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Centenarian Radio Amateur’s Efforts Helped Pave the Way to the Moon


The Nashville Tennessean newspaper recently featured the story of a 104-year-old ARRL member who contributed to NASA’s effort to put the first humans on the moon 50 years ago this month. Cary Nettles, W5SRR, of Columbia, Tennessee — who calls himself the nation’s oldest rocket scientist still alive — was a NASA project manager and research engineer on rocket propulsion systems in the 1950s and 1960s.

While working on the Centaur second-stage rocket program, Nettles, a Louisiana State University engineering graduate, determined that rocket engine failures NASA was experiencing were a result of misdirected exhaust destroying the vehicles’ engines. Nettles told the Tennessean he came up with an “exhaust pipe” that solved the problem. In May 1966, an Atlas-Centaur launcher propelled the first Surveyor lander toward the moon. That year, NASA awarded Nettles and colleague Ed Jonash with its Distinguished Service Medal for “their superhuman effort in turning the troubled rocket into a reliable upper stage,” according to a 2004 NASA publication, “Taming Liquid Hydrogen — The Centaur Upper Stage Rocket 1958 – 2002.”

A Saturn V rocket with a liquid hydrogen-fueled second stage carried astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to their rendezvous with the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. Nettles retired from NASA the following year.

Nettles got his Amateur Radio license in 1945 and remains active on 40 meters as well as on VHF and UHF repeaters. He is a member of the Maury Amateur Radio Club. In addition to sustaining his interest in ham radio over the decades, Nettles is an enthusiast of “large-scale” steam trains, which he works on in his basement. Look for him Tuesdays at 1400 UTC on 7.215 MHz on the Steam Railroad Net.

In 2015, the year he turned 100, the ARRL Tennessee Section presented Nettles with its Elder Statesman Award. 



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