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October 3, 2012

Longtime NASA engineer inspires Blinn students

Presidential Medal of Freedom winner participated in rescue of Apollo 13

Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Jerry WoodfillPresidential Medal of Freedom winner Jerry Woodfill told approximately 200 Blinn College students to keep striving for excellence in the face of adversity during a presentation Wednesday at the Dr. W.W. O’Donnell Performing Arts Center in Brenham.

Woodfill spoke of his own school experiences as a youth in Indiana and how he eventually went to Rice University on a basketball scholarship. But Woodfill faced adversity as a basketball player, and described a game against Creighton University in which Creighton star Paul Silas set the Omaha Auditorium record for points while dunking over Woodfill.

“I was dazed and fell back and I laid there in Omaha, Neb. like a dead Texas cockroach,” he said.

Shortly after that, he realized he wasn’t going to become a professional basketball player and decided to concentrate on his academic career. Woodfill had been struggling in the classroom and at one point even considering dropping out, but he stayed in school and was there on Sept. 12, 1962, the day President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech declaring that the United States would soon conquer space flight.

The speech motivated Woodfill to two engineering degrees and a 47-year career as a NASA engineer, and at the outset of the lunar landing program he managed the spacecraft warning systems. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Woodfill was monitoring the spacecraft Eagle’s descent. Likewise, he was monitoring Apollo 13’s warning system when the vehicle exploded, and his system gave the first alert of the life-threatening malfunction that was later depicted in the Tom Hanks and Ron Howard movie “Apollo 13.”

Woodfill told the students about NASA’s early difficulties in mastering manned space flight, but showed how the dedication of NASA’s engineers allowed them to overcome their early challenges and place a man upon the moon.

Woodfill received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon in 1970 for his role in Apollo 13’s rescue. The Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

Woodfill’s presentation was sponsored by the Beta Alpha chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year college students.