Rocket Man


In the late 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union were embroiled in the Cold War. The Soviets had just taken the lead in the Space Race with the October 1957 launch of Sputnik. A year later, NASA was born to help the Americans catch – and surpass – the Soviet Union in exploring the heavens. The United States needed men with the right stuff.

By April 1959, the iconic Mercury Seven were introduced as America’s best and brightest to reach for the stars, and, yes, to boldly go where no man had gone before.

Just two years later, President John F. Kennedy articulated the U.S. space strategy “to take longer strides” and “to take a clearly leading role in space achievement.” He then solidified America’s space destiny by committing America to the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

By July 1969, Neil Armstrong was walking on the lunar surface.

Astronauts were America’s superstars. They were hurtling into space. They were leaving footprints in the dust of the Sea of Tranquility. They were looking back at the blue-green orb from which they had flown.

But the astronauts would still be sitting on the launch pad if it weren’t for John Llewellyn and his colleagues at Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center, the precursor to the Johnson Space Center.

Llewellyn, who grew up in the Chesapeake Bay tidal basin region of Virginia and now lives near Saturn in rural Gonzales County, was one of the ones who helped America turn its sights on the stars – and the Moon. He was part of the space program before there really was a space program, and his fingerprints are all over the big-name NASA projects: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and the Space Shuttle program.

But space, while it comprised more than a quarter of a century of his life during the most dramatic period in American history, was not Llewellyn’s only interest. He was a world traveler with whom Matt Lauer would have trouble keeping up, he hobnobbed with world leaders like Kenyan founding father Jomo Kenyatta, he ranched and farmed in the exotic and emerging tropical locale of Belize, he was commissioned to search for lost gold in The Philippines, he was a Marine in two iconic campaigns of the Korean War and he had a front-row seat for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Hollywood should make a movie about this guy. Oh, wait, it did, or at least about one aspect of his career: Apollo 13.

Llewellyn grew up on a truck farm in York County, Va., a proverbial stone’s throw from Langley, home of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), where much of the cutting-edge research in U.S. aeronautics was carried out as predecessor to NASA. Before he was 19, he’d joined the Marine Corps and immediately saw action in Korea as part of the First Marine Division that made the Inchon landing that led to the recapture of Seoul and was among the United Nation troops that found themselves hopelessly outnumbered by Chinese forces at the infamous Chosin Reservoir.

After being discharged from the Marines, Llewellyn went to college to be a lawyer, but ended up in the mathematics department because he “really was a kind of mathematician in the classic sense.”

It was math that led him to the final frontier. “I just wanted to be in this thing, because I knew that it was going to be the biggest thing that we’d ever done since the Manhattan Project. And you don’t get a chance like that,” he says of the emerging space program.

“NASA was conceived right in the middle of the Cold War (replacing the NACA on Oct. 1, 1958). We had Korea and we’d really gotten warmed up, and in fact, [Alan] Shepard’s flight was during the Bay of Pigs because I was down there when it happened. I was on it when that thing happened. We were right in the middle of the whole thing, the Lebanon, all that stuff was going on.”

Llewellyn was at mission center when John Glenn became the first man to orbit the Earth, and was re-entry officer for Scott Carpenter’s flight, “which was really the last (Mercury flight).”

John Llewellyn was a contemporary to all the iconic names of the American space program: John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Jim Lovell, Gus Grissom and more.

He then joined the Apollo program, including the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. And, four months later, the second lunar landing by Apollo 12.

“By this time, you couldn’t be any better than we were. I mean really, what else could you do after you got to the Moon and landed somebody and walked around and got back in and we brought him back? I can’t even think of a second to that that’s ever happened in the world since it began, history. That’s got to be the biggest thing that ever happened. I don’t care who did it and what they say about it.”

Then came Apollo 13.

“We had had some really cliffhangers with Gemini, but [Apollo 13] was the first thing where we could hear it all and we couldn’t do anything about it,” Llewellyn recalls.

“I knew we had a problem. So I started working on a system of things assuming the service module was ruptured out, damaged badly, which it seemed like it would be, how would we get back with the LM [lunar module]. I knew all about the engines, I knew all about the control centers, I knew everything, because I had to know that.”

And when time was running out on Apollo 13, Llewellyn was in the middle of trying to come up with a solution. “Being the re-entry guy, everybody, no matter what happened in all those missions we always flew, no matter how bad it got, I remember flight saying, ‘Hey, Retro, what are we going to do?’ But then as I talked through it, I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do? I mean, if we don’t have that G and N [guidance and navigation] up and make this maneuver,’ and that’s what took it. We had to bring up the guidance control center platform, which took more resources, which took more oxygen and more energy. All of that made this thing worse. I said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘We are non-free return. The further we get, no matter how far you go on getting out there, you’re not coming back. We don’t even know what the damn thing weighs’,” he remembers.

