wanted to with the subcontractor, providing it didn't change the
contract. If it changed the contract, then he might have to come back
through the Engineering Department and say, "This is a major
change to the whole program," and it had to have Purchasing Department
as the contracting in case you have a contract change. The Purchasing
Department wasn't used to that, so they resented it, but the president
says, "That's the way you're going to do it." In addition
to the Purchasing Department being the contracting officer, we assigned
a manufacturing guy and a quality-control guy to this same individual
that reported to him to manage the contract. That was a system that
I thought—and that's still in use today. I thought that was
the best system. We didn't have that at LAX, Los Angeles.
We went out for bids. I'll just throw this in. We went out for bids
one time on some high-pressure bottles, and the Purchasing Department
brought back the bids, and we evaluate them, and then I said, "What's
"Oh, you don't need to know the cost," purchasing said.
"Well," I said, "you can stick this in your ear, then,
because I'm not going to give you the winner until I know the cost."
And that was the way that they kind of operated at LAX, because most
of the things in the airplane business was already developed except
what was having to be developed in-house and except when the X-15
come along. Well, they all had a little bit outside, but it was more
they could write the speculative letter than we could at Downey.
Did your experience on the X-15 help you when you moved into Apollo?
In what ways?
Well, I think I was a systems type of guy, if you please, and I was
well organized. I always had a schedule and a plan in which we go
do something, and that's what we had to develop at Downey, because
they were not organized when we got there. I got there, and one of
my assistants come over with me, and I had brought my propulsion guy
and my propellant guy, so I had a team that knew how to operate. The
biggest problem I had was our—in those days, we didn't use human
factors of people much at LAX, and over at Downey we had to go human
factors. That was the thing that everybody wanted to sure that the
pilots and the astronauts and all those good things could reach every
instrument and knew how to read it and where it should go and all
that good stuff.
So Downey starting putting on—that particular group at that
time didn't belong to me as what I'd call a pink slip. I couldn't
raise—they belonged to a doctor over there who was a friend
of the president, and the first thing I'd—I'd give them a budget,
you know, and they'd pay no attention to the damned budget. They hired
as many people as they wanted to. I went over there one time and they
had about 120 people, and I said, "You guys have got too damned
many people." Everything had to go through them, "And your
comments are not always the proper comment, and we've got to straighten
this out." So we worked for system and straightened it out.
We had another group in Apollo that we hadn't been used to, and it
was the group that figured out what the percent of chances you would
have in going to the Moon without failures. So we had a group that
did that. They looked at all the designs, and one day I found out
there was a letter went to one group, and a letter went from that
group back, and here they … designing by mail, and I said, "No
more letters until you guys get the design agreed to, then you can
sign a letter, both of you, saying what you agreed to." So that
stopped that, really.
I'm just telling you the problems you go through in engineering. And
I was mean. I was really mean. No, I wasn't mean; I was firm. But
I had never had one person dislike me, I don't think.
Well, that's good.
I had one guy in manufacturing that I don't think he liked me very
much. One of the designs the guys made, on the top of the command
module we had a structure with a rocket engine in it, and if we got
in trouble downstairs in the boosters anywhere, that rocket engine
was to lift the command module off, and then the rocket would go away,
and then the parachutes could come out and land the Apollo.
Well, one day the guy come to me that was designing this and had already
released the engineering, and he says, "Hey, we screwed up. We
got some of the structure right in the middle of the blast of the
rocket engine." [Laughter]
I said, "You've got to change it."
So the manufacturing guy, he said, "Well, that's going to cost
I said, "You've got to be kidding. What have you got that it's
going to cost six weeks?"
"Well, that's what it's going to cost."
I says, "It ain't either…"
So he went back to his boss, who I had known for years, and said,
"That's what they're going to do, and that's what it's going
Well, I immediately went to his boss and said, "Jim, now that
can be fixed. Now, don't give me that crap." And they did.
It seems like communications was really important to get the job done.
Yes, it was. Yes, it was. It was.
Were there any other systems you instituted to improve communications?
I approved—well, I'm getting out of my thing, but after I went
from the program as the chief engineer into the assistant program
manager's office, I approved every system that was issued at Downey,
including the ones that were in manufacturing, the ones in quality
control, because all of them interfaced with each other some way,
and I wanted to be sure that interface was proper. So I approved all
the systems at Downey that were implemented after I was program manager,
and they're all in business, same today. They haven't changed. It's
a real important thing to have a system that everybody's following,
because if one ain't following it, it goes to hell.
I'll tell you a little incident. I told you about the one boilerplate
landing. One morning I came in, and they had the service module in
test. We had a big hole that they would test the service module in,
and when I came into the gate, they said, "The service module
"Oh, you gotta be kidding."
Well, it had blown up, all right, and it was in the pit, and part
of the thing had blown out. Well, we went into, along with NASA, of
course, a big problem of finding out why, because we had titanium
vessels, and we had this fuel that's supposed to be compatible with
titanium and had been tested and all, but here it had been in there
and it blew up. So they did an analysis, and they didn't do it overnight.
It took about a month or two. We finally found out that the company
that had made the fuel for NASA made it more pure. They took a little
of the water out, and when you put that new fuel in titanium, it didn't
work. So that's how critical you have to coordinate your decisions.
One special focus, I guess, that you had was Airframe 9. Were you
giving special attention to this airframe that was going to be the
first [flight article]?
Well, yes. I was program manager at that time, or assistant program
manager, and I think at that time Bob [Robert O.] Piland was program
manager at Houston, and we had this first vehicle coming through.
We were having all kinds of trouble making schedule, and we knew where
the problem was in making the schedule, but we didn't know what the
problem was… The wiring system for the command module, they
had trouble getting it out of the factory, and the reason they had
trouble getting it out of the factory is they couldn't test it. Every
time they tested it, they'd have so many failures they didn't know
what to do. We found out later that what they had done, what the Engineering
Department had done, had been releasing EOs [Engineering Orders] to
change the wiring, and the manufacturing people kind of lost control
of whether they had operated that engineering [order] into the wiring
[or not], and they were trying to test it, and it was just chaotic.
