Lewis Wainwright

Muchea, Carnarvon, American Projects Branch, Orroral Valley


 

Written by Anthony Wainwright, with input from Cathy and Kevin Wainwright.

 

Carnarvon

Carnarvon Station Director Lewis Wainwright (right) and Tecwyn Roberts, Chief of NASA’s Manned Flight Operations Division, stand by the AWA Fountain outside the entrance to the T&C Building.

Probably March 1967.

 

In the course of his working life, Lewis Wainwright was involved in tracking each of Mans’ first four steps into space and directed three of the Australian space tracking stations.

Lewis was born in South London in 1922, the oldest of 3 children in a working class family. On completion of primary schooling he won a scholarship to Sutton County School but decided to leave at the age of 15. He would later say that he left because he had been bored at school. He began work as a mechanic in a garage and considered himself lucky to have been taught by an older man who had not been formally trained. He said that this experience taught him to solve practical problems from first principles rather than resorting to ‘by the book’ solutions. This ability would manifest throughout his life both at work and at home. His family would remember him as ‘Mr Fixit’.

Shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939 he joined a Territorial (Reserve) Army unit of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. When war began the unit was mobilised and became involved with the operation of a heavy anti-aircraft gun battery. So began Lewis’ involvement in the (then) new field of using radar to direct gunfire – something which became particularly important when the enemy began bombing at night.

Radar being a new field, the equipment was often rushed into service without being fully reliable and improvisation was needed at unit level in order to maintain serviceability. Lewis took well to the training and experience needed to become fully proficient. He advanced through the ranks to become a Staff Sergeant and came to realise that the only significant difference between himself and the commissioned officers was that they were better educated than he was. He set about remedying this situation and qualified himself for university study post war.

In July 1944 the unit moved to the continent and by the end of that year was in Antwerp, a Belgian port city which, when repaired, would significantly shorten the Allied supply lines. The significance of this was not lost on the Germans who promptly responded with a sustained bombardment by flying bombs. His unit and others like it played a critical role in defeating this threat.

With the coming of peace, Lewis married Shirley and in the following year commenced studying through King’s College London for a degree in Electrical Engineering. This was no easy task given that in the early years the family, now including a baby, lived in one room of his parents’ house. But a card table sufficed to work on and Shirley managed to keep the baby quiet! He graduated with honours and, in 1951, began lecturing in aircraft electrical practice at the College of Aeronautics (now Cranfield University). In 1957 he moved to English Electric to work on small electric motors for use in guided missiles.

But things were about to change. Concerned by the rising threat of nuclear war and with an aversion to both the British class system and the weather, Lewis decided to emigrate to Perth, Western Australia where his sister in law and her family had moved in 1958. Leaving behind a snowy English winter, Lewis, Shirley and 3 children set sail for sunny Australia. At that time passages to Australia were heavily subsidised by the Australian Government. In the jargon of the day the family were Ten Pound Poms. Lewis had bought a portable typewriter and used the time on the ship to type the first drafts of his book Aircraft Electrical Practice for submission to the publisher (Odhams Press 1961).

 

Lewis Wainwright

The cover of Aircraft Electrical Practice (Odhams Press 1961).

Images by Cathy Wainwright.

 

In 1959 Perth was a relatively unsophisticated city, the most remote capital city in the second most remote continent on Earth. Lewis soon found that suitable work was not easy to obtain and he began by installing telephones and later designing electric motors for a small local firm. But events elsewhere would change matters dramatically. The United States planned to launch a man into space from Cape Canaveral. This was ‘Project Mercury’.

Advertisement for staff

Jack Duperouzel preserved this advertisement which was published in The West Australian.

 

Perth is almost exactly half way round the world from the Cape. This meant that it was perfectly placed to track the spacecraft and maintain contact with the astronaut when Cape Canaveral was unable to do so. In mid 1960 an advertisement appeared in the local press outlining Australia’s role in the space programme and advertising for staff. Lewis applied, was interviewed and a lengthy silence ensued until, about 6 weeks after he had taken up other employment, he was offered one of the senior positions at the Muchea tracking station just north of Perth. He accepted the offer and so began a career spanning the formative years of human activity in space.

