Transcript: Space4U podcast, Lou Ramon
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hello? Well, space adventurers, this is Colleen Parith with the Space Foundation, and we’re happy to have you join us for our brand-new space for you podcasts. This podcast is designed to share insights and experiences from the people that are making and have made our space adventure possible. Today, I am joined with Lou Ramon.
Lou Ramon has been a space cadet his entire life. He went from having model plane, air force, hanging up in his bedroom to watching science fiction, TV shows and movies, and working in the space industry on nearly every human space flight program. From Gemini Apollo, the space shuttle, the international space station to a Ryan.
Thank you so much for joining us today. Lou, it’s a pleasure to have you thank you for Luna. Absolutely. So, as we said, you worked in many, many different areas of the human space flight program here in the United States. What made you become an engineer? Uh, it really, my dad, uh, I think, uh, he was an engineer, never graduated from high school.
Yeah. He was an engineer for general motors and instilled that in me. And, um, you know, got me building model airplanes and got interested in science fiction and read some of the early Robert Highline, uh, books that were in some of the magazines and, and watched all the kids’ science fiction programs. As I was growing up in between my dad and my mom, they, they pushed me.
And helped me get into a, to engineering school in California. What got you started in space then? So, you know, your mom and dad inspired you to get going in engineering and it was, it was the aircraft and then the science fiction stuff. This space, cadet, TV shows and cereals and rocket man, and that sort of stuff.
I just got excited. I think the same thing still goes on today. There is something about the space program that excites young people, especially, did you have a role model? I mean, you mentioned. Father. What did you have anyone else in your life, a teacher, anything that inspired you to become an engineer and to do this work?
Really? It was, it was my dad that, that inspired me to go into engineering. As I went through college, one of the professors particularly was inspirational, really a tremendous guy, George Graves. And then I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to have gotten. To know, and work with some true visionaries and, and that’s always exciting and inspiring.
Hey, awesome. Can you tell us what were some of the jobs you performed for the space program? Well, I was lucky. I was lucky that NASA was desperate for engineers when I graduated from college and, and they hired me and I got to work on a variety of things. The first real fun job was in the Gemini program.
For some reason, I got put in a group who was tasked. With developing the technology and the techniques for space walks. So I got to do that and I got to, I guess my whole career, mostly I got to play. Like I was an astronaut. I got to in order to develop the technology to do space walks and such, I had to do it.
I had to wear a suit, learn how to wear a space suit. I had to learn how to fly the zero G airplane. I had to do all that. Stuff. So, uh, you know, it was working that Eva thing, getting the flies, energy airplanes, getting to wear a space suit. First time it was a thrill for me. The first time I got to wear a space suit.
At the time I worked last, I was practically born with poor eyesight, but I was wearing contact lenses. And during if the first time I got into a space suit, as soon as they put the helmet on and we pressurized the suit, one of my contact lenses popped out. We had to stop. Go find the darn thing, but, uh, uh, you know, that was, that was a neat experience.
First time I got to meet an astronaut was a, a neat, somewhat humbling experience. Uh, I had thought that astronauts were heroes. They are heroes, but I had a picture in my mind of what a hero. Was like, and I just been assigned to, to this group working on spacewalks and we’re going to do a training exercise for one of the Gemini flights.
And I was walking from our office area to where we had the trainers and that took me through the astronaut locker room and, uh, general Tom Stafford. He was, it wasn’t a general then. Was one of the astronauts on that flight. And he was changing from his street clothes into his flight suit. And I walked by, Tom was sitting there now.
I was a kid 23 years old, 24 years old, not quite. And Tom was an old guy, probably near 30, maybe just over 30. And, uh, he was changing his clothes and he was standing there in his underwear. And, and I don’t know what you think a hero wears for underwear. I don’t know what Superman who’s supposed to wear for underwear, but it wasn’t written yet.
We’ll poke it up. Boxer shorts. So that knocked, you know, one of my illusions. As a young engineer right there that, Hey, these guys are real people.
That is fantastic. Tell them, well, she’ll be for that. So, I mean, you started with Gemini, Gemini. Uh, we worked the space, walks stuff on Gemini through the course of doing that. I got involved more and more with, with the human operations part of things and got to work with. Some of the fellows that were working on a development of some astronaut maneuvering units as flight experiments on Gemini, they never really panned out because of various, uh, technology issues that we had.
We didn’t know how to do spacewalks. You know, we learned a lot from that, but that got me experience with spacesuits got me experience, uh, with Eva and. Things like that. And for some reason, and I still don’t understand why, uh, they asked me to go be a member of what they called a flight crew support team for Apollo 11.
This was a group of five people that were assigned directly to the astronauts, worked out of the astronaut office. Uh, to represent the astronauts on the assembly checkout development of the space craft and all the equipment that the astronauts would be using. They, they gave me the job of being responsible for lunar module five.
Which was the lunar module that was going to fly on Apollo 11. And, uh, the, there was going to be a lot of travel, a lot of time away from home and the carrot they dangled in, in front of my nose to get me to do that was the possibility that a puddle of life, it would be the first lunar Lander. I didn’t really have a lot of confidence that it would, this was before we flew Apollo.
This was before. It was a lunar module. Lunar module was way behind schedule. I knew that, but you know, so the likelihood of all the pieces falling together who was slim, but it was an, it was a shot at it. So that was what got me into the Apollo program. Like I say, I don’t, I don’t know how I was selected.
But, uh, the five of us, one team leader, and then one person responsible for spacecraft systems. One for the command and service modules. One for the lunar module, the other person was what they called a crew station engineer. Responsible for everything that the astronauts would operate, touch use inside and outside the spacecraft.
We had one fellow that was working command module. I was assigned to the lunar module. People don’t realize there’s so much testing the astronauts really aren’t able to participate in that testing. So I represented Neil and buzz. In probably 85, 90% of those tests because they had to learn how to do their mission.
Right. So that was what my, my job was with them. Very interesting of all the different aspects of the human space flight program is Apollo 11, the project there, the particular program that sounds stands out as your favorite or is there another, I have to say there are a couple of others and then. Part of that reason was G I was only, I turned 27 one month before we matched.
So I had 45 more years of career and neat projects. The ones that stand out in my mind, I guess one was the development of. The remote manipulator arm that I got to work with on a space shuttle and space station. Another was the development of the man maneuvering in it. Being able to see astronauts ride that thing without tethers and fly away from the shuttle.
And I got to work with some very special people on, on all of those, but those. Three areas are the ones that, uh, that I think to me are the highlights of the challenges that is just incredibly awesome. You’ve done some really wonderful things or highlight maybe two. Uh, and this was. You know, as, as I graduated from being an engineer to becoming a manager, one of the highest awards that an engineer in the space program can get is what they call a silver Snoopy.
This is an award given by the astronauts to individuals who have made significant strides in either. Helping their flights be a success or their safety. And two of the folks that worked in my team on the space station, uh, I nominated for silver stupefy awards and they were giving it. And that was to me a real honor to have been able to mentor and help these people who really contributed.
That’s wonderful. It’s always so great. To see people helping other people succeed and to get an honor like that. That’s what that’s what a manager’s job is. What, what you want to do is help your people succeed at whatever efforts that they’re working on. Absolutely. What would you say is one of the greatest lessons that you learned from working in these various assignments?
The greatest lesson I learned and it’s, it’s one that. Um, I sensed all along, but really what focused it was working with Alan Bean, Alan, uh, was the fourth person to walk on the moon on Apollo 12. I worked with him as a, when he was a backup crew in on Gemini. I helped out on Apollo 12, early in the. They work on that lunar module and worked with him when he was a commander of the second Skylab flight.
And that is to value the people that you’re working with, respect them and make sure that when you’re working with that team that you find out, seek out, at least one thing that every member of that team is contributing and value that. And value him or her that that’s the life lesson. I think that’s a wonderful lesson that that’s me as everything neurological, you know, but I did, I learned a lot of stuff, but, but that was the life lesson.
What would you say was your toughest assignment? No, I, it was my last assignment. I’m I’m an engineer, just a mediocre engineer. Been an engineer, trained as an engineer. Got my degree as an engineer did engineering all my life. My last assignment was in business development. I was working for a company called Jacobs Technology and we operated most of the engineering.
Facilities at NASA, in my case in Houston, but at all the NASA centers, uh, NASA’s budget was being reduced. They did not have enough budget to fully staff and operate all their laboratories and facilities. They tasked us. With bringing in non-aerospace business to utilize the expertise. So we had to go out and talk to people in the medical field, talk to people in the, uh, petrochemical field and convince them that there were things that they could use NASA facilities for and NASA technology for.