They did that for about six weeks or so, and the guy that was in charge
of the factory, he kept coming up with a different schedule every
time I'd turn around. Piland was getting very unhappy and so was I,
so I says, "Okay. You deliver that harness to the command module,
and we'll put it in. We'll try to get the configuration fixed by that
time, then, and make the corrections to the wiring." We had a
hell of a time getting it fixed. We had guys—had two guys almost
hand-measuring the wires pin-to-pin all over that command module,
and it took them quite a while, and they finally were able to then
put it on what they call a Ditmco machine, … a Ditmco machine
puts high voltage so that if there's any wiring harness default, it
breaks it down, and that's what we did finally, and we got it done.
Then, of course, went into test. In the test, we'd got into test,
and we couldn't pass the test in some areas, as normal. Finally, as
program manager, I found out, "What's the problem?"
"Well, we can't get the control system to work. It don't meet
I said, "Well, what's wrong with it?"
"Well, to make it honest, we didn't take into account wiring
links and all that [loss], and so we made it perfect as we bought
it, so we have to degrade it a little."
Well, the astronauts didn't like that worth a dang. They said, "You're
changing the hardware to meet what it is rather than what's the requirement
Well, we went through about two or three days of that argument with
the customer, and we finally convinced them that what we were going
to do was okay. So we changed the testing requirements so that it
took into account the deterioration due to length of wires and system…
One of the things we got into was the controls, the attitude control
system. We found out that we had corrosion in there. So my factory
guy said, "Let's take all the plumbing out and redo it, and we'll
change from aluminum to steel," or something. When I'd found
out about it, I'd put the lab engineers in charge of finding out how
we can flush that system out, get that corrosion out. So they worked
very hard on it, and they come up with the answer in a few days, and
I still had to fight the factory to make them go do that, but they
went and … did it, and we were successful in that.
At the same time, I think we were concerned that the joints we had
in the vehicle might leak, so we developed a secondary seal that we
put around the joint and sealed the joint so it couldn't leak. If
it leaked, it leaked into the secondary shield, and then at that time
we put those on the vehicle, too.
I'm doing all the talking.
That's the way it's supposed to be. [Laughter]
You mentioned Bob Piland at NASA. Were there any other people that
you worked with a great deal?
Well, I worked with Bob. I worked with Max [Maxime A.] Faget. I worked
with the structures guy. I can't remember his name right offhand.
I think he's passed on. Bob was the program manager at the time. He
was an interim program manager. When [Charles W.] Frick left—Frick
was the original program manager, and we had an original program manager
named [John W.] Paup. He was an Air Force guy, and I don't want to
say much against him, because he really never managed the program,
and I don't think Frick either did, so don't put that in your book.
So both the customer and ourselves decided we'd better change program
managers, and then a guy by the name of Dale [D.] Myers was put in
as program manager, and Bob Piland was interim program manager, and
I think after him was Joe [Joseph F.] Shea. I worked with Joe Shea
very well. Joe Shea passed away, I understand, just recently. I'm
not sure of that, but I heard he did. After that came—he was
George [M.] Low.
George Low. After that came George Low. I worked very close with George
Low, and I thought George Low was the best program manager I ever
worked with and the best guy to work with, because he worked the problems
not necessary to the people, and he didn't get upset because of a
problem, and he worked the problem. He was instrumental, as far as
I'm concerned, in the first shot around the Moon and back on Apollo
Why don't you tell us what you remember about Apollo 8.
Okay. We shipped Apollo 8 to the Cape, and at the same time, I had
staffed with me a program manager for each spacecraft by that time.
A guy by the name of [Joseph W.] Cuzzupoli, Cuzzupoli, was program
manager on Apollo 8, and he went to the Cape with the vehicle. After
we got it to the Cape, the word came, "Can we go around the Moon
with that?" [Laughter] So we searched ourselves, and finally
I don't remember how many changes, if any, we made in the Apollo,
but we said, yes, we thought we could make it.
So the crew went—they only was going to go around the Moon and
back home. They weren't going to circle the Moon; they were just going
to shoot around the Moon … and come home if they didn't [need]
a service module to change them and bring them home, but they'd come
home very good. The guy that was the head mother on that was—he
eventually was Eastern Airlines' CEO, Frank Borman.
God, my computer just can't bring it up instantaneously. Frank Borman
was a very good friend of mine, too. I loved Frank Borman. I think
they did an outstanding job, and it was at Christmastime when they
did it and come back home, and without incident. I don't know any
problems that they had on that flight.
I don't think they had any.
I don't either.
That must have been a great triumph for North American.
It was. It was. It was a confidence-builder that we could do, and
I think it was a confidence-builder for NASA also.
The one that was the most scary flight we ever had was Apollo 13,
in which we had an oxygen tank that supplied oxygen to the fuel cells
who generated it into electricity, as well as breathing for the people,
and that blew up on the way. Of course, we had the LM [Lunar Module],
what we was going to land on the Moon, and the LEM, fortunately, we
had not launched it, so we had enough fuel to push us home.
But the crew, they really suffered on that flight. It was cold. I
don't know as they had any permanent problems with that temperature,
but it was cold as heck, and they didn't try to turn the heat on because
they was afraid something else would go wrong. They didn't try to
run the engines in the back of the service module because they was
afraid something else would go wrong, so they just took it coming
back home. Then they finally jettisoned the LM on the way back and
also they jettisoned the fuel, the service module, and landed successfully
except for that incident.
We later found out—and that was the most hairy. We sat here
in Downey, just trying our best to figure out what the heck went wrong.
We didn't know that—we knew that they wasn't getting oxygen.
We knew that they didn't want to turn on the thing because oxygen
was a problem, but we didn't know to the extent of what the problem
was. When they got home, we finally figured out that we had a quality-control
problem in the tank. The supplier had installed a wiring that wasn't
100 percent engineering quality. I said, "Change the design,"
and we had no more problem after that. But that was hairy, that flight…
I consulted for the pilot—he went to Grumman on the Space Station,
integration, and I consulted on the Space Station for a couple of
years. What the hell was his name? You ought to know it. He's back
in Houston now. I'll look it up.
