When Cliff Hess hailed a taxi in Houston on his way out to a co-op assignment 57 years ago, the US space program was just getting started. A few scattered NASA buildings were going up in the extreme southeast of Texas surrounded by cow pastures. Hess had flown down from Philadelphia with a piece of paper bearing directions and a vague sense of what he would be doing. It was his first co-op, selected right after he decided to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.
Between this new conviction and the paper in his hands, there wasn’t much to go on. But from that modest beginning sprang a rewarding engineering career of 33 years, spanning the period from the nation’s earliest commitment to space exploration through 1999, a year that saw three space shuttle missions.
Hess, Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics (MEM) ’66, was part of it all.
One of the points he emphasizes today is that co-op—a compelling argument for a Drexel education even back then—made everything possible. He participated in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects. He developed close friendships with other engineers during those heady early days at the Manned Spaceflight Center, later renamed the Johnson Space Center. He helped a national aspiration become an international milestone. Every bit of it traces back to that co-op in 1962.
“I’d been following the Mercury Project launches—Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, then John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. So I got to Houston just after Carpenter’s flight. Back then, I was a boy of 18. To hear the president say, ‘We’re going to the moon,’ just set the stage for everything. There was no other place I would have wanted to be.
“It was a whole new world, so I didn’t care what I was going to do. I just wanted to be a part of it. The life that I've had is due to the chance assignment by the co-op office to that NASA facility. It's been a dream career, and I owe it all to Drexel.”
Hess’ memories take on a broader significance these days as NASA celebrates multiple milestones in the space program. Last year was the 60th Anniversary of the formation of NASA. It was also the 50th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 8—which reached the moon and orbited, but did not land—marking the first time humans saw their planet as the iconic blue marble. This year is the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Next April will mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13. And sometime in the not-terribly-distant future, the first Mars landing will join the list of “giant step” achievements.
“It’s going to be a great time to reflect on the astounding space accomplishments that occurred 50 years ago,” said Hess.
Front Lines of History
Over the years, Hess worked on all the US manned space missions, aware that he was pushing the threshold of engineering even as he was fully immersed in it. Hess served in NASA’s Life Systems Division, which had charge of environmental control systems on developing spacecraft and spacesuits. He served as a test conductor for the program’s vacuum chamber, and managed a vacuum chamber for all of the Apollo missions. NASA used the chamber to evaluate spacesuit designs and to train Apollo crewmembers under the conditions they would encounter in space and on the lunar surface.
Hess also served as the system development manager for the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER) jetpack; later units were a required part of spacesuits worn by every American crewmember visiting the International Space Station to enable self-rescue. He was project manager for the Autonomous EVA Camera (AERCam) Sprint, a remote-controlled, free-flying video camera that used technology developed for the SAFER jetpack.
Hess even holds the patent for a robotic hand control system, which he developed through an expertise in dexterous robotics. He once demonstrated for Queen Elizabeth II how infrared sensors in the fingertips of the system calculate the distance to an object.
“Prince Philip did all the talking. He was a very nice gentleman,” said Hess. “The Queen just stood aloof in the background.”
Drexel is celebrated for having an early commitment to using computers in the classroom, which generated a computer design course for digital and analog computing that Hess took in the early 1960s. Many engineers, reliant on slide rules, arrived at NASA’s incipient space program without computer training, and were leery of it. The background gave Hess a considerable edge and a comfort with computers that continues to this day. It also buttressed his sense of having something unique and essential to contribute in an atmosphere of incredible innovation, where engineers at the top of their game were constantly pushing each other and the program itself forward.
“With NASA, you’re a part of a team,” Hess said. “There’s no one individual who does the thing that needs to be done—it was all of us. It was just a very emotional time, to be a part of the teams that were trying to get astronauts there and then get them back safely.
“The burden is, you have to be 100% of the time on any design. You have all these safety checks and questions during the process, and you are trained to assume something will fail. And when it does, what do you do? So, you do all that in writing and in test mode, and that’s how you attempt to get around the failures.
“But there were always some things you could not get around. That is where you have to take the risks. Otherwise, you don’t go into space.”
Next Stop, Mars
When astronauts first landed on the moon 50 years ago, Hess figured Mars was next. He imagined that astronauts would land on the planet sometime during his career. Now age 75 and retired for 20 years, he wonders if it will indeed happen during his lifetime. Today, he lives within the Houston city limits, and regularly reads a daily communication from the Johnson Space Center that keep current and former personnel briefed on developments. News about Mars permeates nearly every issue.
Hess believes a damn-the-torpedoes attitude, like the one that persisted at NASA during its early days, will make the Mars mission more achievable. When Hess started at NASA, the atmosphere was one of intense commitment and ingenuity coupled with a willingness to take risks. Embracing uncertainty was part of the gestalt of the entire enterprise. Processes and regulations were important, but they did not stifle the very creativity that enabled advancement, he said.
One of the reasons NASA was able to develop the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs all within the space of one decade was because bureaucracy, politics, and funding did not dictate the program’s scope and ambitions.
“That’s where some of these people like Elon Musk come into the picture,” Hess added. “You have to go full speed ahead despite the torpedoes.” Hess cultivates a little of that brio in his own life. Against the odds of age and retirement, he is a certified scuba diver, a sky diver, and a private pilot, and currently enjoys all of those activities.
Looking at the space program today, Hess highlights the engineering technologies that will improve efficiency and cut costs in the leadup to a Mars landing. Software-embedded systems, 3D manufacturing in space, digital design, and computer-based project planning and tracking, for example, all provide a level of autonomy in space that astronauts would not have imagined when Hess entered the field.
“To me, if I was an engineer just starting out and I heard that we were going to go to Mars, that’s where I’d want to be,” Hess said. “I think that’s where NASA’s future is. It stretches the mind the way going to the moon did. It stretches the imagination. To think of someone standing on Mars and looking back at the Earth ….? The new astronauts, they’re all hoping that they’ll be the first person going to Mars. They all want that. And it’s possible that they’re going to get a shot at it.
“I think when we do get to Mars, it’ll be like when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon,” said Hess. “The world rejoiced.”