But this is to speak in retrospect; it was not known in the early years what, if anything, would follow the man in space programme. This was reflected in the staffing arrangements for Muchea with many of the staff being seconded from other departments of the Commonwealth Public Service. Frank Dawson, the first Station Director was one such person and, when he chose to return to his own department in August 1961, Lewis succeeded him as Muchea’s Station Director.

 

Lewis Wainwright

This South London newspaper reports on Lewis Wainwright’s role as Station Director at Muchea during John Glenn’s flight.

Via Cathy Wainwright.

 

In 1961 he flew to America to learn something of the larger picture within which Muchea operated and meet some of the key players.

 

Muchea staff photo 1962

Lewis Wainwright with the Staff of Muchea Tracking Station and the NASA Flight Control team which was visiting for the flight of John Glenn – 20 February 1962.

This photo was taken on the day of John Glenn’s Mercury MA-6 Friendship 7 orbital flight (which launched in the evening, Perth time).

See this page in the Muchea section for names.

With thanks to Jack Duperouzel.


Family memories of those early days are of conversations about the mechanics of putting a man into space – and recovering him. The notion of an ablative heat shield, converting the heat of re-entry into molten metal, sounded particularly precarious! Lewis was very proud of the station and the staff who made it work.

On quiet Sunday afternoons he would show the family around Muchea and impress them with such wonders as a digital clock reading in tenths of a second. But, best of all, was the direct telephone link allowing us to speak with the NASA duty officer in Washington DC to brighten his otherwise quiet day. On the demerit side, the family well remember seemingly endless CADFISS simulations involving the whole network of tracking stations, each involving lengthy periods on duty at Muchea.

We were all very conscious that a man in space was the next step in a line beginning with Montgolfier’s hot air balloon in 1783 and the Wright brothers’ powered flight in 1903. One of Lewis’ favourite possessions was a print of the Montgolfier ascent upon which he would collect astronauts’ autographs.

 


Lewis Wainwright

Here’s the Montgolfier print on the wall in the Muchea operations area behind Gus Pugh, Maintenance and Operations Supervisor. Lewis Wainwright is at the right, near the station plotboard.

Frame grab by Colin Mackellar from a Department of Supply film dating to the time of MA-5, late 1961. (See that film and more here.)


Lewis Wainwright

Kevin Wainwright writes,

“This is the Montgolfier Brothers’ Balloon print that Dad hung in the control room at Muchea and on which he collected the autographs of visiting astronauts.

Five of the seven original Mercury Astronauts autographs are there plus that of Sally Ride, who was the first American woman in space (on the space shuttle).

One of the articles in one of the Western Australian newspapers at around about the time of John Glenn's flight commented on the juxtaposition of the picture of this balloon flight, believed to be the first controlled human ascent and flight by man, and the surrounding equipment intended to monitor the first American manned ascent into space.”

Signatures obtained at Muchea, 1961-64:

Scott Carpenter
Wally Schirra
Deke Slayton
Gordon Cooper

at Carnarvon, September 1968:

Alan B. Shepard

and at Orroral Valley (at top), November 1980:

Sally Ride
Dave Walker (very faded).

 

Another was a tracing of the track, plotted by Muchea, when MA4, the first unmanned Mercury capsule, made its landfall over Australia on 13 September 1961. This tracing has been donated by his family to the Canberra Space Centre in the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex for preservation.

 

Muchea

Muchea’s Station Director Lewis Wainwright preserved this copy of a plot of the pass of MA-4 over Muchea using data from Muchea’s Verlort Radar.

Image assembled, with varying degrees of success, by Colin Mackellar from several photos. (The large plot is mounted behind glass, and the paper has wrinked badly.)

With special thanks to Cathy and Kevin Wainwright. The plot has now been donated to the Tidbinbilla archives for safe-keeping.

