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Danbury man present at Apollo creation

Following is an article by Robert Miller, staff writer of the News-Times of Danbury, CT, that describes the important role of Nelson A. Merritt in the Apollo moon mission. The article from  is dated Aug. 31, 2009.

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DANBURY — Nelson Merritt got the assignment of his life in 1963 — to help design a flight simulator to help astronauts train to fly to the moon.

The tricky part was this: The spacecraft, called the Apollo, only existed as a name.

“Nobody had built an Apollo before,” Merritt, of Danbury, said.

Today, at 89, on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, Merritt looks back at his achievements at NASA with pride and gratitude.

During the heroic decade of American space flight, he and his team played an integral part in Apollo’s success. His name is now on the Wall of Fame at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., for his work on the Apollo simulator.

The impact he had on the programs was straightforward. Astronauts getting ready for space had to learn how to fly the Apollo.

They learned in the systems Merritt, as technical director of the simulator, helped design.

“It was extremely, extremely fulfilling to have been picked,” he said.

To be part of the vast NASA team, he said, was to see a host of talented engineers and scientists focused on one goal month after month — to put a man on the moon, then get him back.

They maintained that focus during the 1960s, one of the most tumultuous decades in American history.

“We’d get requests from NASA to make a change in the simulator and be told it had to be done by the next day,” he said.

The Apollo mission –preceded by the one-man Mercury and the two-man Gemini flights — were the direct product of the Cold War between the U.S. and USSR.

From 1961 on, after President John F. Kennedy gave the country the goal of reaching the moon by the end of the decade, the country’s scientists and engineers and its civilian and military factions all joined together to achieve that goal.

“I grew up in those years, and it was a pretty exciting time,” said Bill Cloutier, 54, of New Milford who has become an expert on the Apollo mission and the moon and one of the volunteer leaders of the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford.

“I wanted to be an astronaut. I thought they were heros, putting their lives on the line for peaceful use.”

“It was our Manhattan Project,” said Bob Lambert of Brookfield, one of the founders of the McCarthy Observatory, speaking of the work the U.S. undertook to develop the atomic bomb during World War II. “Only more complicated.”

“I think that’s a fair comparison,” said Steven Dick, chief historian for NASA.

Merritt, born in Mystic, was part of that project.

A graduate of Pace University and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, he helped design the nuclear reactor control systems on the USS Nautilus and created full-scale attack simulators for the U.S. Navy submarine base in Groton.

The work that brought him to NASA’s attention was designing one of the first up-to-date air traffic control systems for the National Aviation Facility Experimental System.

At the time, Merritt worked for North American Aviation Inc., based in Downey, Calif., while living in Pleasantville, N.Y., with his wife, Mary, and their three daughters. That company got the contract to design the Apollo simulator.

Merritt started with one man — himself.

By the time Apollo 11 reached the moon, about 1,500 people worked on the simulators. The team recruited some of the best computer software designers of the day, and consulted with the astronomy departments at Columbia, MIT and the California Institute of Technology to get the work done.

“We got the best astronomers in the world,” Merritt said.

The problems were many. Computer design was still in its infancy in the 1960s. Because there wasn’t an Apollo prototype, Merritt’s team ended up designing a flight simulator that functioned as a model of what Apollo could become.

“We built the simulator,” he said. “Then Apollo caught up.”

What followed was a time of constant give and take.

The simulator team would come up with ideas, and the NASA team would ask for refinements. Or the astronauts, training in the simulators, would see places to make improvements and the simulator team would make the changes.

“It was a unique way of designing things,” Merritt said.

All the astronauts pushed for time in the simulators. The one astronaut given the responsibility of managing demand was Neil Armstrong..

“I got to see an awful lot of Neil,” Merritt said. “He was awfully quiet and very serious.”

Merritt said the media later criticized Armstrong for not being more outgoing.

“But he was the guy to do it,” he said of the first man to set foot on the moon.

Merritt watched the July 16 launch of Apollo 11 from his home.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “We were also so worried about the takeoff because the load had gotten heavy and they were pretty big boosters.”

But once the Apollo was safely in space, Merritt said, he relaxed. The parts that seem most remarkable to ordinary citizens — the landing on the moon in the LEM –the lunar module — and the return to the main spacecraft — did not worry him unduly.

“The LEM had been tested so many times,” he said. “And there were redundancies in every system.”

But just as NASA peaked with the Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the Nixon administration and the U.S. Congress began to cut NASA’s budget.

“We were all extremely disappointed,” Merritt said. “We had reached the takeoff point. Then the politicians took over.”

“The budget was being cut as the first men were walking on the moon,” said NASA historian Steven Dick.

It probably would have been impossible to maintain the focus NASA achieved in the 1960s. In part, this was because the U.S. had won the space race. The USSR fell behind and never matched the success of Apollo.

“NASA made it look too easy,” said Cloutier of New Milford.

After the Apollo project, Merritt left his position with NASA and North American Aviation to work as project manager for space satellite experiments at the Astrophysiccs Laboratory at Columbia University.

He and Mary moved to Danbury in 2003. He created a private company, Virtual Reality, to provide visual displays for the Space Shuttle program, then sold the company in 1995.

The winged Space Shuttle is, by all standards, an extraordinary ship. But it lacks romance. It is essentially a delivery truck that never leaves Earth orbit.

“There are things we could not have done without the shuttle,” Dick said. “The Hubble Space Telescope and all its repair missions would have been dead in the water without the shuttle. But a lot of people have criticized it for just going in circles.”

That is why the United States and NASA are committed to going back to the moon by 2020, and eventually planning a manned trip to Mars.

That won’t be easy, in part because the U.S. is in a recession. It’s also true the country doesn’t fund the space program like it used to.

“At its peak, NASA got 4 percent of the federal budget for discretionary spending,” Dick said. “Now it’s less than 1 percent. So we’ll get it done, but slowly.”

For Merritt, who is 89, the schedule may prove to be a tight one.

“2020 is 11 years from now,” he said. “I’ll be 100. But I’d love to be around to see it.”

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