Robert Edwards


Robert Edwards
Columbus, MS, USA
Associated organizations
NASA, US Air Force
Fields of study


The original version of this article is © 2013, by Lee Norbraten

The Exterminator

Apollo reentry guidance is not for the faint of heart or the academically challenged. Among the distinctives of the Apollo 8 Mission of December 1968 was that the command module for the first time re-entered the atmosphere at the breathtaking speed of 25,000 miles per hour. As the atmosphere gradually braked the speed, the kinetic energy was converted into heat, and the module was cocooned in a shroud of superheated air for several minutes until it slowed to the point where the parachutes could be deployed. The approach angle into the atmosphere had to be controlled to within a half degree of 6.5 degrees, or else the spacecraft would have either burned up or skipped off the atmosphere and into the blackness beyond. During entry, the capsule had to maintain its attitude while the entry guidance directed it toward the spot where a recovery ship could retrieve it. All previous manned missions had re-entry velocities closer to 17,500 miles per hour. Originally, the Apollo sequence of flights included a fast entry from a highly elliptical earth orbit, but that particular flight was canceled when the mission sequence was disrupted by the late delivery of the Lunar Module. Modeling, planning, and analysis of this critical flight phase were entrusted to the Reentry Studies Section under Claude Graves. When Apollo 8 re-entered the atmosphere on December 27, 1968, Lieutenant Robert Edwards was the newest member of that section.

The ability to simulate an Apollo type re-entry tested the limits of computing power in the 1960s. The programs were exceedingly complex, and were always being modified as new information was learned. Then, as now, computer program logic was subject to error, and the ability to isolate and correct a bug in the software required great skill and patience. This was the forte of Lieutenant Edwards, and his peers give him the well deserved accolade as the “exterminator”, the guy who found the bugs, eliminated them, and kept the programs running smoothly. While his Air Force tour of duty with the NASA team was only three years, he made significant contributions to both Apollo and Space Shuttle entry guidance. This is his story.

Mason-Dixon Heritage

Robert was born in 1940 in Columbus, Mississippi, the third of four children of Charlie and Lillian Edwards. Presumably the tension between the Union and the Confederacy had begun to ease, as the young lady from Philadelphia was successfully courted by the down home Georgia native. Life was anything but easy for a growing family in the America of the 1930’s, and the head of the family took work wherever it could be found. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor soon brought America into the war that it had tried to avoid, and Charlie Edwards and his family did their part and more for the war effort. Charlie went to Washington State to a job in the defense industry, and the family stayed with relatives in Georgia. Charlie then came back across the country to the submarine pens near Savannah. Following the war, the family returned to home territory in Haralson County, Georgia, about fifty miles west of Atlanta to re-establish their lives in the small county seat of Buchanan. Charlie worked as a carpenter, but later became the County Clerk and a probation officer. Lillian worked in the Arrow shirt plant. Like most of his NASA colleagues, Robert was not a child of the pampered country club set.

Small Town Values

Everyone should have the privilege of growing up in small town like Buchanan, a place where there is a supportive community watching over your development, but also the freedom to get away within minutes to the peace and solitude of the countryside. Hardly anyone was truly well-to-do, and the families that had weathered the depression and survived the war naturally passed on to their children valuable lessons about hard work, thrift, the importance of education, and compassion for those less fortunate. Their values were imprinted on their children, who often found success far beyond the ambitions that their parents dared dream for them. Certainly this was true of Robert. He worked from fourth grade through high school at a dairy farm, arising early to milk the cows, and learning discipline and perseverance in the process. The reward was a little spending money of his own and the knowledge that he was contributing to the economic well being of his hard-working family.

High School Honors

As a child, Robert was more bookish than his pals, and accumulated a knowledge base far greater than school would ever provide. By the time he reached high school, he was reading the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the works of Shakespeare not as assignments, but rather for the fun of it. If he enjoyed literature, he was gifted in mathematics, and soon surpassed the capabilities of his high school math teachers to teach him. One must not think of him as an egghead, because he was active in varsity sports and in the other activities that high school offered. He graduated with honors from Buchanan High School, a member of the class of 1958.

Fast Track to Adulthood

A common caricature in contemporary American society is the child who in his late twenties still lives in the basement of his parents’ home, never having made the transition to adulthood. Such lazy luxuries were not tolerated 50 years ago; a young man was expected to establish his independence and self-sufficiency at an early age, and Robert was now on that fast track to adulthood.

