WINTERPORT, Maine — Louis Deckers says flat out that he is not a rocket scientist.
“All I did was draw pictures,” the 83-year-old retired engineer said recently, jokingly referring to the short memoir about his career that he’d put together for family members.
But those “pictures” became components on America’s rockets, including the Apollo spacecraft that 40 years ago carried a team of astronauts to the moon.
Deckers joined Thiokol Chemical Corp.’s Elkton Division in 1962, the year after President John F. Kennedy set the goal to put a man on the moon and return him safely. That division had developed the first solid fuel rockets and was in the vanguard of America’s race for space.
At his home in Winterport earlier this month, Deckers recalled that much of the work he and other engineers did at the time was done by hand, with a pencil and a slide rule. He displayed an analysis of a rocket component that he had done, a 2-inch-thick document, complete with handwritten calculations. He still has his slide rule, the numbers worn on both ends.
“We were the only generation of engineers to begin working with slide rules and end up using Cray computers,” he said.
Those were heady times for engineers involved in the space program, and Deckers said he was given free rein.
“We were in a race with the Russians all of the time; there were a lot of projects going on,” Deckers said. “It was a drug. You couldn’t stay away from it.”
Deckers worked on rockets that put spy satellites into orbit and designed a collar that supported the retro landing engines on the Surveyor lunar probes that carried cameras to help study the lunar surface in advance of the manned Apollo missions.
Four of those collars he designed are still on the moon, he said.
Deckers also worked on the design for the tower jettison motor for the Apollo spacecraft. The tower jettison motor is part of the launch escape system, a towerlike structure atop the spacecraft designed to pull the command module, which carries the astronauts, away from the launch rocket in case of an emergency. The tower jettison motor pulls the system away from the rocket when it is no longer needed.
The system was used in all unmanned and manned Apollo missions, including the historic Apollo 11 voyage of 1969. It even received a fleeting mention in the movie “Apollo 13,” when astronaut James Lovell, played by Tom Hanks, reports during the launch that the system had successfully been jettisoned with the phrase: “tower jett.”
On July 20, 1969, Deckers and his wife, Fran, were at a friend’s home to watch Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin step from the lunar module onto the surface of the moon. He said he was disappointed later to learn that more people had watched an episode of the “I Love Lucy” television show a decade earlier than watched the moon landing.
The first steps on the moon had an effect on him that remains to this day.
“I was awed,” he said. “I knew what it had taken to get to that point. But, I also knew that it wasn’t over. I knew that they still had to get them back from the moon.”
Deckers said he still gets emotional watching a launch.
“The Saturn rocket was a monument; it was a magnificent piece of engineering and it was special to be a part of that,” he said. “Even today, when I watch a launch on the screen, as it lifts off and leaves the ground, I start to cry. I know what goes into that; it is so emotional.”