Mines News

Release Date Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Rocket Scientist: Lee Solid reflects on his time in the Apollo program

Lee Solid graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from South Dakota Mines in 1958 and went on to become a NASA engineer who helped put humans on the moon. Photo Credit: South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

An unlikely chance took Lee Solid’s life from a family farm near Martin, South Dakota to a career in rocket science—and a direct hand in the success of Apollo 11.

Farm families have traditionally passed their businesses down through the generations, and Solid’s was no different—his father expected him to take over. However, his mother was a teacher and encouraged him to get a college degree.

Solid started at the University of South Dakota where he majored in applied science. Two years in, his father unexpectedly changed his trajectory.

“My father gave me a challenge, and I took his challenge and transferred to Mines,” he said. He enrolled as a mechanical engineering major in 1956. He felt drawn to the architectural field, so he took civil engineering electives, and graduated in December 1958.

Solid noted that some of his peers at Mines felt inspired to get into the space exploration industry after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957. However, he was not similarly inspired. He interviewed with several companies but didn’t have any job offers upon graduation, so he visited a few architectural firms in Sioux Falls in person. The second one he walked into hired him.

He didn’t know he was about to play a part in one of the greatest achievements in human history.

Two months later, a company called RocketDyne, which later became part of Rockwell International and Boeing, offered him a job as a test engineer. He moved to the Los Angeles area and started a training program to test rocket engines in the Santa Susanna Mountains.

“I didn’t even know what a rocket engine was,” he said. “I jokingly say they gave me a headset and a procedure and said ‘go test that engine.’ I have to admit it was exciting.”

A little more than a year and a few promotions later, Solid accepted an assignment in Cape Canaveral working on Atlas missiles, which used the engines he’d been testing. He was promoted to lead engineer about a year and a half later, when the US space program was in full swing with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.

“We had so much to do and such a short time to do it in,” he said. “We were all very sensitive to the fact that we were going to put those feet on the moon by the end of the decade.”

By the mid-60s, he had become the company's base manager. He and his team not only worked on the engine that would propel Apollo 11, they also worked on the smaller lunar module engine.

“If it didn’t work, you’d have two guys stuck on the moon,” he said. “This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, routine working environment.”

Tensions and anxiety ran high. Everyone involved in the moon mission wanted to succeed, and safety was paramount.

“If I was going to check something twice, on Apollo I probably checked it four times,” Solid said. “We had this goal hanging over us and we didn’t want to be the ones that would cause us to not make it.”

On launch day—July 16, 1969—Solid was working in one of the four firing rooms in Cape Canaveral’s launch control center, along with program managers from Boeing, McDonnel Douglas, and IBM, to name a few. Solid said Charles Lindbergh, the first person to complete a solo transatlantic flight, was also in the room as an observer.

After the success of Apollo 11, he worked on Apollo 12 and 13, and later helped design the main engine for the space shuttle program. He retired in 1998. Solid credits his career success to the support of his wife, Shirley, as well as his Mines degree and Midwestern upbringing.

“It was amazing how many of my peers in that company as well as others were farm boys from the Midwest,” he said. “I can only assume that’s because of the work ethic that you associate with growing up on a farm.”

As 2019 was the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, Solid reflected on his career and the unexpected path his life took.

“I sort of stumbled into the rocket engine business, but once I was in it, it was exciting,” he said. “I can’t think of having done anything else with my life than being a rocket engine guy.”

Article by Angela Mettler.

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About SD Mines  

Founded in 1885, the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is a science and engineering research university located in Rapid City, S.D., offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. The university enrolls 2,529 students with an average class size of 24. The SD School of Mines placement rate for graduates is 97 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $63,350. Find us online at sdsmt.edu and on  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Snapchat

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu