As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaches, a Tyler engineer is sharing his story.
Charles Price’s five decade career with NASA spans from the early days of space exploration through the cold war to today’s era of international cooperation. He shared some of his memories, and the science behind the space race, with the Chandler Historical Society on Tuesday, with the help of his 11-year-old grandson Ian Choudhary.
At Ian’s age, Price saw a film called “Destination Moon” which set his imagination alight. At the time, NASA had not yet been formed.
“I watched as many science fiction movies as I could,” he said. “Most of them were about irradiated ants.”
His senior year in high school, Price recalls being at Rose Stadium for a football game when he heard the Russians had launched Sputnik. NASA would be created in response, and in a few short years Price would become part of their team.
He came on board as an engineer in 1963, as the Mercury space program was coming to a close, and the era of manned spaceflight was beginning.
Price described the monumental effort to get rockets into space, having Ian demonstrate just how much fuel it took by using nine cans of Diet Coke to illustrate the fuel needed to launch one 12-ounce Powerade bottle.
It was Price’s job to help determine the trajectories associated with getting the rockets into space, and eventually to the moon.
He said the gravity of what they were doing really hit him when he thought about the astronauts NASA was sending on the first lunar orbit.
“You’re 240,000 miles from home, it’s dark, you can’t even send a radio signal to call mama,” he said.
Each mission became more and more intricate, leading to the moment they landed a man on the moon. The entire agency held its collective breath as Neil Armstrong navigated the craft to find a smooth place to land.
“Everyone in mission control was tense,” Price said. “It seemed like he was taking a long time. He got down to the fumes in the tank.”
At that time Price was one of 800 engineers at the space agency, each an expert in some area of the endless variables needed to make history happen.
After the Apollo program, Price shifted to working on the space shuttle and robotics. Price said the world began to shift as well.
“We have a good relationship with Russia now,” Price said. “The world changed and mellowed a bit. When you get all the nonsense out of the way, there’s a lot of good people in the world.”
Increased cooperation led to advances, Price recalled the first orbital docking of Russian and American craft, which eventually led to an era of unprecedented cooperation resulting in the International Space Station.
Price led a team that would design the robonaut, which could perform tasks too dangerous for astronauts.
At the tail end of his career he performed software verification for Mars Missions and the OSIRIS-REx mission, which will be the first American craft to bring back a sample from an asteroid. The craft is expected to deliver its bounty in late 2023.
Over 50 years, Price has seen changes he never could have imagined at Ian’s age.
Now Ian is trying to imagine what the agency will look like when he grows up and follows in his grandfather’s footsteps.
While quiet and reserved when dutifully helping Price illustrate the sheer magnitude of NASA’s work, Ian opens up when asked about rockets.
“I think it’s really, really cool how we got to another planet,” he said. “One hundred years ago we barely knew anything about (Mars).”
Ian said the thought of robots currently exploring Mars is amazing, and he has ideas about how humans will someday find new planets to explore.
In sixth grade he’s already studying trigonometry, and plans to someday build new rockets to take humans into the stars.
Price also is scheduled to give a presentation at Tyler Junior College’s Center for Earth and Space Science at 3 p.m. on July 13.