 

In May 1961, soon after the Soviet Union had sent Yuri Gagarin into space, President Kennedy announced America’s commitment to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. So the foreseeable future of space tracking was assured. The tracks of the later stages, two man Gemini capsules leading to the three man Apollo moon capsule, would pass well to the north of Perth. A new station would be needed as far north as was practically possible. Lewis was involved in the search for a site. Tellingly, one such expedition was aborted. After a day spent diverting from one flooded airstrip to another, he arrived home unexpectedly in time for dinner.

In the event, Carnarvon, a town of about 2,000 people 1,000 km north of Perth was selected, largely influenced by the fact that it was the farthest town north with an all weather road link to Perth.

With the flight of MA9, the last in the Mercury series, Muchea’s work was done. The station was decommissioned and some of the equipment transferred to Carnarvon. Some of the Muchea staff would come up to Carnarvon although its remoteness and lack of a senior high school would doubtless have deterred others.

Much of 1963 Lewis spent in Carnarvon involved with the establishment of the new station. During his times at home he would speak of exciting new developments such as digital technology and a wonderful machine able to take a paper document and create copies of it, both of which would be used in the station.

During 1963 Lewis was appointed Station Director of Carnarvon. The station was to become operational in time for the Gemini series missions scheduled for 1964.

 

Carnarvon

This London newspaper reports on the appointment as StaDir of Carnarvon.


Lewis Wainwright

Soon after the closure of Muchea, Edwin P. Hartman, NASA Senior Scientific Representative in Australia sent this covering letter to Carnarvon Station Director Lewis Wainwright.

The letter reads –

Dear Lewis: 

In behalf of Mr. Buckley and myself, I have written letters of appreciation to each of the 43 members of your Muchea staff who were present during the MA-9 operation. Although the letters were all the same (see copy enclosed) I would like very much to have each recipient regard his letter as the personal message it is intended to be. 

And more than anything else, Lewis, I would like to convey to you the appreciation of NASA for the outstanding leadership you provided at Muchea. The knowledge is widespread that it was your leadership and the superior performance of staff which your leadership inspired that made the difference between a mediocre and a truly outstanding station at Muchea. We of NASA are all more than pleased that the abilities which you have so clearly demonstrated will continue to be available to us through your Managership of the Carnarvon station. 

We offer our thanks, congratulations and best wishes.

Sincerely,

Edwin P. Hartman
NASA Senior Scientific Representative in Australia.

 

His older sons recall him taking them up to see the new station in January 1964. After explaining the significance of the room containing six massive Univac computers he told the boys, with evident pride, that the Carnarvon computer staff had developed a program able to create pay slips which accurately calculated the entitlements of each of the 84 people on the payroll. He was keen to employ women and explained that on quieter shifts when the women were working alone he would make it his business to walk around the station at irregular intervals lest they be subject to unwanted male attention. He also mentioned, with some enthusiasm, that he had an Aboriginal man to look after the garden and station grounds.

 

Carnarvon

Gemini V Carnarvon Capcom Chuck Lewis (right) revisited Carnarvon in 1966 for NS2 (Network Simulation 2). He is seen here with Station Director Lewis Wainwright.

Lewis was Station Director of Carnarvon from June 1963 to December 1968.

From a frame of 16mm Department of Supply footage.

 

The family, wife Shirley and, from March 1964, five children, stayed in Perth to allow the older children to continue school and university education. Fortnightly weekends home to visit family and report to Head Office were, of necessity, busy times with many conflicting demands which rather limited the chance to talk of the work Lewis was doing.

 

Carnarvon

Many key NASA people visited Carnarvon, the largest tracking station outside the USA.

Here, Lewis Wainwright welcomes Astronaut Wally Schirra to the station in March 1966.

Photo: Hamish Lindsay. Scan: Colin Mackellar.


Carnarvon

In March 1967, Christopher Kraft and Tecwyn Roberts visited Carnarvon. They were in Australia for the opening of Honeysuckle Creek.