Was it one of the astronauts?
Well, you can fill that in later if you want.
Yes. I'll fill it in for you. [Fred W. Haise, Jr.]
You mentioned Frank Borman, and he had a special team that [came]
to Downey after—
After the fire. NASA says, "To speed things up, we'll send Borman
to Downey so that you guys can work and get a decision quickly so
we don't go forever back and forth with paper to get things done."
So they sent Frank Borman out there, and he worked closely with the
chief engineer and with the rest of us, frankly, to come up with designs
that would make it almost impossible, we hoped, to screw up. Now,
don't get me wrong. I don't know what screwed up on the fire, and
I don't think anybody else does, but at least when we got through,
we were sure that almost something couldn't screw up.
And Frank was a very good—I went to the twenty-fifth celebration
of going around the Moon, and Frank and all his three guys were there,
and Frank says, "You got mad at me, didn't you?"
I said, "Frank, I didn't get mad. You guys just wouldn't settle
down. I was trying to get the stuff done, see." But it turned
out to be a very good operation when we finally got it all done.
At that same time, the president of the company was transferred out
and your counterpart came in as president, which was Bergen, Bill
[William B.] Bergen.
Yes, Bill Bergen.
And Bill was a kind of hard guy. He later told my wife—we were
at Houston one time to a particular event, I don't remember, kind
of a party, and he told my wife, he says, "The worst thing I
ever almost did was to fire Feltz." And that's what he—he
would come in, you know, clear people out so that they'd get the job
And then he told me, he says, "You were the only guy I had faith
in after I'd fairly got to know you." He'd brought in a program
manager on the first vehicle after that, and we had all these changes,
so after we kind of got our feet on the floor and got most of the
changes well under way, NASA brought [Robert R.] Gilruth and, I think,
Bob—what's the guy's name that I just mentioned, went to Washington?
He was the program manager I thought was so good?
George Low. I'm sorry. A number of them come out. There must have
been close to a dozen of them come out. Dale Myers was out of town
on vacation, and so they wanted to know what the schedule was, when
we was going to get that thing delivered. Well, I says, "God,
how do I make it look at least real?" I'm beating my head against
a wall for a day or two, thinking how in the heck do you communicate
with that many people on what the schedule really is?
So I finally decided I would make a perspective of the command module.
You know what a perspective is, a drawing that's kind of three-dimensional.
And then I would make copies of that, and I would make each group
in engineering lay out what they had to do on that particular command
module so that we could see what the job was to be done in each group.
I made them brief it and say when they was going to get it done. So
when we got through briefing them all on when the engineering—I
made the chief engineer, who was George [W.] Jeffs at the time, get
up and say he was going to support that. Then I got the manufacturing
guy to get up and say how he was going to support it, including the
Purchasing Department. And when they got through, I presented the
schedule, and they all went away happy. They knew what the hell we
were doing. We didn't know everything, but we knew most of it, and
that's how we got the first airplane after the fire, the first vehicle
after the fire out.
I don't remember what it was.
It was Apollo 7, and it was a very successful mission.
Yes, it was.
That must have made you feel good—
—that everything worked just like it should. And speaking of
successful missions, Apollo 11 finally accomplished Kennedy's goal
of landing on the Moon. Do you remember where you were when it happened?
Yes, I was in the office listening to it. We had direct line from
Houston. We had put that in, and we had direct line from Houston,
and we knew what they were doing. We didn't have television, but we
had communication. Armstrong was a very good friend of mine. He flew
the X-15, and I thought he was probably one of the better pilots on
the X-15. He was relatively small, and so he had a lot of room in
there, and he was a very good communicator on what was going on during
the flight. Crossfield was a good communicator, too, but some of them,
they didn't open their mouth, hardly. So if you got people in the
air on something that you aren't 100 percent positive of, you like
for them to keep talking to you on what's going on. I thought Apollo
11 was outstanding, frankly.
It was a great mission.
You had worked on airplanes for so many years, and then all of a sudden
you were working on a spacecraft. What were some of the differences
that you encountered to make that transition?
I'll tell you what I think was a major difference, to me, at least.
In the old days we worked on the airplanes and we had contracts from
the Air Force, and we would brief the Air Force periodically on the
airplane. I recall going back to Wright Field several times during
the year and communicating with the different facets back there, and
that's about the interface. Now, our chief engineer told us one time—I
said, "I'm going to ask the Air Force."
He almost threw me out of the office. He said, "You don't ask
them nothing. You tell them." [Laughter]
So, as a result, the Air Force wasn't in the middle of your pants.
And X-15 was about the same way. I had outstanding communications
with Edwards [AFB]. We briefed the Air Force and we briefed industry
about twice a year, but they weren't looking at my drawings. They
were five minutes like NASA turned out to be. So I think the biggest
problem was communication with NASA and the different people that
was involved, and it was very difficult to manage a program when you've
got people talking to each other and you wonder, "Is that his
idea or somebody else's? Is that the proper thing?" So I think
that was the biggest changeover, was the customer in your back pocket.
We talked about Apollo 11 and landing on the Moon, but I didn't ask
you earlier, what did you think in 1961 when President Kennedy announced
I didn't think. I was in Texas at my folks' place in 1962, in August,
when the president of Downey called and says, "I want you here
as chief engineer on Apollo." Well, I had just had two shots,
one in each knee, because I had bursitis, and I couldn't even walk,
much less drive, and so after a day or two, I said, "Okay."
About the same time, one of the neighbors—I had a brand-new
car, and one of the neighbors come and sideswiped it, trying to miss
a dog. So I told Juanita, I says, "You gotta drive. I can't drive,
but we're going." So she started out. I got cured by the time
I got to Albuquerque [New Mexico], so I could drive, and we come on
home. And I went to Downey right off of that.
We were talking about systems and the Apollo command and service module.
One of the more technical systems was the docking module. Did you
have any special problems with that system?
