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Watersmeet native helped send man to moon


November 4, 2019

Kim E. Strom/Daily Globe

FRANK KUCHEVAR of Watersmeet, holds a picture of an IMU or inertial measurement unit, Saturday, that is one component of three needed for navigating a spacecraft. The IMU, computer and the optics together provide the location and orientation of the craft. Kuchevar designed technical manuals on how to build and troubleshoot the device and taught this information to the Apollo astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.


Watersmeet - Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong made history as the first man to step foot onto the moon. Frank Kuchevar of Watersmeet remembers it well. He was laying on the floor at home with his young son at the time watching it on television.

"It was very satisfying and emotional," he said in an interview with the Daily Globe on Saturday. "I actually teared up. It was a tremendous feat. All the people that worked on it and put it together."

It was satisfying to Kuchevar because he helped make it happen.

Kuchevar grew up and graduated from high school in Watersmeet. He left to go to college at Michigan Technological University and didn't come back for 45 years, he said. Once he earned a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, he was recruited by AC Electronics, a division of General Motors in Milwaukee. There he began to work on electrical space equipment.

The primary inertial guidance system of a spacecraft was his main focus. This system was comprised of the IMU, or inertial measurement unit, a computer and optics, he said. He worked on the testing of it and malfunction analysis which meant he would decide what would fail and what the corrective action would be.

The first craft he worked on was the Titan Missile in Milwaukee. From there he went to Vandenberg Airforce Base in California. What he did there was highly secret, he said. It was during the peak of the Cold War with Russia and he worked on the development of the primary inertial guidance system in the Titan Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM.

Then it was on to Tuscan, Arizona, where the Titan ICBM was stored in an underground silo. There were six to eight silos altogether. Kuchevar maintained the primary guidance system on each missile stored inside, got them up and running, then turned them over to the Air Force base, he said. They were defensive missiles, but could also be used as offensive weapons.

Then he went back to Milwaukee and started working on the Apollo program in 1961. This was after the accident of Apollo 1 in 1967 when a flash fire hit the command module during a launch rehearsal test. All three astronauts inside perished. Kuchevar's responsibility, he said, was to analyze the maintenance for the inertial guidance system, which was called maintainability and reliability.

After a year there, he started work in the training program for NASA. He developed training manuals and provided training to NASA astronauts and ground control on the operation of the primary guidance system in a space craft.

Navigation of the craft was provided by the optics, which was a kind of a telescope to identify stars and other space bodies, he said. That would send an electrical signal to the inertial measurement unit and the computer would define the location and orientation of the spacecraft.

Kuchevar worked at the Houston Space Center and Cape Kennedy, which later became Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Training sessions for the astronauts consisted of four hours in the classroom, then several hours in the afternoon working with simulators, practicing the morning lesson.

The mission control people spent one-to-two weeks in the classroom and learned about the missile power systems, called thrust control, and learned about back-up systems.

"Getting to know the astronauts was the highlight of my career," he said. Kuchevar said he spent hours at night learning how to portray in functional detail how things operated so he was prepared for the morning class. "It was difficult and challenging, but satisfying to me," he said.

"Neil Armstrong was probably the smartest person I ever met, and the best choice for the first man to step foot onto the moon," he said. Kuchevar added that it was important to be straight forward with the astronauts because they couldn't be fooled. If you didn't know something, you would say so and inform them you would get the answer. "They appreciated that," he said. Kuchevar also spent social time with the astronauts before and after missions. "That was fun," he said.

The closest any human can get to a launch pad is three miles, said Kuchevar. He remembers watching the launch of Apollo 12 from a VIP area. "With seven million pounds of thrust, it is extremely powerful. Being that close up was like standing in an earthquake," he said. "Then this big dust storm comes rolling at you."

But Apollo 12 had a catastrophic malfunction when a huge bolt of lightening hit the craft when it was 300 feet in the air, knocking out the electrical systems. The men on board were able to get things back on track and continued the mission to the moon and back, he said. "They had a lot of guts."

One of the basic things about a craft returning to Earth is that the entry corridor is only five degrees wide, said Kuchevar. If it's missed, astronauts either crash into Earth, burn up or are lost in space forever. "It's a very narrow corridor," he said.

Apollo 13 was intended to land on the moon but didn't because of an oxygen tank failure which resulted in an explosion and caused the craft to lose it's guidance system, so the men on board had to control the rocket and find its position in space all manually, he said.

Working with the space program gave Kuchevar a high degree of competitiveness and satisfaction, he said. Going to the moon was no easy chore and was the compilation of many together working as a team, he said. "When Kennedy said we wanted to go to the moon by the end of the 60's, no one believed it. "It was very satisfying being a part of all that," he said.

Kuchevar still carries the character traits he developed during that time with him. "I am a very proactive person," Kuchevar said. "I like to think ahead and overcome hurdles."

Kuchevar and his wife and son experienced a serious car accident a year ago which crushed his leg, broke both feet and seriously broke his wrist so that his hand laid at a 90 degree angle. An avid hunter and fisherman, he was determined to recover to the point where he could do those things once again. "The E.R. People didn't think I would make it," he said. "It took them 45 minutes to cut me out of the car. But the good Lord let me stay," he said.

Learning in Retirement is another ambition that Kuchevar and his wife do. It's a program that the Nicolet Area Technical College in Rhinelander runs. "That's kind of fun," he said.

Apollo 17 was the last mission to go into space before the budget was cut, said Kuchevar. "I'm really sorry that it has taken 50 years for us to get back into the space program, he said. "Now there are two new programs, one called Orion, (a lunar landing), and the other a mission to go to Mars. "They want to go beyond the moon in three years, but they don't have a landing craft. I don't think they'll do it," Kuchevar said. The future remains to be seen...


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