HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The Rocket City is home to not only today’s aerospace engineers and technicians, but many who retired from NASA to keep their homes in the Tennessee Valley. WHNT News 19 talked with Frank Swalley of Huntsville, who worked for NASA for 40 years and played a key role in making the Saturn V and its astronauts ready for flight.
Swalley retired in 1999, having earned NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal and a Silver Snoopy Award for his work on the Space Transportation System program. He was Director of the Preliminary Design Office upon retirement.
And at the time of Apollo 11, he knew elements of the Saturn V inside out.
“We were trying to make sure we could feed liquid only to the engine, no gas,” he explained about his job in the propulsion office as a young man. “That would make the engine chug and then you’d have a catastrophe. Once you get into low-earth orbit, liquid wants to float. And yet, you want to have liquid only down at the engine, so we wanted to figure out how can we make sure we are feeding pure liquid to the engine.”
And his work doing this eventually introduced him to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins among a host of other Apollo astronauts.
“I don’t know how, but I ended up getting the assignment to brief all of the Apollo crews before they would fly, on the operation of the Saturn V vehicle,” recalled Swalley. “So I was briefing them on the mechanical, the propulsion, and the structural. And then my friend Fred Hammers was briefing them on all the electrical and the avionics. Fred was older than I was, so he really appreciated what was going on more than I did. So he said, ‘Hey, let’s get autographed pictures while we are briefing the crews.'”
He said during the first technical briefing he got up to do, he began the presentation to the astronauts and they stopped him only 5 seconds in.
“They said, that’s not what we want. We want to know what we’re going to see, what we are going to hear, and what we are going to feel,” he explained. “The contractors and everybody would feed me information that they thought would be significant. But one of the big things was the shutdown of the first stage. We were going 5 engines at 1.5 million pounds of thrust each, and all of a sudden we do a four-engine shutdown just like that, bam,” he snapped his fingers. “And so, they’re going from pulling about 6g’s and pushing way back in the seats to going forward because of the decease in acceleration.”
Swalley said some of the astronauts often gave his friend Fred some pushback because they wanted to be able to fly the rocket if something went wrong.
“They never got the ability to fly the Saturn V. We told them there were redundant systems and the redundant systems would take care of them if anything happened. But Fred always caught a lot of grief about them not being able to fly the Saturn V in case of trouble,” he noted.
Frank now has a scrapbook that his daughter made him that contains all those precious memories and memorabilia. It includes autographs from astronauts including those on the Apollo 11 mission. Frank and his team had even put together notes expressing pride and confidence in the astronauts that they gave to the astronauts’ children, along with the cover of the Saturn V flight manual that the team signed.
But in his younger days, it took a while for the significance of Swalley’s job to sink in.
“At the time, I didn’t really appreciate what was going on. We had the German team, the president said go to the moon, beat the Russians. We were a bunch of young guys, and we just… did it,” he said.
He recalled working under Wernher von Braun with a few stories of the man’s kindness toward those who drove him in taxis, or did the work he asked for: “He could talk to anybody,” he recalled.
There’s no chance he’ll forget these things.
“There’s really thankfulness that everything went as well as it did,” he said, looking back on the past 50 years. “The biggest thing you take out of it is the pride in the nation being able to do that.”
As we approach the anniversary of that giant leap for mankind, Swalley’s heart is warmed by the love felt 50 years later for all involved in the Apollo program. He’s giving it right back.
“Real pride in the nation, and I think about all the people I got to know and meet, and how wonderful that was,” he said.