Harry Smith: World's First Flight Controller

Two veterans of Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center, with a foreward by another, mentions one of Harry Smith's more famous moments on Apollo 15.

Harry was a storyteller, the Homer of Apollo. We met in the mid-70s, sharing a cubicle at the NASA Slidell Computer Complex, both of us starting new lives. He was a NASA pioneer trying out as an executive, and I was in a holding pattern developing performance models for the new Univac 1108. He had endless, mesmerizing tales that demanded attention. He could talk and work, but I wound up working overtime. Oh, those stories.

A veteran of the Gemini and Apollo days, he'd worked among the era's superstars, and their ghosts ambled between our desks as I puzzled out queuing algorithms and he wrote technology plans. Rustic and non-degreed, Harry conjured images of a battered pickup truck and a Bluetick Hound. He owned both, and many of his stories referenced adventures in the Honey Island Swamp, where his peers tended crab traps and chopped pulpwood. Frank Lavatto, systems programmer from Dalhart Texas and a curiosity in his own right (He'd pore over a core dump and announce the computer had been, "Flying on with its heart shot out!"), summed Harry up as, "A dumb old country boy with an IQ of about 160." The boys from Dalhart know a thing or two.

Harry loved joking and teasing, and worked hard to avoid seriousness, although he was always sincere. When a colleague expressed excitement that the Ivory Billed Woodpecker might have survived extinction in the swamps of Mississippi, Harry studied a picture of one and nodded, "Yep. I've killed a many of them." One day the main gate informed him the local Sheriff was waiting with an arrest warrant. Everyone knew the warrant was for another Harry Smith, but Harry had a good time with the sheriff before letting him discover his mistake.

The above picture of the Apollo 15 mission, with the Lunar Rover deployed and the Lunar Module in the background, is linked to a retrospective of the importance of the rover.

For a year and a half he shared his fabulous stories. He'd manned tracking sites in the Pacific, and worked at Johnson Space Center. His vivid portrayals of larger-than-life characters sounded fantastic, but Harry had the credibility of a rhapsode talking of Troy.

He was a kindred spirit, catching and sharing the humor of the many subtle instances of folly that swirl through the average workday. We'd leave a meeting with Harry's soto voce impersonation, "Mmph mmph…poor plotting techniques," as we spun some fantastic version of what had just occurred.

A few years later Harry left for better things, but it didn't go well. His tolerance for idiots ran out, so I heard. He bounced around and I lost touch with him.

Then occurred one of those serendipities life tosses when you're looking the other way. A seeming shipwreck washed me ashore at Johnson Space Center. There was an eerie familiarity about the place. I'd never worked there before, but I recognized people. I'd met them in Harry's stories. Time after time the characters from tales in that little cubicle near Lake Ponchatrain introduced themselves. It was like seeing old friends I couldn't remember meeting.

Harry at Carnarvon Tracking Station for Gemini 4, front row, second from the left. Back right is astronaut David Scott, front third from right is capcom Ed Fendell, a prominent figure in Harry's stories. The pictures are from Hamish Lindsay, and this and others are further identified in the popup link.

There was the guy who'd informed Gene Kranz, from a remote tracking site in the Pacific, that he would keep Gene's latest management dictate at eye level in his outhouse, right where it belonged. There was the headquarters building where one of the astronauts rappelled off the roof as the bemused center director watched from his office. There was the Building 1 flagpole where someone, maybe John Llewellyn, tied his horse after being banned from driving on base. There was the control center where veterans surreptitiously blew cigarette smoke through a length of plastic tubing, causing it to emerge from the console of a novice flight controller. There was "Captain Reduction," who could shrink any graphic to fit any space.

This reunion of Apollo-era flight controllers in the restored mission control center features several of the characters from Harry Smith stories, including Ed Fendell, third from left, and Gene Kranz, fourth from left. The image links to a popup page about Harry's time at the MCC, before I met him at Slidell.

There was the giant display where JSC controllers watched a live feed from the cape, where someone arranged to play an actual launch during a dry run, causing Gene Kranz to jump up shouting, "You see that!!?" as the vehicle flew off into space. Gene collected himself and pointed at the grinning culprit with, "I have a long memory!" And, there were numerous people who'd either known Harry, or verified the truth of his stories. Here was the guy who'd been with Harry the night he was nearly killed in a car wreck. But there was a difference, too. The whole experience had the feeling of seeing the movie after reading the book. If you were properly aged, it was like seeing the TV show after enjoying the radio broadcast. Things didn't quite measure up to Harry's telling.

This picture of Vince Fleming and Gene Kranz, taken at an Apollo 11 25th Anniversary celebration, links to Mr. Fleming's recollections, including a rare picture of Harry Smith.

