Apollo 50 Years Later

apollo-belcher-event-117.jpgIn 1969 when the first man walked on the moon, Richard M. Nixon was president, the Vietnam War and Woodstock music festival were making headlines, gasoline sold for $ 0.35 per gallon, a loaf of bread cost $ 0.23, and a postage stamp was $ 0.06.

That was also the year LETU alumnus Nelson Bates, a 1964 electrical technology graduate, was part of the famed moon-walk mission when astronaut Neil Armstrong said those immortal words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

That was 28 years before a future LETU graduate, Keith Splawn, would begin his career that would lead him to work on the development of 21st century spacesuits. 

Fast forward to 2019 with our $2.70 gallon of gasoline, $5.14 loaf of bread and $0.55 postage stamps, as LeTourneau University celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moonwalk, and these two graduates meet during an Apollo Mission commemorative event in the LETU Belcher Center to share their contributions to space exploration, past and present.      

Bates, 81, was part of the mission as a reliability engineer in the Apollo Support Department/Missile and Space Division of General Electric.

“I was part of the team that would research and find answers when something went wrong or find answers to problems onboard a spacecraft,” he said.  Bates used the guidelines crafted by GE regarding reliability and quality assurance for the many switches and electronics onboard various spacecrafts.

Bates credits his parents for setting him on his path to LeTourneau.

"My dad encouraged my mother to go hear Mr. LeTourneau speak, and she ended up seeing him several times,” he said.

After learning about LeTourneau College, his mother suggested that Nelson attend the school. 

“My mother told me that attending LeTourneau would give me the chance to work while I earned my degree and keep me from having to borrow money to attend school,” he said. 

Like many others, Bates worked in the plant as a student—and learned even more lessons than were taught in the classroom.

“I learned a lot about working in industry—lessons I carried with me the rest of my life,” he said. 

Before graduating in 1964, Bates began work as an electrical engineer with Chance-Vought in Grand Prairie, Texas. Eventually, he found himself at NASA and a part of the Apollo missions.

“One of the most interesting experiences working on Project Apollo was the opportunity to work on the spacecraft’s guidance and navigation systems at MIT,” he said. 

Bates was also a part of what has been referred to as NASA’s successful failure, the Apollo 13 mission, which never landed on the moon due to an explosion aboard the spacecraft’s service module which placed the lives of the crew in peril.

“I was among those working at the space center to determine how to bring the crew back home,” he said. Bates was later presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, Jim Lovell. 

Reflecting on his time at LeTourneau and how it impacted his life, Bates said, “LeTourneau provided me with a foundation for real-life experiences and gave me a lifetime of friendships and memories.”

Splawn, a 1997 Business Administration with Design Technology option graduate, agrees.

“I have a lot of great memories of my time at LeTourneau,” Splawn said, adding that some of his favorite memories are spring break mission trips into Mexico to build churches and do village outreach. “The relationships I built at LeTourneau have continued—probably because we shared carp-head soup caught in the local river, the same river that also served as the local washing machine and community bath.” 

Splawn said he learned about LeTourneau University from LETU alumnus Todd DeGroot, who attended the same church and worked with Splawn’s dad in the Air Force.

“He spoke very highly of the Christ-centered education he received,” Splawn said.  “I knew I wanted to attend a Christian university where I could thrive and not be just a number.”

During his college years, Splawn learned LETU would challenge him.

“At LeTourneau, I learned that I would have to work hard to be successful,” Splawn said. “High school did not take much effort for me, and I quickly found out LeTourneau was different. Getting hands-on experience starting in my freshman year and being challenged to learn new computer design programs fostered my passion for mechanical design and for learning new 3-D modeling programs. My professor, Joe Gaiser, challenged me to get out of my comfort zone by having me help teach evening continuing education classes, which prepared me to teach and mentor in my current job.

“After graduating, I accepted a production manager/designer job with a small business that I had interned with the previous summer.

The experience I gained from my professor, Joe Gaiser, and his insistence on perfecting the details, led to me being a manager reviewing everyone’s work before it left our shop. After a couple of years, I accepted a new job in the semiconductor industry. Three months into this new job, I was laid off—along with most of the engineers—due to a flooded market of semiconductor chips.”

Then the door opened for Splawn to join ILC Dover LP, the company that designed and manufactured the Apollo spacesuit and every NASA spacesuit since then.

“I jumped on the opportunity!” he said. “I started at ILC Dover in 2001 as a design engineer using Pro/E to design spacesuit hardware. I designed various spacesuit components and performed a lot of spacesuit testing to verify that the spacesuits functioned properly.

“In addition to spacesuit design I was able to work other space programs. The hands-on experience I received at LeTourneau made packing the landing airbags for the Mars Exploration Rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—a natural extension to doing computer-aided design,” Splawn said. “Eventually, I became the engineering manager overseeing the engineers working on the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit that astronauts used to build the International Space Station. I am currently the Business Manager for our Space Systems division pursuing commercial spacesuit opportunities and overseeing the program managers leading our Inflatable Space Habitat and Spacesuit programs.”

Splawn says his most interesting experience with the space program was testing the spacesuits on the edge of Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona. 

“Getting to wear and test spacesuits that I helped design is incredibly fun,” Splawn said. “There is no better way to make sure your design works than to put it on and test it out.”