If I ever write my life story, it will be titled, “I’m the Luckiest Guy I Know.” All through my life, fortunate things happen or I find myself juxtaposed with greatly accomplished or famous people, or both.
About eight years ago was such a case. I was invited to attend an event that featured Buzz Aldrin as a speaker. Before the event was a casual meet-the-speaker time where the eminent astronaut, retired Air Force colonel, and of late, Mars flight researcher, would be happy to spend a few minutes with anyone on any number of subjects.
A line formed and I spent some time thinking, “What could I possibly ask Buzz Aldrin?” Since technology and advancements have always been pet topics for me, I decided to ask him about how he came up with the orbital rendezvous mechanics that NASA adopted for the Gemini program, and what on earth did he use to help him through the knotty calculations. There were no electronic calculators then. Those came later, ironically as a result of NASA advancements.
Aldrin’s January 1963 doctorate thesis, “Line of Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous,” (a page of which is shown) wasn’t your run-of-the-mill topic. Actually, Aldrin was not an astronaut at this point but his performance at NASA and this thesis pretty well sealed the deal. He became a Gemini (and later Apollo) astronaut. The key question to be answered was this: How do you launch a spacecraft into orbit, then launch another one and catch the first one, all using visual cues and power inputs on three axes?
“This can’t be right,” I said, as we talked about his paper, “I am picturing you with a slide rule coming up with all of these orbital calculations.” He laughed. “I did use a slide rule for some of it,” he said, “but I also used something called a Marchant machine.” I had just seen one of these at an old downtown Chicago office products store, they had a “museum” of sorts. (See third photo.) The heavy, clacky Marchant was a huge improvement over a slide rule, especially for the most exacting calculations, where a half-millimeter error on the slide rule could prove very costly.
Not only did Aldrin complete his thesis, NASA adopted his methodology and he earned the nickname, “Dr. Rendezvous.” And a few years after his Gemini flight he was an integral part of mankind’s very first mission to the moon—Apollo 11. (Was it fate that Aldrin’s mother’s maiden name was Marion Moon?)
It goes to show what can be accomplished even with comparatively crude tools. It also makes me wonder what our industry will look like 10 years from now. Today, right this minute, we can have artificial intelligence, software management over an entire factory, some sense of lights-out manufacturing, and robots everywhere. What will shops of 2031 look like? I can’t even begin to guess, but I’m positive the computing power will have at least quadrupled, and automation will be everywhere. Some young star will use the comparative stone axes and sticks we have today to change tomorrow.
One last thing we grizzled veterans can share with the younger people we know is in Aldrin’s dedication of his 311-page thesis. It reads:
“In the hopes that this work may in some way contribute to their exploration of space, this is dedicated to the crew members of this country’ s present and future manned space programs. If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!”
We all think you did pretty well, Buzz.