The process of developing a rocket begins with a concept.
That concept is translated into the creation of systems, which begin with schematics, or diagrams. Hardware is then designed and manufactured, based on those schematics. Individual pieces of hardware are tested separately and, after everything is put together, systems are repeatedly tested.
By 1965, one of LeBlanc’s roles was to provide technical support when North American Aviation test-fired the stage propulsion system at its facilities in California and Mississippi.
Testing could be extremely hazardous work.
“At the Mississippi Test Facility, we were involved in development testing of very hazardous liquid hydrogen (LH2) fuel systems when there was limited experience in this field. LH2 is stored at minus 423 degrees in ground storage tanks and is transferred from there to the vehicle fuel tanks for testing,” LeBlanc recalled.
“As the cold LH2 flows in lines and components they shrink and joints tend to leak. When a leak occurs, the LH2 changes from a liquid to a gas. The problem with a hydrogen gas leak is that it is invisible and highly flammable. The static electricity created by your shoes walking on the floor is enough to ignite the leak.
“Before the invention of reliable leak and fire detectors, we were required to walk around LH2 lines holding a broom in front of ourselves. If the broom caught fire you knew there was a leak and fire there and quit walking! This was our only fire detection system.”
Decades later, after sophisticated leak and fire detectors had been invented to reveal the presence of hydrogen and subsequent invisible flames, inspectors still carried always-reliable brooms as a fail-safe.
The Saturn V was impressive by any measure.
Its size “dwarfed all other previous rockets which had successfully flown at the time. It remains the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status, and holds the record for the heaviest payload launched,” LeBlanc observed in his memoir.
The rocket had three stages. When ignited, the first stage provided the power needed to lift it to an altitude of about 42 miles before dropping away. Stage 2 – referred to as S-II – then took over. It had five J-2 rocket engines and was fueled by 260,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 80,000 gallons of liquid oxygen. The second stage pushed the rocket through the upper atmosphere before it was discarded. The third stage sent the Apollo spacecraft into Earth’s orbit.
The rocket and Apollo spacecraft weighed 5.6 million pounds. It had a lift-off thrust of 7.5 million pounds. Thrust, produced by engines, is the force that propels a rocket and enables it to escape the gravitational pull of Earth.
“The first time I walked up to this huge rocket on the launch pad, I looked up and told myself ‘There is no way this big thing is going to fly,’” LeBlanc recounted.
And, the Saturn V was loud.
“Except for the hydrogen bomb, the Saturn V is the loudest man-made object ever built. The noise and vibration created during launch registers on earthquake sensors across America,” he wrote.
The Saturn V was a workhorse used by NASA for 12 Apollo missions between 1967 and 1972.
A room in J. Harvey LeBlanc’s home is filled with memorabilia from a career spent working on Apollo and space shuttle missions.
President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. But the mission to the moon stayed on course under the deadline he had set, thanks in large part to his vice president and successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, whose political clout saw it through.
On July 16, 1969, all of LeBlanc’s work culminated in the launch of Apollo 11 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
By then, LeBlanc was as a member of a team responsible for ensuring that all systems were ready for all Apollo takeoffs. The team had the knowledge, experience and authority to abort a mission if necessary.
For safety reasons, he was three and a half miles from the launchpad when he watched Apollo 11 lift off, the closest anyone was allowed.
“Even from three and a half miles away, to see, hear and feel the vibrations of those huge engines made the hair stand up on my neck and really made me proud to be an American. We had fulfilled President Kennedy’s goal!”
Placement of astronauts on the moon signaled the end of the Cold War space race.
“Back then we had a saying: ‘They said they were going to the moon and asked me to help. They gave us each a grain of sand to move and with that we built a road to the moon.’ How true this was, since everyone had their own specialty or job to do, no matter how big or small,” LeBlanc said.
It’s possible there is still evidence of his contribution to the Apollo space program on the lunar surface.
“In 1972, the NASA astronauts decided to show their appreciation to the North American Rockwell employees that had designed and built the Apollo spacecrafts and Saturn S-II rockets that had carried them safely to the moon. They microfilmed our signatures and carried them to the moon in Apollo 16, on April 16, 1972,” he wrote in his memoir.
He playfully added: “If you look at the moon carefully on a clear night, see if you can see my name up there!”
J. Harvey LeBlanc stands in front of Columbia, the first space shuttle, at Kennedy Space Center in 1981.
“We made history.”
Through his work on the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo spacecraft, J. Harvey LeBlanc, ’62, found all the challenges and adventures he sought by joining the nation’s space program as a design engineer right after graduation.
His subsequent contributions to the space shuttle rivaled that experience, offering the satisfaction of solving problems and developing a spacecraft that had never existed. Along the way, danger and tragedy intermingled with engineering innovation.
LeBlanc’s focus shifted to the space shuttle after the launch of Apollo 17, the sixth and final manned lunar landing, in 1972. He primarily concentrated on the orbiter, the part of the space shuttle that looks like a huge airplane.
Unlike Apollo spacecraft, the space shuttle was intended to remain in a 250-mile orbit around the Earth. It needed to return intact, so that it could make multiple trips to outer space and back.
In addition to the orbiter, the shuttle consisted of two solid rocket boosters that resembled giant Roman candles and an enormous external fuel tank.
“We were required to design systems to load and unload very toxic fuels, such as hydrazine, in and out of the shuttle orbiter,” LeBlanc stated in “Memoirs of an Old Rocketeer,” an account of his career written for his family.
Once the orbiter landed, it had to sit for hours while it cooled. Astronauts remained inside until it was safe to exit. While the orbiter was cooling, engineers examined it to make sure there were no hazards, such as fuel leaks.
LeBlanc and other design engineers were trained to perform such dangerous tasks while wearing Self-Contained Atmospheric Protection Ensemble suits, which resembled the bulky spacesuits worn by astronauts.
“These suits are required when working around hydrazine because it is so toxic that if you can smell it, you have inhaled enough to kill you!” LeBlanc said.