Yes. We had a good engineer designing that, and when he got the first
one built, it didn't work like he wanted it to work, or like it should
work, not necessarily like he wanted it. So Dusty [Rhodes] was …
engineer, and a guy by the name of Ralph Ruud was at the time vice
president and assistant to Bergen, and so Ralph was a manufacturing
type, and the manufacturing type, when he walked down the aisle, they
all bowed because he was an outstanding individual. So Dusty come
to me, and he said, "I don't think we'll ever get this done the
way things are going."
I was program manager at the time. I says, "Don't you know what
you're going to do?"
He says, "Well, I don't know if it will work or not," he
says, "but I'd like to try a bunch of things and see if it works."
So I called Ralph Ruud over, and I says, "Ralph, if we give you
a drawing tonight, will you have a part in the morning?"
So between the designer and Ralph Ruud and myself, we, in about a
week or so, had that thing working, and it was one you put in and
take out and add shocks in it and all that good stuff.
And it was successful every time.
Although there were some problems on Apollo 14 in docking, but it
managed to work.
Yeah. I don't remember those, though. When we landed on the Moon,
when, in '69? I went from [there] to the Shuttle as program manager
on the Orbiter, and so we were, at that time, doing studies for what
should be the Shuttle… At that time I was on the Shuttle, so
I don't remember that problem.
Before we go into Shuttle, were there any other issues that came up
during your time working on Apollo that stand out in your mind?
One of the problems we had developing was the parachute system, and
we were working with the parachute people up in the valley who were
managed by a guy that used to work for me. As a result, he would do
whatever both of us thought we ought to do, but we had a lot of problems,
and we had boilerplates to throw the parachutes out and land them
on the Earth and then make a correction and do it again. That was
kind of a tough problem. We wanted to be sure—we had three parachutes,
as I remember, and we wanted to be sure at least two of them worked.
That was a major problem. I'll have to think more. I just don't remember.
There was so many damned many of them that I can hardly separate them.
What is your most fond memory of your work on Apollo?
I think my most fond memory of working on Apollo was the people and,
in particular, George Low. [George W. S.] Abbey was good to work with,
too, … he was kind of assistant to George Low and Gilruth. Well,
he was with the astronauts first. He was head of the astronaut group,
but then he had moved, I think, from assistant to George Low and Gilruth,
over to head the astronauts, and I don't know if he ever went back.
I don't remember whether he was assistant after Gilruth when George
Low was there and then after him was Chris [Christopher C.] Kraft
[Jr.]. I loved Chris Kraft, too, because he was a reasonable individual
and, I thought, smart individual.
Seemed like there were a lot of brilliant people who worked on the
early space program.
Yes, there were. They were…
Well, we can move into Shuttle.
Well, let's start again with Shuttle, when you went into the proposal
stage on this.
Okay. We went into proposal stage and study stage, really. It was
a study stage for about two years on what it should look like, and
we worked with General Dynamics [Corp.]. The first Shuttle was supposed
to have a booster that flew back home, and they launched the orbiter
off of that booster, and it went into orbit with its propulsion system.
That become a little too expensive for the government and NASA, because
by the time you developed effectively two airplanes, they decided
it—[John F.] Yardley came up with the solid boosters, if you
ever heard that name, and at the latter part of our studies, he proposed
the solid boosters with the replaceable boosters and the throw-away
tanks—tank, rather. So we all focused on that after NASA kind
of said, "Well, we think that we can meet that dollar sign."
And it was primarily for money and maybe schedule that we went to
the solid boosters and the throw-away tank.
Then we got into proposal stage after we submitted it and NASA says,
"Here's the spec [specification] we want you guys all to bid
to." So we did, and everybody else that was interested in it
also bid. I can't remember. I know St. Louis bid. I think, honestly,
we bid not only on Orbiter, but on integration of the booster and
tanks with the Orbiter, and we won both contracts. I really believe
that we won them because of the job we did on Apollo, not saying our
proposal wasn't any good, but our proposal had to be good. NASA evaluates
the proposal based on what it is, they base it on what the people
is on the job and what they think you are capable of doing, I think.
I'm not 100 percent sure of that, but anyway, we won that proposal
in 1972, and at that time I was program manager on the Orbiter. After
we won—as we went in with the proposal, though, I changed from
program manager to chief engineer, and I was chief engineer when the
proposal went in. That was strategy, really.
Well, after we won, then I went back to the program manager, with
NASA's concurrence, of course, and we had a guy by the name of Al
[Alan B.] Kehlet, who I had hired from Langley on the Apollo days,
and he then was chief engineer on the Orbiter. We had another guy
that was chief integration individual manager named Bud [R. L.] Benner,
who was my assistant during the X-15 and one of my assistant chief
engineers and one of the spacecraft program managers. So he was spacecraft
program manager on the Apollo that went into the vacuum chamber down
Anyway, getting back to the Shuttle, it was, I think, a lot easier
than the Apollo because we were always able to communicate. We had
our systems all in operation. We had developed a schedule in terms
of what we thought the government would let us spend and what NASA
would get, and we worked close with the program management at Houston.
I became very close to the program manager at Houston, a guy by the
name of—it'll come to me—Bob—
[Robert F.] Thompson?
Thompson. Bob Thompson was program manager on the Orbiter and the
Shuttle at that time.
Then we got the Shuttle, and we decided that—in the Apollo days,
we had some 30,000 people at Downey, and 30,000 people, approximately
30, is very tough to manage …, and we decided on the Orbiter
and the integration of the system that we would try to keep our force
down to 10,000 people, which would be a lot easier managing, and then
we would farm out pieces of it to other aircraft companies so they
could manage some things, too, with us. So that's what we did.
The first thing we did was [to get] people to bid on the wing, for
example, the mid-fuselage, for example, the vertical tail, for example.
Of course, we always bought the landing gears and stuff like that
from the landing-gear people, but Grumman built the wing, Fairchild
built the vertical tail, General Dynamics at San Diego built the mid-body,
and we built the remaining, the aft fuselage and the front fuselage,
and we integrated them all together. That was a much easier job, because
we had now learned how to manage our subs, and they were very capable
people in the first place.
