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UAlberta engineering alumnus Bryan Erb (Civil '52) seen here with the Apollo 17 re-entry capsule, designed the heat shields used on the Apollo space missions, ensuring a safe return for astronauts.

It's rocket engineering, not rocket science

Meet the UAlberta engineer who designed heat shields to protect Apollo astronauts

By Richard Cairney on July 17, 2019

It was July 20, 1969, and the first humans to set foot on the moon were dilly-dallying. Experiencing one-sixth gravity for the first time, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were skipping and jumping across the lunar surface.

Watching them on his television 384,400 kilometres away in the town of El Lago, Texas, Bryan Erb was scolding the astronauts for "cavorting" instead of getting down to business and gathering lunar rocks.

"Quite subconsciously I found myself shouting at the TV: 'Quit jumping around, and pick up the damned rocks!'"

As a key member of the Apollo programs, Erb had a vested interest in seeing the astronauts gather rocks quickly in case an emergency struck and they had to leave the moon prematurely.

Erb, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Alberta in 1952, designed heat shields for the Apollo spacecraft, protecting the lives of the astronauts as they re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at 40,000 km/h.

This week, as the world marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon, Erb looks back with a sense of pride and nostalgia.

"It was a very exciting event. It's one of those moments that changes people's mindset as to where humanity fits into the universe and what our destiny might be," he said.

UAlberta Engineers in Space