WILMINGTON — Wilmington College can feel a special sense of pride with this week’s observance of landing man on the moon 50 years ago, as at least two of its alumni played significant roles in putting Americans in space.
Donald Donaldson, Class of 1963, started his career at Wright Patterson Air Force Base before ultimately working at Cape Kennedy on Apollo 11, 12 and 13, while John Frazier worked at Wright-Patt before, during and after his WC graduation in 1971.
On July 20, 1969, Donaldson watched Apollo 11 lift off from Florida’s Cape Kennedy on perhaps mankind’s greatest expedition to undiscovered lands.
“It was awe-inspiring to the American people, the world and me,” he said, noting his work on Apollo 11 was the “culmination” of everything he’d done in his professional life to that point.
In the months before the first moon launch, Donaldson and his colleagues worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the GE-635 computer, which occupied two buildings at the space center. Their primary task involved programming the launch sensors for the Saturn V rocket that propelled Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into space.
“The excitement just mounted. All we did was eat, sleep and work — I would not see the light of day in Florida for months,” Donaldson said.
“It was a complex beehive of activity — the excitement and anticipation were so great. But in the back of our minds was the fear it would blow up on the launch pad,” he added.
The Saturn V rocket weighed 3,000 tons and the first stage built to a thrust of 7.5 million pounds before the vehicle was released from the launch pad. Two-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the rocket reached a velocity of 6,000 miles an hour and achieved an altitude of 40 miles when the first stage was jettisoned. It eventually cruised at 25,000 mph in leaving the Earth’s orbit and entering a trajectory to the moon.
Apollo 11’s successful moon landing and safe return to Earth were cause for celebration at Cape Kennedy and around the world.
“We just cheered and felt total relief,” Donaldson said. “The lift-off, the lunar landing, walking on the moon, their safe return to Earth — it was the culmination of all our hopes and expectations happening before our eyes.”
Frazier was a research physiologist whose work set the stage for the moon landings through work with Apollo’s predecessors, the Mercury and Gemini space programs. Indeed, his focus at Wright-Patt’s Armstrong Laboratory centered upon G-force and the operation of the Dynamic Environment Simulator.
“Basically, we put a pilot in a centrifuge and spin him (or her) around and around,” he said. “We find out how well they can perform in a stress environment.”
That stress environment might be the simulated G-force inherent in a Mercury or Gemini space capsule’s re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and subsequent splashdown in the ocean, the 35,000 pounds of thrust of an Air Force F-16 fighter jet taking off from an aircraft carrier or the coordinated banked turn of an F-117A stealth fighter bomber.
“G-force tolerance is a physical phenomenon,” he said, noting he monitored the effect of various G-forces on such physiological factors as the oxygen supply to the brain, heart rate, blood pressure, vision and the ability of pilots to perform their flight requirements.
“Some athletes can run faster or jump higher than others, while some pilots have a greater G-force tolerance than others — testing pilots’ G tolerance is not a lot different than an athletic event.”
Frazier said Wright-Patt was involved with the space program since Day One.
“After the Russians’ Sputnik and President Kennedy’s challenge to the nation that we would land a man on the moon and return him safely, things got serious and there was really a mad race into space,” he said. “The movie, The Right Stuff, is not that much of an exaggeration!”
Quotes for this article were lifted from stories in Wilmington College’s alumni magazine, The LINK, which featured Frazier in 1996 and Donaldson on the 30th anniversary of the moon landing in 1999. Sadly neither man is alive to bask in the glory of the 50th anniversary as Frazier died in 2006 and Donaldson in 2015.
Frazier earned the Lifetime Achievement in Aerospace award in 1996 for his 40 years of contributions to sustained acceleration research. Donaldson’s career after Apollo 13 featured a
return to Dayton, where he analyzed and designed systems at Mounds Labs’ top secret weapons facility, followed by a return to Wright-Patterson as a Fortran programmer.