On June 1, 1966, a three-legged robot craft powered its way to the soft lunar terrain, making Surveyor 1 the first spacecraft to make a controlled landing on the moon. It was an event to remember for millions of Americans, especially Leo Stoolman, the young engineer who headed the Hughes team that designed and developed Surveyor.
“I’ll never forget that evening when we went to JPL to observe the landing….I never saw so many TV cameras,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the most important part of the mission. If we fail, it’s going to be in front of millions.’
“The biggest worry for me was the possibility of spacecraft tumbling at main retro engine fire because we were never sure that the thrust would be close enough to the center of gravity not to tumble the spacecraft,” Dr. Stoolman remembers. “I was biting my nails until it was announced that the main retro had fired and the spacecraft was stable. Then I knew we were going to make it.”
Ten feet above the lunar floor, Surveyor’s engines were turned off and the spacecraft dropped softly to the surface. “At about 3 a.m., Surveyor’s TV cameras were turned on and for the first time in history man got the first close-up pictures of the moon’s surface,” he recounts. “That was the biggest thrill ever.”
This month, Leo Stoolman officially retires after 36 years with Hughes. Although he still considers Surveyor the diamond of his time at Hughes (“It’s the exploring missions that make your blood run”), his career has been studded with many such jewels. As one of the first recipients of the Howard Hughes Graduate Fellowship at Caltech, Dr. Stoolman came to Hughes in 1949, “on kind of an experimental basis.” After receiving his doctorate, “I decided to stay on and try it out….I thought it would be a few years,” he says. “But the more I stayed the more interesting it was. After a few years, I got involved in project work and was hooked. Then it was off to the races.”
In the 1950s, Dr. Stoolman headed the Aerodynamics Department of the Guided Missile Laboratories which developed the Falcon air-to-air guided missile. He also managed the Falcon GAR-II missile project.
After Surveyor’s success, Dr. Stoolman formed and managed SCG’s Systems Laboratories (49-00), a position he held for 15 years until last month. Under his leadership, the Labs’ systems engineering experts provided systems analysis and integration engineering support for the Group’s new and ongoing programs.
During his time as manager of the Labs, Dr. Stoolman has pursued methods of improving systems engineering practices such as bettering the “product memory.” He explains, “When there’s a problem on a program, it’s important that you keep a case history of the problem, noting what was done to solve it, and put the information into a data base. Cataloging this information may be dull but it will be a tremendous value later and will enable you to learn from, rather than repeat, past mistakes.”
Recognizing that much of the Lab’s staff comes from universities, Dr. Stoolman has worked closely with the institutions. He is a consultant and advisor for the overall Hughes Fellowship effort and manager of SCG’s program, a visiting engineering professor at Caltech, chairman of Stanford University’s Industrial Affiliated program, and chairman of the company’s Doctoral Fellowship Selection Committee.
“There are a lot of other companies out there also looking for the best and brightest, so we’ve got to be competitive,” he says. That includes developing close relations with a number of universities where SCG tries to identify those engineering students with potential early. “We must do our homework at schools for a couple of years before we actually go recruiting,” he says. “Education is such a big payoff. That’s our bottom line – to get good people.”
With 36 years experience at Hughes under his belt, Dr. Stoolman has some pearls of wisdom for engineers just starting their careers. “I keep telling young people that engineering is a fine career if you just take it seriously. Take on responsibility early, don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet, and get thoroughly involved,” he stresses.
“But the most important thing of all is don’t be a loner. No matter how good you are technically, if you can’t get along and communicate with people it just won’t work. It’s the synergism that’s important in this business. Five people working closely together can do much more than five people not talking to each other.”
Looking back on a career that almost spans the lifetime of Hughes, would he do anything differently? “I’ve worked for a fine company with super people and great projects,” he says. “We’ve had some rough times but on balance, when you add it all up, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I still love the work but there are other things which one must do.”
Those “things” include continuing work at SCG on a part-time consulting basis on the university interaction task; traveling with his wife, Alfreda, around the country and visiting their children; pursuing his hobby, woodworking; and learning to master his “darn computer,” a task he has finally come to accept as inevitable.
A longtime coworker seems to sum up best Leo Stoolman’s life and times at Hughes. “It is impossible to overstate Leo Stoolman’s contribution to Hughes Aircraft Co. and to SCG,” says Dr. Robert Roney, Hughes vice president. “Having led the effort that brought Hughes its very first spacecraft program, the Surveyor, Leo has continued to contribute enormously to the development of the technical resources of SCG. He is leaving a legacy that will serve us for years to come.”