After graduating from college with a degree in mechanical engineering, Bob Benoit went to work for the Grumman Aerospace Corporation – the company that served as chief contractor on the Apollo Lunar Module that landed men on the moon. Bob worked as a cognitive engineer on a key component of the Lunar Module that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface in July 1969.
In researching the particular component that Benoit designed, I found the following description: “The importance of this controller cannot be overemphasized. It was this control that enabled all the Apollo lunar landings to be successful, as the necessity for manual control in the final stages of landing were crucial. In the very first moon landing, Neil Armstrong was forced to take manual control of the LM when it was headed for a boulder-strewn area. With the important help of Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong was able to land the LM safely with less than 30 seconds of fuel available.”
Now retired from engineering, Bob has found an encore career as a teacher, where he strives to inspire his students by sharing his compelling story of overcoming severe poverty to graduate from college and work in the aerospace industry – something he had dreamed of since childhood.
Q. Tell me about your career – what was your job title and what kind of work did you do?
A. I worked in various industries, but the highlight of my career – it’s a little unusual that it happened at the very beginning of my career – was when I worked for a company called Grumman Aerospace. Here I was, a kid of 22 years of age, and I found myself working on the Lunar Module. It was my first job as a mechanical engineer.
Q. So you went to college and got your degree in mechanical engineering?
Q. Was that something you knew you wanted to do from childhood?
A. Well, I do a lot of substitute teaching. I love teaching and I have, on occasion, told what I say is ‘my story.’ It’s not to brag or embellish on what I did. It’s a story about overcoming long odds to get to where I got to. If you would permit me to tell that story, I’ll do that.
A. Yes, please do.
Q. My name, Benoit, is French. My ancestors were brought here from Canada as a source of low-cost labor to work in – we call them mills, but basically they were factories in New England, and specifically this was in Massachusetts. They made either cloth or felt. My great-great-grandparents worked under the system whereby the owner of the factory built a group of multi-family homes and in the middle of this group was a store. He would pay them only enough wages to pay their rent and to buy basic necessities in his store. So, everything they earned went back to him. It was a form of organized labor known as the Slater system.
They worked under this system and my grandparents and parents worked under this system. My dad was a weaver – he ran these big automated looms – and my mother was what was called a battery hand. When a spool was running out next to the loom, she would put a new spool next to it and tie one to the other. By going without basic essentials and borrowing a little bit of money from family, they were able to buy the first privately owned home outside of what we called the village – that group of homes built by the factory owner. It was a source of great pride for our family. They had escaped this form of, I call it, legalized slavery.
When I was growing up, my parents were very poor. We came from a poor side of town. The rest of the town looked down on us as the ‘mill rats’ and they had other less desirable names for us, but they were prejudiced because we were very poor.
Ever since I was about 11 years old, I dreamt of going into space and I dreamt of aircraft and spacecraft. I built these little plastic models – I would paint up the parts and glue the parts together and put the decals on the planes. I knew all the aircraft and I read about space travel. I decided at a very young age to become an engineer.
When I was of the age to go to college, I was very excited. However, there was one problem. My parents didn’t have the money to send me to college, so I ended up working in these mills doing the work that nowadays most people wouldn’t even consider. I’ll give you a couple of examples: I worked in the basement of the felt factory scooping up rags with my hands and throwing them into a hopper to be ground up, breathing in all these fibers with no ventilation other than a floor fan, sweating profusely, and the fibers would stick to you so you’d get very itchy. Also, I worked above these dryers where the temperatures typically were 110-115°, running between machines to keep this continuous process going.
I worked under these conditions because I wanted to go to college. That was very important to me. I did manage to get enough money and I applied to one college, the University of Massachusetts and, thankfully, they accepted me.
I went to a small country school. Our graduating class was 76 students. My math teacher, for instance, mentioned that there was such as thing as calculus, but never taught us calculus. I go off to UMass, competing with other students in mechanical engineering, but students who have gone to schools like Boston Technical where they’d already had a full year of calculus using the same textbooks that UMass was using. This was easy for them; it was high school all over again! But, for me, I was over my head because my high school preparation wasn’t such that I could compete with them. I was staying up until four o’clock every morning, studying very hard. They were out partying and having a good time and I was hitting the books.
The end result was I flunked, failed, did not pass the foundations of engineering – math, physics, and chemistry. My faculty advisor told me, “I don’t think engineering is for you.” My parents said something in their own way that kind of hurt my feelings; they said, “We don’t think you’re smart enough to be an engineer.” But, I believed in myself and I believed in my dream. I wasn’t going to listen to them. I didn’t want to give up. I took the courses over again – I went to summer school – and I passed them. I managed to barely get out of my freshman year with a high enough GPA to stay in college. They almost threw me out because my GPA was so low.
By the beginning of my second year, I had developed some pretty good study habits. I was very regimented in terms of working very hard on the subjects. This was new material for all of us, not just for me. Two out of three of them failed – they flunked out of college – and I got my degree in mechanical engineering. I didn’t have a great GPA by the time I finished, but I did manage to graduate.
