The Spaced Program

Doug Sherr

© Copyright 2019 by Doug Sherr

Photo of a working with a spray gun.

In the early 1960s, a friend of mine and I formed a little company to apply lubricant coatings to race car engines and space ships. We borrowed $1500 seed money from his mother and went to work. Despite having little knowledge and no experience to guide us, after four months of 14-hour days we had built a facility that passed the eye of a NASA qualified inspector. Soon after that, my partner started working harder to get rid of me than to build our business. We were trading shouts in a hostile board meeting at our company, Orion Industries, when a call came in for me from Dow Chemical Company. They were giving us the chance to bid on a sub-contract for NASA. This would be our first big project.

The irony of the moment was that my partner made a comment to the Board of Directors that it was just another creditor dunning us for money. For once in my life, I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut. At the next board meeting, which no one bothered to tell me was happening, I was voted out of office. While that was basically illegal, I was about to get a nice government contract that I wouldn’t have to share with anyone so I didn’t complain. This contract became as bizarre an adventure as I’ve had. 

The Cold War was keeping the military/industrial complexes of The United States of America and the Soviet Union happy and fully employed. The future conflict might well happen beyond the atmosphere, so the control of space could mean the control of the planet. The first country that could rely on a fuel source that didn’t depend upon burning massive amounts of fossil fuels might well win it all. The problem with these cosmic engines was that they only functioned in the vacuum of space. History tells us that there will be many failures before a technical project is successful. Each test would require a costly space launch without a sure recovery of the test gear. A terrestrial facility was needed, but until then the largest ultra-high vacuum chambers were not much bigger than a home freezer. To test these plasma ion-drive power plants, a really big chamber was needed. The John Glenn Space Power Facility at NASA’s Plum Brook Station, in Sandusky, Ohio is 100-feet in diameter and 120-feet high. It cost 350 million, 1967 dollars, to build.

While the facility was well built, the springs that held the chamber doors tightly shut would probably fail because items of similar metallurgy tend to weld together in a vacuum. Success is in the details. There was a general panic that the chamber might not function! The government asked Dow Chemical, a leader in the dry lubricant field, if they could provide an answer. They felt that one of their products, X-15, would do the job, but it was new and tedious to apply. The Government asked who could do the application and Dow said that they could do it in their experimental lab or a company in Chicago, Orion Industries, was qualified. The government always wants two bidders on any contract and since Orion was a favored customer of the giant chemical company, they told me what their bid would be and said that a penny less a unit would win the contract. The only problem was that I no longer had a prime facility designed to apply these coatings. I had no sophisticated equipment and no money to even begin to put a rudimentary operation together. What I had was a big old house and a desperate need to get something right. I told the project people that our new company name was Douglas A. Sherr and Associates, Engineers. I thought that there was a tinge of humor in this. 

After numerous delays from Armco Steel and the Union Spring Company, a truck pulled up to the house carrying 5188-stainless steel springs that resembled dinner dishes with the center cut out. Now I had to find a work force, but I didn’t have enough money to hire people who knew what they were doing. In 1967, hippies were swarming the streets of Old Town, a few blocks from the house. It was amazing how much animosity the straight culture felt towards them. The hippies had re-created the poverty and aimless wandering of the Depression their parents had suffered through and they were having fun doing it. That was unforgivable. No one would hire them and therefore, they had no money; usually they didn’t even have a regular place to sleep. They would make a fine work force. 

As high tech as the ultimate outcome of this project might be, the individual tasks of preparing and applying the lubricant coating were simple. I wandered up and down Wells Street and North Avenue, near Second City, and hustled the hippies who were hustling spare change from straight people. My biggest problem was convincing the girls that I wasn’t making a porno flick. The guys didn’t care. I was offering three dollars an hour and at least one meal a day. I found two girls and two guys who could complete a sentence and were willing to at least follow me to the house and see what I was up to. The girls had long skirts constructed from thrift store dresses. One girl had rings on her toes and occasionally raised her arms and twirled revealing the same amount of armpit hair that I had. The boys looked like a page from an R. Crumb cartoon: Keep on truckin. I felt like The Pied Piper leading a few kids from the road company of Hair.

A year before this, I had managed to rent a vast old mansion for less than a cheap apartment. The hundred year-old house was beyond the time it could be rented for what it was worth, but some years away from its demise under the guise of urban renewal. The first job was to wrap the basement in plastic. Dust was the prime enemy of this process and the old house was impossible to clean to the standard we needed. As we started spreading the sheets of plastic and turning the basement into tunnels and caverns of crinkled film, that pulsed when you walked through them, the girls were convinced that this had to be some kind of really kinky movie. When the job was done the place did look like a horror-film set gone bad. But, since I hadn’t asked them to take off their clothes, the girls were willing to come back the next day and see how far this little insanity would go.

