An Awesometalk With: Dona Cauchon, ex-NASA Apollo Project Engineer

November 8, 2010: Barry Cauchon.

Dona Cauchon (ex-NASA Apollo Project engineer)

About two years ago I approached my father, Dona Cauchon (pronounced Doe-Nah) to see if I could interview him for this blog. You see, my father spent ten years working for NASA at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia during the exciting days of the Apollo program and the race to put a man on the moon. I was lucky enough to grow up in this atmosphere, surrounded by stories of rockets and sending men to the moon. It was a very exciting time.

When I asked my father about doing the interview, he did not feel comfortable recording it live but did the next best thing by writing out his NASA bio for me. I am happy to share it with you today.

Currently, my father is retired and living with my mother Adrienne in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Their eight kids (that’s right, I said eight) all live in the area with their respective families. At last count I believe there are 16 grand kids in total.




MY DAYS AT NASA (1962 – 1972)

by Dona Cauchon

In the spring of 1962, I was completing my final term toward a Masters Degree in Engineering Mechanics at Northeastern University in Boston.  The courses were sponsored by Bell Labs of North Andover, Massachusetts, with whom I was employed at the time.  This co-op program was intended to advance the education of the company’s engineers with the hope that they might become better contributors to the development of its products in the future.  At Northeastern, I majored in Heat Transfer.

One of my good friends, John McElman, was also participating in the co-op program.  His major was Structures (the bending and buckling of columns and plate).  Neither Heat Transfer nor Structures, however, commanded a whole lot of attention at Bell Labs, a company that specialized in communications.  It was within that realization that the two of us began to look afield for other career opportunities.  As it turned out at the time, the fledgling United States space program was just getting started with the commissioning of a new agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to undertake the task of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely by the end of the decade (1970), the challenge set out by then President John Kennedy.

Suddenly the fields of Heat Transfer and Structures took on whole new meaning!   NASA embarked on a nationwide recruiting program for engineers, especially those with graduate degrees. John McElman and I interviewed with them at Northeastern in that spring of 1962, accepted their offer of employment a month later, and on Memorial Day weekend traveled to Hampton, Virginia, to buy houses for our families. We returned to receive the congratulations of Bell Labs at a festive dinner for its graduates, gave our notice the next day, and arrived in Hampton on July 1st to begin work at NASA’s Langley Research Center the next Monday. I’ve always had a pang or two of guilt about leaving Bell the way we did.

John McElman joined a structural research department with NASA and went on to earn his PhD from Virginia Tech under NASA sponsorship.  But he had a yearning to teach and in 1967 returned to Massachusetts to teach in his field at Merrimack College.  Dr. McElman became Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Merrimack around 1980.  He died around 1990; he was in his mid-fifties.)

I took one additional graduate course after arriving at NASA…a calculus-based gem called Laplace Transforms.  When I finished, I knew that my days of formal education were behind me. 

As it was, I joined a special group investigating reentry heating.  Our flight research program was known as Project Fire and our objective was to establish by flight experiments the heating that would be encountered by the Project Apollo capsule entering the Earth’s atmosphere at lunar return velocities.  The program would involve the simulation of that Earth entry using a 1/3-size model of the Apollo capsule.  The simulated velocity would be achieved by launching a two-stage rocket from Cape Kennedy (then called Cape Canaveral) comprising an Atlas Rocket booster with an X-259 solid rocket upper stage.  The trajectories of these two stages would be aligned in such a way that the velocities of each would be added together to simulate lunar return velocity.  The booster would take the X-259 second stage with the attached capsule above the atmosphere…after separation from the Atlas, the X-259 would orient itself to plunge back into the Earth’s atmosphere…and the Apollo-shaped capsule would then separate from the spent X-259 and plummet to its eventual incineration in the South Atlantic Ocean off Ascension Island near Africa.  Before it incinerated, however, it would telemeter back all the onboard measurements to enable the investigators to establish the heating data.

Project Fire Heat Tunnel Test at Langley Research Center in 1962

Project Fire had two launches, the first in the spring of 1964 and the second in the spring of 1965.  The results confirmed the theoretical calculations and were the only two experimental flights to confirm the integrity of the heat shield design for the Apollo return capsule.


NASA Facts: Two Atlas missiles with ABL X-259 upper stages. These Atlas X-259 flights were launched from Cape Canaveral Pad 12 in the NASA Flight Investigation of reentry Environment [FIRE] program. Both flights were successful. The first flight occurred on April 14, 1964 and the second on May 22, 1965.

1964 April 14 – . 21:42 GMT – . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC12. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas D. LV Configuration: Atlas D 263D.

