W.E. Williams spent most of his life working on classified information, conducting research in some of the country”s top scientific and technological labs. From the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., to NASA headquarters, Williams didn”t just witness history — he played a unique role, helping develop space age technologies that captured the imagination of a nation.
Williams celebrated his 90th birthday in April. Friday afternoon, he took time from his latest passion — genealogy — to remember a time period he knows his great-grandchildren may only get to experience through museums.
Did you grow up in Columbus?
I was born in Hattiesburg, went to Mississippi State, and graduated in 1942 with a degree in physics.
I understand you and your wife, Celeste, have been married 68 years and have a remarkable ”love at first sight” story. Tell me about it.
The day before I graduated, my roommate, Sidney Cox, had a little barbecue, and she was invited. I talked to her at the party, and the first thing I said to her was, “Are you going to marry me?”
She kidded me and said, ”Sure!””
How did you know she was “the one” so quickly?
You just talk to somebody and you get along with them, and you know. We dated about a month. She met my family. Then I left for Washington, D.C., to work at the National Bureau of Standards. Stayed there four months, came home on the train, and married her.
Was Washington a big change from rural Mississippi?
It was a different world. Big town, and lots of traffic.
How did you get involved with NASA?
I was working with some guys in Huntsville (Ala.), including Wernher von Braun (a rocket German scientist who worked on the U.S. Army intermediate range ballistic missile program, a forerunner of NASA). We were working on the Jupiter missile and the first (space shuttle) re-entry work. That was a lot of fun.
I met Charles Lindbergh, who was down there on a VIP thing at Cape Canaveral (Fla.). In 1959, I went to NASA.
What was NASA like in the early days?
It was pretty primitive, really.
We flew a mission, and I got them to make me a tape recording of my channel signal (from the mission.) Everything was interesting back then, because you didn”t know what was going to happen. They called and said, ”We haven”t seen anything like this.” It didn”t make sense.
We hooked a speaker up to the (recording) and heard, ”Thump. Thump. Thump. AAHHHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEE!” This loud scream.
And I said, ”They”ve got a monkey on board!” It was when it was going through liftoff, going through G forces.
The monkey had a little gadget with lights in front of it. He could work buttons, and if he did it right, he got a banana pellet for a reward. That monkey was (named) Able.
At that time, we didn”t know if anybody could even function in weightless conditions.
I”ve read that Able was the first monkey to survive a journey through space, but you said he was screaming. Was he OK?
Yes, but we couldn”t get that monkey back in the couch ever again. (The couch was the name for the foam-covered capsule which held and protected Able during flight.)
What are your thoughts on the U.S. government”s decision to end the shuttle program?
Back then, everybody seemed interested in it and backed the program. People talk about wasting all that money flying into space. My answer to that is: We never sent a dollar to the moon. I think (ending the program) is the biggest farce this government”s made. It”s (President Barack) Obama”s worst decision, as far as I”m concerned.
How do you think the world has benefited from forays into space?
It promoted a lot of technology. It speeded up an awful lot of things.
Did you watch the news coverage of the final mission and the return of Atlantis July 21?
Do you miss it?
There was always something new. We didn”t have a book to look at — we were trying to do something that had never been done before. I think about it a lot. It was always so interesting.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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