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Dr. Olin Glenn Smith (Sigma) 1934-2020

Dr. Olin Glenn Smith, a retired NASA engineer with a long and distinguished career, passed away at his home in Clear Lake, Texas on April 24th. He was 85. Glenn, as he was known to friends and family, was surrounded by those closest to his failing heart, his wife of 61 years Sue by his side, and his four children. It could not have been a more peaceful and dignified launch to the heavens for this lifelong curious engineer and rocket scientist.

Glenn was born July 15, 1934 in Cridersville, Ohio. Growing up at the end of the depression, he embodied diligence and fortitude from an early age and always had a grateful, positive outlook on life. He took pride in the simple pleasures of the pre WW2 era in a small town: big band music, unreliable cars, free Saturday night movies at the drive-in where he worked one summer as an usher, among many local jobs he held, including caddy at nearby Shawnee Country Club. He would remark how lucky he was to live his version of the American dream, ending up a part of history as he helped guide NASA from the Apollo launches through to the International Space Station. The key to success was a grounded work ethic, self discipline and humility– he would offer, if asked.

Glenn was a class of 1952 graduate of Cridersville High School, elected senior class president. He graduated from Ohio Northern University in 1956 with a High Distinction and top of his class in the College of Engineering. He would later be honored by ONU in 2013 with the Distinguished Alumni Award. He was a member of Sigma Xi (scientific honorary), Alpha Sigma Phi (social), Tau Beta Pi (national engineering honorary), and Kappa Kappa Psi (college band honorary). His education continued, earning in 1963 a MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. Just two years later Glenn defended his PhD thesis on the topic of heat transfer in nuclear reactors.

From 1956-1967, he was employed by Westinghouse Electric as a design engineer for electric power generators for aircraft and the space program and was a heat transfer specialist at the Atomic Power Labs in Pittsburgh. In 1967, Dr. Smith moved his young and growing family to Houston and the promise of the NASA Johnson Space Center, to be part of our nation’s journey to the moon and beyond. He would spend 27 years on numerous projects, thriving in the team atmosphere at NASA. He always gave credit to the group effort, never focusing on his own accomplishments. As a project engineer and manager, Glenn worked on the Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle and Space Station projects. After the Apollo moon missions, he was the study manager of a NASA in-house effort to identify costs, schedules and recommendations for various uses of Apollo launch ready systems, including Skylab II, the Apollo-Soyuz mission, artificial gravity tests, manipulator development, solar power satellite demos and museum pieces. He was the project lead for a team of astronauts, scientists and engineers tasked with designing controls for the Apollo telescope mount in Skylab, and he led the development of the earth resources instruments for the Skylab program. Glenn was manager of a NASA applications program for developing practical applications of satellite Earth resources data, managing approximately 450 contracts with university researchers and other users. He next was deputy manager of systems engineering for the Space Shuttle program. He was co-designer of the proposed flyback booster to improve shuttle safety and reduce cost. And so we could confer upon him the title ‘rocket scientist’, he was a rocket engine specialist in the Shuttle Systems Engineering Office at the Johnson Space Center, specializing in the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) built by Rocketdyne. He concluded his career at NASA as manager of science and applications experiments for the International Space Station. While with NASA, Glenn lectured to the European Space Agency on systems engineering and was the winner of 25 outstanding or superior performance awards, and gave testimony to various congressional committees regarding the safety and cost of space launch systems.

After retiring from NASA, he continued to consult on space launch systems, write articles for Space News and contribute his knowledge to Space Center Houston’s educational efforts. He remained active in the space community and in touch with colleagues Chris Kraft, and Bob Thompson for many years. Last summer in July 2019, Glenn was honored by his hometown in Ohio during the weeklong 50th Anniversary of the Lunar Landing, where he was a featured guest at the Cridersville Firemen’s Jamboree, rode in two parades, and spoke to a packed house at the Community Center on his experiences at NASA and friendship with fellow Ohioan Neil Armstrong. With family and childhood friends in attendance, he celebrated his 85th birthday and was honored by the Cridersville Historical Society with an exhibit of his life’s works and contributions to the space program. The festive week culminated with Glenn attending the ‘First on the Moon’ gala at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, where he was previously inducted into the Wapakoneta School District Hall of Fame, along with Neil in 2002.

Beyond his accomplishments in engineering, Glenn also was the consummate amateur athlete. A three sport athlete (basketball, baseball, golf), while at Ohio Northern University he was a standout all American Basketball player, holding many scoring and rebounding records to this day. He spent a semester as a pitcher in the minor leagues for the Philadelphia Phillies while maintaining top grades. In 1997 he was inducted into the ONU Athletic Hall of Fame. Often at family gatherings, he would challenge all to pick up games on the driveway hoop and intense ping pong matches. Glenn was also a fitness buff, running the Houston marathon in 1984 and working out daily until two months before his passing, In retirement, Glenn would turn to his love of golf, playing almost daily at Bay Oaks Country Club, where he won the Traditions Tournament in 2002. From rounds with Gene Sarazen in Florida, to a trip to Scotland where he played what he considered the most beautiful and historic links, Royal Dornoch, he would avidly keep tour-like statistics of each round so he could analyze his game as only an engineer could. Indeed he was an early adapter of the controversial anchored long putter stroke. In addition to his passion for golf, Glenn was a licensed commercial pilot, who flew around friends and family in an early model Piper Cherokee Cub for years, buzzing friends’ homesteads in a pass-by of acrobatic showmanship, and taking weekend jaunts to West Texas’ Big Bend. One of his most memorable tales, was flying Armand Yramategui, then Curator of the Burke Baker Planetarium, down to Eastern Mexico in the late ’60s to climb ruins of the Mayan pyramid at Palenque in the dark of night to view the heavens. Having cheated death at least once before during a skydiving mishap, Glenn was involved in another venture gone awry a decade ago, when a rocket propulsion system he had been advising on, as part of the Space X competition, exploded in a Bay Area warehouse field damaging much of his hearing and making the local news.

Glenn spent the last decade shouting “Come on, Sue!” as the two of them would embark on many travel adventures abroad including Germany, Italy, Egypt, Ireland. The final years of his life together with Sue, revolved around their many grand and great grandchildren and gatherings at their home, always the hub of family holidays and special occasions for their brood of 30+. Despite his hearing loss and intrepid nature, a no more intelligent or caring patriarch could offer such a full life to his family to the very end. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Sue, their four children and spouses, 14 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. To honor Glenn’s life, a beautiful, intimate service was held for immediate family at Crowder Funeral Home in Clear Lake on April 30th, led by Rev. Katrina Pennington, Senior Associate Pastor at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, where Glenn was a member for more than four decades.

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