Left to right:

1. Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr (NASA’s first Flight Director),
2. Lewis Wainwright (Carnarvon Station Director),
3. Tec Roberts (Chief of the Manned Flight Operations Division),
4. Unknown
5. John South (Goddard Representative to Australia)
6. Claus Petersen (UNIVAC Implementation Engineer).*

(While there, Chris Kraft addressed the Carnarvon Rotary Club – listen to the audio here.)

Scan: Colin Mackellar.
* Thanks to Honeysuckle’s Bryan Sullivan for the ID.


The MSFN Station Directors

In July 1967, the Manned Space Flight Network’s Station Directors met at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Click the image for a larger version, or here for a two-page 2.3MB PDF file key with names added.

Preserved by Lewis Wainwright. With thanks to Kevin Wainwright. Scan and key by Colin Mackellar.


Carnarvon

In September and October 1968, the first American in space, astronaut Alan B. Shepard, visited Australia. While at Carnarvon Tracking Station he continued the tradition (begun with the visit of Wally Schirra in 1966) of leaving a hand imprint or message in wet cement.

Lewis Wainwright looks on at left.

Shepard also took part in the Carnarvon Tropical Festival.

From Lewis Wainwright’s scrapbook, courtesy Cathy Wainwright and Kevin Wainwright. Scan: Colin Mackellar.

 

Advancement in the Commonwealth almost always required moving to Canberra and so, in December 1968, the family, minus the two older boys, moved there.

Lewis would work in the American Projects Division of the Department of Science, the job of which was to facilitate such projects within Australia.

Carnarvon

In late 1968, just before leaving Carnarvon, Lewis Wainwright adds his own handprints in wet cement to the existing collection.

Just past him, next to the wooden frame for the cement, appears to be the signed album of photos given him by the staff of the station.

AWA CSR (Company Senior Representative) Col Smith watches at left. Frank McRae is at right.

Large, Larger. Caption.

Photo: Jim Gregg, used by permission. Scanned by Trevor Mosel.


Lewis Wainwright

Several months later, in March 1969, he met with Dr. John F. Clark (Director, Goddard Space Flight Center) and was presented with the Goddard Space Flight Center Exceptional Performance Award.

From Lewis Wainwright’s scrapbook, courtesy Cathy Wainwright and Kevin Wainwright. NASA image G-69-4845. Scan: Colin Mackellar.


Lewis Wainwright

The Goddard Space Flight Center Exceptional Performance Award.

From Lewis Wainwright’s scrapbook, courtesy Cathy Wainwright and Kevin Wainwright. NASA image G-69-4849. Scan: Colin Mackellar.


Lewis Wainwright

Pictured here with key Goddard men after being presented with the award for his work as Carnarvon Station Director.

Left to right:

1. Tecwyn Roberts (Chief of the Manned Flight Operations Division)
2. ?
3. Bill Woods (Division Chief of Manned Flight Operations)
4. Dale Call (Head, Manned Flight Engineering Branch)
5. John F. Clark (Director, Goddard Space Flight Center)
6. Lewis Wainwright
7. Eugene Wasielewski (Associate Director GSFC)
8. Ozro Covington (Assistant Director of Manned Flight Support)
9. Henry Thompson (Deputy Director of Manned Flight Support)
10. ?

From Lewis Wainwright’s scrapbook, courtesy Cathy Wainwright and Kevin Wainwright. NASA image G-69-4845. Scan: Colin Mackellar.


Lewis Wainwright

And here is a detail from the above photo, as published in Goddard News for 14 April, 1969. Preserved by Mike Dinn, scan by Colin Mackellar.


Lewis Wainwright

This Presentation card was signed on the back by many key pioneers is space exploration.

Scan: Colin Mackellar.

 

One project, of which he often spoke was the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station in Tasmania which he helped to establish. The aim was to make ongoing observations of air composition and the advantage of Tasmania was that westerly winds there had crossed no land since leaving South America, hence were as nearly pure as possible. He had been responsible for selecting the site and would later remark that the equipment there clearly detected the change when north winds brought air from Melbourne, some 200 km away. The station opened in 1976 and continues to operate to this day, the need for such data being even greater now than in the early days.

