A historic space launch set to send two American astronauts to the International Space Station was postponed Wednesday due to inclement weather, but one Vermont man who’s seen his fair share of space history doesn’t mind waiting a little longer.
In 1969, Robert Beaber was a 39-year-old IBM engineer with a big responsibility. The Apollo 11 mission was taking shape, and he was a test coordinator for the instruments that would help guide man to the moon.
Beaber, who spoke with Local 22 & Local 44 from his apartment at the Equinox Terrace Assisted Living Facility in Manchester, helped develop an inertial guidance system that determined when to point, fire and drop the rockets on the Saturn V launch vehicle used in the Apollo 11 mission. The system, known as the Instrument Unit, could also sense altitude, acceleration, velocity and position, lay out the desired course and give control signals to the engines to steer the Saturn on that course.
Beaber is 90 now, and he can easily recall the moment his crew’s efforts paid off.
“The first lunar landing, I actually took a photograph of my round television screen of the astronauts coming out and doing the first space walk,” Beaber said, adding that the photo was impossible to see clearly; much like space travel, television and cameras have come a long way since 1969.
As Beaber watched preparations for Wednesday’s launch before it was postponed, he recalled the process decades ago.
“We built the rocket in a vertical assembly building, put it on a crawler, and it crawls about one mile per hour over to the launch pad,” Beaber said. “All the missions to the moon were identical, so they’d have to do that eight or ten times.”
After the Apollo 11 mission wrapped up, Beaber stuck around for two more missions, and then worked on the Space Shuttle Program. Later in his career with IBM, his curiosity drew him to another breakthrough of the 20th Century.
“That’s why I went into computers,” Beaber said. “The shuttle was going to be constant and everything on the ground was settled, so I asked to go up to Vermont and work on the microprocessor.”
Beaber retired from IBM in 1992, but like any good engineer, he still has plenty of projects on his hands. He enjoys creating lamps as gifts for important people in his life, each one with a personal message and design. Lately, a lot of his gifts have gone to nurses at Equinox Terrace.
“I do it mainly to give credit to the nursing staff here, they’re doing a terrific job,” Beaber said. “I thought, ‘How can I give them something that will be lasting, and also have some meaning to them?'”
Beaber was born in Toledo, Ohio, and raised in nearby Maumee. After graduating from high school in 1947, he worked at an ordinance depot before serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.
After the war, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Detroit. In 1957, he and the late Joyce Hurley married. Beaber’s first career job began in 1960 with General Dynamics Astronautics in San Diego, California, where he learned about and tested launch vehicle inertial guidance systems. He and Joyce also started a family, having daughters Judi in 1962 and Mary Jo in 1963.
He joined IBM four years later to work on the space program, retiring 28 years later.