Jerry Woodfill, an engineer who worked diligently behind the scenes during NASA’s Apollo program, has passed away at age 79. Jerry was still employed by the Johnson Space Center (JSC) at the time of his death, working there for over 57 years. Most notably, Jerry worked as the lead engineer behind the Caution and Warning System on the Apollo spacecraft, which alerted astronauts to issues such as Apollo 11’s computer problems during the first Moon landing, and the explosion of Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks.
While continuing his work as an engineer at JSC, Jerry’s infectious enthusiasm for spaceflight led him to also be part of NASA’s public and educational outreach, where he spearheaded programs for children, teachers and adults about science and space flight. He routinely gave over 40 lectures a year, both in person and online to listeners around the world. His unique sense of humor and sometimes unabashed showmanship could hold even the shortest of young attention spans, and Jerry usually had his audiences either in stitches or fully captivated by his stories.
His passion and never-ending interest in spaceflight history was the inspiration behind Universe Today’s multi-year series on Apollo 13, “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13,” “13 MORE Things That Saved Apollo 13,” and “Even More Things That Saved Apollo 13.” I first interviewed Jerry in 2007, and have been honored to call him my friend ever since. His passing leaves a void in the universe.
Jerry Woodfill in 1965 shortly after he started working at NASA. Drawings of the Apollo Command Module display are taped on the wall behind him. Image courtesy Jerry Woodfill.
Born as Jared Ryker Woodfill IV in 1942, he thought his given name was too formal, and so preferred being called Jerry. He tended to downplay his role at NASA, calling himself a “low level engineer,” but he was an integral part of the cog of engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make it possible to reach the Moon.
To encourage students who might be experiencing challenges, Jerry often shared his story of overcoming academic and athletic shortfalls. While attending Rice University on a basketball scholarship, his life on and off the court wasn’t going as he had hoped.
“Sadly, I hold the record of the lowest shooting percentage in Rice University history…one out of eighteen shots!” he told me years ago. “And the one shot I made at Baylor University with seconds left in the first half was a desperate 35-foot pass to our center under the basket. It sailed too high and went through the hoop. My only basket was actually a bad pass! In truth, I was zero for eighteen.”
He wasn’t doing well in his classes either and faced academic suspension. He was unsure of his future. But then President John Kennedy visited Rice University in 1962, and delivered his iconic “We choose to go to the Moon” which helped propel NASA’s Apollo program into reality. Fully inspired by the speech, Jerry turned in his basketball shoes and focused on his studies of electrical engineering, intent on becoming part of the space program.
His dream came true and he joined NASA in 1965, just in time to help to build the Apollo spacecraft.
Jerry compared the Caution and Warning alarm system on the spacecraft to the lights that come on in an automobile when the battery is low or the generator isn’t working. “We had to come up with the best means of telling the astronauts they had a problem,” he said. We had to make sure the alarm system worked right.”
He worked with contractors, fellow engineers, flight controllers and astronauts on the alarm systems for both the Command Module and the lunar lander.
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