Spring 1998


by Randy Jones

photos by Brett Coomer and courtesy of NASA and Elizabeth Gauldin

I HAVE PERSONALLY seen lunar dust," says Elizabeth Wilson Gauldin ('50), whose career trajectory was determined in large measure by the moon.

It's easy to appreciate her awe. When she was growing up during the 1930s and '40s, the moon she watched rise, drift and set above the fields of her childhood Rockbridge County, Va., farm must have appeared untouchable. Yet in less than 25 years, Gauldin went from shaking off farm dust to brushing "away the lunar dust of the Apollo [11] crewmen's suits and boots," she says, soon after they returned to Earth from taking those first powdery steps on the moon in July 1969.

"We carefully brushed the dust into containers and delivered it" to NASA to join the moon rocks the astronauts had collected, says Gauldin, recalling the day that she was fully protected against contaminating or being contaminated by the precious moon powder.

She began her space-bound journey as a double chemistry and biology major at JMU. As a young college student aiming to work in scientific research, Gauldin was a bit of an anomaly for her time. "In those days," she says, "we women with science degrees went out and 'persuaded' companies to hire us for their labs."

Gauldin was successful. After graduating in 1950, she performed thermal-dynamic calculations for a small Richmond, Va., -based company that had contracted with the U.S. Navy to test and research solid rocket fuel. "We would build little pellets [of ammonium nitrate] and shoot them across the James River," she says, obviously still enthralled by the spectacle of the 3-inch-long "little charges" jettisoning across the James. "It was fun," she adds.

When the company lost its contract with the Navy, Gauldin took a year off from her career, during which – in October 1957 – both her daughter, Catherine, and Sputnik were born, the latter launching in earnest the world's space race.

Elizabeth Gauldin touched the moon when she brushed the lunar dust from the astronaut's boot that left behind this historic imprint from Apollo 11.

Afterward, she resumed her career with Reynolds Metal, and when her husband, James, was transferred in 1967 to Houston, she went to work at the Johnson Space Center as a technical writer for a company working for NASA. A NASA division director, impressed with her reports, recruited her to work for General Electric, also under contract to NASA, to work in the crew systems division.

At that time, Gauldin's role for NASA "was to help engineer, design, test, procure and/or fabricate the equipment, supplies and clothing for all the Apollo crews," which she did as part of a team at a GE engineering and fabrications shop that she also eventually managed. "We had about 30 people: engineers, fabricators, people who built life rafts and life vests, people with specialties in electronics, biotechnologies and waste management," she says.

The shop supplied the astronauts with cabin furnishings, survival equipment, in-flight clothing, waste disposal units and even "what kind of shaving cream a crew member might desire. We had to determine what the crews needed and required, and deliver it in a flight-ready condition, taking into account the constraints imposed by nonflammability requirements, weightless conditions and crew comfort considerations," adds Gauldin.

Not surprisingly, she got to know a few of the astronauts: Deke Slayton, Alan Shepard, Tom Stafford, Pete Conrad and Joe Kerwin – pretty well, because "in our world at least, they acted somewhat as spokes-men for the crews. But," she adds, "we met and worked with them all, and, like everyone else, held them somewhat in awe."

Slayton, one of the original astronauts, was the one she came to know best because of his lengthy career with NASA. But Kerwin, a member of the first 1973 space- station Skylab mission – and one of the few astronauts who was not originally a test pilot – was "maybe" her favorite. She especially remembers the day he "spent several hours with me in his office talking about his mission – what it was like to be weightless, about the experiments they performed [and] about how the equipment had worked."

NASA presented Gauldin with a commemorative medallion in appreciation of her effort and dedication in ensuring the success of the Skylab Program. In 1993, she received NASA's Manned Spaceflight Awareness Award, which included a trip to the Kennedy Space Center with her husband to watch a shuttle launch. Glynn Lunney, longtime associate, space pioneer and former NASA flight director for Apollo missions, made the presentation.

Gauldin candidly favors those Skylab missions. "I think Skylab was the greatest program ever," she insists. "It was a spacious, generously equipped and relatively inexpensive station." And she regrets that the United States did not continue to fund it.

Consequently, she admires the Russians' tenacity in keeping a continuous presence in space and their own station – Mir – aloft for the past 11 years, despite a political revolution, a tattered economy, and Mir's considerable troubles and breakdowns. Moreover, she thinks it is "probably good" that the United States continues to bolster the Russian space lab "until we get our own space station going."

