“This is my story, and I’m sticking with it … ” is typed in 12-point Arial text across the top of Burl Kirkland’s seven-page memoir.
Kirkland served 30 years with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration space program before retiring for two weeks and finding employment with the McDonnell-Douglas Corp. for another seven-and-a-half years. He was the fourth member added to the Apollo section at NASA.
He was born and raised in Lufkin and graduated from Stephen F. Austin University.
“When I was going to school, high school in particular, I was afraid of math,” he said. “It’s very unusual for someone to get a degree in physics and math, if they’re afraid of math. My time in the Air Force helped me to get over that. I am glad I made the change.”
Growing up he had a strong affinity for music and wanted to be a professional trumpet player. However, shortly after starting at SFA he dropped out and began working for the Lufkin National Bank and later at Pittsburgh Plate Glass in Houston doing simple accounting.
He married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ann Hampton, while working at the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company. They still live together in Lufkin.
“Mary Ann was, and is, a very intelligent girl, and had the highest GPA ever achieved in our high school when we graduated,” Kirkland wrote in his memoir. “Isn’t it a shame that intelligence is not contagious?”
He joined the Air Force in 1952, during the Korean War, and attended Air/Ground Radio Operator School at Keesler Air Force Base for six months, then took another three months of courses to become and instructor. In September 1955 he was sent to Simiutaq, Greenland, for a year while his wife and son returned to Texas.
“That was quite the experience that I never want to do over again,” he said.
While in Greenland, Kirkland used the information he garnered from teaching radio technology for nearly three years to design an antenna to send messages back home. They would reach an operator in New York and that person would connect them further south.
After leaving the service he did odd jobs while going back to SFA to finish his degree in physics and math. He graduated in the summer of 1960.
“I graduated after the first summer semester, which is the absolute worst time you can graduate from college,” he said. “Because it’s after the June graduates have already gotten all the jobs, and at that time we were in a recession anyway.”
When he was unable to find work locally, Kirkland reached out to a workforce agency for help. After a few years working at an RCA Service Company at Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Florida, he was connected with the U.S. Space Program.
In 1963 he began applying for positions at NASA. His resume made the rounds before landing on the desk of Carl Huss, the MPAD Flight Analysis Branch Chief, in Houston.
“He made me an offer, and I jumped at it,” Kirkland said. “Not only was I going to work for NASA, but I was coming back to Texas.”
He joined the Apollo crew with Bill Lamey, Jerry Bostick and Chuck Pace. Clay Hicks was their section head.
“Our primary responsibilities included detailed trajectory design and mission analysis, operation contingency procedures analysis, real-time mission support for trajectory control and flight dynamics and operation post flight analysis,” Kirkland said.
His first real job was to design the rocket’s trajectory and prove the capability of the command module heat shield, he said.
He remembered the day he watched President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade pass his worksite — the day before Kennedy was shot.
Because of his connections with RCA engineers, he was able to facilitate the hiring of several engineers who also contributed to the successful launch of Apollo-Saturn 201 — an unmanned flight to test the Saturn 1B launch vehicle — on Feb. 26, 1966.
His team was devastated by the Apollo 1 fire that resulted in the deathes of astronauts Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Ed White.
He was instrumental in improving the design of the Apollo Launch Escape System by doing impact predictions for the launches using programs written by Richard Heetderks.
When the Apollo group was segmented, Kirkland was moved to the Lunar Landing Branch under Floyd Bennett, where he worked on the Lunar Module descent trajectory design. He also helped design the trajectory to allow good surface visibility, which would provide for a safer descent.
After the Apollo mission Kirkland was moved to the Advanced Mission Design branch under Jack Funk.
“I did some interesting studies with regard to the shuttle system design, including the Orbiter center of gravity,” he said. “I was fortunate to be one of five engineers in AMDB to work on the conception, design, development and successful presentation to shuttle program management of the suborbital tank disposal concept for shuttle.”
His career with NASA would continue along various paths until his retirement in December 1989.
Kirkland still remembers Jan. 28, 198,6 when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members.
“Just 10 days before, they had all been in our facility for the bench review and two of the crew members were close friends with some of my office mates. Life is sometimes hard,” he said.
He worked with Boeing to utilize the shuttle down time that was needed following the Challenger disaster. They used the time to run simulation after simulation after simulation, he said.
“We simulated every task that could be simulated, and then did it again and again, etc. It actually was valuable experience. Finally the program resumed in September 1988 with the flight of STS-26, and life returned to normal,” Kirkland said.
Following retirement he joined Mcdonnel Douglas as a senior principal engineer. He stayed there with several other NASA retirees until August 1997.
Mary Ann and Kirkland moved back to Lufkin in 2001.