And, and that was, that was the biggest challenge I had because it was so different and it really was interesting. Did you feel that it was a success in the end? I think it was, I think it was, we brought people from a Texas medical center and we brought people from, uh, pharmaceutical companies, medical equipment companies in, we brought people from, um, under sea technology and, and it opened their eyes.
As to what the technologies that NASA has developed could be utilized for to help them think. So it really fits a little into our space certification and our space technology hall. Yeah. Oh yes. And it’s very difficult as you guys know, to educate somebody. How some technology or something that, that you’re providing that you’ve developed can help them.
Cause they never thought of it. It’s so wonderful when we get to see the different areas of business come together like that. Cause I really has a lot of overlap that we know. We don’t always notice. Now. Um, so you worked with a lot of different astronauts. Do you have a favorite memory from any of your particular assignments with the different astronauts?
One of them with the Apollo 11 guys, maybe a couple of weeks before launch, uh, Neil buzz, Mike Collins, uh, had a, uh, a barbecue and a party at their beach house. They, the astronauts have a beach house. At Cape Canaveral, uh, that was there before the government took over the area and they use it as a escape path to get out of the simulators and go, go hide for awhile.
And they were having a, uh, A barbecue for the two dozen people that work most closely with them. They invited me to that, uh, and the rest of our five-man team, of course, uh, to that I told them I wouldn’t be able to make it because that was the evening that we were finishing up on the lunar module.
Literally closing the door and locking it up. And it would be 10 30 or 11 o’clock before I got away. And Neil said that he would save me some barbecue and beer and they would wait for me. So, okay. We closed out the lunar module signed off on the paperwork. I drove over to the beach house. There was a parade of cars.
Leaving already, but, uh, like, uh, you know, true to his word, Neil and buzz, and my kids stuck around, they had saved me some barbecue and beer, and we just sat around talking, uh, by that time it was just the three of them and myself for about an hour or so. I don’t even remember what we talked about, but as the clock got closer to midnight, we all had early starts the next day.
So they were, you know, it was time to pack up. They had to go to the crew quarters. I had to go back to my apartment, but I wasn’t that familiar with it. The roads at that part of the Cape, there are no lights out there. So I asked if I’d be okay if I followed them back to the crew quarters and I could get home from there.
So they said, sure fine. So they got in their cars. I tucked in behind him in mine, and they drove out around a launchpad on the beach side of the launch pad. At this point, the Saturn five was out there. It was fueled already. It was lit up by these huge, uh, searchlights absolutely spectacular instead of just going around and passed it.
They pulled off to the side and stopped their cars, got out of their cars and went up to the chain link fence around the launchpad. I stayed back. They got out of their cars, walked up there and looked like kids looking in a school yard playground. I can only guess at what they might have talked about is they talked amongst themselves or what they might’ve thought realizing that.
Just a few days after this, they were going to get on top of that 36-story rocket ship and go attempt to make history for human beings. And that, that stands out in my mind. What a memory, how that’s fantastic. The other one is back with Alan Bean and, and this is just the way he was. They had a, um, a commemoration, a program.
At NASA in Houston in the auditorium, uh, this might’ve been the 10th anniversary or such of the Apollo landings. And they had a form of, of astronauts who had been to the moon and they were having a round table discussion open to the public. I brought my kids to that to hear it. After we got through and it almost looked like a scene from star Trek, you know, where they have their rent alert on, on the enterprise.
And it seems like all the people on the left side of the ship have to go to the right side and all the people on the right have to go to the left. This was the way it was as a week. Came out of the auditorium. Everybody that came out the right door for some reason, seemed to go to the left and vice versa.
So there was a big jam up and we were waiting in the crowd. Alan came out and walked past, recognized me, stopped introduced himself. To my kids and bent down and said, you know, I really have to appreciate everything your daddy did. Uh, if it wouldn’t be for him, we couldn’t have done this and he didn’t have to do that.
And that’s what, what I remember that kind of person that he was well, and that’s the thing is, you’ve said. That you were a mediocre engineer and I’m thinking that’s not the case. I was, I was nothing outstanding, but I got, I mean, where I’m blessed was I was there at the right time to work on some very exciting stuff.
And I got to meet people and work with people like Neil Armstrong and, and Alan Bean. Uh, got to work with gene Kranz, got to work with the fellows that were the, the inspiration for the program, the fellow that was the developer of the man maneuvering unit. Nobody much knows that I guy named ed Whitsett.
