By Chad Koenen
With a smile on his face and a glimmer in his eye, Dave Perreten didn’t even have his coat off last week before he began telling the story of how a kid from the small town of Henning, helped to get the NASA program off the ground—literally.
“Now the first question is how does a guy from Henning end up working for NASA,” he said with a big smile on his face.
With a bag full of old pictures, and even a piece of equipment that was on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission in his possession, the 1954 graduate from Henning High School helped to lay the groundwork to launch some of the first manned space crafts into outer space. It’s the type of items one doesn’t typically find in a town of 800 people, unless of course it is found in a museum.
Perreten’s story about finding NASA featured about as many twists and turns that is more commonly found in a best selling novel, than in a small town in central Otter Tail County.
After graduating from Henning High School, Perreten attended the University of Minnesota in the hopes of becoming a veterinarian. He quickly realized his chances of getting into veterinarian school was anything but a sure thing. With 500 students enrolled in the program and just 50 spots available, the son of a Henning dentist figured the math wasn’t in his favor and began looking into other career possibilities. With the Korean War over, and the Vietnam War on the horizon, Perreten enlisted in the Army before he could get drafted.
There was no computers back then and we were developing this to develop Apollo. There was no equipment to monitor the human body.Dave Perreten
“I said I have to do something else. At the time the Korean War was just over and the ‘Nam War was just starting,” he said.
He went to a recruiter and took a placement test in the Army that found he would be an ideal candidate in electronics. He was stationed at Fort Monmouth, N.J. where he worked on electronics. He was later stationed in Huntsville, where the small town kid began working on missiles. While in Huntsville, Perreten learned from German missile expert Wernher von Braun, who was an expect in the field.
“He said this is the missile that will put a satellite into space,” said Perreten of VonBront.
With just one year left in his service, Perreten was part of a select group of just 45 soldiers that were stationed in Germany, near the Russian border, who worked on missiles during the height of the Cold War.
Following his deployment, Perreten took his experience with missiles and began working for Boeing. During his time at Boeing, Perreten worked as a electronic technician and telemetry instrument technician.
When Boeing underwent a series of layoffs, and already stationed in Cape Canaveral, Flor., Perreten applied for a job and began working for NASA and Hanger S.
Located on Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Hangar S was critical to NASA’s early human spaceflights. The 61,300-square-foot facility became a hub of activity as America prepared to send its first astronauts into space. The facility housed astronaut training, crew quarters and early spacecraft processing.
At one time, Perreten said Hanger S was essentially “where all NASA was at one time. There was no Houston, everything was in the hanger.”
In addition to Perreten and another person who worked on the electronics of the NASA program, the original seven astronauts were all housed in the one facility. The original seven astronauts included: John Glenn, Alan Shepherd, Virgil Grissom, Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., Walter Schirra, Jr. and Donald Slayton.
At the time, technicians Perreten and Hal French, as well as two engineers including Tom Walton and Gary Woods, were tasked with developing a computer for the final computer check off before launch.
At the time, computers were about as rare as a white rhinoceroses, unlike today when most things are run on a computer system. By the time Perreten and his partner were done, the first-ever computer check out system, was developed for the Apollo space craft. Prior to the computer system Perreten said there was no computerized way to monitor the human body in space.
“There was no computers back then and we were developing this to develop Apollo,” said Perreten of the first spacecraft with a computer check out system. “There was no equipment to monitor the human body.”
Perreten worked at NASA and Kennedy Space Center from 1961-67. During his time at NASA and Kennedy Space Center, Perreten was responsible for assisting in the design and direct construction of new electronic equipment, as well as helped with the major spacecraft testing.
Ultimately, the long hours of working 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week for months at a time, began to take a toll on Perreten. Following the fire on Apollo 1, he took a position with Goddard Space Flight Center from 1967-84.
During his time at Goddard Space Flight Center, Perreten was the test director of the software interface tests for Apollo 8 and 10 missions. He was also responsible for developing, preparing and implementing the software catalog for the Apollo Network and provided NST console support for all of the Apollo missions.
“(Goddard) provided 26 sites around the world and it provided all of the data for space crafts in orbit,” he said.
For 29 years he worked with comprehensive experience in communications and data processing including systems design and development, supervision and programming. He also spent 17 years of hands-on testing that included missile systems, mercury space-craft, Apollo spacecraft and scientific spacecraft.
Another important project in which he was commended, including working on a Network Control Center for STDN and TDRSS from 1976-79. As part of the project, Perreten was involved with the development of the operations concepts and subsequently the operations requirements for the NCC. During the development phase he prepared the ADP plan, the initial specifications for the NCC hardware and participated as the key operations member on the Technical Advisory Committee. The documents he helped to oversee was in excess of 1,000 pages.
One of his final jobs at Goddard was to help set up a computer system to read the down link from the Shuttle space craft to a computer system on Earth. Since the Shuttle program had a computer system that required a larger down link than what previous computers were able to read, Perreten had to set up a computer system that could track astronauts from space, all with the challenges of technology limitations in the 1980s.
While his professional career helped shape the future of space exploration, Perreten was fortunate enough to be able to retire from Goddard Space Flight Center at the age of just 48.
Over the years, Perreten walked away from several large promotions and opportunities that people thought he was crazy to turn down. He never wanted to go to Houston to work at NASA in Texas, even though the opportunity was there, and he never thought twice about walking away as a station manager at the age of 48. He was satisfied with his career and was excited about the opportunity to begin a future endeavor through retirement, before even hitting the age of 50.
“I had so many interests I never had to worry about what I had to do when I retired,” he said.
The Henning native eventually found his way back home, as he always felt a strong connection to the community that meant so much to his family growing up.
Of all the things he is most proud of during his time with NASA and the Goddard Space Flight Center, Perreten said he was happy he was able to walk away from a program that had so many unknowns at the time. He also enjoyed “solving the programs as far as the control center, because no one else could.”
In a garage near his house just outside of Henning, Perreten has a wall of pictures and awards he has received over the years. There are pictures of some of the first astronauts in the NASA program, signed certificates from dignitaries and badges from some of the earliest space launches.
He also has a piece of equipment from the Apollo 11 mission that has been melted down into a coin and presented to him for his work on the Apollo space craft. The coin features a special message to Perreten thanking him for his contributions to NASA and the Apollo mission.
So the next time a person asks if they have ever held an object that was on the moon, or helped to develop a computer system to help launch a space craft—Perreten can quickly raise his hand.