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From the farm to rocket road: one engineer’s story

Retired engineer Henry Pohl can vividly recall his first encounter with a rocket. During the early 1950s, the Army drafted him and shipped him from Texas to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. “That dadgum thing looked pretty simple,” he says of the rocket engine. It didn’t look much bigger than the tractor engine back home. Pohl watched his army colleagues prepare a static test—the rocket engine would be held in place. “All at once that thing lit off. I had never seen power like that,” he recalls. “That beautiful white flame came out of the engine that looked like a gigantic cutting torch.” What amazed Pohl was that something the size of his tractor engine—which was impressive already—could weigh less but generate hundreds of times more power. He was hooked. Soon enough, he’d be running that test facility and helping Wernher von Braun, the German-turned-American rocket scientist, build rockets large enough to carry humans into the cosmos.

Prior to his rapture with rocketry, Pohl had only wanted to farm. Raised in rural south Texas, he remembers fetching water from the well, marking the mornings with chores, and navigating cloudy moonless nights, before electric power, black like a deep cave. He once found his way home by feeling the ruts in the road with his feet and hands. But Pohl was always fascinated with machines. He was the boy who went to town to fetch the family’s first gas-powered tractor and ride it home, holding the vibrating steel wheel until it bruised his hands.

Pohl recalls the first time he saw von Braun speak. At a conference in the late 1950s, von Braun lectured on one of his passions: a permanent, rotating space station. “When he got through,” Pohl says, “he wanted to know if there were any questions, and I said ‘Yes, you can’t balance it.’” Pohl had mounted his share of tractor and truck tires on the farm, and he knew it would be impossible to stabilize something with people and equipment moving around within.

“Ah!” von Braun said. He rifled through his briefcase, found an extra slide. He explained to Pohl that expertly placed water tanks would maintain the station’s balance. von Braun and his fellow imported German scientists would come to greatly value Pohl’s questioning and mental fearlessness.

One night in September of 1957, one of Pohl’s German bosses strode into his office looking beaten and almost physically ill. Pohl asked him what was wrong, and his boss said that the Russians were going to launch a major rocket and put something into an orbit around Earth. Pohl had never seen the man look so depressed. “Henry,” his boss said, “it’s going to be very bad for the United States.” Days later, the launch of Sputnik I created something akin to cultural panic. A space race began, with the Soviet Union having bolted at full sprint and America on its heels, blinking at the sound of the starter’s gun. Soon, Congress created NASA, and the agency quickly absorbed the army’s Redstone Arsenal, along with Von Braun and Pohl.

Henry Pohl in a 1959 NASA film detailing a small-scale working model of a Saturn rocket. (Still taken from footage provided by Henry Pohl from the NASA film The Saturn Vehicle Scale Model.)

When NASA built a new Manned Spaceflight Center near Houston, Pohl took a new post there. His German colleagues were sorry to see him leave, but he wanted to be closer to his family. He took everything he had learned about the very large rocket engines in Huntsville and applied them to the much smaller rocket thrusters that would nudge space capsules this way and that for more delicate maneuvers. He joined Apollo, the all-consuming sprint to land men on the Moon and return them, alive and unharmed, to Earth.

“That’s all I thought about, day and night. That’s all I dreamed about, day and night. We had so many problems, and you never had enough time.” He said a lot of it was fun, but it took too much of a toll. He had hoped for weekends at the Pohl family farm, working cattle, but it never materialized. With his Houston desk disappearing in stacks of worries, Pohl tracked insolvent problems, arguments, and mysteries from multiple NASA centers to scores of contractors across the nation. He could not afford to ignore a single loose thread.

After Apollo, Pohl worked on the Space Shuttle’s engines, and eventually rose to oversee all of Engineering at the Johnson Space Center. Today he lives in rural south Texas, within view of the original family homestead. Beside the dirt road leading to the family ranch, a little “welcome to paradise” sign perches on a barbed-wire fence. Pohl helps keep track of many hundred head of cattle, but he will gladly sit down and share his stories.

Henry Pohl’s wall of mementos, featuring Apollo-era retro control thrusters, from his work in Houston, and scale models of Saturn rocket engines, from his work in Huntsville.

 Henry especially enjoys talking about his childhood, from thawing the bath water on a winter’s morning to building a barn by steady hand. While he is proud of his rocketry career, he returns again and again to the near misses, the details that almost escaped his notice. Tiny cracks in fuel tanks and misread scans of spacecraft seams trouble him still.

 

Featured image by NASA, The Manned Spacecraft Center’s Mission Control, Houston, 1965.

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