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.”