In the midst of all of this, the FBI finally got around to checking on my alleged company, which was standard procedure for all critical government contracts. They saw the house, which certainly didn’t look like any place that did government work except maybe a safe house in a spy novel. They went to my neighbors to ask a few routine questions. Ernie, next door, had recently finished his term for manslaughter and wasn’t anxious to chat with the Feds. Across the street, Jimmy the Fence, slipped out the back door. Next to Jimmy lived my old friend, Jack King. Jack was proud of his childhood job as a numbers runner, but he had actually built a career as a photographer. It was eight o’clock in the morning when the Feds rang his bell. In his underwear with beer in hand he opened the door and invited them in for a drink. Jack’s primary charm is a perverse sense of humor. His laugh sounded like a donkey with consumption. He told the FBI that he was happy that someone was finally going to bust that commie pinko across the street, who had cell meetings every Thursday and was always talking about blowing things up. Jack said he was afraid for the little woman and his sweet baby daughter. The feds left quickly. Jack popped another beer and had a good laugh. I didn’t find this out until weeks later.

The flower children working for me were doing drugs with enthusiasm. Since there was no way I could get them to come to work “straight” I had to match their drug of choice to the task at hand. The two girls were into grass so they did the final cleaning process and inspection. Grass is wonderful for performing tedious and exacting work. Time disappears and the dullest routine can be interesting. One of the young men was a speed freak. He was perfect for unpacking, arranging, and doing the first mechanical cleaning process. The other boy was very large, strong, and quiet. He was using ‘‘downers.” Even with a respirator, large rubber gloves, and eye-protection the various chemical cleaning processes were hard to endure. The big kid was oblivious to the discomfort. Everyone was wearing surgical masks and gloves. To keep them happy I had rock and roll blasting from speakers throughout the basement.

I was in regular telephone contact with the project superintendent. He was a retired SAC pilot with a pleasant southern accent. The Strategic Air Command was proud of the high performance standards of their crews and their ability to handle the intense pressure of knowing that they might have to deliver the nuclear strike that would end life on this planet as anyone knew it. Colonel Robert Maxwell (USAF ret.) was always soft-spoken and polite, but as the job wore on he became more concerned about the delivery date. While most of the delays occurred before we got the springs, it all came down on the shoulders of the last guy on the list of sub-contractors.

I did notice that my phone had taken on a strange sound, as if I were communicating through a tunnel. Now, there was a telephone truck on permanent station in the alley behind my house and I also saw the various cars that were on a 24-hour stake-out, but I assumed they were getting ready to bust Jimmy the Fence. When I realized that I was followed everywhere, it became clear that there was a whole lot that I didn’t understand about this job. One day when I jumped into my station wagon to go get some groceries to feed the crew, I got irritated at being followed. I got the “tail” car stuck in traffic at an intersection and burned rubber across the busy street. I roared down a few alleys, screeched around a few corners and the tail was gone. I thought this was all pretty funny. It’s important to remember that I was just a young dumb kid who happened to know a little about an arcane segment of technology. 

This was the first that I had acknowledged that I knew I was under surveillance. Red flags must have popped up and bells were a-clanging in certain segments of our government that day. Imagine what they must have thought was going on? While these springs were tough, they could be destroyed. The suppliers of the steel and the finished springs said they would never take the project on again: it had been much too difficult and costly. As far as the FBI knew, I was a dangerous communist sympathizer, or worse; if they rushed the house, who knows what I might do? I returned a half hour later with the groceries and waved at the several cars that were watching the house. My adrenaline was up and I figured there would soon be a loud knock at my door and a whole bunch of explaining would be necessary. I also knew that we were doing a good job and as bizarre as the conditions were, we were fulfilling the contract. Nothing happened. Now I was confused.

The next day, I was applying the lubricant coating with an automotive spray gun when the doorbell rang. I should describe myself here, so you can understand what the caller saw: a 6 foot, 7-inch, 230-pound, full-bearded neo-viking wearing a bandanna headband, cut-off Levis, leather thong sandals, no shirt and a dual respirator mask that made me look like a giant insect. Standing there was a short, impeccably dressed man.

He said, “ How ya doin, Douglas?” in that gentle southern accent I knew so well.

