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Fame for Sumrall Is Out of This World


Recruited to NASA by Saturn rocket inventor Wernher von Braun,Phil Sumrall '62 has been part of space exploration since before the first moonwalk in 1969.

Eyes glued to their televisions, millions of Americans watched history being made July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first human beings to land on the moon. Meanwhile on Earth, Phil Sumrall and his colleagues at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, were seeing the payoff of countless hours of hard work.

"This is a new golden era for space travel as we prepare to go beyond Earth orbit, live off the moon and travel beyond. During Apollo and the Saturn projects, we knew we were part of something special. Today, that feeling is back in the air."

— Phil Sumrall '61

"It was the fulfillment of dreams for a lot of people," Sumrall says. At the time, the UCM graduate had worked for NASA since 1962, holding positions that included flight dynamics specialist for the design, development and flight planning for the Apollo Saturn I, Saturn IB and Saturn V launch vehicles. "Everyday that I went to work, I felt that I should be paying them. We knew that history was being made and were privileged to be there."

 

Honored as 2007 Distinguished Alumni

 

Sumrall's passion for the space program is as strong today as it was that fateful day. As the NASA engineer looks to the future with his eyes on the moon and planets beyond, UCM is honoring him with the 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award. A whiz at mathematics and physics, he graduated from Central Missouri with a bachelor's degree in 1961.

Since those early days working on the Saturn rocket, Sumrall has been spending time developing space transportation systems. He became manager of advanced planning in NASA's Ares Launch Projects Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in 2005.

 

Phil Sumrall at NASA Marshall Center

Phil Sumrall stands in front of a 36-foot-tall Saturn 5 mock outside NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Project Involving Planet Mars

 

He is responsible for the near-term planning for development of NASA's follow-on, heavy-lift Ares V cargo launch vehicle. Ares V will deliver hardware and supplies into space for exploration missions to the moon and Mars. The Ares Launch Projects Office is also responsible for designing and developing Ares I, a crew launch vehicle that will transport the Orion crew module to space.

Sumrall, who reflects fondly of his days at UCM and studying under educators like Professor Claude Brown, says he became intrigued with space after Russia launched the first satellite in 1957. He had no idea that a rare opportunity to meet famed Saturn rocket inventor Wernher von Braun would lead to a highly successful career with NASA. His first encounter with the space pioneer in Hunstsville, AL, resembles more a scene from a movie.

 

Fortunate Chance Encounter

 

"One Saturday I went to the downtown barbershop…and, as I was waiting for a haircut, Dr. von Braun came in. As the barbershop was full, he happened to sit next to me. I was excited because I knew who he was and was very much a fan, but had no expectation I would see him in person."

The famous rocket scientist looked through a stack of papers he pulled from his briefcase, then put them away and struck up a conversation. Sumrall had graduated months earlier from UCM and was teaching at a private school in Huntsville. That seemed to intrigue von Braun.

"When he found out what I was doing, he wanted to know what I had studied in school. He wanted to know every course I had taken, what the course covered, what grade I made and so forth. He almost had an insatiable curiosity," Sumrall recalls "He talked me through all that and at the end of it, he asked, ‘Have you ever thought about working in the space program?'"

 

Personal Invitation from von Braun

 

Sumrall had never considered it, but von Braun wasn't deterred. "He gave me an individual's name and said ‘Tell him you and I talked and I thought there was an opportunity for you at NASA.'" An invitation to work with Marshall Center's first director was too good to pass up. Sumrall joined von Braun's team and served with him for about eight years. Today, Sumrall is one of only a few engineers at NASA who also worked on the Saturn projects.

"I remember the first human steps on the moon in 1969," Sumrall says. "The grainy, black-and-white TV image was amazing, and I was part of that achievement. Years later, I am about to see it again — this time as manager of a project that will help carry us back to the moon to explore and live off the lunar surface."

— Jeff Murphy '76 hs, '80, '95