An Interview with NASA's Robyn Villavecchia

Heather & Robyn
NASA Ames Research Center, 2011

I was so pleased to meet you at NASA Ames, and talk about your experiences with the Saturn launch vehicles. Your knowledge of the rockets is impressive, and we read so little about the amazing women of the era who did their part to land humans on the moon.

What were you doing when the Apollo program began?

     ROBYN: I started my career as an engineering student at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic ArtsIt was a "cow college" complete with student rodeos! 

Work phase assignments were at White Sands Missile Range and our instructors were the engineers in the earliest days of our military missile program, many of whom were Operation Paperclip refugees from the World War II German rocketry programs.

After school, I applied for a job at the [then] new NASA White Sands Test Facility where the Lunar module ascent and descent engines were to be tested. 

My group was tasked with determining the density and viscosity of hypergolic propellants, which were highly toxic; not too many folks were willing to play with them. I had studied the hypergols in German rocket aircraft. I understood the danger.

At White Sands, we used inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid (IRFNA) and Analine as hypers. 

I kept all my fingers, didn't blow up the lab, and so I was sort of a wunderkind.

Not blowing up the lab is always good.  Sounds like an exciting job! What took you to Cape Canaveral in 1964?

     ROBYN: My boss was asked to form a laboratory, and accepted on the condition he could take me with him. I was asked to submit a resume, and his expertise was then passed over in favor of mine... most uncomfortable, to say the least! I was only 25 at the time, and my office was a back bedroom in a shack on the Titusville Causeway in the Merritt Island Chicken Farm. Cape Canaveral was not glamorous.  

A wonderful guy named Dan Kime became my next manager. He wanted only to spend his declining years fishing! Kime told me I would find a number of catalogs, from which to order bits and pieces, lab glassware, chromatographs, burettes, pipettes, balance scales, whatever... and oh yeah, then he said: "You have 60 days to spend twenty-eight million dollars or we lose our appropriation!!"

I have some aerial photographs of our Lab at the Cape. Just beyond the Saturn V, the crawler way jogs to the left. A bit further on is a round white ball. This is a huge liquid Nitrogen tank. The complex of buildings is collectively PSCL, originally known as the Particulate Sizing and Counting Lab, then the Precision Systems Cleaning Lab, then the Precision Systems Components Lab and finally the Propellant Systems Components Lab. We parked on the south side of the crawler way and had to run across their paths, while dodging speeding crawlers (laughs) Ö I'm kidding, of course. They're slow.

That is definitely a view of Saturn V that no one will ever see again.  I love that your acronym went through four versions, that is so NASA! And how funny it was PSCL the entire time, but meant different things. What did you do in this division?

     ROBYN: We determined the density, viscosity and purity of the propellants to be loaded for flights to the moon. We needed to know this to an extreme degree of accuracy, first because the lives of the astronauts were at risk, and second, we could not afford excess mass aboard the vehicle. Lifting just a few extra pounds up out of the gravity well, and trucking to the surface of the moon was the limiting factor. Think of it as needing just the right amount of gasoline put in your car's tank to get to the store and back, without hauling extra! 
That's probably the best analogy Iíve heard about the limitations of fuel resources; I hope parents pass that on to their kids when they ask questions about why rockets and space crafts only travel certain distances. Itís always a delicate balance, isnít it.

     ROBYN: Indeed. When you and I were in the Fluid Dynamics Lab at Ames, I was struck by the model of the launch escape system of the CEV. Back in my day, we did not have anywhere near the computational muscle to model flight dynamic loads, etc. We stuck a "boilerplate" Apollo Command module with it's escape system on top a Little Joe II rocket, launched it and at test altitude fired the escape system. If it worked, fine. If not, back to the drawing board! We had to rely in great degree to empirical data.

All this started from the early days of rocketry when rockets still blew up with alarming regularity. 

It was found, in due course, that particulate contamination was causing valves to fail to seat, bearings to fail and so on. From that time forward, there was a concerted effort to keep all systems squeaky clean. Liquids and gasses, including propellants were passed through filters, the filters were then examined under a microscope and the particles trapped were sized and counted. (Thus, the first iteration, Particulate Sizing and Counting Lab.)

I also returned to the White Sands Test Facility, early in the Lunar Lander engine and thruster testing. That was in 1965 or 66. 


Not too shabby for someone who started out at the old chicken farm! Itís amazing to hear all the pieces of the puzzle of the moon race era. Did you meet members of the astronaut corps at the time?

ROBYN: Yes, knew the early astronauts like Joe Engle and Fred Haise. I had the pleasure of flying with them and Pete Conrad, and I knew Gus Grissom well. He would come through the lab leading a party of suits. I had a little demo routine where I would release a cloud of Nitiogen Tetroxide in a fume hood and using a big horse syringe full of Hydrazine, would squirt it into the cloud and write my name in fire. Usually was good for a few jaw drops!

The evening of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, I was on overtime, pulling a second shift. The crews that went to the pad to sample gasses and liquids were attached to PSCL as well. We had been sending the guys out all day trying to isolate an odd smell inside the spacecraft. We eventually found the cause, but only after the accident board finally come to it's conclusions. All of us in the lab, chemists, samplers, everyone was devastated. I cried and do so to this day when I think of that evening. I didn't go home the night of the fire, and several days and nights thereafter. Compiling records and documents for the investigation we knew would follow.

I continued working at PSCL until 1969. I got word that Nixon had canceled Apollo 18, 19, and 20. Dr. von Braun had a detailed plan for reaching Mars. Launch pads LC-39C and 39-D were in the design phase for the Mars program at the time, but I saw the writing on the wall, that there would be no follow-up to the Apollo program -- at least not one that would pioneer further into space. 

Funny how history repeats itself.
Well, not that funny. More sad than funny. When you say FLYING with Pete Conrad, do you mean actually FLYING with Pete Conrad??

ROBYN: The three guys I mentioned flying with, in their "spare time" flew airshows in vintage aircraft. I flew with them in the same shows on occasion, but nothing so exciting as a ride in the T-38. I wish! (Laughs) Just old hardware. But it was fun. 

Pete was famous for his practical jokes. One day, I was tooling down final approach, all fat, dumb, and happy. Suddenly I hear in the headphones, something like RATATATATA, "You're dead!" 

At the same time, a P-51 Mustang flew under me and pulled straight up in front of me. Scared the bejayzuz out of me. I landed, fueled my aircraft and headed to the "O"-Club to see who the pluperfect idiot was that cut me out of the traffic pattern. Everybody knew, of course. Pete had set it up beforehand with the tower and other pilots in the pattern. 

The joke was on me. He shot me down fair and square.

Awesome story!  And I appreciate your time... thank you Robyn, for offering up such a great addition to my "behind-the-scenes employee spotlights" at NASA, past and present!
2017 Update: Robyn passed away in January, following chronic medical issues. Someday, my friend, someday they will make a movie about you on that chicken farm! Rest in Peace.