Friday, April 10, 2009

Better Than Anyone Thought He Could Be

The wood paneled walls of Bob Shurney's home office are nearly covered with an eclectic array of plaques, presentations and proclamations, all in a testament of his thirty-six years of public service to his country. Overcoming the tragedy of his mother dying at a young age, this Dublin native served his country admirably both on the ground and in the air. This is a story of a man who was given an equal opportunity to show his abilities and became one of the most important men in the history of manned space flight.

Robert Ellerston Shurney was born in Dublin, Georgia on December 29, 1921. His parents, Vance Shurney, Sr. and St. Clair Weston, were also the parents of Vance Jr., Green Weston and Edna Louise. Vance Shurney, a native of Cochran, Georgia, lived at various places while he in lived in Dublin. After World War I, he moved from his home at 302 N. Washington Street to another home on Cooper Street. Vance, Sr. worked as a fireman for the Dublin Lumber Company during World War I while St. Clair was a teacher. St. Clair Shurney died when Robert was only ten years old. Robert was devastated and reportedly never knew how his mother died. Robert and his siblings moved to San Bernadino, California to live with their grandparents. It would be another quarter of a century before Robert would see his father again. Vance Shurney returned to Dublin, where he died on January 16, 1991 at the age of one hundred years.

Robert Shurney always had a talent for building and designing things. He worked as an auto mechanic as a teenager. Economics forced Robert to withdraw from school to help support the family during the Great Depression. His grandparents wanted Robert to be a minister, but he wanted to be an engineer. Robert was able to fulfill his parent's dream of his receiving a Christian education. He was sent to Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, where Shurney still lives today.

Robert Shurney moved to Washington, D.C. and was drafted into the service in World War II. Shurney seemed to have a natural born aptitude for medicine and helping others and became a medic in the United States Army at Camp Meade, Virginia. He served in the army during the invasion of France and endured the horrors of war on a first hand basis as the Allied forces moved across France and Germany. After his three-year hitch in the Army, Shurney retired to civilian life.

He returned to California after he married the former Miss Susie Flynt. Robert and Susie were blessed with three children twins, Glenn and Glendon Patricia "Peggy," and Darrell. Afterwards the Shurneys moved to Nashville, Tennessee where the course of Bob Shurney's life would change forever. It was in Nashville where their last child, Ronald "Ronnie," was born.

Robert returned to the medical field when he took a job as an engineer in the Riverside Hospital. It was at the hospital where Shurney's life's mission was steered in another direction by Dr. Carl Dent, the hospital administrator. Shurney wanted to help others and to become a success to support his family in the process. Dr. Dent and some of Shurney's other colleagues and friends urged him to attend college. One friend told him it was impossible, a statement which spurred Robert to enter college. In the 1950s, it was nearly impossible for a man of thirty-five years of age with four children to attend college, much less a black man in the South. But Shurney persevered. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Electrical Engineering from Tennessee State A & I University in Nashville in 1962.

The most exciting field of engineering in the late 1950s and early 1960s was the space program, which was begun in 1958 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Shurney applied for a job at NASA, but was turned down. The only jobs at NASA on those days were for only menial tasks. Shurney called upon his sister-in-law who waked with Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Kings contacted U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who along with the powerful African American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, convinced the Space Administration to hire Robert. Shurney returned to Huntsville, where he was hired after a favorable interview in the latter months of 1962. The faces of engineering labs and test facilities was about to change for ever. No longer would every engineer be a white male with a buzz cut, black framed glasses and a slide rule in his hand. Many times the white workers believed he was the janitor. On many occasions, he was the only African-American in the briefing rooms.

In an interview with John G. Radilowicz of the Buhl Planetarium and Observatory, Shurney recalled his first meeting with the Mercury astronauts. "They said they were looking for the one in charge of weightlessness training, and they went to every white person in the room asking if they were the person who ran the program," he said. "And when they finished asking all the whites, the whites pointed to me. It was my program," Shurney recalled. In his career at NASA, Shurney trained 90 percent of the program's early astronauts. Shurney worked in the Apollo program coordinating aircraft and hardware schedules and testing systems and components. Gemini and Apollo astronaut James Lovell in writing of his experiences with African-American in the space program lauded the roles that people of color played in the early days of the space program. Lovell said, "many people I meet think the space program was the exclusive domain of white, middle-aged men with crew cuts. But the reality is that African-Americans have played an active and important part in space exploration since the very beginnings of the program." In his essay written for NASA Quest, Lovell first cited Shurney for his contributions to the Apollo

Another of Robert Shurney's first major assignments at NASA was to work with the weight distribution of the Saturn V rocket. The precise flight of the gigantic rocket, the most powerful ever designed by the United States, was absolutely critical to the agency's accomplishment of the goals set by President John F. Kennedy of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth by the end of the 1960s. All of Shurney's hard work on the Saturn V rocket culminated with the successful launch of the first rocket on November 9, 1967, for which he received a personal citation from Dr. Werner Von Braun, Director of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. Shurney participated in all of the Apollo flights including man's first moon circumnavigation on the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas Eve in 1969 and man's first landing on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Perhaps Shurney's most well known and most heralded contribution to the space program came during the Apollo 15 mission. Mission planners were charged with the design of missions which would require the moonwalkers to seek out and retrieve the greatest variety of moon rocks as possible. Though the moon's low gravity allowed the astronauts to move easily across the lunar surface, it became imperative that the astronauts be able to move long distances without arduous and dangerous hikes across alien surfaces. Though three successful moon landings yielded a tremendous amount of data about the lunar surfaces, engineers were still uncertain as to the stability and composition of the moon's soil under the weight of the vehicle, its cargo of moon rocks and the two astronauts.

