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A Rocket Man Remembers: Dr. Lou Povinelli of NASA's Apollo Program
By Eric Francis | Dogtown Writer

This week's 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, mankind's "one giant leap" and the signal technological achievement to that point, offers up a reminder: Sometimes what you're doing is rocket science.

Planet Waves
Dr. Lou Povinelli. Photo courtesy of NASA Glenn Research Center.
During the 1960s, that's exactly what Dr. Lou Povinelli was doing. He was a rocket propulsion system engineer, and one of the tens of thousands of NASA employees (supported by hundreds of thousands of contractors) who worked to make the Project Apollo program a success. Today he is a senior technologist and member of the executive corps at NASA, working at the John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

"When I came to NASA and I look back at what I had done before I came here, it seemed like a perfect fit," said Dr. Povinelli. "There is an outstanding group of engineers that work for NASA and I think they all take pride in their work -- exceptionally good people, well suited and well talented to carry out these missions."

Being a rocket scientist, it hardly needs saying, takes a bit of schooling -- 11 years of college, in Dr. Povinelli's case.

He started with two years at Canisius College in Buffalo for a pre-engineering degree, followed by a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering after three years at the University of Detroit. Then he was off to the University of Kentucky for two years, where he secured a master's in mechanical engineering. His Ph.D. in mechanical and astronautical engineering took three years at Northwestern University, after which he was awarded a prestigious Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship at the Polytechnic Institute of Turin, Italy, which ended in 1960.

"About that time, I figured I needed to make some money," he said, then added with a chuckle, "So did my wife!"

He and Jean had been married the year before -- they now have seven children and five grandchildren, and celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.

Dr. Povinelli found not just a paying job but a lifelong career when he signed on with NASA and started working at the Lewis Research Center (now named for former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn) in Cleveland on Nov. 1, 1960, just before Kennedy took office.

His interest in rocket propulsion had developed during his college years in Detroit's cooperative program, where he alternated study with working at Bell Aircraft Corp. in Niagara, N.Y.

"I interned in the rocket engine lab, along with a few other assignments, and met some of the Germans who had been working at Peenemünde [during World War II] developing the V1 and V2 systems," he said. "It was an era of excitement for a young 19-, 20-year-old, being able to work and listen to their stories [of the] efforts they had gone through in developing those weapons systems."

Captured or expatriate German scientists -- most notably Wernher von Braun -- played a vital role in the American space program, and working with them galvanized Povinelli's interest in the field. Once he was on board at NASA and President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of a manned Moon landing, he and his colleagues suddenly found themselves with a crucial role in the Apollo program.

"I fell into this group of rocketeers and research engineers working on rocket propulsion, solid and liquid propellants, studying the aspect of the combustion process that would give us a nice, stable environment in the chamber," he said. "Certainly we recognized the importance of the work we were doing in terms of making the mission successful.

The last thing we wanted to do was be some of the researcher guys working on some element of the system that exploded."

While there was public excitement over the prospect of the Moon shot, Dr. Povinelli says even those who knew he worked at NASA sometimes found the nature of his contribution hard to fully comprehend.

"You have to realize, the general public didn't have much of a concept of the engineering that was required to make the [Apollo] system work," he said. "To their minds, rockets... the Germans [had done] that, you ought to be able to do that, no problem.

"So I didn't see a whole lot of that [excitement]," he said. "It was more, 'You're a rocket scientist, I could never understand that stuff.' Sure you can! You just squirt fuel and oxidizer together and light it and make sure you don't blow it up!"

But there was a feeling of "awe and excitement as to whether we could pull it off" that spilled over into the general public, recalled Dr. Povinelli.

By the time Apollo 11 blasted off on July 16, 1969, most of the important work by Dr. Povinelli and his colleagues was already done.

"We had perhaps some six to eight years to build up in that very intense mode," he remembered. "I think we had a lot of confidence the systems would work right. We had actual flight and knew that astronauts could return safely."

But that didn't make watching the first Moon landing any less special to him.

"It was very late at night, as I recall, around 11 or 12 o'clock," Dr. Povinelli said. "My wife and I and four or five of our children were sitting in front of the TV set in this suburb of Cleveland, watching very anxiously as [Neil Armstrong] descended down the ladder and put his foot on the ground.

"I must say, there was a great sense of relief," he said, "but there was a tremendous feeling of pride for the small part I had and that the group had played in making this a successful mission. In my mind, this was probably one of the greatest engineering achievements we'd ever carried out on Earth. There was just a fulfillment of that [potential] that filled me with tremendous admiration, not only for the astronauts who were up there willing to risk their lives, but also the NASA engineers and contractors who performed so well."

Dr. Povinelli paused before summing up his feelings on that day: "You get to play a small part in a big drama, and it does move you quite a bit."

In total, astronauts would visit the moon five times, the last being in 1972, and the Apollo program would wind down in 1975. Dr. Povinelli moved on to other projects at NASA dealing with propulsion concepts; today he is working on ways to make supersonic commercial flight practical. In February, he and four other executives at the Glenn Research Center received the Presidential Rank Award from President Obama, recognizing commitment to excellence in public service.

Through his work on the supersonic airplane project, Dr. Povinelli is also involved in designing a descent and landing system for an eventual manned Mars mission. The main challenge? Momentum. A spacecraft capable of supporting human life during the long trip between the planets would have to be 100 times the size those that delivered the two Mars Rovers, he said, and would be traveling at more than 20 times the speed of sound when it reaches the red planet's atmosphere.

"It has to slow from Mach 22 to Mach 0 within the atmosphere of Mars," he explained. "[We have to determine] how we slow that [spacecraft] down to a velocity where it doesn't blast itself into the ground 50 feet deep on Mars."

So, would Dr. Povinelli like to see astronauts return to the Moon? He hardly has to think before answering that question in the affirmative -- and with a broader agenda than just stopping by for a visit.

"This time would require something above and beyond what we did before," he said. "To maybe establish some sort of temporary residence up there to stay for a bit of time, rather than a very short visit. With some objectives that will necessarily have to fall in line with what the nation or the world is really trying to address at this stage of civilization."

And while he's seen the level of interest in the space program drop among both young and old, there are still those out there who dream of going to the Moon -- or to Mars, in the case of one 15-year-old in his neighborhood. And Dr. Povinelli continues to try and help people understand just what it takes to reach those goals, no matter how complex they may seem.

"My next-door neighbor will introduce me to a friend: 'Lou works at NASA; he's a rocket scientist,'" he said with a chuckle. "I try to convince them it's not so complicated anymore."

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