He didn’t seem surprised at the guy standing in front of him and was quite pleasant, but he wasn’t interested in small talk, he wanted to see his springs. We went to the basement and Robert Maxwell, former SAC pilot and superintendent of one of America’s key technical projects walked into a scene for which I’m sure he had not prepared. Led Zeppelin vibrated through the plastic tunnels as my little speed freak hurried about arranging springs as he mumbled a stream-of-consciousness monologue that made you happy you were not living with his brain. The big kid shuffled back and forth amongst vats of steaming, noxious vapor into which he dipped cages that held piles of springs. The two girls were nodding and shouting the lyrics of the songs through their surgical masks as they attended to each spring with an array of cleaning materials. I turned the volume down and Mr. Maxwell walked around checking each operation carefully, nodding to the boys and calling the girls, “ma’am.” As pleasant as he was, his eyes checked everything out with the look of a hungry raptor.

He walked into the main room that was set up to apply the coating and smiled at Lee, a young man whose glasses always cocked off at an odd angle. Lee was applying heat to the freshly coated springs from a laboratory heat gun that resembled a large hair dryer, but was capable of melting aluminum. Lee shut off the roaring heat gun and I asked him to get us all something cold to drink. Mr. Maxwell looked at his precious springs laid out on four tables made from full sheets of plywood and asked if he could touch one of the springs. I said he could, but we would have to run it through the whole process again. He nodded and pulled a pocketknife from his pants, picked up a spring, and scrapped it with the blade. Technically, this test proved nothing, but it is a pure Southern gesture. I relaxed a little.

Well Douglas, it looks like y’all are doin a fine job here. Let’s go out and have a beer and talk about this a little bit.”

We had beer and chili and he allowed as how that stunt with the car was unnecessary. I agreed. He never mentioned my work force or the way that I was fulfilling the contract. I knew he had the power to pull the springs and have me thrown in jail, never to be paid for the work we’d done. We shook hands and his voice took on the edge of a man who knew the extent of his power. 

He said, ”I need these springs in a week, Douglas, don’t let me down.”

No sir, I won’t!”

There are a couple of postscripts to this story. The next week, when I delivered the crated springs, at dawn, to the shipping company, the dock foreman was an older “redneck” gentleman who obviously didn’t like “hippies.” He kept me waiting and was as impolite as he could be without pushing to the point of confrontation. I called Sandusky with the bill-of-lading number and went to my favorite saloon and bought too many rounds of drinks. The shipment was to go out early in the morning and arrive that evening. At three in the morning the phone rang and I answered it in an advanced stupor. 

That edge was in that voice, “Douglas, where are my springs?”

I gave him the lading number and he told me to get to the shipping company, pronto. When I got to the loading dock, the unfriendly dock boss was folded up on a stool in the corner of the office sweating and scared. A man, who was actually wearing a smoking jacket, cravat, and leather slippers was talking into two phones saying “Yes Sir!” into one and “No Sir!” into the other. He gave me a hard look and then realized that I might be important to his future, so his look softened. He handed me one of the phones. Mr. Maxwell asked if the man who accepted the shipment was there. I said he was and waved to the guy in the corner to come to the phone. If I had ever beaten a dog, I suspect that he would have had the same expression. 

It turned out that he gave the load of springs to a driver who had just come in from the West Coast and was running two log books, so that he could be on the road for twice the hours that were legal under Interstate Commerce rules. He was using “white crosses”, Benzedrine, to stay awake. He made it to a truck stop in Indiana to down some coffee and passed out. Since no one there knew him and couldn’t tell which rig was his in the parking area, they dropped him onto a rental bunk. The Indiana and Ohio National Guard were called out to find him. He was poked awake by the bayonet end of an M1 rifle and put into military custody. I’ve tried to imagine what went through his cranked up mind when he woke up to that nightmare. A military driver delivered the load.

Some weeks later, I got a call from Mr. Maxwell explaining that some of the springs didn’t meet the strict specs for compression loading and that they had to be re-tensioned. That would require hammering them in a 500-ton press and it was assumed that the coating would be harmed. I would get back 700 plus springs to reprocess; a nice little bonus. Two weeks later the call came that the coating remained intact even after the brutality of the press and that the springs didn’t need to be re-coated. I was proud of us. 

On 26 May 1972, Nixon and Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty that covered the size and deployment of nuclear missiles. As a side issue, the Space Power facility was included; the Russians were fully aware of its potential. It was closed down for ten years. It is now running again testing items like the Mars-landers and major structures for the new generation of space stations. It is still, by far, the largest vacuum chamber in the world and the springs are working fine.

Some years ago, engineers finally shut down Deep Space 1. DS1 had proved the efficacy of the Xenon ion-drive motor and had closed in on a comet and an asteroid taking some amazing photographs. Those hippie kids in the plastic wrapped basement contributed to something far more spaced out than they ever realized. For his own part, I would bet that Mr. Maxwell has told the story of the drug-infused hippies who helped advance America’s space program. I wonder if anyone believed him.

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