… They first come out to our plant, most of them, and we sat
down and developed that particular interface, if you please, guessed
at loads to start with, and then as we would get more aerodynamic
information, we would upgrade the loads, and they would upgrade their
piece of the action. I thought that worked outstanding, frankly. By
that time we had learned to work with the customer also. So that made
it easier, too, and our piece of paper was one almost that the customer
used, the Apollo. They knew our piece of paper almost as good as we
did, and they liked it, too.
Bob Thomas we program manager at that time, and he had a system. They
wrote a lot of the specs that we all worked to. Bob was a very easy
guy to work with, and he went to St. Louis after—I guess he
retired at NASA, and I guess he's back at Houston now. I don't know.
Now, what have I missed?
What were some of the challenges of developing the Orbiter?
The biggest challenge, I think, of the Orbiter was the insulation.
The Orbiter was designed of aluminum material, not exotic material,
and all the outside of the vehicle was covered with insulation. That
insulation was developed in the early days of the Shuttle, and it
was done by Lockheed. They had won the contract for—I think
two or three people worked on that, and they finally won the contract
on the integration. That was probably one of the most toughest things
that we did. There were some 30,000 tiles on that airplane, plus some
felt and a few other things, but there was 30,000 tile on that airplane,
and they were all about that big square, and they were all glued to
a piece of material that was then glued to the airplane, and that
material was soft, kind of soft. It was hard, really, but it weighed,
for example, it weighed nine pounds per cubic foot compared to the
Apollo, which weighed about sixty-five pounds per cubic foot. So you
see we went a long way in technology to get that.
Now, one of the problems we had was attaching that to the airplane.
First of all, it had to be machined so that it would have the same
contour as the airplane. It had to be close between the gaps, that
you couldn't get the heat down. As a matter of fact, we had to put
fillers in between them on some of them, and it had to be light, and
it had to have enough strength to take the aerodynamic loads trying
to lift it [off].
Now, in ordinary airplanes, the aerodynamics people give you a lift
curve over the wing and a lift curve on the bottom, and you say, well,
we can take all that. But on this one, we had to know what the load
was on each individual tile to be sure that that tile was strong enough
to stay on the vehicle. So they had to work each individual tile and
give the loads to the structures guys, and they had to calculate whether
that thing would stay on or not. So that took a lot of time.
As a matter of fact, that's the reason I went back to Downey, is because
they got in all kinds of problems… When I went back, the first
two or three months I tried to find out where the hell did we stand.
Where is all the problems? Then I decided that I was going to take
a room that was about twice as big as this, with not all these windows,
and we were going to put the schedule on the wall. Everything that
had to be done by the Purchasing Department, the Manufacturing Department,
the Engineering Department, had to go on that wall, and if we needed
something from the customer, it went on the wall. So we had the entire
program that remained, qual [qualification] testing of parts had to
go on the wall, everything had to go on the wall. Everything we had
to do had to go on that wall.
Soon as it got on the wall, then every Friday I would have a meeting
in that room with all the managers, the head of engineering, the head
of manufacturing, the head of purchasing, and if Houston wanted to
be in there, they were welcome. We had no secrets, and we just followed
that thing, then, until we got it all done. The airplane, in the meantime,
is at the Cape, and we had a crew down there taking those dang tiles
off, and we found out that we had to take some of them off and put—if
you know what those tiles look like, they have a black coating outside.
We had to put the same type of coating on the inside so that it was
more uniform in terms of its sticking, because they were aerodynamic,
would try to lift it up at the front and tear it off. I use the phrase
to describe that as that material had a bunch of fine hairs, and those
hairs then were glued, but they worked as an individual, see. So we
coated those hairs, and then they worked as a total, then it became
possible to glue them on there the way they say.
And you finally got them to stay.
And we finally got them on, and the guys worked, and it must have
took close to 50 percent of them off and surfaced them and put them
back on and glued them. It took from the time I went until it went
into test down at the Cape, finally I thought it was well enough along
that I'd give it to our test people down there, go into test, and
then finally mounted it on the airplane, and we flew then in March,
April. April, I think. And I watched the launch. We flew back and
it landed at Edwards, and I was back when it landed at Edwards.
Now, what was interesting to me, John Young was the pilot, and John
Young would be worried about things. I at the time was at corporate
office, so John would give me a call, and he says, "Charlie,
I'm not sure about this." One of the instances was that the bomb
bay, or the cargo bay, had doors on each side, I think there was about
four of them, that you had open during launch, you could close them
on orbit, and you closed them on entry until you got down into the
atmosphere and the temperature was such that you could open them and
then let the crushing load from the atmosphere into the cargo bay
so you didn't screw up the structure.
So John says, "What if I don't get one of the doors shut?"
which is a good question.
I said, "God, I don't know, John. Let me check that."
So I got the question to people, and I says, "Suppose that door's
open. What will burn up?"
They come back and say, "Well, that's okay. It'll get a little
hotter, and we may have to change the material a little bit when we
get back, but that's no big deal."
So John says, "Okay."
One of the other problems we had with the Orbiter was that at the
time I was at the corporate office, I was kind of a technical assistant
to the group president, and we were over the Rocketdyne people, too.
So they blew up one engine right after the other. They had instigated
the engine with a seal between the turbine on the oxygen pump, …
and the pump itself, between the power that run the pump and the pump
itself, and that seal was failing like mad, it just wouldn't work.
NASA had done a lot of technology work on it, but it was—the
surface of that slope was measured in light—I'll think of it
in a minute. It was so exact it had to be measured by light. So I
don't know if we could never manufacture it or whether the damned
thing didn't work, but they blew up an engine or two. So they screwed
around, and a guy that was in charge of the engine at Huntsville asked
me, he says, "Do you think it will ever work?"
I said, "No, it won't ever work. It's too dangerous." I
don't care if it worked once or twice, you don't know it's going to
work every time, and it's too dangerous, and you might as well change
to a labrunt seal, which is something we all knew about.
He said, "Well, it'll take more gas to keep it—"
I says, "So we'll put another fifteen pounds of gas in the airplane,
but it'll be safer." They haven't had a blow-up since that new
seal went in… So that was a big accomplishment as far as the
engines were concerned.