But, there was one exception. I walked into a meeting in my early days at JSC chaired by a man I'd never seen before, and who, in those days, had no public persona. I knew him instantly. When he spoke I recognized his voice, and anticipated his phrasing. It was similar to déjà vu, and I struggled to remember where we'd met. Then I realized. He'd materialized into real life from Harry's stories, the images formed at Slidell accurate in detail.

Harry Smith was the only man I've ever known who could tell a Harry Smith story. The only person in the world who could ever live up to one was Gene Kranz, Mr. Mission Operations at Johnson Space Center.

Harry popped up shortly after my arrival in Houston, working for Bendix on the same shuttle operations contract. We reconnected, but lightly. It was a frantic time in those post-Challenger days. And then Harry was sick. And then he passed away.

Gene Kranz delivered the eulogy. He recalled Harry's disdain for "Pogues," Harry's word for those crouched eternally in a CYA posture. Gene quoted Teddy Roosevelt, appropriately, and then, even more appropriately, pronounced Harry, "The world's first flight controller." That's like being named to the Hall of Fame by Babe Ruth.

This picture of Bob Legler links to some recollections by Sy Liebergot in which he mentions Harry Smith.

Not a lot is known about this remarkable man. But other people have remembered him. Harry was born in 1931 in Poplarville, Mississippi. He must have gone to high school in Poplarville, or nearby, but no records have been found. He enlisted in the USAF on 8 January, 1952, and was released 19 December 1955. He returned to the United States from Grand Turk Island, through Key West, on board a USAF C-54, 28 November 1958. His address on returning was listed as New Orleans, 1025 Milan Street. This information supports a theory that he may have graduated from the Air Force Electronic Technician school, a highly respected training program, and that he might have been working on the Eastern Test Range during the 1950s, prior to the formation of NASA. There are records indicating one of those legendary Range Rats was named Harry Smith, but he hasn't been confirmed as our Harry Smith.

Harry is buried in Pearl River County, along with his wife Beth. His aspirations and inner spirituality, he was not religious, remain conjecture. But he appears in the record of space flight, the premier human adventure of the twentieth century, and the references are uniformly positive. That is certainly a spiritual connection.

He was highly respected by those who gave a damn, and no other opinions matter.

We've displayed as links beneath the pictures, some recollections about Harry by those who worked with him.

Harry is buried near Poplarville, MS, where his roots were always deepest.

Harry Smith and Apollo 15
The MCC Vehicles Staff Support Room during Apollo 10, with the Grumman Flight Control Support Team. (From left to right) (Front) Charlie Whitmore and Hank Kessler - (Rear, seated) Don Clark, Floyd Page and Vince Fleming - (Rear, standing) Jim Hannigan (NASA LM Systems Branch Chief), Frank Edelin, J.O. Saylor, Jack Neubauer, Fred Frere, Harry Smith, Jim Nelson and Hank Otten. Picture links to the book by Houston and Heflin.

The following excerpt from the book, "Go, Flight", by Rick Houston and Milt Heflin, is a familiar theme for those that knew Harry Smith. When he spoke, those responsible for outcomes listened.

On Apollo 15 after a smooth landing on 30 July 1971, Scott did the first and only stand-up EVA through the upper hatch of the LM to survey the site. He and Irwin then rested, and nearly fifteen hours after touchdown, they at last headed outside.

When they tried to deploy the Rover, they met with resitance. The saddle that connected the Rover to the LM Falcon during the descent had very close tolerances, so much so that it had ot be almost completely free of stress to easily sepaarate. falcon was tilted slightly to the rear and sideways, and that made for an even toughter separaation. Bill Peters was prime TELMU for the flight, and he had one suggestion from Harry Smith in the SSR on how to remedy the situation, another from Marshall Space Flight Center officials in SPAN.

Peters had to make a decision and could almost feel the eyes of Scott, Irwin, flight director Pete Frank, and the rest of the world watching in on live television. Smith had worked on the deployement tests of the Rover at the Boeing plant in Kent, Washington, in which it had hung up in the same way. When it was relieved of as muich stress as possible, it was freed. Peters opted to go with that instead of SPAN. "We saw exactly that before and this is exactly what you do to relese it," Peters said, quoting Harry from the SSR backroom.

Capcom Joseph P. "Joe" Allen called to Scott and Irwin.

The mission emblem links to the lunar surface journal recounting the deployement of the Rover.

Dave and Jim, pull the Rover as far out as you can away from the LM, and then pull on the font end, if you could. And by that we mean lift up on the front end.