These were the visionaries. And I was just privileged to get, to help them. Well, it sounds like you did a fabulous job of that, which leads me a little to my next question. I’ve heard a rumor about candy and the Apollo 11 mission. Can you tell me a little bit about that? He had a lot of things, you know, that the public doesn’t know about nothing, sneaky, nothing, you know, no space aliens.
Uh, nothing that, uh, that’s classified information, but we had some things that, uh, the, you just have to do in the course of getting the job done. One of them was shortly before launch a few weeks before launch Neil came to me. And asked if I could get some lifesaver candies, uh, onboard the lunar module, just so they have something that there was a little bit tart, maybe a little sweet to take the place of all the bland food that they had, uh, while they were on the moon.
And I said, sure, I can do that. And they’ll thank you. I’ll I’ll take care of that. Well, the first person I had to talk to the first group was talked to the dieticians to make sure that if we. Put candy on board. If the crew ate candy, that it wouldn’t mess up or spoil some medical experiments or something like that.
And, um, the dietician, a woman named Rita wrap, um, said, sure, there’s no problem there. So then the next step, and you have to do this with anything that you carry on. A spacecraft had to go and get approval from the safety off. So that was just a formality and they surprised me when they said, no, you can’t have the candy.
Their concern was because the lunar module cabin is pressurized with a hundred percent oxygen, which is very flammable that if the astronauts bit down on that hard candy, that they might cause a spark and could cause a fire inside the lunar module. Okay. I couldn’t argue with that. I mean, that’s what they said.
So I went back to Neil and told him, I’m sorry, but safety wouldn’t let me add the candy. And he made some comments about my abilities, um, that were somewhat insulting. So. Since I worked directly for him, I knew who signed my paycheck and did my employee evaluation. I said, okay. Yes, sir. I will do that. But on one condition, I made him promise, cross his heart, hope to die, that he and buzz would only suck on the lifesavers that they wouldn’t bite down on them.
So he promised me that several days later, As we were getting ready to put the food and other equipment in the lunar module before the barbecue, the barbecue, uh, I snuck into the area where we kept all their equipment about two in the morning and, uh, with the razorblades sliced. The seals that we had on their food packages and stuck into rolls of lifesavers.
I have to believe that Neil and buzz kept her word. There were no reports of sparks. There were no reports of fires in the lunar module. So they, they kept their promise and always sucked on the candy. And you, you won’t find, you know, everything had to be documented. In triplicate, but you won’t find this in there because we stuck it on board, which is completely fantastic.
So you’ve told us a little bit about what you did before the Apollo 11 launch. Um, what was your role during the lunar landing itself during the lunar landing, frankly? Uh, I was at our team leaders, uh, having a picnic. We had. Our job was to get the lunar module ready for the crew. And once it left, unless there was a problem or an issue, our job was done.
The flight controllers took over from there. And fortunately on Apollo 11, we didn’t have any, any real issues. Uh, like that. So we just were bystanders and, and Watchers and it was fantastic. I mean, it was hard to believe how it went on Apollo 12, even though I didn’t work, wasn’t assigned to Apollo 12, we did have a problem.
Um, On the lunar surface a little bit where the astronauts accidentally shine their color TV camera pointed it at the sun and it burned out part of the, the video tube in there. And there was an effort made to see if the astronauts could repair that. My counterpart who worked Apollo 12, uh, worked a lunar module.
There had not yet gotten back from the Cape. So since I was familiar, A little bit with that specific lunar module and lunar modules in general, they called me in to work that we had to develop, uh, procedures, the techniques for the astronauts to bring the camera in how they would try to repair it and that sort of thing.
Well, it was what was interesting on that was we had limited time. We had to make that decision. NASA did to have them bring it in before the end of their first spacewalk. And nobody was, we had the procedures and everything all ready to go. Uh, but nobody was making that decision. I had just bought my first color TV set or a little 19-inch Zenith.
And since nobody was saying anything, it was getting down to the last 20 minutes of their spacewalk time to bring things in and nobody was doing anything. So finally this little 27 year old kid said, well by golly, let’s do it because I wanted to see color. If I could. And all the ness of management, all they needed was somebody to.
To make a suggestion. Okay. Yeah, we’ll do that. So they brought the camera in, tried to repair it. It didn’t work, but it was, it was just funny that, you know, this kid, uh, was the one that kicked that off. Well, at least you made the suggestion to drive. Now as you’ve been telling us, you’ve seen so much during your space career, what do you think is the next step in human space flight that you would like to see come to fruition in your lifetime?