I fulfilled my dream because I worked on the Lunar Module program. Later, I worked on the F-14 Tomcat, which those of you who saw the movie “Top Gun” would recognize. I worked on numerous aircraft for Grumman Aerospace. Another passion of mine is automobiles and I worked with Chrysler on the Plymouth Prowler. The last 11 years of my career, I worked as the Vice President of Engineering in a fuel cell company.
The reason I tell this story is that, if I can do this under all of the disadvantages I had, then anyone who’s reading this story – any of you – can do it. The school situation is so much better now than what I had. I had two strikes against me: I didn’t have the money to go to college and my preparation to go to college wasn’t adequate.
To anyone reading this: No excuses! If I can do it under my circumstances, then all of you can do it as well.
Q. Tell me a little more about what you did with the Lunar Module.
A. For those of you who play video games, that’s probably the best analogy. The Lunar Module had two hand controllers. One was a thrust translational controller assembly and it did two things: it translated the vehicle in the three axes and, during the landing on the moon, it changed the amount of thrust coming out of the descent engine to change the landing rate as it landed on the moon. I designed that controller. I oversaw everything that had to do with that controller. I was also responsible for the other controller – which I did not design – it was designed by Honeywell. That was the attitude controller assembly and it was for pitch, roll, and yaw – the rotational movements of the controller. I had to oversee the testing and the vehicle integration.
I supported all of the missions. Anything that had to do with those controllers, I had to know inside out and be ready to respond, such as in the Apollo 13 accident. We had to throw out all of our plans and come up with these workaround procedures to save the three astronauts.
Q. On the first lunar landing, Apollo 11, who had their hands on the controller that you designed?
A. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. All of the astronauts, for the most part, were ex-military pilots. They would not let a computer land them, nor was the Lunar Module capable of automatic landing. The astronauts had to take over control and Neil Armstrong was the one who actually did that.
Q. You must have had a lot of pride watching the first moon landing and knowing that you were an integral part of it.
A. I was proud of that, but you have to realize that the Apollo program was two-fold: it was technical, but it was also very political, to get to the moon before the Russians. I was proud and kind of humbled that I could be a part of this. But I was proud of our country. There was a great deal of patriotism in the fact that we achieved President Kennedy’s goal to land on the moon before the end of the decade. It was a national ‘we did it’ pride.
Q. Given the trials and tribulations you went through, what characteristics helped you succeed?
A. First of all, it’s having a plan and having a dream. Dream big dreams. Go for it! Don’t just settle for flipping hamburgers. There’s so much more to life than that. Secondly, and more importantly, believe in yourself. My own parents said I wasn’t smart enough. My faculty advisor said it wasn’t for me. You don’t have to listen to that. Dream big dreams, believe in yourself, and work hard towards that dream. Even if you fall a little short, even if you don’t achieve that ultimate dream, you will be so much better off than if you set your sights low.
I think it’s important that young people know that, no matter what their circumstance, there are no excuses. No matter what your circumstances are, no matter what labels people might want to put on you, you are in charge of your future. Only you.
Q. There’s that saying, “Always aim for the moon – even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
A. That’s right, exactly. Well put. That’s what I would say is the key to success.
Bob Benoit received his college degree in mechanical engineering before he joined Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation (GAEC); this company was among the top contenders to win the contract for building Apollo Space Shuttle. In the end, they didn’t win the contract after they lost their bid to Rockwell International, however, they did end up becoming the chief contractor for the lunar-module of Apollo mission. GAEC later became Grumman Aerospace Corporation (GAC), a leading aircraft manufacturer of the 20th century. In the end, another company acquired GAC to form Northrop Grumman, a company that provides services to US government to this date.
Bob Benoit worked on several projects including the F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft, but his most notable accomplishment was working on Apollo’s lunar module. He worked on components that were crucial to the mission. He and his team’s work enabled astronauts of Apollo mission to use manual control for the very critical phase of moon landing.
In this interview, Bob Benoit shares his very motivating and thought-provoking life and career story. He explains how he managed to get his engineering degree against all odds. His family was poor and uneducated, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his dream of getting educated and doing something meaningful with his life.
After retiring from engineering, he chose to educate as well as enlighten the youth by becoming a teacher. It was education that Bob Benoit struggled so much to get, so it makes a lot of sense for him to choose this path. He is transferring his knowledge to youth; the next generation of engineers, doctors, astronomers, etc. Apart from education, he also shares his story with his students; it is meant to motivate them. Bob Benoit says that if he managed to become a successful engineer in midst of extreme poverty, then other people can also do the same no matter what difficulties come their way.
Bob Benoit says to dream big dreams and to believe in yourself no matter what other people say. You could never know what potential you have until you push yourself to the limit; work as hard as physically and mentally possible and see if that does not take you where you want to go.
Never give up on your dream career. Bob Benoit had everything going against him but he managed to get a degree. He beat poverty and managed to fulfill his dreams and along the way, he became part of US history for playing his role in Apollo Moon Program.