The remarkable achievement of putting the first man on the moon is often framed as an all-American enterprise. First announced as the brainchild of President John F Kennedy in 1961, the mission aimed to score a point against America’s Cold War foe, the Soviet Union, in the famous ‘Space Race’. So, few people might know that at the centre of the mission was a “genius” engineer from Anglesey, north Wales.
Tecwyn ‘Tec’ Roberts (1925–88) joined NASA’s space programme in 1959, following an early career as an aircraft engineer. He was the first ever Flight Dynamics Officer on the Mercury project, which sent the first American man into space, and an instrumental figure in the Apollo missions. For Tudur Owen, the presenter of a new BBC documentary about Roberts’s life, he was a true pioneer.
“Nobody had ever done that job before,” says Owen, who followed in the engineer’s footsteps to mission control in Cape Canaveral, Florida. “As [retired NASA engineer and Mission Control manager] Christopher Columbus Kraft says in the programme, Tec was writing the instruction manual about it.”
Roberts was part of an era that saw huge change and “massive technological leaps”, says Owen. When looking at the advancements that had been made within the century – from the “first powered flight by the Wright brothers in 1903, to the 1960s when they began sending men into space” – his achievements are “all the more impressive”.
Roberts is all the more remarkable, says Owen, considering his modest start in life. “He was brought up in a little cottage which we visited, absolutely in the middle of nowhere and with no running water or electricity.”
Though a childhood in rural Anglesey might seem incongruous with the technological sophistication of early spaceflight and the perceived glamour of 1960s America, Roberts’s rural experiences matched those around him. “Both Gene Kranz and [retired NASA flight director] Glynn Lunney called themselves country boys,” says Owen.
“Tec fit well into this scene, and [Kranz and Lunney] theorised that a reason why people from this background were so adept in this field is because they had practical knowledge and practical problem-solving skills with simple machines and aircraft. That said, it was still a massive technological leap.”
BBC Radio Cymru presenter Tudur Owen in the mission control room in Houston, designed by Tecwyn Roberts. (Image by BBC/Rocket Man: NASA’s Welsh Hero)
Roberts worked with leading aviators and astronauts of the day, including John Glenn, the first American man to orbit the earth, who “considered Tec as almost like an uncle figure”. He was at the centre of operations – not only communicating with astronauts but crucially sending them data about the speed, position and condition of the spacecraft. He is also credited with coining the phrase ‘A-OK’ to mean ‘in perfect working order’.
As well as being regarded as an engineering genius, says Owen, his colleagues remember Roberts with huge fondness. “He was a very humble man, apparently. He shunned the limelight and that possibly explains why he’s not as well-known as we think he should be.”
“I hope that the programme will help young people all over the world from all backgrounds to realise that you can come from humble beginnings and make it all the way to the top,” Owen says. “And, as Tec did, take part in what was arguably one of mankind’s greatest achievements.”
Rocket Man: NASA’s Welsh Hero will air on Thursday 18 July on BBC One Wales at 10.35pm, and will also be available on BBC iPlayer.