The engine has a computer that runs each engine. Just like your cars
today, they've got a computer. You can't work on them, because you
don't know what the hell the computer's doing. But they had a computer
that run each one of those engines, and they were high pressure, high-pressure
engines. They were 3,000 psi on the chamber pressure, … they
each developed 540,000 pounds of thrust at vacuum, which was a little
less than that at sea level, of course, and there was three of them,
and they all gimbled, and they were controlled—the guidance
control for the Shuttle along with the gimbling of the solid motor
thrust chambers, which give it all the power it needed to operate.
I guess out of the hardware that keep the thing—the insulation,
the next—probably the biggest thing that we had was the electronic
system. To start with, it was a very tough thing to decide what. We
had a guy that was an outstanding electronic guy. So he come up with
all the electronic things that we needed to do in the airplane. I
says, "Well, we'd better go down to Houston and discuss the whole
thing further, because they're no dummies, either, you know, what
So we went down there, and he had a whole stack of briefing charts
that he'd developed, and he put up, I think, about the second one,
which was a total schematic of all the electronic, and he never got
off of that during the briefing. He stayed on that one thing because
of the questions that were asked and his answers. Finally they said,
"Well, that's what we want." So that was a tough one to
get settled, if you please, but not as tough after you got it settled.
The other thing that was kind of a mean thing and a worrisome thing
was the software that—see, that Orbiter just flies on software.
If the pilot wasn't there, it would fly anyway. You punch in the right
program, and it has an automatic landing system. I don't know whether
the thing ever has used the automatic landing system, because the
pilots were nervous about an automatic landing system at that time.
So I don't know whether they've ever used it or not.
You mentioned that the Shuttle could probably fly itself without a
man in there. How did you feel about the first test of the Shuttle
being a manned flight?
Oh, that didn't bother me. … [B]ut I'll tell you the thing that
bothered me, was the tiles all staying on, because the heat coming
[in] that, you didn't want to get to that aluminum surface. So that's
what bothered me more than anything… I guess the launch would
worry you, because it all has to be integrated, and if one of those
solid motors don't start, it's a bad day in black rock, because you've
got one doing tumbling. But all of them seemed to work okay.
I don't mind saying that I cried when it come back. It just went in
orbit a couple of times, as I remember it, and come back because they
didn't want to take a chance. See, if you go in orbit, you've got
a cross-range problem when you come back if you don't do it in the
first orbit, and every time you orbit, you move over about X number
of miles from your home base, and so they didn't want to have all
that cross-range problem as well as the regular problems, so that's
the reason it didn't go but a couple of orbits. I don't know if they
ever use the cross range to speak of at all now. They try to either
land at Edwards or the Cape.
One of the interesting things on the Shuttle was, how do you get it
from Edwards, where we had final assembly, to the Cape? It didn't
have any engines in it that you could burn. So we tried everything.
We had engine packages that we bolted to the mid-body, and they would
go about 500 miles and you'd have to refill them all. So you had a
So one day the guys from Boeing came down, and they come into my office,
and they said, "We've got an idea. You guys are having all kinds
of trouble getting this thing to the Cape. Why don't we put it on
the back of a 747."
So they briefed me on that, and I says, "That sounds good. Why
don't we brief NASA on that so that we're all in the same boat, if
So they briefed NASA on it, and they said, "Yeah, that's okay.
That sounds like the best thing you've had yet."
So we said, "Okay, Boeing, I want you to go design the 747 to
take the loads and put the necessary connections on to the Orbiter."
In the meantime, we had to have a 747. So at the time we had American
Airlines trying to help us on turnaround so we could turn around faster.
We wanted to turn the vehicle around as fast as we could. So they
said, "Well, we've got some over here in New Mexico sitting there
because we're not using them." They says, "We'll sell one
of them to you for fifteen million bucks," which was cheap, really,
because they cost a hell of a lot more than that.
So I sent a guy down, and they looked all the paperwork over and finally
decided that was okay, and so they bought it and brought it back and
give it to Boeing to modify to do the [unclear]. Well, then people
got a little worried about how do you get off of that damned thing
and test the Orbiter before we go into space on how it lands? So,
well, we did the aerodynamic analysis and the wind tunnel analysis
and said, "Well, it'll go," because the Orbiter's got more
drag than the—it's got no engine and the engines are in the
747, so you turn it loose and … then the Orbiter flies off.
And it did. The astronauts did the check-out on it, and it worked
very well. But those are the things you run into that are brand new
And it was a very different vehicle than anything that had been designed
Yes. It was, yes. It had insulation all over it. See, the X-15 was
designed for 1,200 degrees and it's steel, and they never got over
that. But this thing had to be designed for 3,000 degrees in some
parts of it, and on that particular part we had carbon leading edges
with insulation behind the leading edge, rather than in front of the
leading edge. And then behind the carbon we put the tile.
You mentioned that North American, or Rockwell at that time, was also
in charge of integration. Did you have any other integration difficulties
aside from the tiles?
The integration of the tiles was Orbiter's responsibility, okay? The
integration of the boosters to the tank and the tank to the airplane,
the Orbiter, was our responsibility to give them all the loads, all
the interfaces, and the flight mission. So we developed the flight
mission, we developed what we thought was necessary for the thrust,
and we developed what we thought was necessary for the engines in
the back of the airplane in terms of their thrust, how we wanted the
nozzles to be. The integration of the total is what we were doing,
too. We had about five or six hundred people doing that.
One of the major problems on that was getting the loads. You get the
loads out of the wind tunnel—I mean, you get coefficients out
of the wind tunnel and develop the loads from that, and you go through,
as a preliminary load, and then you go through as a second iteration
and a third and a fourth. I think we went through about five iterations
on the loads. Not all of them were major, but at least to be sure
we had the loads. The load sometimes also depends on how you fly the
vehicle. We had a very critical first flight through the max Q that
we had to make, and after we got all the loads, then we figured out
how to fly through that max Q without overloading the vehicle, and
that's what the integration job was to do.
After having worked on the Shuttle and it's flown for so many years,
what's your overall view of the Space Shuttle?
