It was a packed house Tuesday night in Ball Ground City Hall as the Ball Ground Historical Society welcomed Billy Childers to speak about his experiences while working at NASA during the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
Following an introduction from program host Larry Cavender, Childers told the crowd about what it was like to work on some of the tests to develop the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Arriving in Huntsville, Alabama in 1964, he was part of the crew that was responsible for activating the stand to test the engines to be used to get the rocket into orbit. He was also there for the early tests of the Saturn V engines before they were moved to the Mississippi Test Facility near the Mississippi/Louisiana border.
Childers then talked about his time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, working on the high-pressure gas system that helped keep the air the astronauts were breathing as clean as possible. It was during his work on this system that Childers first met astronaut Neil Armstrong. Following an incident where two Apollo crews were practicing in some of the simulators, the system suffered a failure and the charcoal used in the system had gotten everywhere, including all over the astronauts.
Later that night, Childers said he and his crew had been cleaning and rechecking the system to make sure it was working properly, when Armstrong came in and asked if it was ready to go again. Childers said it was, and took Armstrong on a tour, showing him everything all the way back to the system compressors. After the tour, Armstrong told Childers how important his job was for the astronauts.
“Neil Armstrong was a really nice guy, and he had nerves of steel,” Childers said.
Childers also spent time as part of the crew for the crawler, a mobile platform designed to take the Apollo rockets, and later the space shuttle, from the assembly building to the launch pad. Through this, he was able to meet a number of astronauts, as the mission crews were present when the ships were brought out and given a tour of the crawler.
“The Apollo astronauts were always interested in driving the crawler,” Childers said. “The space shuttle crews, not as much.”
Shortly after his retirement from NASA in the early 1980s, Childers said he continued to work for the space program with Lockheed Martin, which had earned a contract to provide launch and landing services for the space shuttle. On the fateful morning of Jan. 28, 1986, during a go/no go meeting for the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger later that day, Childers said there were a handful of engineers who objected to the launch due to potential issues with the seals on the solid rocket boosters, while the Rockwell Corp., which had built the shuttle, was concerned that icicles at the launch pad could damage the heat shield tiles from the intense heat brought on by the launch.
Childers and his crew proceeded out to the launch pad and cleared away the icicles that had formed, which led Rockwell to vote in favor of launching. This decision tragically turned out to be the wrong one, as seals on the boosters did fail and led to the destruction of the Challenger less than two minutes into the flight.
After sharing his memory of how that morning was very, very cold, and how some of the icicles on the launch pad were as long and as big around as an adult human’s arm, Childers added that, if temperature had been part of the rules and guidelines NASA had developed for its launches, there is no way Challenger would have launched that morning.
Reflecting on the two shuttle disasters, Childers said he believed neither the crew of Challenger or Columbia had to be lost. During the final mission of Columbia in early 2003, the crew thought the shuttle had suffered damage to the heat shield tiles, and NASA officials contacted the U.S. Air Force to have one of their cameras take a look at the shuttle to determine if any damage had occurred. However, he explained the mission director had not been consulted on this matter and would not allow any such check to take place.
Along with many of the serious stories he shared about his experiences, Childers also shared a handful of more amusing moments from his time with the space program. For example, he mentioned talking to Apollo 13 Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise after the mission, who said that at one point during the mission, he wouldn’t have needed his seatbelt. After asking him why, Childers said Haise responded that he wouldn’t have needed it because his tail was so tightly clamped to the seat.
While a majority of Childers’ talk revolved around his experience working with the space program, he also recounted a few stories of his life before becoming involved with NASA, as well as how he ended up in Ball Ground for his retirement. Growing up on a farm near the town of Hamilton, Alabama, Childers said he made up his mind at the age of 16 to follow one of his older brothers to Detroit in the hopes of landing a good paying job. Instead, his father gave him two options — go to college or work on the family farm and a nearby lumber mill during the summer until he was 21 years old.
“I told my dad, ‘Well, I guess I’ll be going to college,’” he said.
After graduating from Auburn University in 1958, Childers briefly touched on his time working with the Tennessee Valley Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which included being a part of the design and construction of the Nickajack Locks on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga and the Melton Hill Dam near Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Shortly after his retirement from Lockheed Martin when the company lost its contract with the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Childers said he and his wife were living in Cocoa, Florida when one of his children living in Atlanta encouraged them to look for somewhere in the Atlanta area to move to, and after she met Ball Ground mayor Rick Roberts, suggested they try Ball Ground.
“Everything here met our requirements,” Childers said. “We have never regretted our decision.”
As his talk began to wind down, Childers fielded a handful of questions from the crowd, including why Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins was not able to join Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in landing on the moon, how big the shoes on the crawler were and if he had ever met German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Childers explained that the lunar module was only built to hold two astronauts and could only execute one landing and take-off from the lunar surface, thus it would have been impossible for all three astronauts to walk on the moon, while the crawler has a pair of belts, similar to those on a bulldozer, at each corner of the platform. There are 58 shoes that make up each belt, with each shoe weighing one ton.
“I did meet von Braun in meetings, yes,” Childers said. “I never was called into his office, though. The Germans were a very close bunch.”
After the meeting, Childers expressed what it meant to him to see such a large crowd in attendance to hear him speak.
“It was great,” he said. “I didn’t expect so many people to be here. I really enjoyed it a lot.”