Dave Stein helped build the rocket that sent the first American into orbit around the Earth 50 years ago.
But, like most others around the world, he had to watch the now famous launch on his San Diego television set.
Although he was disappointed then, he’s OK with it now. There were plenty of launches he would watch later in his career, he said.
John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth aboard the famous Friendship 7 space capsule propelled into the heavens by an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Feb. 20, 1962.
As he was thrust through the air, below him grew smaller the immense support staff that built, analyzed and fine-tuned his cosmic machine, including Stein, now a 79-year-old Soldotna resident.
“It was a nervous time, you had an awful lot of systems there that had to work,” Stein said. “Even though you were responsible for one system, you were hoping everything worked.”
Stein, who represented the engine systems design group as part of the “Tiger Team,” recently reflected on the 50th anniversary of that launch which forever changed American history and created a national hero out of Glenn. Stein’s work was dedicated to the Atlas rocket’s propulsion system, he said.
“I guess I didn’t realize that until I heard some of the stuff about it that it was going to be 50 years,” Stein said. “That was long ago. I enjoyed the work.”
Stein was a fresh Purdue University graduate when he started working for a company that would later be later known as General Dynamics.
He signed on with the company, which previously built airplanes during World War II, moved to San Diego in 1959 and then started work on the propulsion systems of intercontinental ballistic missiles the company was making at the time.
“We went on a program that was basically called to man-rate the Atlas vehicle because basically the ICBM was there to deliver bombs somewhere, probably to Russia,” he said.
So he and others followed the directive to send a man into orbit and started converting those systems in coordination with National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Mercury program.
“We didn’t design the rocket engines, we took the rocket engines that they built and shipped to us and basically integrated them into the overall system of the vehicle,” he said.
Each year he would make four or five trips to Florida to help with the mission and was supposed to stay for the much-anticipated launch.
But during the 10 tries before the actual launch, the then 29-year-old Stein and others gathered in anticipation only to have the several-hour sequence terminated due to cloudy skies. Eventually the boss called.
“We were sent home and I watched the launch on television like everybody else,” he said.
However, Stein would later in person watch M. Scott Carpenter be the second American launched into orbit on May 24, 1962 on the Aurora 7 craft.
Carpenter and Glenn are the only two surviving Mercury astronauts, which Stein called “a friendly bunch.”
“It was interesting to be down there and see the astronauts, what they did and how they lived,” he said. “All I can say about them is that there were some that liked to play a little bit.”
Stein saved many things from 1962 and later had them bound into a scrapbook. Inside the book are patches he bought of Friendship 7 and Mercury logos, articles from newspapers in Florida, 4 cent stamps showing the image of Glenn’s capsule speeding through space at 17,400 miles per hour and press releases, some of which were time sensitive to be released only after a successful launch.
There’s also a thick, bound, official countdown booklet signed by Glenn on Jan. 29, 1962. And another signed by Carpenter for his launch countdown.
“This was the procedure when they started the countdown several hours before launch and this is the step-by-step program they would go through,” Stein recalled.
There is also a group photo showing the whole crew at Complex 14 where Friendship 7 was launched with Stein standing behind, and to the left of Glenn.
“He was down to earth, very friendly,” Stein said of the astronaut, who would later become a U.S. Senator.
After those famous launches, Stein continued to work with General Dynamics sending satellites and other objects into space. He also briefly worked on the Tomahawk cruise missile.
“We continued to do the Tiger Team effort on many of the launches that we had,” he said. “Even to this day for some of those launches they still use that name. It was basically a team that came from the production facility and went to the launch site and went over all the test data and everything.”
He retired in 1989 as chief project engineer for Atlas launches out of Vandenberg Air Force Base because “it just wasn’t that much fun anymore.”
“As the years passed, all the red tape and all that stuff just got worse and worse,” he said.
Now he said he is disappointed to see his nation’s “non-existent” space program. But, he’ll always remember where he was when Glenn made history.
But which was better? Watching Glenn on television, or Carpenter in person?
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “To me every Atlas launch was just like the first one. You were just in awe really. Even though I knew what was going on, I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.