By LARISSA COPELAND
In a crowded room at the Mabel C. Fry Public Library, Charlie Dry told stories: the stories of the test astronauts whose contributions on Earth sent humans into space.
“My goal is to bring another perspective into the space program, with guys you never knew who were involved in it,” Dry said.
Following an honorable discharge from the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry in 1967, Dry was assigned to the China Lake Naval Ordnance Test Range in California, where he was responsible for weapon launch, trajectory, performance, navigation/guidance and overall weapon operational effectiveness.
He went on to accept a position as a test flight engineer on the Acceleration Test Sled, where he tested the efficacy of different G suits at various G-forces.
That experience would go on to serve Dry well when he became involved with NASA.
The testing, Dry said, was daunting.
“When I saw that thing (the test sled), I wanted to call Tishomingo and talk to my momma,” he said.
And that time on the test sled was only a portion of Dry’s experience testing suits and hardware for those who would eventually walk on the moon.
That includes sessions in a centrifuge to test G-force reactions and flights in the infamous “vomit comet,” the tongue-in-cheek name for a NASA exercise that simulates the sensation of zero gravity by sending a plane through a series of climbs and dips.
At one point, he said, he was part of a test to determine best practices for astronauts if communication was lost after landing, which meant drifting in the Gulf of Mexico for weeks in a landing capsule.
“I was stuck in a space suit for what felt like – what really was – years,” Dry said.
Oftentimes, Dry referred to the things that “NASA forgot to tell” him. Like the fact that he’d be running on a treadmill in a 180-pound space suit, or travel in a centrifuge at nine times Earth’s gravitational force, or be dropped from four stories in a lunar landing module.
He encouraged audience participation – which included asking important questions, like whether he personally threw up on the vomit comet.
“That’s a secret,” he said, before admitting that he did, in fact, throw up while on board.
He became emotional when discussing one of his closest friends: Neil Armstrong.
Armstrong, Dry said, was cool-headed and down-to-earth. Despite the fame that came with being the first person to set foot on the moon, Armstrong didn’t like being in the spotlight, whether that meant traveling the world or signing autographs.
While much of Dry’s presentation was lighthearted, he covered some of the unpleasant aspects of the job as well, like losing a coworker and friend when a piece of equipment failed.
“The program was deadly serious,” he said. “It was a lot of chance, and a lot of what-ifs. Malfunctions and mishaps were part of a test astronaut’s life.”
In 1966, Dry accepted a position as a senior scientific analyst, responsible for providing engineering direction and coordination for NASA laboratory tests during space flight post-test evaluation.
He went on to engineer, test and provide recommendations toward the development of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package.
And while Dry, along with countless others who worked to put an American on the moon, may not have been the ones to go to space, their round-the-clock efforts are what made space travel possible.
“I hope you walk out of here tonight with a feel for what all we had to do,” Dry said.