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A Trajectory of NASA Success

Friday, May 17, 2019

Dick Osburn assisted with navigation for the Apollo 11 mission that accomplished America’s goal of putting a man on the moon. Watch as he reflects on those historic moments and his time at NASA.

From the ground navigation desk at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Dick Osburn had a front row seat for two of the most important radio transmissions in the history of space exploration:

“The Eagle has landed.”
Announced Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969, as America landed on the moon for the first time

“Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
Alerted Jack Swigert on April 14, 1970, about an anomaly within the Apollo 13 spacecraft

Osburn, a 1967 mathematics alumnus, was among a smart group of new college graduates who joined NASA with only two and a half years remaining to achieve President Kennedy’s challenge of landing a man on the moon within the decade of the 1960s. He describes the atmosphere in America’s nascent space program as “electrically charged.” There was an abundance of talent and optimism, but no road map to follow. Everything from calculating spacecraft trajectories and landing procedures to communication and fuel conservation – “We had to figure it out as we went along,” he says.

“The high (from achieving the moon landing) lasts for a long time. I’m still on the high today,” he admits. “I get emotional when I hear (Armstrong’s transmission) and will probably for as long as I live. It’s amazing to think that it has been almost 50 years from when we landed. Everybody knew we were doing something special. I don’t know if we knew how special it was.”

His other memorable moment, for far different reasons, came less than a year later when Osburn was in the middle of his shift in Mission Control when an oxygen tank exploded inside the Apollo 13 spacecraft. He was the first controller to report the problem to the mission’s flight director.

“The doppler tracking data used by the navigators gave an almost instant reading of the velocity change created by the onboard explosion. We knew immediately that we were in trouble,” Osburn recalls.

His problem-solving skills were put to good use as engineers figured out a way to return the Apollo 13 crew to Earth safely – scenes that were depicted vividly in the Ron Howard-directed “Apollo 13” movie.

“We encountered real-world problem solving at its best and a situation that was out of our hands, millions of miles away,” Osburn recalls. “We had to communicate things accurately, make sure things were understood, and that it was a right decision.”

Osburn returned to Rose-Hulman last fall for a campus convocation in the Hatfield Hall Theater – attracting a full-house crowd of students, faculty and staff – and for an evening special showing of “Apollo 13.”

His 36-year career in space exploration started with NASA’s Apollo 7 mission, the first manned Apollo flight, in the fall of 1968, and continued with NASA’s Skylab missions and early Space Shuttle flights. Osburn later led the trajectory operations group for Rockwell Space Operations Company, which took over management of Space Shuttle flights. He was director of flight design and dynamics, with more than 600 engineers and technical support personnel in charge of pre-flight planning, mission support and maintenance of supporting computer software.

Osburn also assisted in the formation of the United Space Alliance, a consortium of commercial entities led by Boeing and Lockheed, and the Orbiter Element, a group responsible for the development and maintenance of Space Shuttle flights. He retired in 2003.