I think it's a very good vehicle, frankly. It probably is a little
bit obsolete in some of the areas, and I understand they're trying
to upgrade it in time, and I really think it's a very good vehicle.
I thought it was at the beginning, and it's proved itself to be a
very good vehicle. Unfortunately, the boosters screwed up.
I was on the NASA team to review the solid motor redesign after they
went ape, and that took about a year. I was disappointed in it taking
so long, but that wasn't my job to redo the—I recommended a
change that would have done it much quicker, but it would have been
an interim fix, and so they didn't want to do an interim, they wanted
to do the full stink, and that's okay.
What exactly did you do as part of that team?
We looked at every facet of it, primarily in the seals and how they
were done and what Thiokol was doing to prove these seals. They went
into O-rings, they went into all kinds of different designs, and we
looked at those different designs about every couple of months. Finally
we come to the conclusion we had to—the one thing that was unique,
I'll tell you, was that every seal had to have a double seal, so if
one failed, it was backed up by the second, and every seal—in
order to know that that first seal was working and you weren't depending
upon the second seal so you only had one seal, you had to have a test
port between the seals. So you could test it by air pressure, that
the seals were both working.
Finally you get to the last thing you're going to close out. You've
got ports that you've tested these ports or seals. Now you've got
to screw the thing in to stop any leakage that might come through.
So then they screw it in, and they had two seals on that, and they
had to check that, too. I said, "Look, you're just going as far
as you can go, so why don't you just put one seal on that one? It's
a small hole." But they put two seals, and they never could check
the last—let one of those seals out, so they were relying on
the buddy system to install them.
So you were satisfied with the final result of their revisions?
Yes, I was. I was only a part of the team, so everybody was having
their say on it. We were all giving Thiokol a rough time. Unfortunately,
that problem they knew about a long time ago on the first flight.
I think they knew about it. They had scorching of some of those seals,
and they thought, well, that's okay, you know. It was a misjudgment
of what might happen. I saw that flight on television, and I saw that
flame come out of that booster. I said, "Oh, my God, that's it,"
because you'll blow that tank up in no time.
It was very sad.
Well, later, you said, you also did some consulting for Space Station?
Tell us about that.
Well, I was consulting for Space Station with Grumman, and I was very
concerned, and I spoke about it, but they eventually changed it a
little bit, that NASA had a group of what they call "integration
people" at Washington, which was a mistake in the first place,
I think. But anyway, that's what they was. They had a communication
problem, because they were trying to direct Grumman by each function
in NASA directing each function in Grumman. So I'm not sure if anybody
knew what the hell was going on. One of the guys that was on the team
was a Grumman guy. The first meeting I went to, we were talking about
what should be done, and he says, "Well, now, that's what should
be done, but what's best for Grumman?"
I just had a sinking feeling. I says to myself, "This is—I'm
through." So I got home, and I wrote the program manager on Grumman
a letter saying, "Sorry about that, but I don't know what's best
for Grumman, but I think what's best for Grumman is what's best for
the country. If Grumman will do it, than that's best for Grumman."
So he called me and says, "Come on back. Come on back. We'll
fix that problem."
So I went back, and we worked for—I guess I worked about two
or three years back there. One of the problem they had back there
is, they had a weight problem, first of all, and every time you turned
around they was redesigning it because it was too heavy.
Another problem they had is they didn't sit down and write good specs.
The integration team should have wrote good specs. They should have
told each of the major contractors what the weight should be and what
the hell they had to meet and what the requirements was, and they
never did it. So they would go to St. Louis, and St. Louis, "Well,
you haven't given us any weights, so we haven't imposed any weights
on our subcontractors." So nobody knew what the weight was except
by guess and by God.
That finally got fixed, and I think NASA finally got concerned that
Grumman wasn't doing their job and finally got concerned that maybe
NASA wasn't doing their job, and I think they moved the integration
into Houston and then they give the job to Boeing. That become a little
bit of a problem, too, because Boeing Aircraft Company didn't get
the job of integrating because they've been integrating airplanes
for years. They give it to the Space Division at Boeing. So that took
a little bit of problems of getting that straightened out, as I understand
I know one thing that was studied for at least well over a year was,
how do you test this total mess? Put it all together, have mock-up
of all the hardware that goes into it and have it all integrated together
and test it. And a lot of people, including, I think, Houston says,
"No, we'll do—we'll just set the—" Each system
had to have its own tape, own program. "We'll just test them
all together and not have the hardware." So I think that's the
way they finally did it, and it probably turned out okay. Maybe it
didn't turn—we haven't got it up there yet, but—I know
[Thomas P.] Stafford had a committee that works for [Daniel S.] Goldin
on investigation of what the heck should be [tested by mating hardware].
He had me on the committee once, and I think they didn't like what
I said, because I ain't been back. But it was at Houston, and the
people at Goddard [Space Flight Center] wanted the vehicle put in
a vacuum chamber and shaken. It was an argument between the Houston
people and Goddard, and why Goldin didn't satisfy that by saying yes
or no, but he wanted somebody to look at that problem, so we did.
Max Faget was on the meeting and the ex-president of Boeing and several
guys was on the committee. We listened to briefing all day long from
what they were doing and what the objection was from Goddard, and
then they were about to close out the meeting, and Max said, "Can
I say something?" Then he spoke his peace. When he got through,
I said, "I'd like to say something, too." And I says, "I
don't believe in necessary thermovacuum on a big vehicle. You have
a problem of making it real because you have heat coming in that's
different from the heat that you get up in space. You have it shining
on one side, and you might, in space, have it shining on two sides,
and you don't know that you've created a problem by having it in a
vacuum chamber that you don't even have." I says, "I don't
believe in that, and I would recommend you don't do that, and I recommend
you shake all your small components and put them in a vacuum chamber,
whatever the heck you do to make them good, but leave that big structure
alone." And I think they finally did. They went to the Cape after
that, and I didn't go with them, because they didn't pay you for going
to those meetings. When I retired, I told my wife I'd take her to
the meetings if she wanted to go. I took her to Houston, to that meeting,
and I was going to take her to the Cape if I went, but I said, "I
ain't going. I got other plans." So they dropped me out of that.
