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Rotary Happenings: Rotarians hear from Project Apollo software engineer

By ROTARY CLUB - | Apr 6, 2021

PHOTO PROVIDED Edward Grace, who worked on Project Apollo, was the guest speaker at a recent meeting of the Sanibel-Captiva Rotary Club.

Space exploration has always been a fascinating topic, especially now with the “common” man able to explore in the near future. The Sanibel-Captiva Rotary Club’s recent guest speaker was Edward J. Grace, who worked on Project Apollo from 1963-72 and was employed at the MIT Instrumentation/Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a principle engineer.

MIT had a contract with NASA to design and develop the Primary Guidance Navigation & Control System (PGNCS) used for the Apollo Command and Lunar Modules during flight missions. The PGNCS included the Apollo Guidance Computer, its operating system software and flight specific software used for each of the Apollo missions. Grace was working at the Johnson Space Center Houston in support of NASA Mission Control Center personnel for the duration of the Apollo 13 mission. He was involved in the development of the Apollo Guidance Computer operating system software, as well as the flight specific software created for each of the Apollo missions including the Apollo 11 Moon Landing Mission and Apollo 13 Mission. Grace was working at the Manned Spacecraft Center Houston in support of NASA Mission Control Center Personnel for the duration of the Apollo 13 mission. He was a member of the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon on April 18, 1970.

After Apollo, Grace was a member of the MIT/Draper team, approximately 10 engineers who designed and developed the first digital “Fly-By-Wire” computer controlled airplane system, which culminated in a successful flight at Edwards Air Force Base in California in 1972. The F-8 Fly-By-Wire System was developed by modifying an existing Apollo PGNCS System which had become available when the Apollo program was canceled early. Based in part on a recommendation from Neil Armstrong, who was directly familiar with the Apollo Guidance Computer through his historic lunar landing, NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center chose to work with MIT/Draper Lab to adapt the Apollo PGNCS for aircraft flights. In 2010, the Fly-By-Wire technology was chosen to be included in the Space Technology Hall of Fame. The Space Foundation, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in cooperation with NASA selects technologies to be included in its hall of fame, that have transformed space technology into commercial products that improve the quality of life for all humanity.

Grace resigned from MIT Draper Laboratory in 1973 to start his own company, Design Data Inc., which was acquired by Data General Corporation, a New York Stock Exchange Company at the time in 1977. After a four-year stint with Data General, he resigned and started another high-tech company, Avatar Technologies. Grace has been retired since 2004 and lives in Naples. He is an instructor at Florida Gulf Coast University and lectures regarding Project Apollo and Space Exploration to schools and private organizations. In his younger days, Grace was a football official for the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference, officiating college football games for the ECAC schools as a hobby.

The Sanibel-Captiva Rotary Club holds a meeting on Fridays at 7:30 a.m. at the Dunes Golf and Tennis Club, at 949 Sand Castle Road, Sanibel, and via Zoom. To attend in person, email Bill Harkey at William.Harkey@gmail.com; attendance is limited to 20 people. To take part via Zoom, call 239-472-7257. For more information, visit sanibelrotary.org or www.facebook.com/sancaprotary.