Published in the July 19, 2019 edition.

This is another in a series of articles highlighting activities of Melrose residents.

MELROSE — This week, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing presents a unique opportunity to look back at Melrose’s connections to the space program.

As Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin said, “To send men to the moon, you need more than booster rockets, you need the skills of people working out of the spotlight.”  

Massachusetts played an important role in the space program. Companies including Arthur D. Little and Avco-Everett Research Lab and universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a critical impact on the space program.

Two individuals from Melrose, the late Richard “Dick” Hinckley of Lincoln Street, and Norman Brodeur of Willow Street, each made significant contributions which enabled the Apollo program to succeed. Without their work, and that of thousands of civilian scientists and contractors, there would not have been the successful moon landing of Neil Armstrong and Aldrin on July 20, 1969.  

Fifty years later, science experiments built by Hinckley are still sending back information from the moon to earth. And navigation systems built and tested by Brodeur have inspired a new generation of his family to work in the area of scientific research.  

The Weekly News sat down with Dick Hinckley’s daughter, Beverly, and Norman Brodeur and his children to discuss the space program and the work of these two sons of Melrose who contributed so much to humankind’s exploration of the heavens.

Mr. Brodeur, how did you end up working on the manned space program?

Norman Brodeur: I worked at MIT’s instrumentation lab which later became Draper Labs. My responsibility was instrumentation and guidance systems for the Apollo command module and the lunar module. Previous to that I worked for Avco-Everett Research Lab in Everett. There we focused on testing materials for the vehicle’s heat shield. I was doing heat studies of various materials and what we eventually developed would just burn off and the heat with it.

Which missions did you work on?

Norman Brodeur: The two most memorable of the Apollo missions were Apollo 11 and the one with the explosion, Apollo 13.

Beverly, tell us about your father, Dick Hinckley, and the work he did for NASA?

Beverly: Dad worked for Arthur D. Little of Boston which developed and built a number of experiments used during the Apollo missions. He was involved in the space program as a cryogenic engineer and his work centered on systems which could operate in extremely low temperatures, just like we have on the moon. There were only two scientific experiments on Apollo 11 and he built both of them.

Mr. Brodeur mentioned Apollo 13. After Apollo 11, Apollo 13 is perhaps the most well known mission, referred to as the “successful failure.”

Beverly: My father was involved with that mission as well. He was in a network of scientists and engineers who were called in. It was all hands on deck.

In the movie Apollo 13 there is a scene depicted where the NASA engineers in Houston were tasked with jury rigging an alternative fresh air scrubber. But it was nothing like what was depicted. My father’s team worked on the problem, built a prototype, tested it and found a workable model. And that’s what the astronauts eventually built on Apollo 13.

Did you meet any of the astronauts?

Norman: Yes I met and worked with Michael Collins, the command module pilot for Apollo 11. He traveled up to MIT and I trained with him in the simulator. And he was the one with me when we crashed on the moon when we were trying out the navigation system.

What do you mean we crashed on the moon?

Norman: Well we had the simulator, and Collins was learning the system. And we crashed.

Beverly: Dad met Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell sometime after he returned from his mission. He thanked my father for his role in helping to get his crew home safely. And fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet Lovell years later at a science conference.

You mentioned the experiments your father Dick Hinkley built for the Apollo 11 mission.

Beverly: That’s right. He and his team of two other engineers, Dick Wells and Dick Berthuiame, were tasked with building two experiments that the Apollo 11 astronauts were going to leave on the moon. The first, the Lunar Surface Gravimeter, was designed to detect lunar “moonquakes” and provided information about the internal structure of the moon.

The hope was this information would help determine if the moon was an offshoot of earth or if it was a satellite caught by earth’s gravity. Dad’s team built, and future engineers would build, subsequent Lunar Surface Gravimeters for the Apollo 12, 14, 15 and 16 missions as well.

So, where does the moon come from?

Beverly: We still don’t know. The science is inconclusive. But a lot of what was learned about moonquakes has been applied today in studying earthquake activity on our planet.

What was the second experiment?

Beverly: The Apollo 11 astronauts also brought to the moon the Lunar Laser Retroreflector which Dad and his team built based on earlier NASA designs. It’s task was to determine the exact distance of the moon from the earth. NASA would shoot a laser to the moon, it would bounce off the machine’s glass panel and back to Earth. It measures the time it took to get back to Earth. It’s still in use 50 years later and it has determined the distance between the Earth and the moon to within one inch.

You talk about this with a lot of passion.

Beverly: I’ll let you in on a secret that I wasn’t supposed to talk about. But it’s been 50 years and Dad is gone.

NASA had strict weight requirements for everything, including the experiments on board. When they built the Lunar Laser Retroreflector they realized it exceed the designated weight requirements by micrograms. I’ll never forget this, the three guys on the project had their families in on a Sunday afternoon and we went into the lab. It was a clean room. And they etched our names on the inside of the machine’s back cover. And that carved away enough metal that they reached the design specs.

And your name is now on the moon?

Beverly: Nobody knows that. But it is.

Well I don’t think they can do anything about it now.  

Beverly: No, they can’t (laughing). So he used to tease us that when the aliens came they would look for the names etched on the Retroreflector.

