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Alan Shepard and Apollo 13

August 7, 2010

Filed under: life — Terry Wohlers @ 14:33

The movie Apollo 13 ranks as one of my favorites. More than anything else, it shows the unwavering spirit and determination of Americans. My wife and I watched the 1995 film (again) recently. Apollo 13 was the third Apollo mission that was supposed to land on the moon. Tom Hanks played commander James Lovell. He and his crew replaced Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and his crew due to an inner ear problem that Shepard had experienced. The mission launched on April 11, 1970, but never made it to the moon, and it nearly didn’t return to earth. The effort in bringing the crew back safely was truly remarkable.

The movie brought back vivid memories of an in-depth conversation I had with Alan Shepard on July 17, 1995. I was in an isle seat on a United Airlines flight from Denver to San Francisco. Relatively soon after the departure, a flight attendant whispered to me, “Do you know who you are sitting beside?” I shook my head. She said, “Alan Shepard.” My eyes got big as I sat up and said, “Thee Alan Shepard?” She nodded, yes. I immediately became nervous as I contemplated what I might say to him. He was resting with his eyes closed.

Fairly early into the flight, he sat up. The flight attendant asked if he needed anything. That’s when I introduced myself and told him that it was an incredible honor to meet him. The Apollo 13 movie was released two weeks earlier, and fortunately I had seen it, so we had something to talk about. I asked whether it was realistic and he said it was quite accurate. As a scuba diver, I had to ask whether weightlessness in space was similar to being neutrally buoyant in water. He said it was, except for the resistance that water creates when moving.

He explained to me that he was on Apollo 14 as commander in 1971 and walked on the moon. At age 47, he was the oldest astronaut in the program. He seemed particularly proud of his crew setting a record 127 parabolic cycles on a Boeing 707, (also known at the Vomit Comet when following this flight path). Each parabolic cycle creates about 26 seconds of weightlessness for astronaut training.

For most of the two-hour flight, we talked about the space program and his business activities. He told me that five of the 10 companies in which he had invested were quite successful. He and I were both headed to Monterey, California on a connecting flight, so we were also on that flight together. At the time, he had a places in Pebble Beach, California and Breckenridge, Colorado. When I commented on his two homes, he said he married a rich woman.

I found Shepard to be very friendly and humble. He was 71 at the time, but he looked much younger. He died three years later of leukemia near his home in Pebble Beach. His wife of 53 years died five weeks later.

Extraordinary People

April 12, 2014

Filed under: life — Terry Wohlers @ 07:54

I have had the privilege of meeting some high achievers in the past. They have provided inspiration to me and many others. A number of them have been affiliated with NASA space program.

Alan Shepard was the first American in space, and he walked on the moon. I was lucky to be seated next to him on a flight from Denver to San Francisco in 1995. We talked about the space program, the Vomit Comet, and the Apollo 13 movie, which was released two weeks earlier.

Jim Lovell is the former astronaut that made the line “Houston, we have a problem” famous. Lovell and Gene Kranz, flight director at NASA Mission Control for the Apollo 13 mission, presented at SolidWorks World 2011. I did not get to meet Lovell, but I met Kranz. The guy, then 77, carried a look that was as tough as nails.

Former astronaut Mike Mullane flew on three space shuttle missions. He is also the author of the book Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I met Mullane at SME’s RAPID 2003 where he served as keynote speaker.

Others that I’ve been fortunate to meet:

  • James Cameron, producer of Avatar, Titanic, Aliens, The Abyss, and many other films
  • Roy Disney, longtime executive of The Walt Disney Company, which his father and uncle, Walt Disney, co-founded
  • Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group that includes more than 400 companies
  • Joel Orr, brilliant speaker, futurist, writer, and friend of 30 years
  • Tony Fadell, considered by many as the “father” of the iPod and leader of the team at Apple that developed the iPhone

I have met others, but these people are among those that stand out. In the 1980s, I had the chance to meet Steve Jobs, but didn’t, and I regret it to this day. I have never met a U.S. president, but I hope to one day.

Apollo 13

February 3, 2011

Filed under: event — Terry Wohlers @ 15:37

“Houston, we have a problem,” was said 40 years ago and again on January 24, 2011 by Jim Lovell, the astronaut who made the line famous. Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, spoke at SolidWorks World 2011 in San Antonio, Texas. Gene Kranz, former flight director at NASA Mission Control, presented with Lovell as they took the audience of 5,000 back to April 1970. Kranz and his team were instrumental in bringing home Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise after an oxygen tank exploded and severely damaged the spacecraft’s electrical system.

The two legendary figures had my attention as they told the story of what happened to the Apollo 13 mission. Even though I knew it had a happy ending, it was very special to hear the story with such vivid detail from the two who were most responsible for how it would conclude. Lovell, now 82, shared the first part and then Kranz jumped in. And then it went back to Lovell and again to Kranz. Their words and presence gripped my attention from start to finish.

Kranz, 77, still carries a look that is as tough as nails. I had a chance to meet and speak with him after a press conference that SolidWorks organized. I told him that I had the privilege of also meeting the late Alan Shepard. Kranz agreed with Shepard that the 1995 film titled Apollo 13 was presented accurately, although it left out technical detail, discussion, and debate that went on behind the scenes.

It was an opportunity of a lifetime to hear Lovell and Kranz. Thanks to SolidWorks for bringing them to the event to share their moving story that occurred at a time when so many Americans were fascinated by the space program. NASA served as inspiration that led many to engineering and related fields. Comments by Lovell at the press conference suggested that he was not entirely happy with the current direction of NASA. Hopefully, the space agency will get back on track and help create another generation of Americans whose passion is science and engineering.

Five Things You Don’t Know About Me

March 16, 2007

Filed under: life — Terry Wohlers @ 09:08

1. Dorothy Lynch, creator of the popular French salad dressing, is my grandfather’s first cousin. At age 4, I would watch her mix the ingredients and bottle the product in a one-room building no larger than an average American family room. It sat across the street from our home in St. Paul, Nebraska. Today, the building bears her name and is used as a hair salon by her daughter.

2. I started a fire in our home (the one mentioned above) by sticking a hairbrush in a small electric space heater. I can remember smoke and a big red fire truck, but that’s all. I was around 3 at the time. To this day, my parents remind me of this “terrible” incident. No one was injured, but the house suffered some damage.

3. My father was a building contractor when I grew up, so I was introduced to making things when I was young. At age 5, I was on the roof of a single-story house installing asphalt shingles. No kidding, … I really was. Maybe my dad was just letting me play (and not in the safest place), but I remember it as serious business.

4. Many years ago, I sat beside the late Alan Shepard on a flight from Denver to San Francisco. It was a year or so after the movie Apollo 13 came out, so I asked whether the movie was realistic. He said it was. We talked for much of the flight about missions to the moon, parabolic flights, scuba diving, and garbage in New York City. He was an investor in a garbage company that serviced a suburb of NYC and was returning from a business trip. We also shared a flight from SF to Monterey where he and his wife lived. Mr. Shepard was the nicest and most humble guy you’d ever meet and a true legend, as the first American in space.

5. I’m a big fan of classic rock. Some of my favorites: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jethro Tull, Bob Seger, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Queen, Steve Miller Band, Allan Parson’s Project, and Al Stewart. Over the years, I’ve grown to like some country rock (my wife and I saw Willie Nelson last Monday night), pop, classical, and other types of music with good vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano. If you have a surround sound system and want to watch a great music DVD, get Hell Freezes Over by the Eagles. Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Timothy Schmit, Randy Mesner, and Don Felder perform some of the best music you’ll ever hear.