  • FIRE 1 – . Nation: USA. Agency: NASA. Apogee: 837 km (520 mi). FIRE was a subscale model of the Apollo capsule used to verify the spacecraft’s hypersonic flight and thermal characteristics. An Atlas D launch vehicle lifted a Project Fire spacecraft from Cape Kennedy in the first test of the heat that would be encountered by a spacecraft reentering the atmosphere at lunar-return velocity. During the spacecraft’s fall toward earth, a solid-fuel Antares II rocket behind the payload fired for 30 seconds, increasing the descent speed to 40,501 kilometers (25,166 miles) per hour. Instruments in the spacecraft radioed temperature data to the ground. The spacecraft exterior reached an estimated temperature of 11,400 K (20,000 degrees F). About 32 minutes after launch, the spacecraft impacted into the Atlantic Ocean. The mission, sponsored by Langley Research Center, provided reentry heating measurements needed to evaluate heatshield materials and information on the communications blackout during reentry.

1965 May 22 – . 21:55 GMT – . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC12. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas D. LV Configuration: Atlas D 264D.

  • FIRE 2 – . Nation: USA. Agency: USAF. Apogee: 817 km (507 mi). Suborbital reentry heating experiment using the FIRE subscale Apollo capsule. An Atlas D booster propelled the instrumented probe, called a “flying thermometer,” into a ballistic trajectory over 805 km (500 mi) high. After 26 minutes of flight, when the spacecraft began its descent, a solid-fueled Antares rocket accelerated its fall. The probe entered the atmosphere at a speed of 40,877 km (25,400 mph) and generated temperatures of about 11,206K (20,000 degrees F). Data on heating were transmitted to ground stations throughout the descent. Thirty-two minutes after the launch – and but six minutes after the Antares was fired – the device impacted in the Atlantic about 8,256 km (5,130 mi) southeast of the Cape.
  • Fire 2 launched 22-May-1965


By 1967, most of the research in support of the Apollo Program had been completed and many NASA engineers moved to other challenges within the agency.  I joined a group that was pulling together experiments for the first Mars lander…I believe it was called Viking.  Companies and universities were competing to get their experiment(s) onboard.  The lander was so weight-limited that only one in twenty or thirty proposals could be accepted.  I spent one year with the experiment evaluation team.  As it turned out, that version of Viking ended up endlessly delayed and I moved on to other things.

My last four years with NASA were spent in the area known as Earth Resources, the science of using remote imagery from orbiting spacecraft to study Planet Earth.  This involved working with a host of other federal and state agencies and research schools and embraced the fields of geology, forestry, agriculture and oceanography among others.  A shortcoming of the NASA program in Earth Resources was the lack of resolution in its imagery.  The military had systems far superior to NASA’s but would not permit their use for our research.  The military had an outstanding joke in this regard that showed a Russian imaging expert looking over some of its high-resolution pictures of the United States.  In one picture, an American serviceman is shown holding a sign that read, “If you can read this, you’re where we were ten years ago”.  Needless to say, NASA’s frustration in this area was more than evident.

In an effort to help overcome the image resolution problem, I introduced a concept called “nesting” which would hopefully allow for making NASA’s space imagery more useful by providing a link between it and airplane imagery.  This would be done by taking images from high-altitude balloons so to provide a continuous, vertical “signature” of Earth targets for evaluation.  Helicopter imagery was also included to take the process right to the ground.  One experiment was aimed at a survey of Chesapeake Bay wetlands to inventory the various plant species.  Two balloon flights were flown from NASA’s Wallops Island Station.  While good imagery was obtained by both the balloons and helicopters, keeping the free-flying balloons over targets was too difficult to provide meaningful results.

NASA Balloon Survey

(File sourced by Marie Cauchon)

My career with NASA ended on June 30th, 1972, ten years to the day after I had joined them.  The most rewarding aspect of my time with the agency was the absolute freedom to pursue ideas and most times to get the support to carry them as far as you could.

Dona Cauchon

A Saturn V rocket carries a crew of three astronauts to the moon. The heat shield did its job during the entire Apollo program.


Have a great day.




November 01, 2010: Barry Cauchon

The following WHAT IF questions have no bearing on real history and are proposed here solely for entertainment and to provoke intelligent discussion. Feel free to add your own.

WHAT IF… Jack the Ripper had been captured alive and studied by medical men in 1888, and those studies then used years later to help experts in understanding future serial killers. How many lives might have been saved?

WHAT IF… Astronaut Neil Armstrong had broken his leg five weeks prior to the launch of Apollo 11. Would he still have been the first man to walk on the moon?

WHAT IF… Adolf Hitler and other key members of the Nazi party had been passengers on the Hindenburg when it burst into flames as it attempted to dock at Lakehurst , NJ on May 7, 1936? Assuming they did not survive, how would history have been changed without these men there to drive their party’s agenda?

WHAT IF… Elvis Presley had not died at the age of 42 in 1977? Would he have had a huge comeback and produced many more memorable songs that we would all know and consider classics today?

WHAT IF… Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in 1862, three years prior to his actual death in 1865, and only part way through his first term as President? How would it have affected the outcome of the Civil War?

WHAT IF… all four of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s children had lived to ripe old ages. Only one reached adulthood. Might there have been another Lincoln in the White House?



Published in: on Monday, November 1, 2010 at '5:24 pm'  Comments (1)  
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