America's greatest scientific & engineering achievement
July 12, 2019
In January 1966, I found myself living and working in Cocoa Beach, Florida. I had been recruited by RCA Missile Test Project, the scientific and engineering manager of the Air Force’s Eastern Test Range for rockets and missiles being test fired from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Prior to arriving in Cocoa Beach, I had been doing research in radiation physics at the Radiological Research Laboratory at Columbia-Presbytarian Medical Center in New York City, under contract with the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the Nuclear Regulatory Agency.
As a young physicist I joined a group of scientists and engineers at RCA who were doing orbital analysis for the Atlas-Agena/Gemini spacecraft rendezvous and docking maneuvers as part of the NASA program to perfect the techniques for the lunar rendezvous and docking of the Lunar Module with the Apollo Service Module for the return trip to Earth.
Our group at RCA was also charged with evaluating the tracking, data and communication radars on board the Apollo Instrumentation and Reentry ships, a fleet of five ships that would be strategically deployed in the oceans to maintain continuous communication when the spacecraft was over the ocean and out of range of the ground tracking stations.
In July 1967, I transitioned over to the Boeing Company, the prime contractor for the first and most powerful stage of the Saturn V space vehicle, working out of the Launch Control Center at the Kennedy Space Center.
As part of the data analysis group at Boeing evaluating flight dynamics and vehicle structural performance, we were part of the test team that man-rated the Apollo-Saturn space vehicle for the lunar mission.
On the morning of July 16, 1969, exactly 50 years ago this coming Tuesday, I stood outside the Launch Control Center viewing site with several thousands of workers, guests and the press from all over the world as the engines were ignited. After nine heart wrenching seconds, and with the ground vibrating under our feet as the five powerful F-1 thrusters built up to the 7.5 million pounds of thrust, we watched this wonder of American scientific and engineering ingenuity lift off Launch Pad 39A on its historic journey to the moon.
I recall standing there with my mind racing back in time to the moment I crossed the narrow draw bridge connecting Merritt Island to Cocoa Beach for the first time. I had no idea at that time of the importance and enormity of the projects in which I would be engaged.
I also had no idea of the vibrant Jewish community I would find in Brevard county in the 1960s. When I arrived, I naturally sought out and found many co-religionists working not only at RCA, but at every level of the space program in Brevard county.
Temple Beth Shalom located on the south side of Patrick Air Force Base along A1A, was already well established and headed by a young rabbi and his wife who took this bachelor under their wings. I soon found myself with more multiple invitations to Shabbat dinner, and thought how nice it would be if Shabbat came around more than once a week.
I am still astounded that the son of an immigrant Jewish father and a first-generation American mother who only spoke Yiddush until she was enrolled in a public elementary school was afforded this great opportunity to participate in what I believe is the single greatest American scientific and engineering achievement of the 20th Century.
If you wish to comment or respond you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please do so in a rational, thoughtful, respectful and civil manner.
Mel Pearlman holds B.S. & M.S. degrees in physics as well as a J.D. degree and initially came to Florida in 1966 to work on the Gemini and Apollo space programs. He has practiced law in Central Florida since 1972. He has served as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando; was a charter board member, first Vice President and pro-bono legal counsel of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Central Florida, as well as holding many other community leadership positions.