“Hidden Figures” brought to the movie screen the little-known story of a group of African-American women who worked as NASA mathematicians doing complex calculations.
If a movie comes out today looking at the African-American engineers who helped put a man on the moon, it should include a Pointe Coupee Parish native.
Percy Brown, a native of Batchelor and part of the first graduating class of Batchelor High School, was one of the engineers who worked on the Apollo space program.
“I worked on some unique things in my career,” Brown said Tuesday from his home in Lynwood, Calif., in south-central Los Angeles County.
These things included the largest engine in the world capable of 1.5 million pounds of thrust to one of the smallest with 1/10 of a pound of thrust.
Brown also worked on satellites and on the payloads carried by space shuttles.
Brown points out while everyone thinks of Apollo XI – the first moon landing on July 20, 1969 – it was not a one-mission world for engineers.
“We supported Apollo XI. I just happen to be one of the bunch on the Apollo team,” Brown said. “We weren’t assigned to an individual spacecraft. We were working for the Apollo program.
“I worked on many spacecraft, rocket engines and propulsion systems,” he said.
Brown was one of a small number of African-American engineers to work on the Apollo program.
It totaled 17 space missions with Apollo XI through Apollo XVII landing men on the moon from 1969 to 1972.
“At Rocketdyne, my first job was to build the F-1 engine, the largest engine in the free world,” Brown said.
The gas generator-cycle rocket engine was the main launch vehicle for the Apollo program.
The engine produced 1.5 million pounds of thrust, he said, and five of the engines made up the Saturn V first stage.
The Saturn V was 33 feet in diameter, more than 300 feet tall and weighed 6 million pounds. Its five engines produced 7 million pounds of thrust, Brown said.
Brown said he was later transferred to work on the second-stage J-2, a liquid-fuel cryogenic rocket engine that produced 232,250 pounds of thrust. Again five of them made up the second stage.
“The J-2 was new,” Brown said, “They had never used hydrogen as a propellant. It was more efficient than other engines built.”
Brown’s career hit a road bump when he was laid off by Rocketdyne. He joined McDonnell Douglas for a few months writing procedures for the descent engine of the lunar module. He then went to work at TRW Inc., continuing work on the critical engine.
The descent engine made it possible for astronauts to land on the moon. The challenge was no one knew for certain how the moon, its gravity or dust would affect the engine.
There was no way to go to the moon and test it.
“The descent engine was a break-through, but not an easy one,” Brown said.
Calculations and engineering work Brown carried out were before the time of computer calculations – all they had was a slide rule.
“So, I worked on the first, second and last engine,” used for the six moon landings, he said.
Shortly after Brown retired from TRW, Northrup Grumman bought the aerospace corporation, which supplied him with a wry observation.
“I told some people if I knew they couldn’t stand up, I never would have retired,” he said.
Most important work
“The most important program I worked on that showed our technology was the DSP (Defense Support Program),” Brown said.
Some information about the satellites probably is still classified, he added, but Brown described them as the “spy in the sky.”
When the Apollo missions ended in 1972, Brown joined the DSP. The program operated satellites first launched in 1970 as the principal component of the Satellite Early Warning System.
DSP satellites could detect missile or spacecraft launches and nuclear explosions using sensors that detect infrared emissions.
During Operation Desert Storm, DSP satellites detected the launches of Iraqi Scud missiles and provide information to Patriot missile batteries, he said.
“The DSP would tell them to go get it,” he said.
Brown is the son of the late Isadore and Annie Brown.
His father was a farmer, blacksmith and a man of many talents. His mother was a housewife.
His education began in a one-room school, in Little Zion Baptist Church on La. 418, near Innis. There was one teacher and about 35 students for grades one through eight.
In the fifth grade, the students went to the 3-room Batchelor Elementary School about four miles away.
After the eighth grade, Brown attended New Roads High School for 3 years, then transferred to the new Batchelor High.
“I broke in the new principal at Batchelor,” Brown quipped.
He was part of the first graduating class in 1959 and its valedictorian.
He entered Southern University that fall to study mechanical engineering.
“School was easy for me until (after) high school,” Brown recalled. “In college, I didn’t know how to study. At our first meeting at the engineering school, the dean told us, ‘Look at the person to your left and to your right. Neither one will graduate.’
“And he was right, less than a third of the class graduated.”
Rocketdyne recruited Brown and he wasted no time getting to work in southern California.
“I graduated on a Monday and was on Rocketdyne’s payroll the next Monday,” he recalled.
Brown moved to Lynwood in 1973, where he and his wife raised their three children.
Since he retired, Brown has kept active at the Lynwood Senior Citizens Center, where he often volunteers by calling bingo games or as a Lynwood block watch captain. Neighbors see him walking – His goal is 7,000 steps a day – or riding his bike.
The City of Lynwood recently honored its resident for his contributions to the U.S. space program.
In 2019, as part of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo XI mission, the Los Angeles City Council also honored Brown and his colleagues.
Brown was the first family member to graduate from college and his engineering career has had an influence.
He has a niece and nephew who graduated in engineering and his grandson recently graduated in engineering, he said.
Brown said he was amused when his grandson, looking at the many “firsts” his grandfather accumulated, asked, “What do I do ‘first?’
“I said I don’t know, but you can do something. Your generation can do something first,” Brown said. “Be patient. Work hard. You can be on one of the teams that does something. It’s not what school you went to. It’s the team you work with.
“My definition of luck – Luck occurs when preparation and opportunity occur. Don’t expect to get the opportunity if you’re not prepared,” Brown said.
“That’s what I preach. You can’t control opportunity. Preparation you can control.”