Crothersville man shares thoughts on recent space launch



Sitting inside his Crothersville home watching television recently, Ralph Sweany was taken back in time while witnessing a current event.

A rocket ship built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, from a launch pad familiar to Sweany, who spent 10 years working on contract with NASA through his employment with Boeing, a Seattle, Washington-based company that designs rockets and aircraft.

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Sweany, now 82, was a mechanical engineer for Boeing from 1961 to 1973.

The launch earlier this month was the first time in nearly a decade for American astronauts to orbit from home soil. It was from the same launch pad used to send Apollo crews to the moon a half-century ago.

“It brought back a lot of memories, for one thing because they went off the same pad that we went off of,” Sweany said with a proud smile. “I watched every second of it. I’ve been on that pad lots of times.”

In his 10 years on the NASA contract, Sweany said he attended at least seven launches at Cape Canaveral and also test fires at a facility in Mississippi.

“The thing that I was most impressed with was when the first stage booster came and went on its own path after it had carried the thing into space. That fascinated me,” Sweany said. “The first stage got its job done. It separated, turned around and then came back to earth and landed. On ours, the first stage, we just dropped it in the ocean, which really makes no sense, but that’s the way it was.”

Sweany worked on the first stage, or the bottom third, of rockets during his time on the contract.

About 20 years later, he said he got to see his equipment at Cape Canaveral.

“In the Cape Canaveral junkyard,” he said, laughing. “They store the junk there.”

With the recent launch, Sweany was able to see how far the space program has come.

“The SpaceX really looks futuristic on the pad,” he said. “It looks like it came out of a sci-fi movie. I was impressed how futuristic it looked. Of course, the recovery of the first stage on its own recovery pad also made it look futuristic.”

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken arrived at the International Space Station 250 miles above Earth for a stay of up to four months, after which they will come home with a Right Stuff-style splashdown at sea, something the world hasn’t witnessed since the 1970s, according to The Associated Press.

SpaceX is the first private company to launch people into orbit, a feat achieved previously by only three governments: United States, Russia and China, The AP reports.

“This is something that should really get people right in the heart of anyone who has any spirit of exploration,” Musk, the visionary also behind the Tesla electric car company, said after liftoff, pounding his chest with his fist.

Ever since it retired the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has relied on Russian spaceships launched from Kazakhstan to take U.S. astronauts to and from the space station.

Over the past few years, NASA outsourced the job of designing and building its next generation of spaceships to SpaceX and Boeing, awarding them $7 billion in contracts in a public-private partnership aimed at driving down costs and spurring innovation, The AP says.

Starting with Boeing

Sweany landed a job with Boeing right out of college.

He graduated from Crothersville High School in 1956 and earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in 1961.

“Purdue invited companies to come on campus and interview, and so I interviewed with Boeing my senior year, and then as soon as I graduated, I went to work for them,” he said.

From Boeing’s headquarters in Seattle, Sweany went out on the Minuteman project as a surveillance engineer.

He was a member of the targeting team, and Boeing set a goal for each of the three teams to target at night.

“During that time, not all of the Minuteman missiles were deployed, and when we were targeting the missiles was during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he said. “We got word from President (John F.) Kennedy that he wanted the missiles targeted as soon as possible so they would have a bargaining chip with Russia.”

A new opportunity

Coming off of that program, he returned to Seattle and was in between assignments when an opportunity arose.

A friend named Mike told him NASA’s head of outreach for the Apollo program was there interviewing people.

“I said, ‘I don’t believe I’m interested,’” Sweany said. “He just kept on and kept on. Mike and I were good friends, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll go over with you.’”

After interviewing Mike, the man from NASA encouraged Sweany to interview, too.

“I had about a 15-minute or half-hour interview. I’m sorry to say I got the job and Mike didn’t,” Sweany said, smiling.

Sweany was one of 3,000 design engineers hired to help NASA, and he moved his family to Huntsville, Alabama. Boeing had a contract to design and build the first stage of the rocket, and two other companies took care of the other two stages.

“I was really fortunate in that when I arrived in Huntsville on the design team, the paper was blank, so I got in on the ground floor and started the drawings to make the equipment,” Sweany said.

He was assigned to the ground support team for the Saturn V rocket.

“Every valve on the rocket was pneumatically operated, and so my ground support equipment task was to load all of those cylinders on the stage so that they had high-pressure gas in them,” he said. “The reason they did that was because the temperature swing, batteries wouldn’t work very good, so they needed the power, so they used high-pressure gas.”

Preparing for takeoff

The team built five S1C pneumatic consoles, each costing about $3 million, Sweany said.

One console was made for the Huntsville test facility, and then the team moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where the S1C stage was built. The first stage was static fired at the Mississippi test facility about 40 miles northeast of New Orleans.

“Since I was in on the initial design, in on the Huntsville test, I went to every static firing of the S1C at the Mississippi test facility, and I went to every launch at the Cape,” Sweany said. “As soon as that stage did its job, it dropped off and fell in the ocean, and it was over.”

The first stage is crucial, he said.

“It has got to work from the bottom up,” he said of the rocket. “Every piece on that has got to work. If my equipment didn’t work, the rocket didn’t take off.”

Sweany was one of the two lead engineers, and he had four engineers working under him: Electricial, chemical, mechanical and civil.

“As the specifications for the design came in, I would hand it to whoever I felt was most capable,” he said.

Sweany was named Engineering Man of the Year in 1969, and he went off of the project in 1973.

He returned to Crothersville and farmed for about 12 years after his dad had retired from farming.

He then got back into engineering, working at Williamson Metal Works in Madison.

“I didn’t have a job other than the farm, and my father-in-law, Walter Pevlor, brought a magazine article and said, ‘This company is looking for engineers. You ought to call them,’” Sweany said. “I called them, and (the company) hired me over the phone. I couldn’t believe it. I guess God was in control because I certainly wasn’t.”

He served as the plant engineer for about six years before spending the next eight-plus years at Regal Industries in Crothersville. He retired from there in 2005.

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Sweany file” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Name: Ralph Sweany

Age: 82

Hometown: Crothersville

Residence: Crothersville

Education: Crothersville High School (1956); Purdue University (Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, 1961)

Occupation: Retired from working for Boeing, Williamson Metal Works and Regal Industries and farming


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