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University Engineers Were Instrumental to Apollo, Space Missions
July 18, 2019
Larry Harmon (left) and Ron Lippincott were among the behind-the-scenes stars who helped create instruments and technology at UT Dallas that have been sent to space.
They may not have grabbed headlines or taken center stage in ticker-tape parades like astronauts in the early American space program, but Ron Lippincott and Larry Harmon of the William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas were just as key to studying the universe.
Lippincott, program manager, and Harmon, project supervisor, are but a few of the engineers in the center who work behind the scenes to create the instruments and technology to study the Earth’s atmosphere and beyond.
As the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing approaches, we recently spoke with them to discuss their work and their time at UT Dallas.
When did you join the University?
Lippincott: “I came in August of 1964 when we were the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest. We weren’t based here at the time. We were on the Southern Methodist University campus while they were building [the] Founders [Building]. This was my first job. I came directly after I graduated from UT Austin. The center was looking for people, and I was one of the people they were interested in. They told me to drop by if I ever found myself in Dallas. I happened to have a schoolmate who lived in Dallas, so I went to visit him and went in for an interview. It was space work, so I was interested.”
Harmon: “I arrived in September of 1970. I was working for a local aerospace company at the time. John Hoffman [professor emeritus of physics] got some of the Apollo work, and they needed some engineering staff to build the instruments. I was loaned out for about a three-week time period, and I’ve been here ever since. I managed to milk it out for a bit longer.”
Harmon worked with Dr. John Hoffman to create a mass spectrometer that went to the moon’s surface on Apollo 17. A backup model of the spectrometer resides in the Physics Building on campus.
What type of work were you involved with during the space race?
Lippincott: “I started as an instrument engineer. I was responsible for an ion mass spectrometer on a sounding rocket of Dr. Bill Hanson’s. We did a lot of sounding rockets, which are rockets that don’t put things into orbit. They make measurements going up and going down. Typically they are in regions where it’s difficult for satellites to measure because it’s too low in the atmosphere. I later became a project manager and then lab manager for Dr. Hanson, who eventually replaced Dr. Frank Johnson as head of space sciences.”
Harmon: “I initially worked with Dr. Hoffman on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 instruments — all of which were mass spectrometers. The instruments flew on the command module on Apollo 15 and 16, but the one we made for Apollo 17 actually went to the lunar surface. Back in those days, we built backup flight models of the instruments. The backup for the Apollo 17 instrument resides in the Physics Building.”
Space and UTD
To learn more about the history of UT Dallas’ contribution to space research, visit www.utdallas.edu/magazine/across-space-and-time/.
What are your memories of the Apollo missions?
Lippincott: “Even though I was not involved with Apollo, everybody here was interested in the work we were doing. There was a fair amount of interaction and discussion about different problems and possible solutions. It was an extremely interesting time.”
Harmon: “When I was a kid, I had rocket books. I was always interested in that kind of stuff. So to be able to work on it … I was just ecstatic.”
What’s kept you at UT Dallas all these years?
Lippincott: “Two reasons: Bill Hanson and Rod Heelis [the current director of the space sciences center]. They’re the only two bosses I’ve ever had, and, if it weren’t for them, I probably wouldn’t have stayed as long as I have. We were able to work together. It’s a small group, and everyone has their expertise. But there’s a lot of overlap. Bill and Rod both let people do what they’re good at.”
Harmon: “I was out here on loan for several years working on Apollo. When my original company called me telling me it was time to come back, I said, ‘I don’t think I want to.’ I was really more interested in the work going on here. This was during the Cold War, so the work at the aerospace company was tied to that. Things were very compartmentalized and restricted. You didn’t really know what was going on. By contrast, working at UT Dallas, you are involved from the beginning of a project to the end. The people are great, and the work is always interesting and challenging. I felt like this was home.”