Finances limited Robert to attendance at West Georgia College down the road in Carrollton where he received a small scholarship while majoring in mathematics. By the following year, he had earned a partial scholarship and was enrolled at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. While he did well academically, he did not have the financial resources to continue, and was forced to drop out of school in 1960. Robert credits the next year as perhaps the most important to his education, and it was the year he was not in school but working, first in construction, then in automobile assembly, then as a clerk for the Department of Agriculture.

Now as he approached his 21st birthday in the year 1961, his life and his future were about to change dramatically. He married a girl by the name of Laurie Holcomb who was from the “big city” of Rome, just north of Buchanan. He then enlisted in the Air Force in order to take advantage of a special program that would ultimately allow him to complete his undergraduate degree, and from that point to be commissioned as an Air Force officer. Following two years as an airman, where he was a technician on the Mace B Missile, maintaining missile inertial navigation systems and test equipment, he was sent by the Air Force to the University of Missouri in Columbia. Changing his major from mathematics to electrical engineering, he graduated second in his class in 1965, and then proceeded to Officer Training School. His transition to full adulthood was now complete.

The Educated Officer

Robert’s initial assignment as an officer was to Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Florida, where he supported operational testing of air-to-air missiles and rockets. This assignment was brief by Air Force standards, lasting less than two years. Showing great academic promise, he was selected for a graduate program in Astronautics and proceeded to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, completing a Master’s degree in 1968. At this time, the Air Force was selecting some its smartest and most promising young officers for a unique assignment, namely to join the NASA effort to send humans to the moon and return them safely to earth. The Air Force had its own ulterior motives for these special assignments, related to strategic plans for manned orbiting laboratories supported by command and control capabilities similar to MSC’s Mission Control Center. This turned out to be a model symbiotic relationship. NASA gained a significant intellectual resource that could be put to work on ongoing manned space programs, and the Air Force’s interest in future space applications profited greatly from the on-the-job training that its officers were receiving.

Joining the Re-entry Team

In late 1968, Lieutenant Robert Edwards joined the Reentry Studies Section of the Landing Analysis Branch within the Mission Planning and Analysis Division. At the time he arrived, Claude Graves was the section head, but with Claude’s promotion, Jon Harpold assumed the supervisory role, and the remainder of Robert’s tour was under Jon’s leadership. After a period of orientation on entry guidance, he was given responsibility for the hybrid reentry simulation used in engineering analysis. This simulation was under continual improvement, and additions were made to include representations of cockpit displays and the ability to support statistical studies of man-in-the-loop reentries. Eventually this simulation became a favorite of the astronauts because it supported a higher volume of runs than the primary training simulator, and because experts like Jon Harpold were on hand to discuss results with the flight crews. Eventually this simulation enabled improvements in backup crew procedures that would result in splashdowns much closer to the target area.

Robert’s debugging ability of complex simulations soon became his stock in trade. These corrections were necessary to make the programs run more efficiently, but more importantly, to sometimes correct errors that had mission safety implications. Dave Heath, who was one of the lead entry analysts, testified that Robert was indispensable to the effective running of the entry simulations. One discovery and correction that Robert made in the Apollo Reentry Simulation was that approximation techniques for computing integrals associated with fuel usage by the Reaction Control System to offset rotational forces was underpredicting the rate that fuel was being consumed, often by as much as 50%, and therefore the propellant margins allocated had to be readjusted.

In 1970, work began in earnest on the development of entry strategies for the Space Shuttle, and Robert collaborated with Jon Harpold to create a reentry guidance concept. Apollo had used a constant-g controller that was not particularly well suited to Shuttle entry which required greater accuracy to reach the designated runway. Early modifications suggested a variable-g approach that could control range to the target more accurately. This was later modified by the ability to modulate pitch. While much developmental work continued after Robert left NASA, the early work evolved into the guidance scheme that was later used for all Space Shuttle entries.

Life at MSC

Robert recalls with fondness the camaraderie that existed within the entry community. They would sometimes go on outings together with the families or take time out to make pizza at lunchtime. Although he was always interested in athletics, Robert did not get involved in the intramural sports at MSC. His work life and family life simply did not leave room for that. Laurie had taken a position with the Lockheed contractor, was trying to complete coursework, and they were raising their first child, so his duties were more directed toward the home front. The Air Force had their own traditional and formal social events that provided a unique opportunity to mingle with the astronauts, almost all of whom were active military officers. MPAD interaction with astronauts was typically limited to key managers and subject experts like Jon Harpold, so the Air Force officers were often better acquainted with the astronauts than the average MPAD engineer.

