A behind-the-scenes look at the space program

Lewes author shares experiences working on Apollo, space shuttle with NASA
September 10, 2018

While there are only a handful of people who’ve gone to space, there are thousands of others who were integral in making it happen. Jack Clemons is one of those people. 

“There were 400,000 people who worked on this program, a layer of people who did a lot of work, and not a lot of people know about them,” he said.

Clemons’ new book, “Safely to Earth: The Men and Women Who Brought the Astronauts Home,” offers a behind-the-scenes look at the hard work of people working on Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle programs. The book will be released Tuesday, Sept. 18. It will be available at local bookstores and on Amazon.

Clemons will appear at the Lewes Public Library at 6 p.m., Friday, Sept. 14. He will read excerpts from “Safely to Earth,” another book he’s working on about Lewes in 1901 and a selection from a science fiction piece he’s penned.

The book is structured to take the reader through Clemons’ personal experiences working as an engineer with IBM at NASA. 

“I tried to draw in as many people as I could that I worked with,” he said. “I contacted them afterward and had them look at what I had written and asked if they had any stories to add.”

Clemons worked on the Apollo program from October 1968 until June 1974, including two of the most famous missions in NASA's history - Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. He specialized in developing procedures for re-entry back into the Earth's atmosphere, and he directly trained astronauts.

After Apollo, he worked on the Skylab program in the mid- to late 1970s, an early version of the space station. A lot of interesting things happened on Sky Lab that have never been told, he said, including a rescue that saved the lives of two astronauts. 

“Nobody knows about it,” he said, teasing the story in his book. 

Clemons then turned his attention to the space shuttle program. From 1974 to 1984, Clemons worked with NASA to program all onboard software for the space shuttle.

By 1984, Clemons had been involved with 11 space shuttle missions and the pre-mission testing, and he decided it was time to move on. He relocated to IBM's corporate headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., where he worked on the development of computer-aided software design tools for engineering and software customers. IBM eventually sold all of its federal work to Lockheed Martin in 1992. Clemons became the senior vice president of engineering and operations in the company and was responsible for the development of advanced air-traffic control systems in the United States and United Kingdom.

Clemons retired in 2005 and moved full time to Lewes.

Although this is Clemons’ first major published work, he said he’s been a writer most of his life. He had fictional short stories published in Amazing Stories magazine and penned a few manuscripts, including a time travel novel involving the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. 

When Amazing Stories was revitalized three years ago, it printed a list of former contributors. Clemons contacted the magazine after he discovered his name was misspelled. The conversation with the new owner led to a science column in the magazine, and Clemons started to draw on his past experiences. 

He still had most of the papers and notes he took during his career. The comprehensive compendium served as a reminder of many past experiences, former coworkers and untold stories.

He started to blog about his past life working on the space program and quickly discovered he could put it all together in a book. 

“I ended up blogging about 30 times over the period of a few years on the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs from my perspective, so it was written as a memoir,” he said. “That kind of got me started.” 

In early 2016, he contacted his longtime book agent to tell him about the book, an idea his agent had urged Clemons to pursue several years earlier.

“When I was working on Apollo and Space Shuttle, you knew it was a big deal,” he said. “Later I ended up working on air traffic control, which is interesting, but it hasn’t got the je ne sais quoi of space.” 

Clemons signed a contract with University Press of Florida in early 2016. His editor, Linda Bathgate, set a goal to have the book out this fall, just ahead of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019. 

Clemons said Bathgate’s contributions to the book were immense. 

“She helped me structure the book in a way that made more sense,” he said. 

She made the book much more readable and encouraged Clemons to move anecdotes that slowed the book to a crawl to the appendix. He took her advice and added a 37-page section in the back called “Questions people ask me about Apollo and the Space Shuttle.” 

“The reviews we’re getting are applauding that,” he said.

Clemons is already hard at work on his next book, another nonfiction piece, this time about the danger of asteroids. He is already under contract with University Press of Florida. The anticipated release date is 2020. 

Clemons was one of four Cape Region artists awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship for 2018 from the Delaware Division of the Arts. 

He will appear on “Delmarva Life” on WBOC to discuss his new book Tuesday, Sept. 18. 

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