Grad education powers alum’s contributions to Apollo 11 mission

// Mechanical Engineering

Tags: 2019, alumni, News

Photo of Joe Mehta

Alumnus Joe Mehta holding the award plaque he received for his contributions to the Apollo 11 project. Submitted photo.

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Fifty years ago, Jyotindra (Joe) V. Mehta (MSME ‘64) watched the Apollo 11 landing from his small apartment in Clear Lake, Texas, with a personal interest: He had helped engineer the simulator that prepared Neil Armstrong for landing on the moon’s surface.

As he and his wife watched the landing on July 20, 1969, on their small black-and-white TV with a rabbit ear antenna, he was moved by the enormity of the historic achievement.

“That moment when Neil Armstrong landed, we were thrilled beyond words and jumping with joy,” he recalls. “I felt an enormous amount of pride—not just for myself, but for the entire team that made that moment happen successfully.”

Mehta grew up in India and came to the United States to study engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He says his graduate education played a crucial role in enabling him to contribute to the Apollo 11 mission.

“I am fortunate to have been educated by the superb engineering faculty at UW-Madison, especially my advisor, the late Professor Ronald Daggett, who designed an outstanding academic program for me that laid a strong foundation for my subsequent career path,” he says. “It included courses in systems analysis, automatic controls, statistics and operations research, numerical analysis and Fortran programming, which were instrumental in developing the engineering and programming skills I would need in my career.”

Mehta started his engineering career at Sperry Flight Systems in Phoenix, Arizona, where he developed software for aircraft and helicopter flight control systems and simulators. His skills were in high demand for the Apollo 11 mission, so he was transferred to the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas, to join a team dedicated to simulator complex (SIMCOM) labs.

From 1968 through 1969, he worked as an engineer on the Apollo 11 project, where he programmed computers that controlled simulators the astronauts used for training. Notably, he worked on the simulators that trained the astronauts on how to land the lunar module on the moon’s surface.

“This training was key to Armstrong manually controlling the lunar module during the last 1,000 feet when the automatic computer controlled landing was causing the lunar module to overshoot the landing site,” he says.

He recalls the astronauts, who were not yet in the public eye, coming to his SIMCOM labs to do training runs. One of those astronauts was James Lovell, who was commander of the backup crew and capsule communicator for Apollo 11.

“I didn’t know until later that (Lovell) is also a Badger!” Mehta says. Lovell, who attended UW-Madison as an engineering student and earned an honorary doctorate from the university in 2016, went on to command the dramatic and fateful Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

After NASA, Mehta joined IBM in 1978 and worked in software development and management. He advanced into senior technical and managerial positions at IBM before retiring in 2008.

While he’s proud of the many successful products developed by his teams of engineers and programmers at IBM, Mehta says the experience of working on the Apollo 11 project as a 20-something engineer is tough to beat as a career highlight.

“I am fortunate and grateful to have the opportunity to make a contribution to the iconic Apollo 11 mission,” says Mehta, who lives in Newport Coast, California. “It’s my legacy to my family and especially for my grandson.”

Author: Adam Malecek