Timing put Hoffman Estates engineer on Apollo team
A decade in the making, the Apollo 11 mission to land men on the moon in 1969 required precision timing. That all started in the early '60s with the central timing equipment, a 10-pound unit that correlated all the spacecraft's time-sensitive functions. The final version of that equipment was designed by a team led by Roy Klein, a young electrical engineer hired by General Time Corp. in Rolling Meadows.
"It had to be designed so that no one component could destroy the mission," says Klein, 79, living in Hoffman Estates and still doing freelance work as the principal of his Applied Engineering Technologies consulting firm.
Early attempts at programming the timing equipment weren't working, so the company hired by NASA contracted General Time, originally owned by the Elgin National Watch Co. in Elgin, to give it a shot, Klein says.
"I got hired there because of this problem," says Klein, who worked on the issue from 1963 to 1965. "I worked out all the math."
Developing a highly accurate but lightweight timing device for the Apollo spacecraft required quartz crystals in a technology that started with Apollo and soon became an ingredient in quartz wristwatches.
"I went to the top crystal manufacturers," remembers Klein, whose travels once put him on the same plane to New York as baseball stars Willie Mays and Willie Stargell. Klein gave frequent presentations to NASA contractors, who kept an eye on his work.
"They came in two or three times. I got drilled by some tough people," Klein says. "I had guts then, so it didn't faze me. I had a good rapport with them."
Klein's work was critical, and government employees informed him, "You're not going to Vietnam," says Klein, who got a deferment from the draft, as did others doing work for NASA.
Sitting in front of yellow schematic drawings from the 1960s spread across his dining room table, Klein says his electrical engineering degree from the University of Illinois and his early work with Motorola and other local companies gave him confidence.
He worked out equations longhand, Klein says, noting that he incorporated some of his old engineering solutions that he knew worked. To make sure Klein's proposal was correct, "they shut down a computer at Argonne Labs to run my program," Klein says. "Mine worked."
Klein, who also has a master's degree in business administration from the University of Chicago, had left General Time when Apollo 11 launched 50 years ago. He and his wife of 54 years, Kay, were on vacation in Wisconsin during the Apollo 11 mission and listened to the moon landing on the radio.
"If this mission fails, the first thing they might think of is the timer failed, and that would have been me," Klein remembers thinking. But Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their footprints on the moon, everyone came home safely and the mission remains a crowning human achievement.
Klein says he's proud to have been one of the tens of thousands of people who helped make it happen, but he does have one regret.
"I went to the launchpad (in Florida) several times," Klein says. "I should have taken a million pictures."