Retired NASA scientist looks to the next generation’s feats

Joseph Heyman

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Joseph Heyman spreads his arms to demonstrate the uses of a wind tunnel, which simulates the high-speed re-entry of spacecraft into Earth’s atmosphere.

RENSSELAERVILLE — The NASA control room was dark, said Joseph Heyman. He recalled screens all over with different data — and one blank screen.

The information coming in, he explained to the crowd at the Rensselaerville Library on July 30, was delayed by 20 minutes due to its distance — from Earth to Mars.

“You’re looking at history,” he said.

For playing what he described as a very small part in the Viking program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — Joseph Heyman, Ph.D. had studied how electrical insulators work under different amounts of pressure — he was invited to be in the control room on July 20, 1976, when the Viking 1 lander was scheduled to touch down on the surface of Mars.

Speaking at the Rensselaerville Library, Heyman moved his hands — one arm at an angle like a line plot and the other moving up and down — to demonstrate the data he had watched from the control room that would inform NASA whether the lander was following the projected path: Enter too slowly and the vehicle could bounce off the surface of the atmosphere surrounding Mars, too quickly and it could plunge into the planet’s surface.

At one point, the lander overcorrected, but found its way back to the desired path.

The goal was to have the vehicle land on the surface of Mars, raise up a camera, and begin sending photos and data back to the control room.

To slow its descent, the lander used parachutes and rockets. The lander indicated to those waiting in the control room that the rocket had been fired, and then the screen went dark, said Heyman.

At the library, he sat down in a chair, explaining how the group was sitting in the NASA control room, disappointed, some having spent their entire careers on the Viking program.

All of a sudden, said Heyman, blotches of light began to appear on the screen, coming together to form an image of the surface of Mars.

“The first image that human beings have ever seen from another planet,” said Heyman. “I still get goosebumps.”

He indicated to a young audience member, “In your lifetime, son, amazing things are going to happen that you never even dreamt of.”


Each generation goes further

Heyman, 75, who now lives in Schoharie, began his library talk on the same theme, asking the audience to visualize a span of five generations, starting with his grandson Max and ending with his own grandfather Adolf.

“Max, the 7-year-old, may actually see a human safely landing and returning to Mars,” he said.

His daughter, Laura, saw the advent of home computers, color television, the internet, and cellphones. In his own lifetime, Heyman said, he has seen the atomic age, black-and-white television, FM radio, and the first man on the moon.

His father, Sam, saw the first human flight, and his grandfather saw the first electric lightbulb, car, and radio.

“And look how much has changed in just five generations,” said Heyman. He added that, only 300 generations before, humans were in the Neolithic Era.

His message, he said, is that each generation is passing on to the next their knowledge, tools, and quality of life. Imagine, he asked, what the young people’s grandchildren will be capable of.

Heyman retired from NASA in 2001, but in a matter of days he had already started his own company, Nascent, to continue his research in aeronautics, particularly in the field of nondestructive testing, Heyman told The Enterprise on Friday. His company was later bought by Luna Innovations.

“So I didn’t stay out of work for very long,” Heyman explained. He finally retired eight years later, but continues to serve on committees, including one through the NASA Engineering and Safety Center to review safety aspects of the design of the Orion spacecraft.

When taking questions from the audience near the end of his library talk, Heyman spoke of his hope for scientific feats in the next generation — researching blackholes, advancements in artificial intelligence, and a continued interest in space exploration with advancements in the private sector like SpaceX — but also of his concerns such as climate change.

“It’s like watching a child walk on the ice, knowing they could break through at any point,” he said.


The science of safety

Heyman spent 37 years working at NASA, including 25 years as a lab director where he led a team of around 70 people working on how to improve the reliability and safety of materials in spacecrafts.

He had been interested in space since he was in the fourth grade, when his teacher encouraged him to follow a passion in art, and he drew planets and sculpted a vase with the inscription “Vanguard, 1957,” referring to the failed attempt to send the first United States satellite into orbit.

In college, he attended a “co-op school” at Northeastern University in Boston where he would take off every other year and intern in various laboratories at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

In 1964, while interning at the Materials Radiation Laboratory, he was part of a team testing a theory that the Van Allen Radiation Belts were causing electrical issues in satellites. In a steel vacuum-sealed chamber the size of the Rensselaerville Library, cooled to the temperature of outer space, the team used a particle accelerator to accelerate electrons and replicate the hypothesized effects.

In another lab, he worked with aeronautical engineers to use a wind tunnel to simulate the high-speed re-entry of spacecraft into the atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour.

In 1973, an explosion at a wind tunnel at the NASA Ames Research Center in California led Heyman, with a new doctoral degree, to be part of the accident-review committee for three weeks in California. The cause of the accident was a bolt not tensioned properly, he said.

“I was thrown into something I didn’t know the first thing about,” he said. “But because I was coming in from outside, I came up with a solution that nobody had thought of.”

Heyman explained that, when a bolt is tightened, it also stretches, and there is a relationship with torque and bolt-stretching that can be interrupted with friction; with this particular bolt, friction had scoured its surfaces. The concept of a solution came to him quickly, he said, but he spent years back at Langley trying to bring the idea to reality before it would be patented for a number of uses, including outside of aeronautics.

“In three weeks, I had an instrument that could measure bolt stretch using ultrasound,” he said. “And all it took me was three years to figure out how to do it right.”

Heyman was asked about two tragic incidents in NASA history, the fire on the Apollo 1 mission in 1967 and the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986.

He explained that, on the Apollo 1 mission, a high concentration of oxygen, higher than in natural air, had been pumped into the craft so astronauts did not have to wear helmets inside, but it also made it so any spark from the electronics would result in a fire.

“Have you ever flipped a switch and heard a little pop?” he asked.


Challenger explosion

The Challenger explosion, he said, occurred when high-temperature gases burned through the shuttle’s steel structure and ruptured the motor. The gases had gotten to the structure because, he said, it was too cold for a putty-like material used as an insulator to flow and seal any leaks. Some engineers raised concerns about the cooler temperatures, but senior management decided to move forward with the launch, he said.

After the Challenger exploded, when Heyman was a laboratory director, two center directors — in charge of laboratories with thousands of workers and million-dollar budgets — asked if Heyman and his team could focus exclusively on the Challenger explosion and how to have safer takeoffs in the future.

“You talk about being at the right place at the right time, with the right people,” he said. “It was phenomenal, for about eight years we worked on elements of the space shuttle, critically improving its safety, its reliability, and allowing better designs to be tested more quickly … .”

When the Challenger did fly again, he said, he was awarded with the “Silver Snoopy” pin, a silver image of the cartoon dog dressed in a spacesuit.

“And I wear that with honor to this day,” he said.

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