Gauldin knows the tenacity required to sustain a space program hit by adversity. When she began working with NASA in 1967, the agency was recovering from its first major crisis: the deaths of three astronauts who had been trapped inside the cabin of a burning Apollo spacecraft, which delayed the Apollo program by nearly a year. The shop where Gauldin worked was crucial in helping NASA redesign and fabricate fire-resistant furnishings and materials for the craft's interior. The payoff, however, was not only a safer capsule but also "a lot of new technology – co-developed or shared with industry" and others, such as the nation's firefighters, she says.

In 1970, disaster struck NASA again during Apollo 13, the ill-fated "Houston, we have a problem" mission that landed in Hollywood's 1995 Apollo 13.

That's when the entire space center mobilized to rescue the astronauts, who would have become "space debris – there's no other way to put it," she says. Her shop assisted with finding a way to transfer the canisters that purged the astronauts' limited air supply of deadly carbon dioxide from the command module to the lunar module.

As Gauldin explains, "Unfortunately, the lunar module [the 'lifeboat' where the astronauts had taken refuge] had a short supply [of canisters], not enough for the return home, and the ones in the command module were of the wrong size to fit the lunar module. ... We devised a solution that worked involving lots of tape, imagination and jury-rigging. Just in time too," she adds, since the crew was "beginning to experience symptoms of oxygen deprivation." To save themselves, the Apollo 13 crew duplicated the solution worked out in Houston.

Her most memorable work, however, began in the early 1970s. "The Skylab program, with the first launch in early 1973, was to me the most exciting thing we ever did. It was our first space station – about the size of a small two-bedroom house," she says, while explaining that she had managed the shop that furnished the lab with its quarters for sleeping, bathing, cooking and research.

Yet soon after the station lifted off, Gauldin's team was called upon once again to help rectify another potential disaster. During the launch, a "thermal shield came loose, ripping away one of the solar arrays [used to power the station] and jamming the other with debris" so that it could not be deployed, she says. The resulting gaping hole in Skylab allowed the temperature inside to climb to around 170 degrees – not exactly an optimum comfort level for living.

In response, Gauldin says, "We moved our entire operation onto the [Johnson Space] Center, into a vast laboratory area. We brought sewing machines, our engineers and our fabrication personnel to help design and construct a huge cover that would act as a heat shield." Her team actually created – within a couple days – two covers proposed by NASA engineers. One design was "like an umbrella" and the other "like a sail tied down at four corners" made of aluminized Mylar.

The astronauts sent to do the repairs used the "umbrella," which served Skylab throughout its history. As for the impeded solar panel, Gauldin remembers watching from the control center as the astronauts maneuvered their spacecraft alongside the ruptured station, while two stood in the open hatch door. Next – to the amazement of Gauldin – one astronaut leaned out of the opening, with the other holding his feet, and tried to extricate the panel from the twisted metal. "Unfortunately," she says, "this feat did not [work] because of the great difficulty of maintaining vehicle control." Two days later, during a spacewalk, the astronauts used wire cutters to loosen the panel, she adds.

Regarding Skylab, Gauldin says, "We all believed in what we were doing, felt we were part of the future and were willing to do what was needed to make it happen. I haven't worked on the space-station Freedom, nor been involved in the Mir project, but they must feel the same way." She is quick to add that these later project teams "must never forget that they build on Skylab – it was truly the first – and it worked wondrously!"

When the program ended in the late 1970s, and after the Apollo/Soyuz mission, Gauldin confesses that her professional "life got a little less exciting because it was more management than hands on. But, again, I was lucky – as supervisor [at Rockwell International] of a group of program analysts, we worked directly as eyes and ears for the shuttle program manager," she says. That job required her office to keep abreast of every "significant detail of the construction, test and qualification of the shuttle hardware being" produced by its contractors. And throughout the 1980s until her retirement in November 1996, she continued to manage various phases and aspects of the shuttle program.

During the cyclical waxing and waning of America's space program – or at least the public's attention to it - Gauldin's commitment has re-mained steadfast. And her hopes for its future surpass the moon. She now fully expects, based on the data and pictures received from NASA's Pathfinder probe of Mars, that Americans "will go there one day and bring back Mars rocks and Mars dust. That's when it gets exciting to me."

Still, it may always be the former Rockbridge County moon that floats above her, for she adds, "When I go outside at night and look up at a full moon, I have to convince myself over again that we actually walked around up there – not once, but six times."

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