NASA’s “No man left behind” credo came from Llewellyn. As they tried to solve the Apollo 13 crisis, he lectured those involved: “Look, remember, a long time ago in Mercury when we first started this, we’ve always had a mission rule we’d said right in the book, we’d never leave a man in orbit. And we cannot afford to do this, because this thing is in a fairly big orbit.

“[After the successes of 1969] we were feeling pretty good at what we were doing. I guess you needed that to pull 13 off. If you weren’t up and you didn’t have the kind of people, we had everybody there, we had everybody in the world trying to help us, all the aerospace companies, everybody I knew were thinking about it. And then when it was all over, it took a long time for 13 to really make any sense to anybody. All we did was try to get it fixed and get it back,” he says.

“Because that was such a turnaround, and then we worked so hard to get to find out what had happened so we could back on the program. When you think of the stuff we did like that, and made those kinds of decisions with just a few groups of people and we stayed there and we actually did it.

“Of course, it just turned out to be a success because we all did well in the whole. That’s why I say it’s a high-water mark of my life, and certainly NASA’s. But it certainly did take a lot out of me. That was the end, Apollo 13.”

Despite the life-or-death drama of Apollo 13, Llewellyn contends he had the best job in the world. Then the Moon shots stopped.

“I used to say we had lost the best job we’d ever had. Whoever had a job better than that in the whole world? That’s all I did. I went to work every day to go to the Moon.”

Llewellyn then headed up the Earth Resources Experiment Package [EREP] related to Skylab, a project he says just landed in his lap. However by July 1979, the Skylab project was finished. But Llewellyn, who left NASA in September 1981 after the start of the Space Shuttle missions, was already looking for his next challenge.

“I was the first guy to go to China, to get a China launch vehicle. I had these two satellites, and they cost me $10,000 a month for bonded storage. I went over and got the Chinese — got all involved in a Long March [rocket], too.”

Why help the Chinese enter the space program? “All the free world, our side, none of the missiles worked. The Shuttle (Challenger in January 1986) blew up, that Lockheed thing went down, Titan, whatever it was, then the French thing [May 1986 launch of Ariane failed], they had two losses. We didn’t have anything. So I just went over there, and I was the first guy over there. Well, that turned out okay,” Llewellyn decides.

His overtures into the Chinese space program led to something very ancient and completely opposite. “What happened was that I got hired by a company in Shanghai to represent the Great Wall. So I had like almost a year of nothing but working for the Chinese. I’ve always done well. I’ve always worked for people. I went all over the world on these communications things. There’s hardly anyplace I haven’t been. Uzbekistan, I just don’t know all the places I’ve been putting systems in, plus Central and South America and China. Then I started with these others guys at Skycom … [in the early 2000s]”

But time and the changing face of the space program finally caught up with Llewellyn, and he decided to pursue ventures on Terra Firma rather than outer space.

“I had my stuff in Belize, the ranch. I went back down there after I resigned from NASA and did ranching for another couple years. This was a big ranch by this time – a big, big place. If I told you how big it was, you wouldn’t even believe it — 16,000 acres. [I was] probably one of the biggest landowners down there,” Llewellyn says.

“I had a really neat life in Houston, really, when you think about it. Not only did I have a good job with NASA, and I really did have one. There couldn’t have been a better one. I had started kind of being a cowboy. I started kind of late, but I always wanted to be one, so I got myself a horse, a good one, and started roping.

“So I went down [to Belize] and did that. That was my dream, to become the baron of the Caribbean. I go through things like that. That’s just another one of them. I actually thought I could do it. I really did. I did almost do it. I don’t see any Llewellyns coming along that want to go down there and finish cutting that bush down like I did, though. My kids are not the same way,” he says.

“But it didn’t take me long to know that I had to do something else besides do that. I couldn’t believe how much I was tied down with that. I mean, I couldn’t do anything. I had to stay there.

“That’s like this job I had flying to the Moon. I mean, it’s seven days a week, 365 days a year, and you just can’t — I needed something else to do. I had to do something, go somewhere. I just couldn’t stay down there on that ranch all that time. Even though I went hunting a lot. It wasn’t anything that I had planned.”

So Llewellyn decided to look in his own backyard. “I wish I’d done this a long time ago – bought a ranch in the United States. I’ve always lived on a farm.”

And that’s what he and his wife of 34 years, Sandy, did. They looked for a place to build a home in Texas. They looked at some land and houses in Columbus and Flatonia, but ended up on a rural road near Saturn. And, as Sandy recalls, they fell in love with the secluded 66 acres that they bought in 1999 and built their home. Since 2006, it’s been their full-time residence where they’ve raised cattle, gardened and enjoyed the property’s pecan orchard and creek.

“So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”

Six separate interviews conducted by Kevin Rusnak from September 1997 to January 2001 in Houston for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project formed the basis for this article.