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Rockets, Space Shuttles, and Area 51

I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy.” -Marie Curie

DEPCO writer Bre Baker looked into her own family to find the subject of this week’s blog post. Her grandfather, Larry Allison, spent a fascinating career working on rockets, space shuttles, and with the different technical mediums used to support them. Check out Bre’s interview with Larry below:

-Can you tell me about the education and training you received in your life?

I was in the Navy for four years, from 1956 to 1960. I did quite a bit of training in electronics. I was a sonarman. I repaired and operated the sonar equipment.

-Did you have any training or education outside of the Navy?

I went to Idaho State for college. I studied electronics for three years. I did television repair in order to pay my way through college. I fixed color televisions. Color TV came out when I was in school. It was difficult to set up back then. You had to take a big magnet and go around the set. Each color had to be set up one by one. It would take about three hours.

-What did you do after college?

After I got out of college, I moved to Las Vegas in 1963. I took a job at a company called Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier (EG&G). My company wanted to design and make a rocket for interplanetary travel to Mars. My job was to keep the machines running that made the rockets. We were developing a nuclear engine. I worked on that for seven years. I would ride 95 miles twice a day on a bus to get to and from that job. I would get up in the morning around 5 o’ clock, I’d walk across a dirt field and board the bus. We would test the engines on railroad cars. We would run it down a railroad track about five miles from us and we would activate it remotely.

I got radiated quite a few times on that job. We used to have to be checked when we left the plant to see if we had any radiation on us. They would take our clothes away from us a lot of times. We’d have to shower and they’d give us a pair of coveralls to wear home. They’d check us several times until there wasn’t any there. If radiation got on the tires of your pickup, you’d have to spin your tires with the brake on and burn that rubber off. Radiation changes the color of things, so I brought some old dishes we had to the site of the engine. One turned purple and one turned brown. I had to leave them for about a month before I could take them home so they didn’t contain any radiation.

After working for seven years, we developed our idea and guess what happened? People said “Okay, you’ve got a nuclear engine. What happens if that falls into a populated area?” And we said “Oops.” We had to abandon the project. That hurt.

-I know you can’t tell me a lot, but can you tell me a little about your experience working in Area 51? I don’t know anything more about it than conspiracy theories.

Well, you can’t know much more than that. I had to have a top secret clearance to go on board. I actually flew in an airplane to get out there every day, a DC-4. There was a landing strip there made of metal, and boy, those tires screamed when they hit that.

The test site was one huge area. There were a lot of things going on. Area 51 kind of sits by itself. They dug a hole out there that was 100 feet wide, and it went down miles. I never did know what it was for. I went down five miles one time in an elevator; it was really dark down there.

-Anything else you can tell me?

*laughing* I have to be careful what I tell you, because I could be put in jail! They told me when I went out there: “You’re going to see a lot of strange things out here. If you look over your head and see something, and it doesn’t involve what you’re working on, don’t even look up.” And we didn’t. When I was there, I built equipment to interfere with radar systems. That’s about all I can tell you on that end.

One day when we got back to Las Vegas, we had a terrible sandstorm and we couldn’t land. We couldn’t even see. The pilot had to circle Las Vegas for two hours. He came on the radio and said “If we can’t land within the next half hour, we’ve got to go to Phoenix, Arizona to land.” That was a long way away. After circling for 2-3 hours, the pilot told us we were getting too low on fuel. But all of a sudden a conduit opened up to the ground, and he dove through that thing and landed.

When I no longer worked for these organizations, they took my top secret clearance away. The FBI took two years to clear me. The neighbors would talk and say “What did Larry do to have the FBI coming and asking us questions?” *laughing* They thought I was a criminal!

-What did you do after you left Las Vegas?

By 1979 I had moved to Utah and was working for a company called Thiokol. It was a government contractor. I took care of the equipment there. Have you seen the space shuttle?

-I have seen it, yes!

Well, I worked on that. I was watching a monitor when the space shuttle Challenger blew up. I was on site. The accident happened because we got a leakage. The leakage happened because the weather turned really cold the day we were supposed to test. We had icicles on the space shuttle. Our CEO said “Don’t run.” But the workers ignored it and they ran. Thiokol had to take the blame for it blowing up, because the rockets were ours. It was the seals that we bought from another company that did the leaking, and it hadn’t been checked for freezing weather. That was in 1986. After that happened, our company was blackballed and it was several years before we got any contracts.

-Wow; incredible. What did you do specifically at Thiokol?

At Thiokol I worked on numerical controlled computers. They ran the vertical and horizontal lathe we used on the space shuttle parts. They were huge machines. At that time they cost four million dollars a piece. I was the only person that worked on those machines. I kept telling my boss “You had better put somebody with me because I’m not going to be here forever.” Nobody else could fix those machines. The funny thing about the machines was I thoroughly loved them because every day was different. It was very technical. There were days I’d spend all day long working on one problem.

There were different sized machines. They had a table that was 168 inches across. The parts for the space shuttle were set on that table. A forty horse motor would turn the tables and machinists would machine them. You’d run the lathe up to high speed and in the center of the table was a cutting blade. If a part was scrapped, I was called. I’d have to figure out if the machine was the problem, not the person operating it. Some days I would have to dry-run that machine ‘ump-teen’ times to see if I could get it to do what the machinist said it did.

I never had to blame the machine. It was always human error, and just a piece of that space shuttle was atrocious in price. If we scrapped them, we were supposedly financially responsible. I prayed my machine never scrapped them. Also, when you have a 4 million dollar machine down, you have all kinds of bosses over you checking your work. Finally, I got smart and said “If you guys would get out of here, I could fix it a lot faster.” They were wheeled by that comment. I never had headaches before. I developed headaches from that very job. I would work on those machines when there was a problem, and if I didn’t get it fixed that day, I would go home and dream about it.

I thoroughly loved that job. It broke my heart when I had the stroke and had to leave it. I was in the hospital for a month, and the guys at work would try to fix the machines. They’d call and talk to me for hours, but they couldn’t fix it. I finally had to tell them “This isn’t working.” They had to replace them.

Outside of his interesting career path, Larry lives an impactful family life. He lives in Fielding, Utah with his wife of 62 years, Pat. Larry and Pat have 7 kids, 30 grandchildren, and 14 great grandchildren all over the United States!

Launch into Rocketry and Space with DEPCO!

Students are given a complete introduction to the area of rocketry and space in this thrilling program from DEPCO, covering everything from the fascinating history of rockets to the fundamentals of rocket flight. Students construct a paper rocket using Newton’s equations of motion in order to get precise information for estimating flight times and lengths. Students will also construct a real model rocket that they can launch while being closely supervised by the instructor. They will examine the different aspects of rocketry, including the role of the center of mass, the significance of pressure in rocket stability, and the functions of various model rocket pieces. Students will design, construct, and launch a simulated rocket using the computer simulation application RockSim.

To learn more about our Rocketry and Space curriculum, click here!

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