Don Eyles: Extra! Weird-Looking Freak Saves Apollo 14! - Rolling Stone
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Don Eyles: Extra! Weird-Looking Freak Saves Apollo 14!

A mantra of peace and love — fueled by a little weed — inspires M.I.T.’s latest computer genius

Missions Control CenterMissions Control Center

The Mission Operations Control Room in Mission Control Center, Houston, TX 1971

The Print Collector/Getty

Boston —

In a rabbit hutch in Cambridge
On the Charles by the bay
A bunch of “Hot Shot Harrigans”
for Apollo saved the day.

Things on board went haywire
Lights flashed red and green
The Rube Goldbergs down in Cambridge
Descended on the scene.

“We are lost” the captain shouted
Alan Shepard was his name
But the boys at Draper shouted
“Ain’t the way we play the game.”

They went into a huddle
The game plan showed up soon
And when the dust had settled
Antares was on the moon.

This doggerel, prominently posted on a wall of M.I.T.’s Draper Laboratory, celebrates the heroism of Don (The Ey) Eyles, the 27-year-old computer expert whose quick calculations spared Apollo 14 the ignominy of returning from the moon without ever having touched down.

The Draper Lab (named after Charles Stark Draper, “The Father of Inertial Guidance”) has the NASA contract for programming the computers that keep the spaceships on course. Eyles, who has worked at the Lab ever since he graduated from Boston University in 1966, specializes in writing programs for the landing phase of moonshots.

As the Lunar Module neared the moon last month, a vital switch broke down, jeopardizing the landing. Eyles took only two hours to devise a new computer program that bypassed the faulty switch. Not exactly the little Dutch boy, but heroic enough for 1971.

A week after his feat, Don Eyles, wearing John Lennon glasses, a drooping mustache, long blond hair, black cords and shitkickers, walks down a long hall past phones labeled “Don’t Chatter Classified Matter” and red padlocked waste cans marked “Classified Waste Only” on his way to Draper’s million-dollar mockup of the Lunar Module. The mock-up is his favorite toy. “I remember so many afternoons just sitting in this thing, flying around the universe at random,” he says in his soft Georgia accent.

“This one’s pretty crude actually,” he says, tapping the plywood frame and vainly trying to make a slide show of the lunar surface appear in the window of the Module. “They have some beautiful ones in Cape Kennedy and Houston. I’ve flown in those, too — even crashed ’em.”

Seating himself in front of the Module’s dazzling instrument panel, he points to a large, yellow “Abort” button in the middle of the board. “That’s the switch,” he says. An astronaut pushes the abort switch if anything goes wrong with the descent to the moon’s surface. The switch tells the on-board computer to reverse the engines — blasting the Module away from the moon, back into orbit. On the Apollo 14 flight, the switch accidentally jammed and would have told the computer to reverse the Module’s course despite the fact that the astronauts wanted to complete the descent. “We had to write a new program that would make the computer not see the switch,” says Eyles.

Eyles finished his task only 10 minutes before the Module was due to drop down toward the moon. As he worked out his solution, which involved punching in 26 sets of five-digit figures, his colleagues checked his calculations on the mock-up’s computer and phoned the results to Houston.

Celebrity immediately descended upon Eyles. Reporters from newspapers and radio stations called him incessantly. The presidents of both Boston University and M.I.T. sent letters of congratulations. The Boston City Council summoned him to City Hall. “There were 10-minute handshakes with all these politicians who I expected not to like but turned out to like in a way,” says Eyles. “They passed a resolution with a lot of whereases and things in my honor. I was introduced to Monsignor somebody-or-other. I was stoned out of my mind.”

As Eyles walks back to his office, 23 Cub Scouts are trooping up the hall, finishing a tour of the Lab. “Look,” says the lady guide, “that’s the man who saved the mission.” Eyles turns away in confusion. “He’s shy,” the guide tells her troops.

Maybe he’s shy, or maybe he just knows how to act when he’s outnumbered. Although Eyles, the minor celebrity, is respected by his co-workers, he looks out of place among the dozens of short-haired, short-sleeved technocrats who man the Lab. “No doubt about it,” he says, “there are an awful lot of people around here you’d have to call straight.” But the non-straight minority is growing. The Lab contains some two dozen freaks, and Eyles estimates that 25 percent of the Lab’s employees have blown grass. And he and a friend have scored a small aesthetic victory: despite loud protests from the Lab’s maintenance crew, they painted their offices violet, green and red instead of the institutional white and brown.

Eyles is one of a growing breed of Consciousness III scientists and technicians — lab workers who allow their imaginations to run free and who can appreciate the cosmic implications of ecology and space exploration. “Consciousness III” is Charles Reich’s term for the new consciousness of peace and love. “There’s a lot of it everywhere and the Lab is just one of the places where it’s penetrated ye olde military industrial complex,” says Eyles.

