By Kathleen Thames for La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to walk on the moon. It was a triumph the United States of America accomplished in less than 10 years, the fruit of an unrivaled amalgam of brainpower, spunk, ingenuity and political will.

J. Harvey LeBlanc, ’62, helped make it happen.

J. Harvey LeBlanc (University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas)

The USA was losing the Cold War space race in 1961. Badly.

The Soviet Union had already successfully launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1; the first dog, Laika; and the first primate, a chimpanzee named Ham, into orbit.

It had also put the first human in outer space. On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin circled the globe for 108 minutes before parachuting safely to Earth.

Six weeks later, President John F. Kennedy addressed a Joint Session of Congress, where he announced an incredible objective: to send a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade.

His motivation was political. The backdrop of this bold endeavor was the Cold War, shorthand for mutual distrust and enmity that had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union – a former ally – after World War II. The Soviets’ rapid advancement in space exploration fueled fear in some Americans that their rival might stake the moon – and outer space – for itself, while the United States remained earthbound.

Kennedy asked Congress to redirect billions of federal funds to win the space race. It was not just a contest to see which country would reach the moon first. It was conceivably a battle to control outer space for world dominance.

On Sept. 12, 1962, Kennedy spoke to about 40,000 people gathered at the Rice University football field in Houston.

He described space exploration as “one of the greatest adventures of all time” and acknowledged that the United States was behind in manned flight.

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”

J. Harvey LeBlanc was a senior at the University of Southwestern Louisiana who was about to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering when he listened to what would become known as Kennedy’s “moon speech.”

LeBlanc was hooked, drawn to the adventure and challenges a ramped-up space race seemed to offer.

He got plenty of both.

Design engineers work on the Saturn V rocket in a North American Aviation facility in Downey, California, in the early 1960s.

As a self-described “groundling,” he was one of hundreds of thousands of men and women devoted to placing a man on the moon in an extremely short amount of time.

His career began when he was hired by the company responsible for developing the second stage of the Saturn V rocket and Apollo spacecraft. Seven years later, he stood near the Florida launch pad where the rocket he helped create catapulted Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin heavenward to their destiny as the first humans to step onto the lunar surface.

As if that weren’t enough to secure a place in history, LeBlanc was among thousands of scientists and engineers who later built the space shuttle. That reusable spacecraft would ultimately ferry equipment and material for an International Space Station created not for the purpose of war, but for peace.

In a cover story about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, published in the June 2019 issue of Smithsonian magazine, author Charles Fishman puts Kennedy’s quest in perspective.

“When President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States would go to the Moon, he was committing the nation to do something we simply couldn’t do. We didn’t have the tools or equipment — the rockets or the launch pads, the spacesuits or the computers or the micro-gravity food. And it isn’t just that we didn’t have what we would need; we didn’t even know what we would need. We didn’t have a list; no one in the world had a list. Indeed, our unpreparedness for the task goes a level deeper: We didn’t even know how to fly to the Moon. We didn’t know what course to fly to get there from here,” he wrote.

“. . . On May 25, 1961, when Kennedy asked Congress to send Americans to the Moon before the 1960s were over, NASA had no rockets to launch astronauts to the Moon, no computer portable enough to guide a spaceship to the Moon, no spacesuits to wear on the way, no spaceship to land astronauts on the surface (let alone a Moon car to let them drive around and explore), no network of tracking stations to talk to the astronauts en route,” Fishman continued.

None of that mattered to LeBlanc.

Soon after graduating from USL, he was hired by North American Aviation as a design engineer for the second stage of the Saturn V rocket. He drove to the West Coast, where he began working in the company’s Downey, California, facility. It was a large, metal building where airplanes had been built in the 1920s. It lacked air conditioning, so its windows were left open. Birds would fly inside from time to time.

J. Harvey LeBlanc supervised testing of hardware for the S-II stage of the Saturn V rocket in the mid-1960s. Extensive testing was conducted throughout the rocket’s development.

LeBlanc recalls those early days with the kind of bravado that enabled the United States to accomplish a scientific and engineering feat that, in retrospect, should not have been possible.

“We all had a drafting machine, a fluorescent light, a wooden stool, a 10-inch slide rule and pocket protector with about ten pencils!

“We did our analysis with the slide rules and the drawings were made on paper utilizing the drafting machines. We were full of enthusiasm and ready to design the Saturn V rocket and Apollo capsule. We didn’t need no stinking computer!” he stated in an account of his work that was written at the request of his family.

In that narrative, entitled “Memoirs of an Old Rocketeer,” LeBlanc notes that he had an advantage over many fresh-out-of-college graduates.

“I had worked my way through college by designing pneumatic systems in the Louisiana oil fields, so I had some experience in that area,” he said.