In between projects Lewis was deskbound, not altogether congenial for one who preferred to be hands on.

He returned briefly to space tracking, relieving as director at Carnarvon during the Apollo 13 mission in 1970. This was the mission which suffered an on board explosion while travelling to the Moon and with it the distinct possibility that the astronauts would die in space. Shortly before his death Lewis recounted that, while Mission Control was busily designing a rescue plan, he had some spare time. He remembered that one of the astronauts was a Roman Catholic who might wish to seek absolution from a priest before dying in space. So he had arranged a secure voice communication channel with Mission Control and alerted the local priest, an elderly man, born before the Wright brothers first flew. Happily, events turned out otherwise.

Towards the end of his career Lewis acted as Director at the Orroral Valley station near Canberra.

 

Lewis Wainwright

Lewis Wainwright with author James A. Michener (centre) and an unidentified person at Orroral Valley in 1980.

Michener was researching his novel “Space” which was published in 1982, and visted several space-related faciltiies in Australia. (The book was made into a CBS Television mini-series in 1984.)

Scans by Conor Lewis Jedam.


Lewis Wainwright

After his visit, Michener sent this note of thanks.

Scan by Conor Lewis Jedam.


Orroral Valley

STS-1 Commander John Young (centre) and Pilot Bob Crippen (right) present a signed photo to Orroral Station Director Lewis Wainwright when they visited in September 1981.

Photo courtesy Philip Clark and Rob Quick.

 

His last track of a manned spacecraft occurred on 15 November 1981 during the second Space Shuttle flight.

Carnarvon

Kevin Wainwright also writes,

“This is a memo that Dad must have made to himself whilst at Orroral when he oversaw, for the last time in his career, the tracking of a manned spacecraft.

In the memo Dad reflects on the first tracking that he oversaw, from Muchea in 1961, this being MA-4 – the orbital flight of an unmanned Mercury capsule for which Scott Carpenter was in attendance.”

 

In 1982 he retired to an old cottage in Binalong, a village about 80km from Canberra. The family had by then gone their separate ways. He set about restoring the cottage to receive visitors and embarked on many projects including demolishing a railway station as a source of materials to build his blacksmith’s shop!

His experience of the depression years, the garage and keeping the early radars operational in wartime meant that nothing which could be repaired or, even better, improved would be discarded. Only when something was beyond repair would it be replaced. He once remarked that one of the joys of retirement was having many things he could do and none that he had to do. In later years he very much enjoyed visiting residents at nursing homes in the district who would not otherwise have had visitors.

Lewis always said he hoped he would leave his beloved cottage in a wooden box. He almost succeeded, leaving by ambulance for the local hospital where he died four weeks later, on 20 October 2003. His family buried him in the grave he had bought 20 years previously. Two days later he was remembered in a service at the village church. Afterwards the local folk said they had no idea he had been, ‘so high up’ (not a sentiment he would have shared)!! The agent selling his cottage described him as ‘an artistic engineer’, (fair comment).

Many years later, preparing to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Cape Grim with a history of the early years, Graeme Pearman tried to contact Lewis in order to honour his contribution. He recalled Lewis’ support included obtaining a NASA caravan to be the temporary home of the station and went on to describe him as, ‘…a “great bureaucrat”, willing to help and (with) a can-do attitude’. Had he been able to join the celebration Lewis would surely have smiled quietly to himself and remarked that, ‘If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’.

 

Carnarvon
Carnarvon

In September 2020, two of Lewis’ great-grandsons, Dusty Lewis (6, top) and Jack (4) visited the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum. They are pictured here with their great-grandfather’s handprints.

Photos courtesy Amy Wainwright.

 

_____________________

 

Thanks to the Wainwright family for all their help, and for allowing scans to be made of Lewis’ photo albums.

Editing and image selection by Colin Mackellar, May 2021.