Needless to say, drugs can play a part in inducing Consciousness III. But can a scientist work efficiently if he has just stoked up? “Certainly,” says Eyles. “He can smoke all the pot he wants to.” Does it actually help? “Well, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve written computer programs while I was stoned which have turned out to be pretty good programs. Not that they were anything that anyone’s life would have depended upon before they had been tested by me and other perfectly straight — at the time at least — people. It’s just a matter of mental relaxation.”

Eyles and some of his fellow Consciousness IIIers regard computer programming as a fine craft that might some day be elevated to the status of an art. “It’s possible to envision a time when there are professors of the literature of computer programming. Maybe some programmers will be minor poets of the 20th Century. The trouble is that programs are written in a language there’s no audience for. It’s like Nabokov’s book about Gogol where at the end he says that if you really want to know anything about Gogol, there’s no way around it, you gotta learn Russian. It’s sort of discouraging.”

Eyles is no Jerry Rubin, but in his quiet way he passes for a radical at the Lab. He detests the Administration and loathes the flag-planting ceremonies and presidential phone calls that accompany lunar landings. However, he does not agree with the argument that NASA diverts government funds that should be used for feeding hungry blacks and building schools. “Look,” he says, “they’re devoting three billion dollars a year to curiosity that might yield good results in the long run, and eighty billion a year to the Defense budget — to killing. I’d be for a bigger space budget as long as the money came from the Defense budget. That’s the one to cut.

“Even if we had an ideal Consciousness III society, I think the Space Program would be there — just because it’s so exciting. Though God knows the NASA people try to make it unexciting.”

Aside from furnishing excitement, what good does the space program do? “It gives you a metaphor. There’s some value in being able to say: ‘If we can put a man on the moon, we can do this or that.’ It gives you greater confidence in what man can do.

“There’s another thing. In an ideal world, we would need a higher technology, and the Space Program turns out engineers who aren’t defense oriented, who never had to build a warhead.

“The Space Program seems to have a liberating influence on the arms establishment. Like Wally Schirra went in a tough military test pilot. He came out of the Space Program on the other side. He’s formed a corporation to deal with environmental problems, like cleaning up oil slicks.”

Nevertheless, the space programs and defense remain inextricably connected. A man who can build a Saturn 5 can also design an ICBM. With the Apollo program phasing out and the military budget growing, more and more scientists will have to face the prospect of making warheads to keep their jobs.

At M.I.T. next door to Draper, some of the undergraduates play a game called “Space War.” To play “Space War,” you need a television screen, a computer, and a working knowledge of Newtonian physics. The TV screen shows a planet surrounded by spaceships. Each player fires torpedos from his spaceship, aiming them according to the laws of orbital dynamics. The torpedos must destroy either another spaceship or the planet. The game is enhanced by programming the computer to include such factors as time warps, so that a spaceship can disappear “for years.”

“Better to play at it than to do it,” comments Eyles.

But the Draper Lab is not playing at it. Half of the Lab works full time on perfecting the Polaris and Poseidon missiles. Since its inception in 1939, the Lab has worked entirely on military projects. The one exception is the Apollo project. “This good example, if you will, is bound to have a beneficial influence on the other halves of the house,” says Eyles. But he still has uneasy moments when he thinks that he is cooperating with an organization that is partly devoted to building instruments of war.

There is a final reason for the Program, a reason that lurks in the minds of the many Star Trek fans at the Draper Lab. “Sooner or later,” says Eyles, “you’ll find somebody out there who’s intelligent. You never know till you look.”

Eyles clearly stands committed to moonshots, to space stations, and to the eventual conquest of Mars. On his desk sits a six-inch-thick stack of print-out, the program for Apollo 11. He pores over it, looking for ways to improve future flights and typing his suggestions onto punchcards.

But what NASA needs most, he says, is some imaginative PR. “If only newsmen could talk to astronauts as frankly as they can talk to baseball players. . . .” His mind begins to boggle. The astronauts he has met could provide reams of picturesque copy; they are hard-drinking, fast-living, generally “wild and weird.” Eyles’ three favorite astronauts, the Apollo 12 crew, used to streak around Cape Kennedy in matched black and gold Corvettes, driving in precariously close formation. “If anybody had missed a shift, there would have been a colossal pileup,” he said. He would like to see just one good autobiography instead of wooden interviews and the “shit turned out by the NASA department in charge of history.”

“One of the beauties of our big night in the Lab,” he says, “was that there was a little drama. No anti-gravity explosion or anything, but it was exciting.”

He stops, and recalls with annoyance Eric Hoffer’s remark that Apollo 11 was a “triumph of the squares.” “The NASA people loved that,” he says. “They even used it in a pretentious documentary film. Statistically speaking, I suppose it was true. But I’m waiting for someone to call our thing a triumph of the heads.”

It was a triumph of the heads. 

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