Well, I would have loved to have seen us land on Mars. I recognize where I am in my lifetime that I am not going to get to see that, but what I would really like to see. Is this country and the rest of the world together, truly embark on an international effort to land the first human beings on Mars. Uh, not to colonize it, but to explore it.
I think that would be fabulous as well to start. I think that’s fair enough. Now I’ve heard you describe yourself as an old fashion space, man. Can you explain to our listeners. Here’s what that means. Yeah. This this’ll take a minute. There is a poem that was written. That’s my favorite. Paul called it an old-fashioned space pen.
And I’ll read it to you. So you shouldn’t have asked it’s as rocket ships are exciting, but so our roses on a birthday, computers are exciting, but so is the sunset and logic will never replace love. Sometimes I wonder where I belong in the present or in the past, I guess I’m just an old-fashioned spaceman, and I’ve always enjoyed that.
It was written by another old-fashioned spaceman Leonard Nimoy Spock, and, uh, I guess that’s the way I am. I I’m an engineer, but I’ve come to enjoy the human side of this too. And, and being involved, like I got to be in the first explorations of the moon, helping explore. Space. I see the, the beauty and the wonder in that as well as the ones and zeros and the margins of safety and that side of it.
But I, I see the wonder in it, which I think is the way that everyone. Should be. Yeah, I would, I would like that very much. Now today. Um, you are you volunteer here at the space foundation discovery center? What do you enjoy most about your role as a docent here? I enjoy meeting our guests, our visitors. I enjoy getting to tell them about my favorite subject, the space program, and.
Hopefully, especially in the, the youngsters help planning the seed, help getting them excited about the future of science and technology and exploration. I don’t care if the kids become rocket scientists or not. I don’t want to get them interested in learning and. Being in technology, being in the STEM fields.
Now I also show them we’ve, we’ve got a picture wall up here where the space foundation sponsors a worldwide children’s art contest and explaining to them that it isn’t just STEM, that the arts are important. And I point out to them that. The best engineers, the best scientists that I’ve ever worked with are the ones that not only are really good at STEM stuff, but also have a background in the arts are our chief engineer.
Now deputy general manager. She works in acrylics. Uh, I blew the horn and I’m interested. Did still in, in music. One of my counterparts at Jacobs, uh, division manager, like I was, but he was in science and technology. Uh, he plays the horn a whole lot better than I do Alan Bean. Uh, he enjoyed his art as much, maybe even more than being an astronaut.
This is what makes these people exceptional. And I want to instill that on the kids. Good. I’m excited. And it really is. It makes you well-rounded and you know, we need the artists as well for the concept designs because sometimes scientists and engineers only see the zeros and the ones that you mentioned earlier, and you need that artistic.
When we were starting to develop the space station, I was in charge of. What we call the cruise station design, which include in our case space walks to make sure you could put it together and repair it robotics to do the same thing. And also parts of the interior. And my boss said, I don’t care how you do it, but really what I’d like the hatches in the space station to do is make them sound like they do star Trek.
Well, we never could get there, but that’s the kind of instance. Ratio that we need, that would certainly be a lot of fun. So my last question for you today is what advice do you have for aspiring engineers? The best thing for inspiring engineers is, is one a wish. I hope you men and women, boys, and girls, young people get a chance to have as much fun and enjoy what you’re doing as much as I did.
For inspiring. You basically all say you guys cannot imagine what it is you’re going to get to do what it is. You’re going to get to work on a, it’s going to be unbelievable. Enjoy it. Go for it and never quit learning. Always. If it’s something that fascinates, you go learn about it, go try it. I think that’s wonderful advice.
And again, I think that’s for everybody, we should always try to keep learning. I think that’s wonderful. Well, thank you so very much. It’s been an absolute delight to hear your stories and you paint such a wonderful picture that I can just see the Apollo 11 crew holding onto that fence, looking at the Saturn five.
So we definitely enjoyed having you today. So again, I want to thank all of our listeners. Again, I am calling Paris of the space foundation, inviting you to learn more about our work at spacefoundation.org, or by visiting the discovery center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And you may get the chance to meet Lou.
If you come to visit us here one day as he’s volunteering, please keep your eyes and ears open for more podcasts coming your way. Because at the space foundation, we always have space. Thank you.
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