Remembering Don Arabian, the ‘Mad Genius’ Behind NASA’s Apollo Engineering Team

He is survived by his 3 children: Donald, Shawn, and Darby; two grandchildren- Jennifer and Matthew and one terrific grandchild– Andrew.

From “Eight Years to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Missions” by Nancy Atkinson
According to an obituary, Arabian passed away in harmony on August 11th, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where he retired in 1978. He was the first American ever to visit Chinese launch centers.

” Don was flamboyant, clever as a whip kind of a person,” Apollo flight director Glynn Lunney remembered in an oral history. “He used to intimidate the engineering team in terms of his demands for this and information for that and tests for this and so on, and for clear thinking, in my view.

During the Apollo missions, around 100 engineers at a time operated in all the time shifts, continuously examining inbound data from the spacecraft and sharing any pertinent data with other assistance rooms and the flight control team. Even throughout “down times” of an Apollo flight, the MER might be loud with conversation and analysis. Throughout essential points in the objective, such as orbital insertion maneuvers or lunar landing, everyone in the MER swung into action.

” The person he desired most was among his assistants, a man called Bob Fricke,” said NASA engineer Norman Chaffee, whose workplace was on the same flooring. “Whenever Arabian desired Bob, he d simply holler out, FRICKEEEEEE!!” The noise would resonate throughout the structure, and Fricke would come running down the hall.

Those who worked with him throughout the Apollo days remember most clearly that Arabians primary mode of interaction was shouting. His flourishing voice was simply under the decibel level of the threshold of pain,” recalled Apollo engineer Jerry Woodfill, who led the Caution and Warning System on the Apollo spacecraft. He worked on all the major U.S. human space programs from Mercury through Apollo, and led the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office (1968-1973), and later on was Manager, Program Operations Office at Johnson Space Center (1973-1979). In the MER, Arabian and the team of engineers (who called themselves the Mer-men or Mertians) worked through any problem that emerged during the Apollo missions, most especially, resolving myriad issues that happened throughout the Apollo 13 objective, assisting to bring the crew house securely.

” Compared to the calm, ordered military-like accuracy in Mission Control,” said shuttle flight director Milt Heflin, who led the Apollo spacecraft healing group after splashdown, “in the MER, there were times it looked like everybodys hair was on fire.”

In my book “Eight Years to the Moon: The History of the Apollo Missions,” Woodfill said Arabian commanded the MER group from his “throne-like” center seat of one of the long tables.
Arabian would have a list of all the spacecraft anomalies and would examine them off with gusto as the issues were fixed. Whenever an issue turned up, he needed to know all the alternatives, and he worked in absolutes. If anybody ever said, “I think this may be the issue,” Arabian would retort, “I do not offer a damn what you think, provide me your information!”

Don Arabian, in the Mission Evaluation Room (MER) throughout Apollo 11, utilizing his main mode of interaction, screaming. Credit: NASA/JSC.
” His mind operated so quick, he could not get the words out quick enough,” Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin informed me during an interview in 2018. “The quicker he talked the louder he got. But everybody knew to listen since Arabian was constantly right.”

” Don was like that,” Jenkins stated. He likewise respected your conclusions, as long as you had the data to back it up.”
Beyond the MER, Arabian continued his high-energy methods, running a tight ship. His workplace was found on the 3rd flooring among the MSC office buildings, and when he desired to speak to some somebody, he didnt bother to get the phone, he d just yelp out their name.

” In the past several years, all of us have actually dealt, sadly, with so many of the Apollo space exploration giants passing,” stated Woodfill. “Though Dons current death may not be as significantly acknowledged, for me, Don Arabian is memorable. I believe that more than anyone, through his deeds, personality and passion, Don brought President Kennedys well-known Apollo pronouncement of sending a male to the Moon to pass, specifically the part about “returning him safely to the Earth. He was my career coach.”

Any hair-on-fire activity was led by Arabian.

Those who worked with him during the Apollo days recall most clearly that Arabians main mode of communication was shouting. He would yell, swear, yelp; whatever it required to get an immediate answer to his concerns and needs. He was a brilliant engineer, with a fast and instinctive mind and an ingenious knack for examining spacecraft anomalies.

Engineers in the Apollo MER (Mission Evaluation Room) sitting shoulder to shoulder on long tables.

” Don was extraordinary and charming. His thriving voice was just under the decibel level of the limit of pain,” recalled Apollo engineer Jerry Woodfill, who led the Caution and Warning System on the Apollo spacecraft. “He might blast across the MER so that an engineer farthest from him could quickly hear his declarations, command and concerns.”

Engineers in the Apollo MER (Mission Evaluation Room) sitting shoulder to shoulder on long tables. They could eavesdrop on all the interactions loops, however had to see their data on shared CRT screens along the wall. Credit: NASA/JSC.
The Arabian-led MER ran as a support room for Houstons Mission Control, and housed a diverse group of engineering specialists across a number of different disciplines for both the team and the spacecraft, as well as experts from the different specialist companies that developed the spacecraft or systems.

His nickname was “Mad Don,” and anyone who had the privilege of satisfying him or working with him explained Arabian as “one of a kind,” “colorful,” and “completely and totally memorable.” But in the book “Apollo: Race to the Moon” authors Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox designated Arabian as one of four people responsible for the success of the Apollo Program.

One MER engineer, Lonnie Jenkins from the Propulsion and Power department, compared Arabians relationship with the MER engineers to a cartoon of a wolf and a pet that were constantly combating, however when the noon whistle blew, they would take a seat and peaceably eat lunch together.

Arabian originally joined NASAs founding company, NACA (The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) in the early 1950s. He dealt with all the major U.S. human area programs from Mercury through Apollo, and led the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office (1968-1973), and later was Manager, Program Operations Office at Johnson Space Center (1973-1979). In the MER, Arabian and the group of engineers (who called themselves the Mer-men or Mertians) resolved any problem that developed throughout the Apollo missions, most especially, solving myriad problems that happened throughout the Apollo 13 mission, assisting to bring the crew house securely.

One of the truly unsung heroes of the Apollo program has passed away at age 95. Donald D. Arabian, Chief of the Apollo Test Department, headed the Mission Examination Space (MER), which was accountable for resolving in-flight issues throughout the Apollo objectives to the Moon.

Author: NEWS

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