Aerospace engineer credits Marmaduke school district

Aerospace engineer credits Marmaduke school district

(From left) Former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn (1921-2016), Marmaduke High School graduate and aerospace engineer Jerry Roberts, Roberts' wife Sandra, and former astronaut Scott Carpenter (1925-2013). Glenn and Carpenter were two of the original seven Mercury astronauts. Roberts helped design the inertial navigation systems used in the Mercury and Gemini space programs.


Courtesy photo

BY GARY EXELBY gexelby@paragoulddailypress.com

Jerry Roberts has had a long and highly successful career in the aerospace industry.

He gives all credit for that success to his education in the Marmaduke School District up through 1951 when he graduated.

"Marmaduke had outstanding teachers," he said. "They always managed to go the extra mile for you to help you live up to your capabilities."

One of the things Roberts said he learned - apart from academics - was that anyone can do anything he or she sets out to do. "I gained the idea that you can do anything you want if you just stay with it," he said, in citing his own example. "I wasn't the smartest guy, and there were others that made it look easy. But I knew I could do it [i.e. learn required subjects and skills], I just had to put in more time and sweat."

It worked well. After graduation, Roberts worked for Western Electric until he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. "They never sent me over there," he noted.

Upon his honorable discharge, Roberts went to college on the GI Bill. "I was always interested in the space program," he said, "so when I graduated in June 1959, I went to work for McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis."

McDonnell built several aircraft for the Air Force, including the F-101 Voodoo, before it merged with Douglas Aircraft Co., to become McDonnell-Douglas in the early 1960s. As McDonnell-Douglas, the company built the famous F-4 Phantom II, flown by both the Air Force and the Navy during the Vietnam War. Roberts said that at length, McDonnell-Douglas was bought out by the Seattle-based Boeing Military Airplane Co. in 1987.

Roberts said that in January 1959 McDonnell had gotten the Air Force's contract for the early Mercury and Gemini manned space flight programs. "None of this stuff had ever been done before," he said, "and I was really excited to be a part of it."

Roberts said the systems on which he had worked were used from the very beginning of the manned space flights. "First one we did was Alan Shepard's, which was sub-orbital," he said. "It went about 80-85 miles up and about 350 miles down-range."

The flight was on May 5, 1961. Shepard, a World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy, retired as a rear admiral and died in 1998.

The next flight, Roberts recalled, was that of Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, also sub-orbital, on July 21, 1961. "That was the one where he got out okay but the capsule sank," he said.

In those days each space capsule returning from space landed in the ocean. Roberts said the capsule was later recovered.

Grissom, a U.S. Air Force veteran of the Korean War, was also on the first manned orbital flight of the two-man Project Gemini capsule on March 23, 1965.

He had been promoted to lieutenant colonel by the time of his death along with Air Force Lt. Col. Ed White and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Roger Chaffee during a fire in the Apollo 1 three-man capsule on Jan. 27, 1967.

Roberts' efforts also saw Marine Lt. Col. John Glenn undertake the first orbital Mercury flight on Feb. 20, 1962. "He was actually supposed to go on Christmas Eve, 1961," he said, "but they had problems that delayed it until February."

Glenn, a veteran of World War II and Korea, retired from the Marines in 1965. He went on to become a U.S. Senator from Ohio, and became the oldest man in space aboard the Space Shuttle, on Oc. 29, 1998. He died on Dec. 8, 2016.

Roberts' participation in the space program ended, however, with the conclusion of the Gemini program. "They had NASA do the space program instead of the Air Force," he said.

Even so, Roberts remained in the field of advanced technology, serving as a consultant on three different occasions even after his retirement. He offered insights as to why things happened the way they did during the early space program.

"The way the capsules got into space was on [intercontinental ballistic] missiles," he said.

The first two sub-orbital launches were atop Redstone missiles, while the remaining Mercury launches went aloft on Atlas missiles.

"What they did was to take the [nuclear] warheads off the missiles," he said, "and that dictated the diameter of the spacecraft."

For the two-man Gemini capsules, Roberts said, the much larger Titan missile became the launch vehicle.

Roberts retired from Boeing in 1989 after 30 years.

"I don't know how many guidance systems I have worked on, for McDonnell, for McDonnell-Douglas and then for Boeing," he said. "The last one I worked was the Tomahawk cruise missile that they just used in Syria - that was my guidance system."

He clarified that the original guidance system that went into the Tomahawk, an inertial system, was his design. "Now they use GPS [Global Positioning System]," he said.

Roberts worked on the Tomahawk from 1972 to 1982. He said it was quite a shock during the 1991 Gulf War to turn on the Cable News Network, CNN, and see his own handiwork in action. "I watched the camera follow this Tomahawk down this street and in through the window of this building and blow up," he said. "Wow!"

Roberts described the "enormous progress" that had been made in terms of development of inertial guidance systems since the early 1960s. "The inertial guidance system we had in Gemini was the size of a football," he said, "and that was the first one we had made that was actually small enough to fit into a spacecraft. It had a memory of 4K - four K!"

One K is 1,000 bytes, one kilobyte. By comparison, some custom computer thumb drives - as small as 1-1/2 inches long -- can hold up to one Terabyte, one trillion bytes of information. In other words, what is available today can hold 250 million times as much information as what was available then, in a small fraction of the size.

And the space program also led to other innovations. "We modified equipment we had for Mercury," Roberts said. "We had to invent it for Gemini. The tape deck? We invented that for the computer tapes the capsule used."

Roberts concluded by noting his accomplishments with the education he received from Marmaduke were not unique.

"There are doctors, lawyers, nuclear physicists and so on," he said. "We all entered college with a good foundation."

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