Norman, how did you feel being part of the mission to the moon?

Norman: When it was happening I wasn’t that astonished but once I realized the significance of it all I became very excited that I was involved in these historic missions. At the time it was just part of our job. I can remember when the first one landed we were in a room with Dr. Draper and two astronauts.

Did your work take you to Houston or the Kennedy Space Center in Florida?

Norman: I went down to Florida to the space center down there. In those days the rocket itself was very tall (363 feet). The Saturn 5. Anyway, it was built in the hanger and it was rolled out on huge tractor treads. It was built perpendicular to the ground and brought over to the launch site. There was an elevator that took us up to the gantry where the astronauts entered the capsule. That alone was very exciting.

Paul and Steve Brodeur, two of Norman Brodeur’s sons joined in the conversation.

Paul, what do you remember about your father working on the Apollo missions?

Paul: It was very old school at MIT. The setting was not glamorous. It was utilitarian. There were all of these kind of mock ups. The command module, the lunar module and the service module. And you could go in and play in them. It was spectacular. It was a little piece of history and you could crawl right in.

Did you tell your friends that your Dad worked on these missions?

Paul: Oh yeah. We used to get all kinds of stuff. Because NASA would pump out all kinds of promotional material. And we had it all. I remember there was one thing, it was a fold out information/poster about the Saturn 5 rocket which is the world’s largest rocket. It was the coolest thing. We had an inside seat, right on the ground floor.

Beverly: Dad would bring home rocket pieces and things from his experiments he was working on. He gave us a part of one of his experiments on the moon, a glass reflector, which we still have. I was older, a teenager, so I wasn’t into the models or posters that much. But having a part from my Dad’s experiment is a big deal for me.

Stephen: It was fun when Dad would bring things to show off in school and talk about the program. Like an Apollo Saturn 5 rocket model, pictures and even a short movie about the program.

Did you meet any interesting people with the space program?

Stephen: I met a lot of MIT and Draper people at the time. I was around 14. It affected me enough that I wanted to go into science and I ended up working at Draper. So it had a pretty big impact on me.

Beverly: That’s really interesting. Because I went into science too. Thirty-five years at the Horace Mann School mostly teaching science. That was my main field. It’s not surprising that we were influenced by the work of our fathers.

So where were you when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon?

Stephen: We were watching with our parents. I was sitting on the floor, all of us together. Mom and Dad. Apollo 11 was the big thing. Our father was part of it and that made it really special.

Beverly: We were in Canada on an island. There were 14 homes and only one had a black and white TV set. So everyone trouped over to that house and we huddled together and watched it, at 3 o’clock in the morning. Dad would describe his experiments as we watched the astronauts deploy them. Afterwards, in dead silence everyone just turned to my father and applauded. It was one of those little tiny moments you have in your life. A special time with his friends and family that meant a lot to him.

Any interesting recollections?

Norman: The computers were not very advanced. Really rudimentary. They had something like 2,200 words of memory. After each mission was done they would bring the computer to Raytheon where they would rewire it because it had to be specific for the next mission. So they had to do that each time.

During the Apollo 14 mission, the guidance computer received four errant false abort commands while orbiting the moon. Probably because of a loose switch or wire. But it had to be addressed or they would have to really abort the mission. One of the guys in the instrumentation lab, Don Eyles, knew that area of the programming and he went in and made a patch and the mission proceeded.

How special was it for your father to work on the Apollo missions?

Beverly: For me what’s amazing is that Dad’s team at Arthur D. Little were not PhDs or famous scientists. They were engineers. Dad was plucked out of Northeastern’s co-op program and a few years later he’s working on the manned space program.

Norman: It was the highlight of my career. Yes, the highlight of my career. It was very exciting. Especially with the interface with the astronauts and the whole program. They brought back moon rocks and that was a big to-doo. And we had beat the Russians to the moon. That had big significance.

One of the things that excited me the most was when we actually went to see a lift-off. That gave me a lot of joy and excitement. We brought our grandson and took our children to other lift-offs. It was the biggest thrill of my life other than getting married to my beautiful wife Lia.

Beverly: My father worked with NASA and the US Government for years. He worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and at Roswell and Los Alamos. He worked on systems specific to our national defense and taught for many years. He had 14 patents for his inventions and he lived a full life. There is no doubt his work on the Apollo 11 mission was also the highlight of his career. He was very proud. Just like with Mr. Brodeur.

Any unusual experiences that you as their children experienced?

Beverly: Had to be the Men-In-Black.

Stephen: The Men-In-Black. They would interview neighbors about Dad’s background. And there was one time where a military officer just showed up at the front door. It was an unplanned thing, and they needed to get Dad to Hanscom Air Force base and fly him to Houston immediately.

Beverly: The FBI or whoever, dressed in black suits, came over to the neighborhood several times to background check Dad. Working with NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission he had top secret clearance. So they would come and interview the neighbors, ask about his habits. Did he drink too much, did he kick the dog, that sort of thing. Every time they came, our neighbors would come over and tell us.

Mr. Brodeur, were you a Star Trek fan?

Norman: I didn’t find it very realistic. No little green people.