By Annabelle Knef
Former engineers on the first human spaceflight program in the United States recently spoke to O’Fallon Township High School students of their experiences.
Earl Robb, Jerry Roberts, Norman Beckel and Dean Purdy were the engineers behind Project Mercury — America’s first pursuit of space travel — running from 1958 through 1963.
Two members from the original “Mercury 6” panel were not present at the April 25 presentation. Bob Schepp died earlier this year on March 7. He was one of the original McDonnell Aircraft Mercury 6 engineers.
Ray Tucker was unable to attend the presentation due to serious health issues. Tucker was responsible for the installation and checkout of the electrical group complex from the blockhouse to the spacecraft for both the Mercury and Gemini Projects.
Earl Robb said he was hired by McDonnell Aircraft Co. (MAC) in August of 1952, immediately after he completed his college degree at SIU-Carbondale.
Robb said at the time he was hired, there was no “man in space type of activity” going on. He remained employed in Mechanical Design Engineering assignments with MAC and McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) for his entire 41-year career.
Robb’s first 6 years included jet airplane design including several fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft and a four-jet engine executive and commercial aircraft. Following the aircraft design experience, Robb was assigned to Manned Space related programs including the Mercury program.
In late 1958, Robb was assigned to a group to help finalize the design configuration and theory of a “manned space satellite” to be proposed to the government. After MAC submitted the proposal, Robb was assigned to the Mercury Capsule production design group. He worked on structural design of the capsule pressure vessel, skins, shingles, hatches, windows and heat shields.
Jerry Roberts, graduate of University of Arkansas, was a manned space vehicle and cruise missile Guidance and Control Systems (GCS) engineer at McDonnell Douglas for over three decades.
Roberts was initially assigned to the Mercury Program followed by Gemini, Manned Orbital Laboratory and Skylab. He started each manned vehicle assignment with design and development in St. Louis and then transferred to Launch Operations in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
He was a valued member of the blockhouse crew for vehicle launch and recovery operations on each manned program. After Skylab, Roberts returned to St. Louis and was involved with GCS design and development for various cruise missiles. He finished his career as Chief Design Engineer and Design Department Manager in the Astronautics Division.
Norman Beckel, graduate of Pennsylvania State University, joined McDonnell Aircraft February of 1958 and retired from McDonnell Douglas Corp. in March of 1993. He was initially assigned to the Communication, Navigation Identification Group on the yet to fly Phantom F4H jet aircraft and was reassigned to the Mercury Communications Group when McDonnell was awarded the Mercury Project.
As part of the McDonnell crew assigned to test and launch the spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Beckel worked closely with the Mercury Astronauts in preparation for launch.
After Mercury and Gemini, Beckel was assigned to Program HEXAGON, which was an unmanned satellite that provided photographs of virtually anywhere on Earth.
Dean Purdy, just like his fellow engineers, joined the MAC team right after his college graduation from Indiana Institute of Technology in 1955.
Over the next 39 years, Purdy worked on one Mach 2 jet fighter program, three missile programs and eight space programs including five manned space programs. He joined the Mercury team in early 1959 working in the electrical power and sequential systems design group, staying with the Mercury Program until completion.
Purdy also took part in the Gemini Project electrical design team before he transferred to the St. Louis Gemini Operations team. He then went to the Manned Orbiting Lab to oversee the electrical design of the Heat Shield Qualifications Vehicle.
Subsequent space activity included Program Management of the last two Orbital Attitude Maneuvering System pods for the Shuttle program; the Modular Power Subsystem for NASA’s Multi-Mission Modular Spacecraft; Electrophoresis Operations in Space; and the Transporter Electrical Storage System and External Lighting Modules for the International Space Station.
Purdy was Director-Military and Space Electronics when he retired in 1994.
Robb said public opinion at the time of the Mercury Project was vey wary of its goal, which was to put a man into Earth’s orbit and returning him safely.
“There were a lot of experts saying man couldn’t exist in space,” Roberts said
He described the astronauts in the Mercury Program as “very brave people.”