You've had an amazing career. As you look back over your career, what
do you feel is your most significant accomplishment?
I think staying alive. [Laughter] I don't know. I think I'm happy
that I was able to contribute to the space program what small knowledge
I have of space and all that good stuff, but I think that was an accomplishment
I really feel proud of. I think, if anything, I am not a highly technical
person, I'm a very practical person, and I can understand hardware
probably as good as anybody, and I think the fact that I can work
with people and people respect me is a great accomplishment on my
What do you feel was your biggest challenge?
I first thought the biggest challenge I had was the X-15, because
we didn't know from Shinola kind of what we were doing. We were welding
material that the material people didn't even know we could do, but
we said, "We're going to do it, and if it works, we're ahead
of you, and if it don't, we're behind you." So we did it, and
I'm a firm believer that if you're doing something, you've got to
make a decision to go, and if you go, you'll find out if you're going
in the wrong direction quickly, and you change your decision and go
again. Otherwise, you just sit and stall. The biggest challenge, I
think, really, was the Apollo.
And you met that challenge and accomplished one of the greatest feats
that mankind has ever accomplished.
Yes, well, not by myself.
It took a lot of people.
Where would you like to see space flight go in the future?
Oh, God. I don't know. I guess what's the way it's going is as good
a way as any. I have my doubts we'll ever go to Mars or anything like
that. Maybe it's because I'm so dumb, but I just don't think we'll
ever go that far, frankly. It takes a long time to get there and a
long time to get back, and you don't send people off without knowing
pretty well that they're going to come home, because that's not the
American way. I don't think this generation will live long enough
to go there.
Before we close, I'd like to ask Rebecca and Carol if they have any
questions for you. Carol?
While you were working on Apollo, it was such a big project and you
had to focus so much of your time on it, yet there was so much else
going on in the country and in the world, all the civil unrest and
the Vietnam War. Did that affect your work at all?
No. The only thing that affected me is that I worked seven days a
week. I didn't work all day Sunday and didn't work all day Saturday
necessarily, but every Saturday I went in, and I would go through
the people and go through what they were doing in the shop as well
as in the Engineering Department that we were working on time, and
then I would go home to the family. Lots of times I went in on Sunday,
but I worked mostly about—I'd say at least ten hours, twelve
hours a day during the week. When I got through, I would call my wife
and say, "I'm coming home," and we'd have dinner. Most of
the kids would have already eaten. But the outside world didn't affect
me. I didn't even look at the damned thing. I doubt if I read many
Looking at your work on Shuttle, on the first mission, you talked
a lot about the tiles and the problems and how you were concerned
on that mission that those tiles stay on. When they did get up into
orbit and opened the panel of bay doors and looked out, they did notice
a couple of tiles missing. When you heard that, did you have concerns
about the tiles that couldn't be seen?
Well, you have concern, but there ain't a damned thing you could do
about it. Okay? You just have to take your chance.
And it did come home safely.
There was several tiles that was kind of overheated a little bit,
but it was in pretty good shape. It had no more than landed till we
was looking at the tiles. And Chris [Kraft] came out to look with
us, too. I guess he was Center director then.
That's all I had.
Mr. Feltz, you mentioned when you were working with Grumman that you
felt that that decision was to be made for what was the best for the
country, best for the program. Was that your focus that you used all
through your career in making those decisions?
You had so many partners. Was that sometimes hard to keep them focused
there as well?
No. I thought if I did a good job, that was best for me and the company
and the customer. I got in an argument with a general down at Houston.
From that meeting, he wanted to review the award fees contract with
Boeing, and I said, "I disagree. I don't believe award fee should
take any facet in the decision made by [Boeing]. That's a big outfit,
and they ain't going to make a decision based on award fee."
I never made a decision based on award fee. I made decisions based
on what I thought was right.
And he says, "Well, you must have had a lot of stock in the company."
I said, "I didn't have a dime of stock in the company when I
was doing some of that," and they never did look at the contract,
Did that focus also help you help the program recover after the tragedies
that you experienced?
Did you feel the team move toward that focus to keep everything going?
Our whole company was that way. They thought the product should speak
for itself, and I was taught that way by the CEO [J. Leland Atwood]
that just passed away, and he was a very good friend of mine, and
the CEO that just resigned from Rockwell was a very good friend of
mine. I had received a Christmas card from him every year until he
resigned at Christmas.
You also mentioned you're a very practical man. When you saw that
Shuttle sitting on top that Boeing 747, was that a practical thought
or did that seem odd to you?
Well, no, I was convinced that was okay. That was the only way we
was going to get there, because all the ways we tried, we just was
going to jump from one little airport to another, and the danger of
every time you have to land a vehicle is greater, and then you've
got to—and I thought if we could fly maybe half the way at least
with it on a 747, they had instructions that if they got in trouble,
they'd let it go, see? You'd lose the vehicle, of course. But we'd
debated, even, putting an astronaut in there on the way to the Cape
in case we got in trouble. But then you say, "Where the hell
am I going to land it when I get in trouble? I don't know where I'm
going to land it. It might be on a mountain." The first Orbiter,
we had ejection seats in it.
Was it better for the Orbiter to start landing at Kennedy than coming
out here to Edwards?
It was less dangerous, I think, because then you had to go transport
it by the 747, and that's a risk that you have every time you do that,
and if you land at the Cape you don't have that risk. So it eliminates
I have one other question. Of all the partners that you mentioned,
I guess the last one that you briefly talked about was your wife.
I'm sure it's a good feeling for you to know that you could work those
many hours, that she was here, and she supported your work and all
that you were able to accomplish.
Yes, and take care of the kids and educate them. Although it was a
trying experience for her, for the most part, but she stuck with us.
We want to thank you again for sharing with us and taking time out
of your schedule to do this.
I didn't have a schedule today. Don't put something that's critical
to other people in your catalogue.
Well, we will get you a copy of both the audio and the video and the
transcript, probably within a month, and you'll have a chance to look