Retired Rocket Scientist Helped Blaze Trails Across The Moon


There is one thing that no one has ever said about Ted Beck:

"He ain't exactly a rocket scientist."

That's because Beck just so happens to be a rocket scientist.

At least that's what he was before moving on to a number of other careers and eventually retiring to Payson in 1997.

And in that professional capacity, Beck was a key player on the team that created the Lunar Rover aka the "Lunar Roving Vehicle" the first vehicle ever developed for travel on nonearthly surfaces.

The Rover made the first of several trips to the moon on Apollo 11 in 1969.

"That was a really challenging and rewarding program," Beck said. "Nobody thought we could do it, but they said we had to do it. Nobody knew anything about the environment we were putting it in. This was the first time it was ever done. We had no data. We couldn't even tell you what the surface (of the moon) was like."

The four-wheel, lightweight lunar roving vehicle transported two astronauts on exploration missions while carrying tools, scientific equipment, communications gear and lunar samples. The Rover's development required new technology to overcome a variety of unprecedented challenges.

First among those challenges, Beck said, is that the Rover had to be folded up into a very small package in order to fit within the tight confines of the lunar module that transported it to the moon. After landing, it also had to be easily unfolded and deployed with minimum assistance from the astronauts.

But any excellent mechanic might have figured out how to accomplish those tasks. Where rocket science entered the picture was in Beck's dealing with the lack of an atmosphere on the moon, its extremes of surface temperature and weak gravitational pull, and countless unknowns, at that time, associated with lunar soil and topography for which no terrestrial experience existed.

Built by the Boeing Company Aerospace Group, the Rover was 10 feet, 2 inches long; 44.8 inches high; and had a 7.5-foot wheelbase. The vehicle's top speed was about eight miles an hour on a relatively smooth surface, and it carried a total payload weight of about 1,080 pounds more than twice its own weight.

"I was probably known as one of those arrogant, snot-nosed young engineers who always thinks he's right," Beck recalled with a laugh. "I started out working on thermal-design problems with the vehicle to protect the rover from the radical temperature variations it would experience."

To illustrate how rocket scientists solve problems, Beck relates the story of his team's need for a piece of equipment that would open or close upon exposure to heat or cold. "Somebody came up with the idea of using a choke from a 1960s Dodge automobile. It worked perfectly!

"We also made the first out-of-laboratory use of something called Velcro. We needed something that when a heavy door fell shut, it would stay closed and offer some kind of seal against the dust or anything else that's kicked up when the astronauts are walking around on the moon. It was also something that allowed the astronauts to open the doors without much effort, and would never need to be replaced. One of the guys said, 'Hey! Let's try this stuff!'"

The way Beck tells it, rocket science sounds like a cushy job. But it most definitely was not.

"We had about 18 months to get this thing done, so there was lots of stress," he said without nostalgia. "We had a 50 percent divorce ratio among the people working on the program. We had four or five heart attacks. And we lost three program managers. It was wicked. A lot of pressure."

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1933, Beck was 9 years old when his family moved to Chicago, where he completed high school and won football scholarships to a number of universities across the country. Beck chose Mississippi State.

"I played for a year-and-a-half, and ended up all beaten up. My shoulders were separated ... and in those days they really didn't have the technology to fix that kind of an injury, especially if you're going to play football.

"That's when I learned about fine print," Beck said. "My contract read that if I was unable to fulfill my obligations set forth and blah, blah, blah, the scholarship is null and void. They can't do that today, but they did in the early '50s."

What better time, beck reasoned, than to visit his local Navy Air recruiter?

"According to what he told me, I'd be an admiral in six months and I believed him."

After completing his service (but never quite making it to the rank of admiral), Beck enrolled at the University of Illinois, graduating in 1959 with a degree in aeronautical engineering. That led him to Seattle and a job with Boeing, where he stayed for 17 years and saw the Lunar Rover land on the moon.

Beck left the program in 1970 and hopped around the country, mostly working in high-ranking executive positions with light rail companies. Three years ago, while enjoying an early retirement in Park City, Utah, he and his wife, Dee, decided to relocate to a particular Arizona paradise that would allow him to pursue, year-round, his greatest passion golf.

How strong is that passion? Well, as Neil Armstrong took history's first moon walk, and as all of his co-workers had their eyeballs glues to his every televised step, Beck was practicing his swing on an indoor putting green. Just as he sank the ball, the assembled throng broke into cheers and hurrahs.

Beck thought the response was for him. But no. At that exact moment, Neil Armstrong had sunk the first golf ball on the moon.

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