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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 3, 2004 - Issue 110


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Physics a Natural Pull for American Indian

by Mary Pickett Billings Gazette
credits: Jerry C. Elliott, a NASA physicist for 38 years, was in Billings to encourage American Indian students to pursue careers in science and engineering. James Woodcock/Gazette Staff

Jerry C. Elliott, a NASA physicist for 38 years, was in Billings to encourage American Indian students to pursue careers in science and engineering. James Woodcock/Gazette Staff When Jerry C. Elliott watched the movie "Apollo 13," the Tom Hanks film about the 1970 aborted journey to the moon, his palms started to sweat.

"It was so real," Elliott said.

Elliott, a physicist with NASA, was in a position to know just how true to life the movie was.

As the lead retrofire officer at Mission Control in Houston, he played a major role in the real drama of bringing three American astronauts safety back to Earth after an onboard explosion.

Elliott, of Osage-Cherokee descent, also bears the name High Eagle, a name well suited to his out-of-this-world career. He grew up in Oklahoma and graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1966 with a bachelor's degree in physics.

Physics was not an academic pursuit for him. Instead, it was a natural extension of his curiosity of the world around him and one way to become closer to God.

"To study it is one of the most sacred things you can do," he said.

American Indians always had a vast understanding of physics, he said. Their knowledge of passive solar energy led to building homes into the sides of cliffs. Their knowledge of "arrow-dynamics" perfected the accuracy of bows and arrows.

Hired right out of college, Elliott was a flight controller in the Gemini program and went on to work on all of the Apollo missions and the Skylab, space station and space-shuttle programs.

On April 11, 1970, at 1:13 p.m. Houston time (13:13 military time), the Apollo 13 mission was launched to send the third astronaut crew to land on the moon.

Things went well until the third day of the journey as the astronauts approached the moon.

On April 13, Elliott was seated at his number 13 console in Mission Control when an explosion ripped through a quarter of Apollo 13's service module, badly damaging the spacecraft's systems.

The accident didn't just cancel the planned moon landing, it threatened to kill the astronauts by oxygen deprivation, carbon-dioxide poisoning or freezing.

Working around the clock for three days, the Houston team made certain none of those things happened.

It was Elliott's job to refigure the crippled spacecraft's trajectory so it would loop around the moon and land on Earth safely.

He had to juggle a multitude of variables to come up with the right calculations, not the least significant of which was the correct angle to enter the Earth's atmosphere. Too shallow, and the spacecraft would skip across it like a rock on a pond. Too deep, and the astronauts would burn up.

At the time, there were no such things as PCs or digital technology. Elliott used a mammoth IBM 360 computer that nearly crashed during his calculations.

Elliott's plan for a new route home for Apollo 13 worked, and the astronauts returned safely.

For his efforts, Elliott was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the U.S. government.

Even though Apollo 13 happened nearly 34 years ago, it still can teach valuable lessons about how to turn failure into success.

No one working on the Apollo 13 mission ever considered the possibility of not getting the three astronauts back alive.

Through tenacity, will and superhuman endurance, they were successful, he said.

"We didn't wait for something to happen. We made it happen," he said.

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