July 13, 2019

Mallory Herrmann

Harold Finch would have studied space science in college, except there were not yet any programs available. Instead, he earned a master’s degree in thermodynamic engineering and created a program to predict satellite temperatures – and, soon, had a major role with a young NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).

Dr. Finch poses with a model of the Apollo rocket

Though some might have considered him too young or inexperienced, Finch submitted a proposal to NASA to help them with one of the biggest problems space has to offer: deadly temperature extremes. Finch’s concept was that if you could spin the rocket (“like cooking a chicken,” he says), you could maintain a balanced temperature and protect both astronauts and spacecraft from burning or freezing.

And that is how he came to be the program director for the Apollo Heating Program (AHP), which supported the Apollo moon landing 50 years ago this month.

Dr. Finch analyzing reflectivity of metals in simulated space for Westinghouse

While Finch says that the hardest thing about the project was working with people – physics and math may be complex but they are predictable and they don’t argue back – that didn’t make the work any less complicated. Those working on the project would need to know where shadows might fall because they could cause critical components to freeze – and put the entire mission in jeopardy.

Dr. Finch on right working on 1:10 scale model of Apollo. KU intern on left.

A 1/10 scale model of the Apollo rocket was built according to NASA’s blueprints, and a search light was placed to mimic the sun. His team recorded whether or not a shadow appeared on each of 950 locations of concern on the rocket. Then they moved the “sun” one degree and started over, repeating for a total of 360 degrees around the model.

But the tedium paid off. The program ran in real-time during all nine flights to the moon, rotating the rocket accordingly to keep the temperature extremes in check.

Dr. Finch attaching scale model of Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) to the Command Module

When the Apollo Lunar Module landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, Finch was watching on a little black-and-white TV with his parents at their home in Collins, Missouri. He remembers looking up at the sky that night and realizing, “There’s people up there!”

“It still gives me goosebumps,” Finch says of his part in the project. “I feel very fortunate to have been able to participate.”

He adds that while it was the United States that got someone on the moon, it was truly an achievement for all humankind.

And that’s just the beginning. Thinking about the possibilities of space tourism and current research, Finch says, “I think it’s going to get really exciting.”

Hand-written note from Apollo 15 lunar astronaut, Jim Irwin

“Space is a perfect laboratory,” he says, explaining that without atmosphere, wind and other interference, the opportunities to explore are incredible. Plus, space research has not been confined to the lunar orbit, with anything from the development of computers and smart phones to Teflon-coated pans having ties to the space program.

Later, he would earn a doctorate degree in higher education and has since enjoyed teaching and sharing his love of space science with people of all ages. Today, Dr. Finch is a 30-year resident of Lee’s Summit. He is preparing for a full week of festivities in honor of the moon landing’s fiftieth anniversary, with talks around town, interviews and attending a Royals game in the honorary Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat.