Avco Wilmington’s Corporate Suicide

Or the triumph of instrument contour diagramming

Robert Duncan-Enzmann 

Early twentieth-century exploration of mineral concessions was a complex undertaking, often involving large areas which formed significant fractions of continents. Exploration of the Antarctic during recent years has been much more complex, expensive, and demanding than earlier explorations, requiring multi-man, multi-vehicle systems. Current explorations of the solar system by unmanned systems and increasingly by manned systems dwarfs the expenditures for the study of the Antarctic continent and its environment (Ehrick, 1968).  The International Geophysical Year may be the last major exploratory effort planned almost exclusively by panels and specialists.

The concept of instrument contour diagramming (Hovnanian, 1966) was devised to aid formalized space mission planning. It is very useful when tradeoff studies are necessary o unmanned or manned planetary fly-by, planetary orbit, or planetary landing missions. Such vehicles may be equipped with sensors that range through men, cameras, cosmic particle counters, micrometeorite counters, radars, lasers, electric field detectors, mass spectrographs, etc. A sensor could deal with such complex results as the analyses of chemical and geophysical measurements along complex traverses and even gravitational perturbations of a vehicle’s path.

Instrument contour diagrams indicate the degree of resolution possible for any mode of sensing, including field, photon, wave energy, bulk-messenger, or haptic (see the article on signature theory) as a function of the instrument’s resolving power. The resolving power of the instrument is further conditioned by the path of the platform, which carries the sensor, noises, and interference along the path of information transfer and distance of the observed object. (Miller and Enzmann 1966)

Instrument contour diagrams can be used to indicate the ability of electromagnetic sensors in orbit to distinguish what are essentially features of a planetary surface and ability of particle sensors on the surface to distinguish external features. Diagrams indicating there solvability of lithospheric (planetary crust), endospheric (planetary interior),  hydrospheric (oceanic), and atmospheric features look very similar. The diagrams indicate, at a glance, approximately what may be expected of an instrument in a fly-by, in orbit about a planet, in flight in a planet’s atmosphere, or traversing the planet’s surface (Enzmann 1966).

Such a sad story.

Well, before I joined this firm, it had scared resounding successes as designers and manufactures of heat shields for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space vehicles; their reputations were excellent.

At Huntsville, Alabama, W. von Braun’s group was placed in charge of managing the study, design, development, and construction of Voyager Vehicles, which would orbit and land on the surface of Mars.
I joined Avco when they had just lost a proposal that would have made them, and a number of firms granted funding for a first study proposal. It was quite a shock – imagine being turned down for even a first effort with their superlative successes and reputation.

Curious, I read the proposal, listened to people, and considered the department I was in – geophysics, but literally zero knowledge of geology and a poor to zilch background in physics, where I had been placed as an electrical engineer. There was more and worse. The boss was an ex ( I never really was) Hitler-era Nazi. Yet worse, he and von Braun had disliked each other in Germany and the hatred flamed here in America.

Compounding the situation, paperclip boy Kiely disliked Eastern Europeans, whereas von Braun favored them, and a significant few had come to Huntsville with him.

Worst of all, the Avco proposal didn’t address what was asked for – exploration of Mars.

All the while, real misfortune plagued me personally. Paperclip department head was negatively inclined toward me; I was an ex-enemy USN volunteer who spoke some Polish and understood Croatian. My mother was a creole, or nurse, who, as an American married to an Austrian, fled Europe in 1932 via Poland, Russia, Siberia, Manchuria to Japan, and then, on the Mushima Maru, sailed to Seattle, Washington. My mother’s clan trails to the Mayflower and, more intimately, to ship owners and traders, the Goodmans of Liverpool, who sailed in their ships to N. America, settling in Bath, Maine. Thank God my parents fled mad-house Europe in 1932. Had they not, we would have perished.

This was another item Paperclip found loathsome – insufferable. Dr. Wolf of Harvard, a biologist, and son of Max Wolf, the renowned German astronomer who discovered several stars close to the sun, was a close family friend for years. He went to my wedding. It stuck in Paperclip’s craw. The likes of me – a close family friend of the Great Wolf, who refused to know or associate with Dr. Paperclip.

After studying the failed proposal, I gained a chance to visit Huntsville. Jeered at by a chair of donkey brays, it should have greased the skids finishing me, but it didn’t. Quite the opposite. Not realized at AVCO, I was a Ph.D. geologist with field work on six continents, as well as an EE electrical engineer. What von Braun’s Voyager group wanted was a plan for exploring a planet. That’s geology. I prepared carefully and had it ready.

At Huntsville had a one-page illustration of instrument contour diagramming and a description handed out with my one-paragraph resume. A mostly German audience, I addressed them in German but spoke to Americans in English and greeted Croatians in their language. I won a study contract that day. Returning to Avco, I was humbled to start organizing the study. Is that carte blanch? That is how I saw it and went to work.

I called Sinclair Petroleum and invited them to jointly bid on the billion-dollar Voyager contract I won them over and then their chief geologist. This was great! It provided Huntsville’s von Braun with an army of geologists – phalanxes of them.

Then I called a drilling company, Associates  Schlumberger, the world’s best-known and greatest drilling company. Von Braun loved it – if there is anything in the world known about drilling on land or at sea, they knew it; who better to design a drill for Mars?

Next, I called an old friend and classmate at General Motors – to join us in a joint bid in which GM would design a wheeled vehicle for a Mars Rover. No one, at that time, could match GM.

Finally, I put together a tattered, not much of anything, group of people. I drilled and drilled and drilled them – all but two non-Avco – feeling better and better as each saw and appreciated his part of the whole. We stormed the heights and won, a really third or even fifth-rate collection of persons, but all together, feeling confident, we won.

What did we win?

We won a grant and the support of the New York Academy of Sciences, the world’s largest and wealthiest organization of its kind. Ardently supported by Mrs. Miner and Lascauwitz, who,  over decades, nurtured the Academy from a small group meeting in the NY Museum’s Dinosaur Room to the giant it became. The instrument contour, and the tattered group, had earned the day.

I would be editor and organizer of a three-day conference on Planetology and Space Mission Planning.  Back at Avco, I worked at persuading Lockheed to join in and design a way of landing a wheeled vehicle on Mars. Then I worked on getting prominent experts into the three-day conference. They flocked in. With an eye on future business, I successfully gained interest and support from Army, NASSA, Navy, Academics, Air Force, Aerospace, and Canaveral Firm personnel with great success; the NYAS is well known and respected.

Then there was an unusual incident. A major Avco executive called me.

“Congratulations, great work, and now it is time to further your career.”


“Get rid of the largely low competent featherweights and replace them with big names.”

“You are a big-name football player and WW II veteran?”

“That I am!” Nice of you to remember. Now, about….”

“STOP!” I already have many big names,” I interrupted before he could continue.

He continued, rather sharply, “Time to clean up by cleaning up.”

No,” I said, “stop. That ‘low competent featherweight gang with little to give’ gave everything they had and even a little more. Then, all together stormed an impossible position. I won’t drop a single one, and each will come out of it with more than he put in. Yes. Even now, I’m helping to write their papers. Would Rommel or Patten dump so-so companies?”

“Think you are a Rommel or Patten?”

“No, but I can dream. We are winners and stand together. And together they stand, some just moving chairs about – but such enthusiasm – it’s an attitude that spreads.”

“I don’t control money for the contract; higher management does.”

Carl Sagan of Harvard – he would, within a year, be rejected from that university and later by the New York Academy of Sciences –  was hired as a world-class genius of such towering intellect that he was one of the few walking the face of the Earth who could guide NASA and Huntsville’s Voyager project.

Huntsville dislikes him and resents money spent on him. Concurrently, Sagan has always disliked manned space efforts.

A geophysical company, somewhere in the snip of: “You hired them, and Avco lost such and such infra-red study contracts. Huntsville had them investigated and wants nothing to do with them.”

Paperclip, in a tremendous rage, fires me for cause. His screams carry a great distance: “A little boy who gets what little he knows out of magazines! How could you! Contacting Sinclair Petroleum, General Motors, Schlumberger Geophysical, NASA Huntsville, Lockheed Aircraft, New York Academy of Sciences – peddling what you learned here! You must be out of your mind! Get out! Go straight out – we will clean out your desk!

Paul Hoffman, a great manager and so highly esteemed in New York that he was later retained and transferred when Avco Wilmington failed, “Bob, you are rehired into my group.”

At the same time, Hoffman removes paperclip from all contact with Voyager programs. I gain expansion, extension, and moderately more funding for the Huntsville NASA Alabama Voyager. It includes a number of trips to Huntsville. Overuse of money to fund the study, I have no control – not even a voice.

It’s at this point managers at Avco make a decision consuming their competence and credibility to such an extent that Avco Wilmington is destroyed. It happens as follows:

Funds are spent to employ an alleged (now long defunct) Geophysical company disliked by Huntsville.

Funds are spent to employ Carl Sagan, keenly disliked by Huntsville.

There is talk of “you scratch my back or else, centering on two Avco employees, and infra-red contracts such and such, which have nothing whatsoever to do with Voyager.

It’s subdued but powerful that certain factors are politically affected to the space effort in general; strangely opposed to all manned space efforts, dislike the planned space shuttle, and violently opposed to Convair’s Orion project managed by Taylor, developing nuclear pulse propulsion for a manned exploration about Jupiter and Saturn.

I had a small voice and held that Avco, which had made heat shields for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, was natural for space shuttle and Orion vehicles, that we should contact these people, that it would be logically and easily done as the manufacturers were major speakers in the New York Academy Conference. In Wilmington, my consideration was as welcome as a proverbial turd in a punch bowl.

With the Voyager study expanded, severe action was taken. A real manager who had been in business school was brought in ‘to get this thing going.’

What follows I have never talked about, but here it is; I am too close to 100, as are the rest of the actors who have not yet departed to enjoy heaven’s salubrious climate or the other way to relish the incessantly vibrant society.

Von Braun, with members of his staff, came to my home in Braintree (not by my invitation on close terms with me; they invited themselves.)

“Who on earth is this person?” von Braun asks, very agitated. “He has no idea what he is talking about. We should immediately terminate this study – there is no way anything useful can come of it.”

I plead with him, “Please don’t terminate this given contract.”

“Why not?”

“Because I will, either through the corporation or if need be by myself, write a report which will be what you contracted for.”

Von Braun, “Very well. You could, so do it.”

“Thank you – may we offer you refreshments?”

We had fortune cookies, each with good advice about which we laughed.

Remember, it had been two days before that Dr. Paperclip (he and von Braun hated each other in Germany and here in America still do), in a towering rage with yelling and shouts that were heard all over the floor, had fired me: “Little Boy, playing at management, brazen childish carrying on, abusing my staff, daring to contact and contract Sinclair Petroleum, General Motors, a Schlumberger subsidiary, Lockheed — GET OUT!”

Within minutes I had been reemployed by Dr. Paul Hoffman, paperclip’s department is removed from Voyager. So the desired report goes out to Huntsville from Avco. I literally write it down from cover to cover.

Sadly Avco is now out of any Voyager contracts and, at the same time, Heat Shield design and construction for the space shuttles or anything else. It is said that after more than 2000 lost their jobs, some of the buildings were used by a nursing home.