How a Kamloops-born man helped put us on the moon

How a Kamloops-born man helped put us on the moon

Jim Chamberlin did troubleshooting for the Apollo program, which led to its success

  • Jul. 20, 2019 7:00 a.m.

As the world marks 50 years since man first landed on the moon, eyes are on those who helped take us there.

One of those people was Jim Chamberlin, a significant contributor to NASA’s success in manned spaceflight and a key figure in Canada’s aviation history.

He’s one of several subjects of interest to Royal Astronomical Society of Canada president Chris Gainor, who wrote about Chamberlin in his book Arrows to the Moon: Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race. Gainor spoke to KTW ahead of the moon landing anniversary on Saturday, July 20.

Jim Chamberlin was born in Kamloops, but his time in the city was brief. He was only here from his birth in 1915 until 1917, the year his father was killed at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

He and his mother returned to Eastern Canada shortly after.

ALSO READ: South Surrey man helped beam images of moon landing around the globe

After graduating from the University of Toronto in 1936 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he earned a master’s degree at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, England, in 1939.

Upon returning to Canada, his aeronautics career got underway alongside the war effort, serving as chief engineer at Clark Ruse Aircraft in Dartmouth, N.S., where he worked on aircraft to counter submarines and for training, and later at Noorduyn Aviation in Montreal.

In 1946, Chamberlin became an engineer at Avro Canada, initially working as the chief aerodynamicist for the Avro C-102 jetliner and the Avro CF-100 jet interceptor before becoming the chief of technical design for the company as it began work on a keystone of Canadian aviation: the Avro Arrow.

The Arrow was thought to be the most advanced aircraft of its time, and Chamberlin was a key player in its twin-engined delta wing design.

But the project, which would have created Canada’s first supersonic jet fighters, was abruptly cancelled by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1959.

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module seen during its ascent stage after landing man on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are aboard. Jim Chamberlin promoted the idea of lunar orbit rendezvous — rather than landing a rocket directly on the moon — as the way forward for NASA. (NASA photo)

But mere months after the Arrow was cancelled, Chamberlin joined the space race, recruited by NASA along with another two dozen Canadian engineers from Avro.

It wasn’t long before he became the head of engineering for Project Mercury, the effort that put astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. into space in a sub-orbital flight in 1961.

“But Mercury could only last so long and they wanted to have a spacecraft that could do more. So they thought, let’s fix up Mercury a little more, but Chamberlin said no — we need a new spacecraft,” Gainor said.

That new spacecraft was the precursor to the Apollo program.

“And that was where Gemini came from. He basically designed Gemini,” Gainor said.

Gainor said the Gemini spacecraft appeared similar to Mercury, but was actually quite different, incorporating modular design ideas Chamberlin brought with him from his time at Avro.

“It was quite an excellent spacecraft and it was a favourite of the astronauts — kind of considered like a sports car. I look at it as the offspring of the Arrow,” Gainor said.

Chamberlin served as the first program manager for Gemini before leaving the position in 1963 to do troubleshooting for the Apollo program, making direct contributions that led to its success.

Gainor said in the early days of NASA trying to figure out how to get to the moon, the agency was pursuing a direct approach that would land a rocket on the moon’s surface.

“But that introduces some problems because you’re carrying equipment to the lunar surface that you don’t need there, meaning you need a much bigger rocket,” he said.

Chamberlin was part of the reason that direct approach didn’t happen, with NASA instead opting to launch the lunar module from an orbiting spacecraft and then rendezvous to return back to Earth.

The idea itself came from John Houbolt, a NASA engineer who wasn’t working in human spaceflight, but was adopted and promoted by Chamberlin as the way to go forward.

“Chamberlin had a big role in promoting that. He heard about Houbolt’s ideas and looked at the math and realized it made a lot of sense,” Gainor said.

“I think that was one of his big gifts to NASA.”

Chamberlin left NASA to join McDonnell Douglas Astronautics in 1970, but before leaving, worked on early design concepts for the space shuttle — work that continued at his new private employer, where he contributed detailed design and development work on another highly successful NASA manned spaceflight venture.

Gainor never met Chamberlin before he died of a heart attack in 1981 at the age of 65, but did meet with other Avro engineers who went to Houston with him.

“They all say they weren’t necessarily better than the Americans were, but it just showed them we could go down there and work alongside the best in the world,” he said.

“I would be very surprised if Chamberlin felt any different about that, given what I know about him.”

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow, a kitten belonging to a Victoria family, was rescued by firefighters on Thursday after she got stuck in a basement drain pipe. (City of Victoria/Twitter)
Victoria kitten stuck in basement drain pipe rescued by firefighters

Willow the cat on the mend, owner feeling ‘enormous gratitude’

(Black Press Media file photo)
Blue-green algae bloom confirmed in Elk Lake, water-based activities not recommended

Blue-green algae can be lethal to dogs, cause health issues for humans

Victoria police arrested a man Jan. 15 after he rammed his minivan into an occupied police vehicle. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria man arrested for ramming minivan into occupied police vehicle

Man caught after fleeing, crashing into cement retaining wall

Mayor Rob Martin and Costa Canna president Phil Floucault cut the ribbon on Colwood’s first cannabis retail store. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
Cowichan Tribes’ Costa Canna cannabis store opens in Colwood

Cowichan Tribes has one-year deal to grow, sell cannabis

Cindy Foggit plays the lead role of Eliza in Passion and Performance’s film production Eliza: An Adaption of a Christmas Carol. (Courtesy of Rachel Paish)
Victoria adult dance studio releases modern adaption of A Christmas Carol

Instead of usual stage performance, dance studio turns to film

Keith the curious kitten is seen on Nov. 4, 2020 at the Chilliwack SPCA. Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 is Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 17 to 23

Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, Pie Day and International Sweatpants Day are all coming up this week

JaHyung Lee, “Canada’s oldest senior” at 110 years old, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. He lives at Amenida Seniors Community in Newton. (Submitted photo: Amenida Seniors Community)
A unique-looking deer has been visiting a Nanoose Bay property with its mother. (Frieda Van der Ree photo)
A deer with 3 ears? Unique animal routinely visits B.C. property

Experts say interesting look may be result of an injury rather than an odd birth defect

Terry David Mulligan. (Submitted photo)
Podcast: Interview with longtime actor/broadcaster and B.C. resident Terry David Mulligan

Podcast: Talk includes TDM’s RCMP career, radio, TV, wine, Janis Joplin and much more

Seasonal influenza vaccine is administered starting each fall in B.C. and around the world. (Langley Advance Times)
After 30,000 tests, influenza virtually nowhere to be found in B.C.

COVID-19 precautions have eliminated seasonal infection

Lilly and Poppy, two cats owned by Kalmar Cat Hotel ownder Donna Goodenough, both have cerebellAr hypoplasia, a genetic neurological condition that affects their ability to control their muscles and bones. Photo by Alistair Taylor – Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Wobbly Cats a riot of flailing legs and paws but bundles of love and joy to their owner

Woman urges others to not fear adopting cats with disabilities

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada’s top doctor says to avoid non-essential travel as B.C. explores legal options

Premier John Horgan says he is seeking legal advice on whether it can limit interprovincial travel

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during the march on Washington, D.C., in August of 1963. Courtesy photo
Government reinforces importance of anti-racism act on Black Shirt Day

B.C. Ministers say education “a powerful tool” in the fight for equity and equality

Black Press media file
Port McNeill driver tells police he thought the pandemic meant no breathalyzers

Suspect facing criminal charges after breathalyzer readings in excess of 3.5 times the legal limit

Most Read