This prominent MIT scientist wanted to bet his life by flying to the Moon

The legendary scientist who helped design the navigation system that got us to the Moon wanted to be among the astronauts who made sure it got us there.

This prominent MIT scientist wanted to bet his life by flying to the Moon
[Photos: courtesy of the Charles Stark Draper Lab; NASA; Raphael Nogueira/Unsplash]

This is the 19th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day. 


Charles Stark Draper was a character.

He was a professor at MIT and head of a research lab there. He was a pilot who often took colleagues on harrowing flights over Boston to test out and demonstrate his ideas about flight and navigation.

Doc Draper was a genius who led a group of colleagues who invented a gunsight in World War II that proved so effective that it saved thousands of allied troops from attacking German and Japanese airplanes. He also led a group that helped invent a new kind of navigation that made it possible for nuclear submarines to stay submerged for weeks, yet always know where they were.

In 1961, Draper was part of a group of scientists named “men of the year” by Time magazine—”15 brilliant Americans, exemplars of the scientists who are remaking (the) world”—including Linus Pauling and Edward Teller. (All 15, in 1961, were white men.)

Draper was also a skilled ballroom dancer; his trophies are part of the collection of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Showman, pilot, pioneering engineer, raconteur, ballroom dancer—but what Doc Draper wanted in the end was to be an astronaut. He wanted to help fly Apollo to the Moon.


A handful of scientists and engineers have a claim on helping invent spaceflight—not least the legend of rocketry, Wernher von Braun. But as much as anyone, Draper made spaceflight possible. Draper, who died in 1987 at the age of 86 and whose MIT division eventually became the independent R&D lab the Charles Stark Draper Lab, led a group that developed and refined inertial navigation, the technique that uses sophisticated gyroscopes and computers to keep track of where a spaceship is without any guidance or information from outside the ship itself. Inertial navigation is how modern missiles find their paths and also how nuclear submarines navigate cruising deep in the ocean.

Space travel wouldn’t have been possible without Draper’s work and that of his group at MIT’s Instrumentation Lab. They are the ones who designed, engineered, and programmed the Apollo flight computers, which guided the astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s.

That guidance work was considered so important, in fact, that the first contract of any kind that NASA did for Apollo work went to MIT for the Apollo guidance system. A few months into that work, Draper sent a letter to Robert Seamans, the third-most senior NASA official, formally requesting to start astronaut training and be assigned to an Apollo crew.

It was 1962. No Apollo astronauts had been selected. Time “man of the year” Charles Stark Draper was 60 years old.

Given Draper’s standing and importance, it was a hard request to ignore. And he wasn’t applying as a goof. Seamans, the associate administrator of NASA, had been a student of Draper’s at MIT, then a colleague in the Instrumentation Lab during World War II. Seamans’ boss, NASA chief James Webb, had worked with Draper throughout World War II.

“I would like to formally volunteer for service as a crew member on the Apollo mission to the moon,” Draper wrote. The letter makes the case across two and a half pages, single-spaced, citing his own 35 years as a pilot.


“I realize that my age of 60 years is a negative factor in considering my request,” Draper acknowledged. “But General Don Flickinger tells me that this is no sure bar to my selection as a crew member.” That was an endorsement from Air Force Brigadier General Flickinger, a flight surgeon and one of five people responsible for having just picked the Mercury 7, the nation’s first astronauts.

It was a classic Draper move: he hadn’t just consulted a physician about his fitness; he’d consulted the doctor who had spent months thinking about who was suitable to fly in space.

Draper said the real power of making him an astronaut would be back on Earth, at MIT: “We at the Instrumentation Laboratory are going full throttle on the Apollo guidance work . . . . I am also sure that if I am permitted the status of a potential crewmember all our operations will receive a real lift. If I am willing to hang my life on our equipment, the whole project will surely have the strongest possible motivation.”

The letter is also more than a goof because of how it landed in the executive suite at NASA. “I took it in to show [NASA chief] Jim Webb, and he got very excited,” said Seamans. “He said, ‘Isn’t that wonderful, one of our scientists is interested in going and being directly involved.’ ”

Webb was headed to the White House the next day. “I think I’ll take (the letter) over and show it to President Kennedy tomorrow when I’m with him,” Webb told Seamans.

That was the moment when a cooler head prevailed. Hugh Dryden, second-in-command at NASA, had run NASA’s predecessor agency, NACA, and was deeply experienced.


“Wait a minute, Jim,” he said. “Doc Draper is over 60 years old. I’m not sure his health would permit it. We can get in a terrible mess if we start selecting astronauts that way.”

Dryden and Seamans feared a nationwide astronaut free-for-all if word of Draper’s lobbying got out, with all kinds of high-profile people publicly volunteering.

More than that, of course, Draper would turn out to be much more important at the helm of Instrumentation Lab during Apollo than he ever would have been in a space suit.

His letter never made it to the Oval Office. And Seamans says, “Doc Draper never let me forget it. ‘I was all ready to go to the Moon and you wouldn’t let me go.’ ”

One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, a book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)

For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).


About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.