CLINTON — As NASA’s Perseverance rover touched down on Mars last week in search of signs of ancient microbial life, a former Apollo engineer followed the news from his home in Clinton.
Alan Lorenz was an engineer for General Electric when the corporation worked with the fledging U.S. space program in the 1960s. Lorenz is excited about the new exploration of Mars.
“The United States needs to keep a presence in space and use space,” said Lorenz last week from an armchair in his living room. “Besides being interesting, it could be a very dangerous thing having a nuclear war using space.
“We had quite a great program in Apollo that was successful. If we sit back and just look at ourselves, and let China and Russia ... continue in space without us, ... that would have a bad result,” said Lorenz.
“If other countries, particularly the ones that are not friendly with us, take up a huge lead in space, they’ll control us,” Lorenz said. The space program is more important now than ever, he said.
When President Donald Trump signed a $738 billion defense spending bill in December 2019, he officially created a sixth branch of U.S. Armed Services, the Space Force. It’s the first new military service since the Air Force was created in 1947.
That creation was a joint effort, said Lorenz. “The Democrats and the Republicans were interested in Space Force,” he said.
Now living at 706 Terrace Drive with his wife of 30 years, Eda, Lorenz was born in 1931 and was raised a couple of blocks from where he lives now, near the old Whittier school.
Lorenz’s was one of the last classes at the one-room Whittier school before it closed, Eda said. He attended from 1937-38. Lorenz remembered that his teacher kept her hair in a bun and sometimes took her parrot to class.
Lorenz majored in engineering at the University of Iowa and, as was required of all male students, participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
Lorenz went into the Army after graduating college and spent a year stateside and a year with the Corps of Engineers in Verdun, France, engineering, constructing and maintaining roads and airfields in France.
In 1956 and 1957, Lorenz worked for General Electric in Evendale, Ohio, designing aircraft gas turbines, including nuclear-fueled engines. He became interested in the space program when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed, he said.
Though NASA was established in 1958, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics had been experimenting with rocket planes since 1946. After the Soviet space program’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, October 4, 1957, the United States increased its own space efforts.
Lorenz worked as a design engineer for Pioneer-Central Division of Bendix Corporation in Davenport from 1957 to 1963, then went to work for Boeing in Seattle, where he designed and tested gas turbine engines.
By 1965, Lorenz was back at GE, this time in Houston, as the company began working with the NASA Apollo Spacecraft program.
Lorenz’s job was to evaluate spacecrafts and their hardware. “That was a neat program because everybody on the Apollo program was full of enthusiasm,” Lorenz said.
Engineers and astronauts came to know each other well, Lorenz said. Lorenz and his family became friends with others working on the projects. Their children attended school with and played with the children of astronauts and engineers in the Apollo program.
In 1977, Capt. Ronald Evans gave Lorenz a flag that accompanied astronauts to the moon. “I am honored to share this treasure with you in appreciation of your enthusiasm to the achievements of the greatest nation in the history of the world,” Evans wrote to Lorenz. “Your personal support and encouragement were deeply felt by me and my family during the flight of Apollo XVII.”
Lorenz remembers being “very, very busy.” He remembers the excitement. “Everything we did, it was the first time,” Lorenz said.
“For every flight, we were right there where you could hear the astronauts. So every word was kind of exiting.”
“It was so new,” said Eda, “and every success was a victory.”
“What we worked on was the spacecraft,” said Lorenz of his project team. Everyone on the team heard about every aspect of the spacecraft, all the challenges, all of the problems. “Everything was done in meetings.”
Lorenz had a ringside seat for both triumphs and tragedies. In 1967, a fire during pre-launch testing for Apollo 1 at Cape Canaveral, Florida killed senior pilot Ed White – the first American to walk in space – and astronauts Virgil Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee.
White’s daughter was best friends with Lorenz’s daughter Laurie, Lorenz said.
Lorenz also has two sons, David and Alan Jr. “They liked the space program,” he said. “They liked Texas, too.”
“It was dangerous,” Lorenz remembered. “Flying to the moon was dangerous.”
And landing on the moon “was a big deal,” Lorenz said. “Nobody slept. It was all on the air. Missions were a big deal. There were a lot of people involved.”
NASA was very open with the public, Lorenz said. The organization went out of its way to keep people informed.
Asked whether NASA faked the moon landing, Lorenz laughed. “We saw them fly away. We tracked them all the way to the moon.”
NASA still has soil and rock samples brought back by the astronauts, Lorenz said. It has photos taken on the moon.
“And when you walk on the moon, gravity is totally different. If you take a picture of someone walking on the moon, you know they’re on the moon,” Lorenz said. “They don’t walk the same as on Earth.”
Eda remembered Lorenz telling her that one astronaut became very religious after going to the moon. “It was such a moving experience to him, that … the answer to him was religion.”
Harry “Bud” Rutenbeck didn’t realize that a man he had served with in Clinton’s Rotary club had such an important job in the 1960s until he took a walk on the riverfront.
Near the Discovery Trail entrance on Clinton’s Riverview Drive, Rutenbeck stopped to read a plaque dedicated to Clinton County citizens who materially assisted in the exploration of space. Among the names was BSME Aero. Engr. Alan A. Lorenz.
“Al never mentioned anything like that,” Rutenbeck said, but it’s a story that needs to be told.