On the wall of David Stephenson’s Southwest Decatur home office, among the model of the Saturn V, the image of the lunar rover and the framed Silver Snoopy Award bestowed on him by Huntsville astronaut Jan Davis in 1990, hangs a colorful child’s drawing on construction paper of a shuttle rocketing through the planets.
“My daughter was always a real space cadet growing up. She drew this when she was 7 or 8,” Stephenson said. “You know, there’s just something about space that captures the imagination and inspires you to dream.”
As a volunteer guide at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Stephenson, who worked with NASA as a contract or government employee from 1967 to 2011, shares stories of past missions and projects, from Apollo 11 to the lunar rover vehicle to the space shuttle, in hopes of inspiring the next generation’s dreams of space exploration.
He talks of the 3 million parts that made up the Saturn V that sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon on Apollo 11, of the rocket’s 7½ million pounds of thrust and the rocket’s exhaust, which reaches 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It’s enjoyable to talk to people that want to hear about what we did. I tell them, ‘You can read the plaques, but we can tell you the story between the lines.’ They tell us, ‘You bring this hardware to life for us, because you tell us stories about this time and this program and this hardware that only people who worked on it would know,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson’s dreams of space and air travel began as a young boy — during his first flight in an airplane at the age of 5 and while traveling the back roads of east-central Florida with his great uncle to watch early rocket launches at Cape Canaveral.
“My mother took me up for an airplane ride from Pryor Field in Decatur. That made quite an impression on me. From then on I knew I wanted to do something with flight,” Stephenson said.
Among his childhood heroes, Stephenson counted Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier, and Scott Crossfield, the first man to go twice the speed of sound.
“Crossfield was an aeronautical engineer, so I said, ‘OK, if that’s the kind of thing I want to do, I need to get that degree,’ ” Stephenson said.
After graduating from Lawrence County High School in 1960, Stephenson attended the University of Alabama to study aeronautical engineering, which the school changed to aerospace engineering after adding rocket propulsion to the curriculum.
His first introduction to rockets and the space race with the Russians came in the summer of 1964, when he visited Marshall Space Flight Center for the first time. Three years later, in early 1967, Stephenson began working with NASA as a contract employee with Boeing and became one of the more than 400,000 workers at 20,000 firms across the United States who contributed to the Apollo mission.
“We looked on it as a challenge and we were going to do our best to meet the goal of reaching the moon. Did we know that we were going to do it? No, but we were confident if we applied the big giant work force, that we stood an awfully good chance of meeting the challenge. Everybody had a piece of the puzzle,” Stephenson said.
As a structural dynamicist, Stephenson worked on a team that tested the rocket to see how it vibrated and responded to high air-bearing loads. The engineering team mounted the 360-foot-tall, 6 million-pound Saturn V, which Stephenson said “vibrated and responded like an antenna on a tractor-trailer truck,” on the 400-foot-tall dynamics test stand at Marshall and vibrated the rocket.
“It was exciting because so much of it was pioneering work. A lot of stuff we were doing nobody had ever done before. The challenge was figuring out how to do it. There was no book you were going to look in,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson, along with an estimated 1 million other people, witnessed the launch of Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral, and, on July 20, 1969, watched on the black-and-white TV in his apartment Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon.
“It’s hard to believe all that occurred within the span it did. The first unmanned Saturn V flew in 1967. We walked on the moon in 1969. It all happened in a short period of time,” Stephenson said.
Bob Jaques, former Marshall Space Flight Center historian described each Apollo mission as a “steppingstone.”
“The first Apollo flight was Apollo 7 when they went around the Earth. Apollo 8 went to the moon. Apollo 9 was important because it was a rendezvous mission between the capsule and the command module. And Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal for Apollo 11,” said Jaques, of Hartselle.
Stephenson went on to serve as a systems engineer, chief engineer and project manager and worked on the lunar rover program and the space shuttle.
“We, the Apollo program engineers, are all old now, but we were at the right place at the right time in our young lives to participate in one of the greatest adventures of mankind. Only in looking back, do we realize how truly fortunate we were to have played a small part in Apollo,” Stephenson said.