Old cigar, NASA hard hat among keepsakes
November 13, 2008
A 1960 "Hav-A-Tampa" cigar, a New Testament Bible, a few old government badges and a well-worn NASA hard hat are reminders to Tom Phillips of how far he has come in his Army civilian career since the early days of the German rocket team at Redstone Arsenal.
This engineer, now 75 years young, is still very much part of the military/civilian community of Redstone Arsenal, working as a technical monitor/team leader for the Small Business Innovation Research Program managed through the Weapons Sciences Directorate of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
But 51 years ago, as a young Soldier and industrial engineer, Phillips wasn't sure he would like an assignment that took him to a place he didn't even know was on the map. Through a library search, Phillips discovered that Huntsville was a city of 15,000, was known for its cotton textile mills, and shoe and Martin Stove manufacturing, and was the new home of Dr. Wernher von Braun and his missile team.
It was his last discovery - von Braun's relocation to Huntsville -- that gave Phillips something to look forward to as he made plans in 1956 to join the 3rd Army Ordnance Corps, where he was assigned to the Scientific and Professional Troops on Redstone Arsenal.
"Since I was an industrial engineer, I had an idea that I'd be working on missiles here," Phillips said.
"If it wasn't the Army and Redstone Arsenal, then it probably would have been going back to the Reynolds Tobacco plant where my father was head of engineering and working there as an industrial engineer. The draft mainly wrecked that plan. But working with missiles for the Army sounded like a challenge and a lot of fun to me."
And that's exactly what happened. His first assignment was with the Corporal missile system and continued with every rocket system up through the Saturn I program and beyond. Fast forward through 51 years of an engineer's career and it's still the challenges and opportunities of military technologies that keeps Phillips working at Redstone.
"Like so many military personnel that pay a visit to Huntsville, it becomes their home, and family and friends are developed here in Alabama," Phillips said. "I still find it hard to believe that I've been here 51 years and still enjoy my work supporting the troops."
Phillips' time as an enlisted Soldier at Redstone Arsenal set the footprint for his years of work with the Army.
"It was really a fine place to be because I was getting to work as an engineer while I was serving my country," he said of his military assignment.
There were also personal benefits to being at Redstone Arsenal - Phillips was close to his parent's home in Clemmons, N.C., and Huntsville is where he met his first wife, who he married at the old post chapel.
During those early years of missile research and development, there were three basic government organizations on Redstone Arsenal -- the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, the Army Rocket Guided Missile Agency and the Ordnance Missile Command. Phillips was assigned as a quality assurance mechanical engineer for the guided missile agency, troubleshooting failures with the Corporal missile system.
"My two years of service were very enjoyable. I was really getting to do some engineering. When they first start out, a lot of engineers don't get to do that kind of work," Phillips said. "It was the early days of the space race and we worked numerous hours."
After his Army stint, Phillips joined Brown Engineering (now Teledyne Brown), where he worked for 14 years on the Arsenal in missile research programs. While working in the Army's Propulsion Directorate, the organization shifted to the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center and Phillips became a NASA contract test engineer assigned to the F1 engineer group, which included boosters that were eventually used to put man on the moon.
"In the early '60s, I was privileged to work for part of the German team members in the test division, and that's how I ended up with the infamous 'Hav-A-Tampa' cigar, passed out to me when von Braun's son, Peter Constantine, was born," Phillips said.
"Von Braun would sometimes visit the block house during the static firing of the Saturn I booster because it was kind of his baby. When Peter was born in 1960, von Braun passed out cigars in the block house."
Phillips stuck the cigar in a mantle clock, unsmoked and in its original wrapping, where it stayed for many years until he gave it to his son, Brent Phillips, who is a contracting officer with the Space and Missile Defense Command.
"He reminds me that it's just a plain old cigar that doesn't even have 'It's A Boy!' on the wrapper," Phillips said. "I jokingly remind him that it's hard to locate 48-year-old tobacco these days."
During test firings, Phillips - who described himself as a "typical adventurous 20-something-old engineer without good sense" - often looked outside the bunker where he and other engineers were protected from a possible explosion just so he could see the engines firing. Although he was involved with the successful test firings of the F1 boosters, the technology used to launch the Saturn I into space was always a source of worry for him.
"It used to really concern me during launch whether it was going to work," he said. "So many things could go wrong. There were so many parts. It always made me nervous. I was very concerned. I did a lot of praying."
Yet, all the trouble and worry was worth it when NASA went on to have a successful Saturn I program.
"We got more than a bunch of rocks out of the moon," Phillips said. "It pushed technologies, it accelerated our standard of living."
Phillips' career with Brown ended when the government Safeguard Missile Defense program was canceled due to a treaty with Russia in the early 1970s. He left the missile research support business, going to work in the stock market and local real estate market.
"That was good until the late '70s when the interest rate hit 18 percent and no one wanted to borrow money at that rate and the housing market sales dropped drastically,"
In 1980, a call from a longtime friend and former boss, the now late Bill Blades, brought Phillips back to the Arsenal, where he was offered a civilian government job as an industrial engineer in Quantitative Analysis. After working to save the government "tons of money" as a member of "should cost" teams and after a stint on the production group for MLRS, Phillips was offered a job with DARPA.
"Since the early 1990s, I have been intrigued with the various research projects that DARPA sponsors, everything from the Stealth Aircraft technology, the Predator Unmanned Aircraft, Counter IED technology and the now famous DARPA-sponsored million dollar desert Robotic Vehicles challenge," he said.
"As a technical monitor/team leader for DARPA's SBIR research contracts, it has been with a great deal of pleasure that some of this research has grown into items that have been saving the lives of our military personnel."
One item -- the Phraselator device that automatically translates Arabic words into English when spoken into the handheld machine -- was utilized by Special Forces Soldiers when they entered Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"My contractor responsible for the Phraselator received a note and pictures of one Soldier, thanking us for the device, saying that they were able to communicate with teenagers and other civilians, getting enemy locations plus learning the location of weapons and explosives that were being stored in an elementary school close by," Phillips said. "It was a great honor when my contractor was selected the most outstanding SBIR contractor for their achievements by DARPA."
Phillips is proud of the "futuristic combat applications" he has been involved with at DARPA under the direction of his boss, David Lawson, and in connection with many Arsenal organizations. He oversees the work of about nine DARPA engineers working with small businesses on about 400 research contracts.
"It's different from rocketry, but it's still cutting edge. Just knowing that some of the research we are doing is to keep our troops safer with cutting edge technology is enough to keep me coming to work on a daily basis," he said.
"I must say that Bill Pittman (an AMRDEC engineer recently featured in a Rocket article) is to be admired for still contributing at the age of 87, and it is my own self-imposed challenge to match his diligence and stay on the job, as are hundreds of other senior type personnel still working in the Huntsville area on various research and development projects, either with the government or with private industry."
Besides work, Phillips stays busy with his "Brady Bunch" family, including second wife Cherie and seven grown children, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Once a frequent performer at officer and NCO clubs on the Arsenal, Phillips continues to play his saxophone at Whitesburg Baptist Church.
When talking to young people about careers in engineering, he tells them the same things he once told his son.
"You've got to buckle down and you've got to work for that degree. It will pay off eventually," he said. "You've got to have a plan of attack and a goal to work toward. In engineering, there were many, many nights in college when I had to study hard to achieve my goal. Now, I'm reaping the rewards. I'm having a good time. I have fun at my job."