Tennessee Mountain Stories

Clyde’s Career

For the past few weeks I’ve been sharing stories from Clyde Whittaker’s life.  This local boy had an amazing career serving his country and I wanted to wrap up this series with a summary of that work, in his own words.

I applied to the graduate school in physics and was accepted at Florida State University.  I graduated without a job offer.  I thought I wanted to be a college teacher.  At the time there weren’t many physicists available with advance degrees.  The first offer I got after looking for two months was with the Navy Mine Defense Laboratory in Panama City, Florida.

A week or so after I started working at the Navy Lab I got an offer from Virginia Tech as an assistant professor.  At the time I would have liked to get the job but the Navy people had gone to some trouble to hire me so I couldn’t quit after such a short time.  A couple of weeks after that I got the same offer from Louisiana Tech.  Then after two years I got a call from the ex-principal of my high school who had become some sort of manager at the Tennessee Tech University.  He offered me an assistant professor job at Tennessee Tech.

A few weeks after starting working at the Navy Lab our branch was working on some problem.  I don’t remember what it was.  I thought of how to solve it and told the fellow, Art, I was working with.  I drew and electronic schematic in explaining it to him.  About that time our boss was coming down the aisle.  Art grabbed the schematic and rushed down to meet the boss.  I heard him telling Dr. Elliott he had figured a way to solve the problem.  His MS was from famous Cal Tech, mine was from a school with no reputation at that time.

I got to be friends with the lab’s commanding officer, Captain Anderson.  On Fridays we had a meeting after work at the Officers Club for the upper level people.  When I went in Captain Anderson would be talking to a group of managers above me.  He always left them and came to talk with me.  I had gotten two patents and two superior achievement awards.  Each of them resulted in a picture with the captain, I think he liked that.

I worked ten and a half years at the Navy Lab.

Near the end of 1960 six or eight people from the Lab left to join an Army group testing the Pershing short range ballistic missile.  They asked me to join them.  I did mainly because their grade structure was higher than the Navy Lab.  I was with the Army test group for less than two years.  We lived in Cocoa Beach, Florida then.  In late 1962 the manned space group had moved from Virginia to Houston, Texas.  The Mercury program had just one mission left and they were increasing their manpower to work the Gemini and Apollo programs.  I knew a few men from the Army group who had gone to Houston, one of them asked me to join them.


There was interesting work going on in the Apollo Project Office where I worked.  My job involved making sure the electrical and electronic systems on the spacecraft would work properly when the spacecraft was mated with Saturn Launch Vehicle which was managed by Marshal Lab Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  It is difficult to make a significant contribution in a program which has many thousands of workers including both NASA and contractors.

After about a year the air pollution seemed to be causing trouble for [my son] Craig’s sinuses and throat so I asked a friend to get me back to Florida.  W came back to Florida in October 1963 after a year in Houston.

In Florida I started in an integration group.  After a few months I headed a branch with flight control, guidance and navigation and electrical systems.  While I was in that position I was assigned as chief engineer for the checkout of Gemini VI in St. Louis at the McDonnell plant.  There was around twenty people in the checkout crew.

Not long after coming back to Florida my boss asked if I would make a talk to Stetson University students.  When Apollo first started there was a lot of interest in hearing about the program.  I made a few other talks but the student body at Stetson was the largest.

Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford

Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford

We got ready to launch Gemini VI.  It was sitting on the pad with Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra on board.  The switch was thrown for lift off.  Nothing happened.  The engineers in the control room and those in Houston were trying to figure out what went wrong.  No one knew if the rocket was going to explode or what was happening.  One thing of interest was the heart rate of the waiting astronauts.  Many astronauts would go up to near 200 beats per minute but here was Tom and Wally on rocket that had an unknown problem with heart rates in the 70’s.  Gemini VI was launched about 2 weeks later and rendezvoused with Gemini VII.

After about 3 years in that branch head position I was moved to assistant to the division chief.  I didn’t like the change, but it turned out to be interesting.  I got the tasks that Sasseen didn’t want to do… I had to sign off on any changes to the ground support equipment and any software changes on the Apollo checkout computer.  Someone found that x-rays could destroy transistors so I had to look at proposed x-rays, usually looking for potential leaks in fluid lines to see if any electronic devices would be in the x-ray beam.  I also became the engineering division expert on lightning.  We put a large fiberglass tube on the service structure with a lightning rod on top maybe forty feet above the spacecraft.  One spacecraft on the pad was slightly damaged by lightning.  The lightning rod would prevent that.  During this period I also spent a lot of time making charts showing how much manpower would be needed in each engineering area in the future.  Each branch chief helped supply figures of their area.

One time we had eleven people going to St. Louis.  To save travel money I arranged for the NASA executive plane, a Grumman Gulfstream, to take them there.  I was told we could get a ride back on the plane but Dr. Debus the center director pulled rank on us to go to Washington.  Marshal Center in Huntsville, Alabama had a DC3 so I asked them to bring our people home.  I had eleven people mad at me.  There was no heat and it was rough.

Maybe three years before my retirement I was made head of the digital equipment branch.  There was a hardware section and a software group.  I didn’t know very much about either one but I had some very good people.

The Apollo fire which took the lives of three astronauts made everyone working at Kennedy Space Center feel terrible even if you had nothing to do with the test of the oxygen filled spacecraft.  When the fire happened we were in a motel on the coast south of Tallahassee.  When I got in the next day there was a discussion about whether or not the suited astronauts could store static energy charge enough to ignite something in the space craft.  Another physicist, Risler, and I spent several days investigating the energy level that could be expected.

It was decided there was a more likely source of a spark than static charge.  It was, however, and interesting investigation.

I retired in 1979 after approximately 34 years in government service including almost 3 years in the Navy.