NASA assigned Shurney to design a tire for the vehicle which would allow the rover to move across the moon's surface free of bogging down in the thin soil. Shurney studied all of the available data and came up with a design with metal chevrons giving the rover the greatest traction possible, all the time keeping the vehicle within the weight restrictions during the launch. "There were a lot of things we didn't know about the lunar surface. We didn't know the dust profile. And so we took from the information that we were able to obtain and eventually came up with the idea of the chevrons that are on the lunar rover wheel. We designed it in such a way that it would keep the dust off the crewmen and they could see where they were going. The wheels left a trail like a rooster's tail. That's where we got the idea," Shurney said.

The tires of the Lunar Rover, designed by Dr. Robert E. Shurney.
Used for the first time on the mission of Apollo 15.

Shurney's design proved to be a success on July 31, 1971 when astronauts David Scott and James Irwin became the first men to drive a vehicle on the Moon. The Apollo 15 astronauts traveled slightly more than twenty-seven kilometers during their three-day visit to the Moon. The rover was used on the final two Apollo missions, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 contributing greatly to the success of the missions and the entire Apollo program as well.

As a part of his studies of the moon's surface, Shurney also developed a device to measure the depth of and any vibrations emanating from the lunar surface. Until future visitors return to the moon and retrieve the lunar rovers, they will remain on the surface, along with their tracks.

After rebounding from the devastating premature end to the Apollo program, Shurney and other NASA scientists went to work on the Skylab program, which utilized the hardware left over from the cut Apollo missions. Perhaps the most important part of the missions, aside from their technical aspects, was the strain on the human body during extended periods of weightlessness. Once again, Shurney was called upon to design systems and devices to allow the astronauts to function in a gravity free environment.

Dr. Robert Shurney testing weightless
conditions aboard a KC-135, ca. 1970s?

Early astronauts trained in pools of water to simulate weightlessness. NASA converted a KC-135 airplane into a flying laboratory to provide astronauts with twenty to thirty seconds of actual weightless conditions by flying upward at a forty-five-degree angle and then rapidly descending. The plane would fly "roller coaster" style for hours leading to its nickname of "The Weightless Wonder," or more affectionately, "The Vomit Comet." Shurney reportedly flew more than six hundred hours in the training aircraft, more than any other NASA employee, primarily during the Skylab flights and early flights of the Space Shuttle.

Basic human functions had to be addressed in a zero gravity environment. Just going to the bathroom in a toilet could become a messy and difficult process. Shurney designed and successfully tested toilets aboard the KC-135 for the Skylab missions, which lasted until the latter years of the 1970s. Just eating could also be an arduous task. Without gravity, some foods would simply fly apart before they could be eaten. Some sort of binding agent was necessary to keep the foodstuffs together. Once again, Shurney analyzed the problem and devised a solution to keep the astronaut's meals together. He even designed a special container to store the food in and utensils to eat the food with.

Dr. Robert Shurney, ca. 1990. @ Life Magazine

Spacecraft orbiting the Earth face the problem of intense heat on the sunny side of the craft and intense cold on the dark side. Shurney, along with others, designed a solar shield and solar panel. The shield insulated the spacecraft from the heat, while the panel helped provide a constant source of energy to power the orbital station's batteries and equipment. Many of Shurney's designs like the commode and food utensils have been utilized on the shuttle missions.

Shurney continued his education while working at NASA. In 1986, at the age of sixty-five years, Dr. Shurney received his PhD degree in physics from Columbia Pacific University in San Rafael, California. Shurney wrote, "During my time as an aerospace engineer, I kept abreast of new innovations in space by attending many colleges and universities, including Meharry Medical College, Howard University, the University of Michigan, the University of Alabama and the University of Oklahoma." He wrote many technical manuals and scientific journal articles. In 1990, after thirty six years of government service, twenty-eight of them with NASA, Dr. Robert E. Shurney retired. During his years in the space program, Dr. Shurney was awarded the First Lunar Apollo Flight Award, the Apollo Achievement Award and the Skylab Achievement Award along with a myriad of certificates of appreciation and letters of commendation.

After retiring, Dr. Shurney's service to his community did not stop. The doctor has lectured on college campuses around the country and as a judge at numerous science fairs. He has volunteered whenever and wherever he could. He is an ardent fund raiser for his alma mater, Oakwood Junior College.

Nearly a half century ago, Robert Shurney must have felt the whole world was against him. Today, he is just now receiving the recognition he so richly deserves for leading men into space and to the surface of the moon. He battled the obstacles in his way with dignity, perseverance and natural intelligence. Shurney believes that other underprivileged kids like him can still succeed with the right motivation and determination. " You don't have to do drugs. You don't have to stay out all night long. You don't have to prove anything to anybody but yourself. Have some plan for your life. Strive to be better than what people might expect you to be," Dr. Shurney contends. He ought to know. He's been there and done that more than anyone could have ever imagined that cold December day when he entered this world in Dublin, Georgia nearly eighty-five years ago.

Post Script: Dr. Robert Shurney died on November 25, 2007 in Huntsville, Alabama.


  1. Columbia Pacific University is proud of our alumnus, Dr. Shurney, for his extraordinary accomplishments. This great pioneer of science made significant contributions to space exploration, participated in all of the Apollo flights, including man's first landing on the moon in 1969. He deserves more recognition!

    Paul Hartal

  2. I am his great granddaughter. The only time I meet him was when I was a baby. My grandfather, his youngest son, has told me a lot about him. He does deserve more recongition. He is a great role model, he is my role model. I love him and miss him dearly. Children all over in schools should know of him. R.I.P Granddad Rob

  3. What a Legacy and Mark he made in Science and in Life. Loved this story. American's hidden gems.

  4. I am his niece. I have met with him on several occasions. He is an excellent role model. He loved him dearly. R.I. P. Uncle Robert!!!