Clicking through the images saved on his computer, Billy Warren Shelton paused as a black-and-white photograph of a woman and man shaking hands appeared on the screen.
“That’s my wife, Nancy, and that is Wernher Von Braun. I was very proud that she got to meet him, but also a little jealous. She always liked to tease me about that,” the Moulton man said, tilting back the visor of his NASA baseball cap.
Dubbed a charter member of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for having started the day the Huntsville site formed in July 1960, Shelton spent 35 years designing vehicles for future space explorations.
“It was very interesting work. We were always looking at the future and the technology we were developing, and the space program was all new,” said Shelton.
As a child growing up in rural Lawrence County, Shelton never imagined the possibility of the country forming a space exploration program, much less contributing to the effort. When he graduated from Auburn with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1960, the opportunity to work for NASA and receive a military draft deferment attracted Shelton to Marshall — the place he would stay until he retired.
“I knew the Russians had launched Sputnik in 1957, which cranked up our space program, and I knew the Army had launched the Jupiter rocket. Besides that, there was not that much going on in space. Everything was very new and exciting. I was blessed to be part of it,” Shelton said.
NASA placed Shelton, then a young engineer in his early 20s, with a team responsible for the early design studies of the Saturn V booster, which consisted of the rocket’s first stage (S-I), the second stage (S-II) and the third stage (S-IVB). Combined, the three stages weighed more than 5.5 million pounds.
“In the space program, weight is key. For every pound you’re lifting off, you’ve got to have so much propellant to boost it and so much thrust to lift it off. We had to create a design that would put this huge rocket on a trajectory to the moon,” Shelton said.
By the time NASA completed construction on the Saturn V, Shelton was investigating and creating the designs for future missions. During his career, Shelton helped design and develop the Space Shuttle program and received a Silver Snoopy from astronaut Bruce McCandless II in 1981, the NASA Exceptional Service Award in 1992 and an outstanding performance award.
“For the outstanding performance award, I was supposed to go up to Von Braun’s office and talk with him, but he got called to some meeting and was not able to make it. I was always a little disappointed. In my opinion, he was the reason that we were able to go to the moon,” Shelton said.
Shelton, along with his wife, Nancy, who worked at Marshall as a secretary, and his son, Roger, traveled to Kennedy Space Flight Center to watch the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969.
“I decided the day they announced the date of the launch that I wanted to go down and witness it. I had worked on that rocket and this was the mission when astronauts would walk on the moon. I wanted to see it, and it was an awesome sight to see it lift off. Four days later, I watched the moon landing on TV from home,” Shelton said.
When Shelton retired from NASA in 1995, he held the title of chief of systems engineering division in program development. His duties included planning, directing and supervising feasibility and preliminary design studies of advanced space vehicles.
“I’d like to see our country continue with space activity. What many people don’t know is there’s a lot of technology that’s been developed and that we use today because of the space program,” Shelton said.
Bob Jaques, former historian for Marshall Space Flight Center, said many people don’t realize the technological advancements made due to the space program.
“The thing NASA did that was so good, they had to come up with micro miniaturization of electronics, like heart monitors. So much of the stuff we have today came directly from the Apollo program,” Jaques said.
From the Apollo program, the cool suits astronauts wore during moon walks led to the uniforms worn by race car drivers today, the shock-absorbing helmets and capsule seat cushions gave rise to memory foam mattresses, the technology used to drill for samples on the moon’s surface was used to create cordless power drills, and the ability to control spacecraft via remote control led to the development of mobile artificial limbs.
“It was a fabulous accomplishment for us, being able to send astronauts to the moon and bring them back. Whether we orbit Earth, go to the moon and back or set our sights on Mars, we need to keep our program in space active,” Shelton said.
For more information on the Apollo program, Jaques will lead a discussion at the Decatur Public Library on July 25 at 6:30 p.m. The free program will feature information on the Apollo 1 to Apollo 17 missions with an emphasis on Apollo 11.