Ken Goodwin, E67
By Kristin Livingston
For Ken Goodwin, E67, of Houston, Texas, the Hill was high—but it wasn’t high enough. From Medford to mission control to Mount Everest, he has always looked onwards and upwards, reveling in the journey.
In his retirement, Goodwin found a love like no other: climbing. He started with U.S. peaks like Mount Baker and Mount Hood, but like some hobbies, the passion took on a life of its own.
Before long, he had his sights set on the Big Kahuna: Everest. At 29,029 feet above sea level, Everest’s summit has only a been reached by little more than 3,000 people. And the price to climb can be financially (think a hefty permit fee in the thousands) and physically steep. More than 200 lives have been lost along the trail.
Goodwin made it to the Everest base camp in 2009 and has been to Nepal three other times for month-long climbs. After one trek where he “ran out of gas” he credits his Sherpa, Pema, for “hauling me back to civilization.” Goodwin subsequently decided to help send Pema’s son to school. “For the Sherpas,” he writes, “education for their children is a top priority.”
One Giant Leap
Out of Tufts, Goodwin took a job with the MIT Instrumentation Lab (now Draper Laboratory) that was working with NASA on the Apollo program. He worked for a year on a spy satellite program before transferring from Boston to Houston, “a young whippersnapper with the world in front of me,” he writes.
“It’s surprising when I look on paper and see that I’ve lived in Houston most of my life,” he adds of his New England upbringing. “I don’t readily accept that for some reason.” Yet it was in Texas that Goodwin would happen to be in the right place at the right time for some of the most dramatic moments in American space history.
What most people know about Apollo 11 is that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. What they don’t know is that none of the preflight training simulations were successful. “If you had asked us [engineers] if we were going to land that evening, we would have told you there was a 50/50 chance; it was a crapshoot.” Land they did. The Apollo crew was so excited they literally couldn’t sleep. “Which they were supposed to do before heading out onto the surface—they’d been up for so long! But we all kind of knew they wouldn’t wait.” During Goodwin’s shift, he watched Armstrong take one giant leap for mankind, and when he left mission control at 6 a.m., “I went home and watched it all over again on television. It was an exciting time.”
In the case of ill-fated Apollo 13, headed for the moon, the mission experienced an explosion that almost killed its crew. Goodwin writes, “The explosion occurred on my shift, which was odd, mainly because nothing was supposed to be going on—I was a low man on the totem pole in those days.”
Goodwin and the entire team worried about the computer equipment. “The command module, which they were abandoning to go into the lunar module—or the ‘lifeboat’ as we called it—was going to get extremely cool. And all of a sudden we realized we had no real idea how the computer was going to work after being exposed to those extremely cold conditions.”
NASA has a saying, “The only problems we have are the ones that we haven’t thought of.” For Goodwin and the hundreds of mission control staff trying to bring these three astronauts home, this was only the beginning.
The crew shut down the command module’s computers and it became a waiting game. “We in the trenches were firmly convinced these guys were in deep trouble initially,” Goodwin writes, “but it got better with each passing day.” When the three men burst into the earth’s atmosphere, finally plunging to safety into the South Pacific Ocean, the nation looked on in awe—as did President Nixon, who awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to all of the folks both in front and behind the scenes.
But the mission for which Goodwin takes the most pride is Apollo 14. A faulty abort signal was showing up in mission control while the astronauts were in lunar orbit. “When we saw it happen the second time, it became evident that something was wrong.” Goodwin’s team realized that a piece of solder inside the abort switch was floating around in zero gravity, every so often shorting the contacts.
“If that signal was received once the computers and engines were turned on, an irreversible process would have been executed to get back to the command module.” Engineers needed the computers to ignore the abort signals, an easy fix. More pressing was devising an alternative means to abort, now that the switch had been disabled in the software. In less than an hour, a new piece of software was written, tested, and given to the astronauts. “Sheppard and Mitchell landed on the lunar surface a couple of hours late, but the entire mission was saved.”
View From Here
“While I’m glad that I’m retired,” he writes, “it’s not easy. For us old guys from the Apollo program, we got out of school and then, bang, we got thrown into the moon program. You were doing it for God and country, but it was also exciting. For a lot of us our career has been on a downward slope ever since, and it’s kind of hard to have started on the pinnacle of happiness and work down.” But down isn't the direction Goodwin has ever headed.
His wife, Camille; climbing; an adjunct professorship; and an active interest in amateur radio fill his days. He also travels back to the Himalayas every few years, but like most things in life, Goodwin has never set his sights on the summit—just the climb.