Inspired by Apollo: How a TV Broadcast Led Me (Almost) to Space

Posted on Fri, July 5, 2019
  • by: Todd Probert, Raytheon Intelligence, Information, and Services

A guest blog post from Todd Probert from Raytheon Intelligence, Information, and Services explores how the Apollo program inspired a career in aerospace.

When I was a kid – maybe 5 or 6 – I remember my dad calling me into the living room and sitting me down in front of our almost comically tiny black-and-white TV screen.

Even at that age, I knew it was an odd request. Sure, I occasionally got to watch an Indians game with my dad – if I promised to sit still and be quiet. But this was different. He had never once called me in just to watch something with him. So clearly, we were going to see something special. And as the first images flickered on the screen, I got it. I was watching a person – a person from my own country! – walk on the actual Moon.

Apollo 11 EVA

Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin completed the first EVA (extra-vehicular activity) on the surface of the Moon in July 1969.

Even decades later, it’s a memory that’s burned into my mind. It’s as clear as if it just happened yesterday. It completely changed my life.

As a five-year-old, I’m sure my career goals at the time generally wavered between cowboy and firefighter. But after watching those astronauts bounce across the lunar surface, everything changed. I knew I may never get a chance to go to space, but maybe I could be the guy who put people up there.

For the next 20 years, that became my passion. I threw myself into math and engineering courses at school. I went to Michigan to get my bachelor’s in aerospace engineering, and then Purdue to get a master's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. All the while, I watched every space launch on TV.

Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work. I can promise you that calculating orbital velocities isn’t nearly as exciting as going to parties. But I was a kid possessed; I knew that if I just kept at it, I’d eventually be helping NASA explore our universe.

Eventually, that hard work paid off. After grad school, I went on to develop and lead space programs at some of America’s largest companies and research centers.

By the time I was in my early 30s, I was responsible for all of NASA’s space communications systems. Think about that: 25 years after watching a person walk on the Moon on a flickering, fuzzy black-and-white TV, I was helping astronauts in orbit talk directly to kids in classrooms all over the world.

Today, as a vice president at Raytheon – the company that built the transmitter that beamed Neil Armstrong’s words back to Earth – I oversee a portfolio of space programs for NASA, the U.S. Air Force, NOAA, and our intelligence agencies.

Neutral Buoyancy Lab

NASA astronauts practice microgravity techniques in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson Space Center.

My team operates NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, a massive 6.2 million gallon pool at Johnson Space Center, where astronauts learn to work in space and train on a submerged full-sized mockup of the International Space Station. We oversee NASA’s earth science data network, which makes critical climate data available to researchers. We develop, operate, and monitor the satellite networks that collect and distribute live weather data and intelligence.

My team and I are even responsible for safely launching every rocket from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base.

NASA’s Apollo missions inspired an entire generation in ways that are still being felt today. Just as my dad did for me, I truly believe it’s our responsibility to instill that same passion in the next generation, the kids who will take us even further into the universe.

My dad passed away in 2001. I still think about him every time I watch a space launch, and I imagine how happy he’d be knowing that watching a single TV broadcast with his son could make such a huge impact.

Todd Probert is a Vice President at Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services.

Probert and a panel of space system engineers will discuss how they launched their space careers at the Museum’s Apollo 50 Festival on the National Mall. Their panel will take place July 20 at 2:00 pm on the main stage.

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