It worked, but that might not have been the end of the story. Marshall was responsible for the Rover, and Peters later heard that Huntsville had filed an official complaint that Peters had not gone with their suggestion. "In retrospect, I know I made the right decision," Peters siad. "I certainly didn't pacify the managers. Theyi wanted to go through some other procedure. It was one of tghe spur-of-the-moment things, like when you're driving an automobile and you jerk the wheel one way instead of the other. You have to make a decision, and you have to make it now." That kind of confidence in his abilities and those of his support team was a strength of Flight Operaitons, he continued. Make a decision and then fly through hatever flak might come. "I think it was Chris Kraft who called that 'intelleutual arrogance,'" Peters said. "I guess we all had it. I think I still have it, but it doesn't fly well with politicians."

Harry Smith during Gemini Program
The NASA Navy, a modified Army Motor Vehicle name "Retriever", being used here in 1966 for water retrieval training in Galveston Bay. The picture links to additional information about the ship. Or click here for more pictures.
The NASA tracking station in Carnarvon, Australia. The link is to more pictures taken by Hamish Lindsay, or go here for more history of the place.

One of Harry Smith's entertaining stories involved the NASA Navy, the Army landing craft dubbed "Retriever," that was transferred to NASA for water-recovery training. Harry told of being part of the NASA inspection team at the Mobile, Alabama shipyards, where "Retriever" was being modified.

"All the work was done, but we couldn't get the release documents signed. There was always one more hoop to jump through. Finally, one night, we got on an open loop back to Houston and I told them, "If everyone that wants to keep this ship in Mobile was standing on the dock holding a line, it couldn't get out of harbor under full power." Harry's infectious laugh followed, with the punch line. "Next morning everyone was down there shoving papers at us to sign. We got back to Seabrook faster than summer lightning."

This episode must have occurred in 1965. Beyond that the official records of Harry are sparse. We know he supported the Gemini program. In March of 1965 he was onboard the Rose Knot Victor as part of the command communications team. Later that year he was in Carnarvon, Australia, and later yet on the tracking ship, Coastal Sentry.

If you have the patience, you can scan down through the link below to some NASA bulletins, and see contemporary accounts of the Retriever, and deployments to suppor missions in the Gemini days.

Gemini 7 mission report.
Geimini Mission Control assigments, or here for more.

Harry Smith and the Apollo Program
John Llewellyn, legendary flight controller at JSC, figured in many of Harry Smith's stories. He mentions Harry in his oral history of Apollo, linked above. See his enitire oral history here, or his recent obituary here, or you can take a look at John's book, here.
Jones (Joe) W. Roach, was a pioneer in the mission control room at JSC. He mentions Harry in his oral history of Apollo, linked above. See his enitire oral history here, or his recent obituary here.
Melvin Fred Brooks was a flight controller and administartor at NASA Johnson Space Center. The picture links to his oral history.
Jack Knight, retired flight controller at JSC, mentions Harry Smith in his oral history of Apollo, linked above. See his enitire oral history here.
The mission control center has changed completely from the Apollo era. Here is a brief look back in a 2014 interview with the principals. Part 1:, Part 2:, and Part 3:. The picture links to a news article about the ten-year reunion, attended by Harry.

Harry was in Houston for the Apollo program, supporting the control center. He had a few stories about the moon landing, and several about Apollo 13. "The guy sitting next to me jumped up and said, 'We need to work in shifts. I'll go home and go to bed,' and he left. When I got home that night my wife was crying, she said, 'Walter Cronkite says you're trying to kill the crew!" His praise was for Gene Kranz. "He just kept saying, 'That's not the right answer,' until he finally saw the way. You always need that one tough guy that can make things happen."

"When I went back to see my folks in Poplarville one of the locals that knows what I do gave me this big grin and said, "Got hit by a star, didn't it?" This might have been the same individual that told Harry, shortly after an Earth Resources Satellite launch, "That damned scatteratterometer you boys put up has done killed every bean I got!"

Harry had a lot of ideas about what it took to make the space program successful. "One big problem was keeping management out of the way during a crisis. Craft came up with the perfect solution. He gave them their own room, the SPAN. He'd make those pogues go in there, and they'd have to talk to Flight Ops through their loop. Flight could get the work done with the back room support, while they chewed things over. It was perfect. By they time they came up with a suggestion, Kranz would have a new problem for them."

During the post-Apollo, orbital rendez-vous with the Russians, Harry was fascinated as the airlocks between the two orbiting vehicles were opened and the crews greeted each other. "I wouldn't be surprised if Deke Slayton crawled through that airlock and punched the Ruskie right in the nose."

Geimini Mission Control assigments, or here for more.

Who in the world cares about Harry Smith?