“At about 25 years old I was given the responsibility for the design of the propulsion servicing systems for the second stage (called the S-II) of the three-stage Saturn V rocket! These systems included 47 launch-critical functions to assure safe launch of the rocket. In my mind, failure was not an option.”
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands by the American flag on the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969.

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.

At Edwards Air Force Base in California, J. Harvey LeBlanc and others were trained to handle toxic fuels safely for the space shuttle while wearing protective suits.

As with Apollo missions, extensive testing of equipment and systems was conducted at various stages of space shuttle development. Sometimes, there were failures.

One occurred during test-firing of the main propulsion system engines in Mississippi. When an attempt was made to start the engines, they exploded. “Had this explosion occurred on an actual space shuttle during launch, it would have destroyed the shuttle and probably killed the crew,” LeBlanc said.

The space shuttle fleet was grounded and he was assigned to help troubleshoot the cause of the explosion and find a solution that would prevent future failures. The culprit turned out to be the way the engines were started.

The engine supplier determined that the fix would require changes to the start sequence, followed by extensive testing. The projected cost was a little over $9 million.

Test-firing of the S-II stage of the Saturn V rocket was conducted at a facility in Mississippi.

Soon after, LeBlanc was setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July with his son when he thought of an alternative. “I needed a device to shoot sparks which would burn the hydrogen at the exit of the engine nozzle during start. This would keep the hydrogen from forming a large cloud and therefore prevent the explosion from occurring,” he explained.

A phone call to a pyrotechnic supplier, whose fireworks were used at Disneyland, confirmed that he could buy what he needed – “a device that would shoot sparks about 30 feet at a temperature of 1,200 degrees.”

The price tag: $9.85 each. Ultimately, the equivalent that met NASA specifications would cost about $1,200 each, but LeBlanc’s solution saved millions of dollars.

J. Harvey LeBlanc, center, and engineers monitor data in a mission support room in Downey, California, prior to a space shuttle launch.

He was on hand for the first space shuttle launch – of the Columbia – at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 12, 1981. Because of his familiarity with the design, construction and testing of the orbiter, NASA had asked him to serve as a member of the Launch Support Team in the Launch Control Center. As an adviser, he would help troubleshoot any problems that might arise.

Engineer Tibor Lak, left, and J. Harvey LeBlanc check the design and construction of a heat exchanger used to help make liquid oxygen, a propellant, heavier per gallon. Denser oxygen can be carried in smaller, lighter tanks.

Since the countdown went smoothly, he recalled, “I was given permission to go outside a few minutes before launch to take photos of the liftoff. It was totally unimaginable to see the magnitude of the engine exhaust flames and subsequent vapor cloud, hear the noise from the screaming engines, and actually feel the rumble of the ground as the vehicle slowly accelerated skyward. I don’t think I have ever been prouder to be an American and part of such a historic event.”

Five years later, he witnessed one of the most chilling tragedies in the United States’ space program.

On Jan. 28, 1986, he was in Downey, California, when the Challenger space shuttle was scheduled for liftoff. It was the first time he had not been part of the launch team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Instead, he was in a Mission Support Room in Rockwell International’s plant.

In his memoir, he recounts what happened that morning.

“The countdown and early part of the launch went well. We were receiving good data from KSC and the performance of our engines appeared normal until 73 seconds into the flight when our computer screens froze up. I assumed that we had experienced a data link failure until I looked up at the public TV and saw the vehicle breaking up. I had such a sick feeling in my stomach that I thought that I would throw up!”

An explosion killed all seven astronauts aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school teacher.

Despite the horror of watching that deadly accident, LeBlanc had to focus on his job.

“Orders were given to lock the doors of the Mission Support Room and we were told that we could make one call to our homes to tell our families not to expect us until they saw us.”

Team engineers view testing of liquid hydrogen behind bulletproof glass in an explosion-proof control room.

He and colleagues spent the next 36 hours reviewing every bit of available data to determine whether the company’s systems had caused the failure. After an exhaustive examination, they were confident their propulsion systems were not at fault.

Accident investigators later pinpointed a failure in O-rings that sealed sections of the solid rocket boosters.

In the 1990s, LeBlanc became Boeing’s propulsion design engineering director for the space shuttle and Delta IV rocket programs. In that role, he was responsible for “everything between the tires and the tip of the tail of the space vehicle, except electronics and computers.”

The Space Shuttle Endeavour is poised for takeoff at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

He retired in 1999 and moved back to south Louisiana.

Sometimes, he proudly wears a commemorative crew shirt with the names of the five shuttles: Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery and Endeavor.

The message embroidered on it sums up his contributions to all of them:

“We Made History.”

Recent photos of J. Harvey LeBlanc by Doug Dugas

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