An Interview with NASA's Robyn Villavecchia
Heather and Robyn - Saturn V model at NASA Ames

Heather & Robyn
NASA Ames Research Center - February 2011

I was so pleased to meet you at NASA Ames, and hear about your experiences with the Saturn VÖ your knowledge of the rocket is impressive, and we read so little about the amazing women of the era who did their part to land America on the moon.

What were you doing when the Apollo program began?

     ROBYN: Like some 400,000 others, I was contractor personnel and started my career as an engineering student at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts

Yes, it was a "cow college" complete with student rodeos! 

Work phase assignments were at White Sands Missile Range and our instructors were the scientists and engineers in the earliest days of our military missile program, many of whom were Operation Paperclip refugees from the World War II German rocketry programs.

After school, I knocked around for a year in a chem lab in southern California counting bug parts in soup. Not too exciting. I missed the missile range days, so I applied for a job at the [then] new NASA White Sands Test Facility where the Lunar module assent and descent engines were to be tested. 

My group was tasked with determining the density and viscosity of hypergolic propellants -Ė which were highly dangerous and highly toxic; not too many folks were willing to play with them. I had studied the hypergols from the guys who used them in the German rocket aircraft. C-Stoff and T-Stoff were buddies, so to speak! 

At White Sands, we used Red Fuming Nitric Acid (IRFNA and Analine as hypers. I kept all my fingers, didn't blow up the lab and so I was sort of a wunderkind.

Not blowing up the lab is always good.  Sounds like an exciting job! What took you to Cape Canaveral in 1964?
     ROBYN: My boss was asked to form a laboratory at the Cape, and he accepted on the condition he could take me with him. I was asked to submit a resume. He was passed over in favor of me... most uncomfortable, to say the least! I was only 25. I was number two to a wonderful guy named Dan Kime. He wanted only to spend his declining years fishing! My office was a back bedroom! Did I mention it was formally the Merritt Island Chicken Farm, on the Titusville causeway?

Kime told me I would find a number of catalogs, from which to order bits and pieces, lab glassware, chromatographs, burettes, pipettes, balance scales, whatever... and oh yeah, then he said: "You have 60 days to spend twenty-eight million dollars or we lose our appropriation!!"

I have some aerial photographs of our Lab at the Cape. Just beyond the Saturn V, the crawler way jogs to the left. A bit further on is a round white "ball". This is a huge liquid Nitrogen tank. The complex of buildings is collectively PSCL, originally known as the Particulate Sizing and Counting Lab, then the Precision Systems Cleaning Lab, then the Precision Systems Components Lab and finally the Propellant Systems Components Lab. We parked on the south side of the crawler way and had to run across, while dodging speeding crawlers, LOLÖ 

That is definitely a view of Saturn V that no one will ever see again... unless we get truly desperate and re-commission the one at NASA Marshall, hahaÖ I love that the acronym went through four versions, that is so NASA!! And how funny it was PSCL the entire time, but meant different things. What did you do in this division?

     ROBYN: We determined the density, viscosity and purity of the propellants to be loaded for flight to the moon. We needed to know this with an extreme degree of accuracy, first because the lives of the astronauts were at risk, and second, we could not afford excess mass aboard the vehicle. Lifting just a few extra pounds up out of the gravity well, and trucking to the surface of the moon was the limiting factor. Think of it as needing just the right amount of gasoline put in your car's tank to get to the store and back, without hauling extra! 
That's probably the best analogy Iíve heard about the limitations of fuel resources Iíve heard, I hope parents pass that one on to their kids when they ask questions about why rockets and space crafts only travel certain distances. Itís always a delicate balance, isnít it!

     ROBYN: Indeed. Incidentally, when you and I went to the Fluid Dynamics Lab at Ames, I was struck by the model of the launch escape system of the CEV. Back in my day, we did not have anywhere near the computational muscle to model flight dynamic loads, etc. We stuck a "boilerplate" Apollo Command module with it's escape system on top a Little Joe II rocket, launched it and at test altitude fired the escape system. If it worked, fine. If not, back to the drawing boards! We had to rely in great degree to empirical data!

All this started from the early days of rocketry when they blew up with alarming regularity. It was found, in due course, that particulate contamination was causing valves to fail to seat, bearings to fail and so on. From that time forward, their was a concerted effort to keep all systems squeaky clean. Liquids and gasses, including propellants were passed through filters, the filters were then examined under a microscope and the particles trapped were sized and counted. (Thus, the first iteration, Particulate Sizing and Counting Lab.)

I also returned to the White Sands Test Facility, early in the Lunar lander engine and thruster testing. That was in '65 or '66.

Not too shabby for someone who started out at the old chicken farm! Itís amazing to hear all the pieces of the puzzle of the moon race era. Did you get to meet members of the astronaut corps at the time?

ROBYN: Yes, I did know a number of the early astronauts. I even had the pleasure of flying with Pete Conrad, Fred Haise and my personal favorite, Joe Engle! I knew Gus Grissom pretty well. He would come through the lab from time to time leading a party of "suits". I had a little demo routine where I would release a cloud of Nitiogen Tetroxide in a fume hood and using a big horse syringe full of Hydrazine, would squirt it into the cloud and write my name in fire. Usually was good for a few jaws falling on shoes!

The evening of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, I was on overtime, pulling a second shift. The crews that went to the pad to sample gasses and liquids were attached to PSCL as well. We had been sending the guys out all day trying to isolate an odd smell inside the spacecraft. We eventually found the cause, but only after the accident board finally come to it's conclusions. All of us in the lab, chemists, samplers, everyone was devastated. I cried and do so to this day when I think of that evening. I didn't go home the night of the fire, and several days and nights thereafter. Compiling records and documents for the investigation we knew would follow.

I continued working at PSCL until early 1969. I got word that Nixon had canceled Apollo 18, 19, and 20. I saw the writing on the wall, that there would be no follow up to the Apollo program. Dr. von Braun had a detailed plan for reaching Mars. Launch pads LC-39C and 39D were in the design phase for the Mars Program at the time. 

Funny how history repeats itself.
Well, not that funny. More sad than funny. When you say FLYING with Pete Conrad, do you mean actually FLYING with Pete Conrad??

ROBYN: The three guys I mentioned flying with, in their "spare time" flew airshows in vintage aircraft. I flew with them in the same shows on occasion, so no, nothing so exciting as a ride the a T-38, LOL... I should have explained better what I meant. 

Pete was famous for his practical jokes. One day, I was tooling down final approach, fat dumb and happy. Suddenly I hear in the headphones, something like RATATATATA, "You're dead!" 

At the same time, a P-51 Mustang flew under me and pulled straight up in front of me. Scared the bejayzuz out of me. I landed, fueled my aircraft and headed to the "O"-Club to see who the pluperfect idiot was that cut me out of the traffic pattern. Everybody knew, of course. Pete had set it up beforehand with the tower and other pilots in the pattern. 

The joke was on me. He shot me down fair and square.

Awesome story!  And thank you so much for your time... which I am sure I took too much of... but thank you Robyn, for offering up such a great addition to my "behind-the-scenes employee spotlights" at NASA, past and present!