Los Altos resident Henry A. “Hank” Cole is having a busy summer. He has been preparing for a speech he’ll give in Oakland this week. And because he was on the team at NASA that worked on the space program, he has also spent many hours helping them with research for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
It is rewarding to be in demand when you are retired; perhaps most especially when you are about to turn 98 years old.
Cole, born Aug. 19, 1921, has a love of aeronautics that goes back to his childhood in Washington State, when, as he puts it, “aviation was just getting started” and the idea of space flight was still the stuff of science fiction.
As a high school senior in Tacoma, Cole began building model airplanes. Unlike other teens, he was not content to just build model planes: He began designing airfoils for them –finding better ways to speed them through the air using the science of flight. At the public library, he discovered airfoil reports from an obscure, federal think tank called the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) – an agency that eventually morphed into NASA – and he was fascinated. He decided to study aeronautical engineering at the University of Washington.
Cole completed his studies, but World War II intervened and kept him from further research for a time. As a naval officer and engineer serving on the aircraft carrier USS Nehenta Bay, he survived eight battles in the Pacific, working to keep his squadron’s aircraft aloft in combat he still does not like to talk about.
When the war ended, the G.I. Bill helped him return to the University of Washington for graduate school, where he became friends with fellow student Scott Crossfield, who, as a test pilot in 1953, would become the first man to top pilot Chuck Yeager and fly twice the speed of sound.
Cole’s journey brought him to California in 1951, where he joined Crossfield at the agency he had once read about in the library – NACA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. On research trips to Edwards Air Force Base, Cole said Crossfield and another test pilot “used to fly us around.” The other pilot was a quiet fellow by the name of Neil Armstrong.
“I never would have guessed he would go to the Moon,” Cole said of Armstrong. “He was, I wouldn’t say shy, but reserved. He didn’t say anything without thinking about it. He was a very good pilot.”
In the evenings, Cole played pingpong with the pilots and discovered how competitive they were. He had been a pingpong champ in college, but the future astronauts were impossible to beat.
He joined the space race when NACA was succeeded by NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958. Cole began to work with the Ames model shop to build rocket and spacecraft models he could test in the wind tunnel.
One day, the legendary and controversial Wernher von Braun, then an executive at NASA on the East Coast, asked Cole’s boss, Smith J. DeFrance, to have his team test two proposed Apollo Saturn launch vehicles.
“It is a good thing we did that,” Cole said recently. “We discovered two important things. When a spacecraft was transonic – crossing the sound barrier – there was less buffeting if the craft approached at an angle. Also, one of them had a flaw and would have blown up.”
Cole’s life has been rich in experience. Although he lost his wife four years ago, his son Matthew lives with him in Los Altos and his daughter visits often. He doesn’t remember everything he and his family were doing on that day 50 years ago when he watched his colleague Armstrong land on the Moon.
But he will always remember the day. On July 20, 1969, all the Coles were celebrating. Not just the Moon landing up there, 238,900 miles in space, but another giant leap, closer to home. That was the day Cole’s daughter, Marina, now 51, took her first small steps, right here on planet Earth.
Robin Chapman is a journalist. Her father, the late W.A. Chapman, also worked as an aeronautical engineer for NACA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.