The Hard Choice

As Robert’s planned tour of duty neared its completion In 1971, he was faced with a difficult decision. Jon Harpold wanted him to remain on the team, and was willing to request his retention at MSC, but Robert still had ten more years to go to qualify for his Air Force retirement. Air Force human resources people recommended that he return to a standard Air Force assignment and he reluctantly agreed. His next assignment was as the program manager for the operational missile software for Minuteman at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, California. He managed development of the computer programs that perform such key functions as inertial measurement unit calibration, and flight guidance, navigation and control.

Robert Edwards Ph.D.

The Air Force maintained a keen interest in the continuing education of its brightest officers, and in 1975, Robert began work on a doctoral degree at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) near Dayton, Ohio. That degree in electrical engineering was conferred in 1979. Following an assignment in the avionics area of the Air Force Wright Aeronautical Laboratories, dealing with such issues as the vulnerability of the Global Positioning System to potential jamming, Robert returned to AFIT as an assistant professor of Electrical Engineering. He taught courses in linear system theory, inertial navigation, guidance, and fire control, while also conducting research and advising masters and doctoral candidates who would become leaders in future research and development projects.

The Professional Couple

Robert acknowledges that it was difficult to maintain a balanced professional and personal life. This is a common occupational hazard within military families because of the demands of the job and the frequent changes of duty station. In the case of the Edwards family, it severely disrupted Laurie’s own educational aspirations. It took her over 10 years at five different colleges strung out across the nation to complete her degree in medical technology, which was finally earned at Wright State in Fairborn, Ohio. However, her persistence paid off, and she enjoyed a fruitful career as a researcher in microbiology, ultimately retiring in 2004.

Meanwhile, Robert’s own Air Force career had reached its end in 1983, and he retired from the Air Force with the rank of colonel. However, this event did not represent retirement from the technical community or end his association with the Department of Defense. He initially took a job back near his Georgia roots at Rockwell International Corporation in Atlanta as the manager of the systems analysis area. From there, he moved to Ferranti Aerospace in Westlake Village, California as the Director of Advanced Engineering, establishing a team of experts to assist various projects in advanced missile technology.

From there he moved to TASC Incorporated of Arlington, Virginia, as the Technical Director of Systems Engineering, providing leadership for the Strategic Defense Initiative architectural analyses and business development. After a short tenure at STANDARD Missile, he completed his career as an Engineering Fellow at Raytheon System Company in Arlington, VA, involved in the production and operational deployment of STANDARD Missile 3 (SM-3), the U. S. Navy’s interceptor for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense. His official retirement came in 2004, the culmination of a productive and diverse career that was always anchored on serving the critical strategic interests of his country.

Serving through Tennis

Robert credits the military fixation on standards of physical fitness with preserving his own interest in sports. He has been engaged throughout his life in running, kayaking, skiing, and tennis, but tennis is the first love, the active sport that has lasted until the present. With a life of service and leadership roles behind him, it would be unreasonable to assume that he would be content to simply go out and play a few times a week. No, he became an officer in the local community tennis association, and served on the board of the Western Wake Tennis Association first as vice president for Community Relations and subsequently as vice president for Youth Development. His work in support of youth tennis in local parks and recreation programs resulted in his receiving the John Peddycord Junior Tennis Council Award from the United States Tennis Association in North Carolina in 2008. His efforts to include tennis in school physical education programs resulted in 46 schools receiving equipment and teacher training.

In 2012, expanding his evangelistic efforts on behalf of the sport of tennis, he became President of the Adaptive Tennis Association of North Carolina, a non-profit, community-service organization dedicated to providing positive tennis experiences for people with intellectual disabilities. Examples are those with Down syndrome, autism, or fetal alcohol syndrome. They provide clinics, host tournaments, and have been successful in introducing adaptive tennis in 13 schools. Information is available at

The volunteer activities have not distracted from Robert’s exploits on the court, as he captained a senior mixed doubles team to a state championship in 2011.

Generations to Come

Robert and Laurie have two children, four grandchildren, and two great grandsons. Their retirement in 2004 and move to North Carolina was to be near the last set of grandchildren whom they dote on and spoil to their parents dismay. This is of course what grandparents are designed to do, but it is also clear that the same spirit of persistence, dedication, and service that came out of the early years is being passed on to those who will make life for all more secure, productive, and enjoyable in the future.

Reflecting on the few years spent with the NASA engineers, Robert notes that there was always someone in MPAD who was smarter, someone who was quicker, and someone who was more persistent than he was. In the modesty that often characterizes high achievers, he says that he cannot think of any trait that would have distinguished him. Within the Reentry Analysis Section, however, he admits that he was noted, “for my ability to find and fix bugs in the simulations. And that was very handy.”