Safely to Earth: The Men and Women Who Brought the Astronauts Home

  • Published

Safely to Earth: The Men and Women Who Brought the Astronauts Home by Jack Clemons. University Press of Florida, 2018, 280 pp.


The movie Hidden Figures tells the story of three black female mathematicians whose work was instrumental in the launch of then-LtCol John Glenn, USMC, into space in 1962. In a like manner, Safely to Earth: The Men and Women Who Brought the Astronauts Home is a personal and professional memoir from Jack Clemons that introduces some of the thousands of men and women who worked behind the scenes at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in support of the Project Apollo and space shuttle programs.


Clemons was a former lead engineer who “could do advanced math but never liked it” (p. 8). He supported NASA’s Apollo program and was a former senior engineering software manager on the space shuttle program. He was later a senior vice president of engineering for Lockheed Martin and is now a writer, consultant, and speaker about NASA’s space programs. One of the book’s appendices includes frequently asked questions about Apollo and the space shuttle.

Most know the names of astronauts such as Wally Schirra, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Robert Crippen. Clemons tells their stories but also those of the many people behind the scenes who were wholeheartedly invested in mission accomplishment and bringing astronauts home safely. He relates their dedicated efforts to realize a dream he dates to the dawn of man—to land on the Moon, walk on it, and return safely to Earth. The actions and incidents he relates are extraordinary in several cases and a compelling case that we should know these men and women as heroes.


The late writer and university instructor David Foster Wallace’s commencement address in 2005 related the parable of two young fish swimming along who meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” Wallace used the fish story, he said, to highlight that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.


Clemons’ book is an account of some of these realities. Readers get the sense that he would be a wonderful mentor because of the honesty, thoughtfulness, and conviviality that suffuse his writing and because he sees and talks about the most obvious, important realities. One of the most striking is the meaning he found in service to and with others in pursuit of the loftiest of goals. While credit is due to NASA for creating a culture where such meaning could be found, the author adds detail by relating his impressions and experiences as a new contractor hire only a few years out of college. He was one of about 50 engineers and 400,000 people in total working on Apollo 12 (p. 64). Clemons was a small cog in a vast organization, and he understood very quickly that others counted on him every day. From the start, he was “electrified by the challenge from President John F. Kennedy to go to the Moon” (p. 9) and motivated by the high standards embedded in the “failure is not an option” culture (p. 16) at NASA when he arrived. 


Clemons also conveys his appreciation for excellence in others whom he introduces. For example, flight controller John Aaron saved the Apollo 12 crew and flight after a lightning strike during launch knocked the fuel cells offline. He asked the crew to “reposition a little-used cockpit switch” (p. 66). Aaron’s action restored power and enabled the mission to continue, which included landing on the Moon. What we also learn from Clemons is that Aaron, an aspiring cattle rancher, went to college to be a science teacher. Teaching would provide steady income while he pursued ranching. But he found that graduation would not earn him enough credits for a teaching certificate. Since Clemons was newly married, he needed a job, so he applied to NASA after hearing that they were hiring. Like others in Safely to Earth, this unassuming and seemingly ordinary man would go on to do extraordinary things. While the seeds of excellence may be hard to see in our coworkers, Clemons’ stories suggest they are there.


Clemons also introduces readers to several women working behind the scenes in an era before STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) was an acronym and before there was any interest in, and little encouragement for, women in STEM. Frances “Poppy” Northcutt was the lead technical person responsible for software to simulate possible trajectories for Apollo spacecraft on its return. She is the only person Clemons knew who was “asked to provide technical support in the Mission Control Center during a flight” (p. 132). Pat Ryk was the leader of the software development team of which Clemons was a part. He names her “the best person on the job” and “one of the principal reasons that the fight software code [for the space shuttle] came as close as it did to being error-free” (p. 169). Credit again to NASA and IBM for creating cultures where talent and hard work thrived but also to Clemons for bringing these women to light so others may also admire their accomplishments and be inspired by them.


Safely to Earth is an enjoyable and uplifting read and will be of interest to leaders with at least four-to-six years of experience in a complex organization and to anyone looking for exuberant encouragement to pursue a passion.


Lt Col Kari Thyne, USAF, Retired, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."