Jack Albert Kinzler
Had Jack A. Kinzler not built model planes as a boy, had he not visited the post office as a youth and had he not, as a grown man, purchased four fishing rods at $12.95 apiece, Skylab — the United States’ $2.5 billion space station — would very likely have been forfeit.
Providentially, Mr. Kinzler had done all those things, and Skylab, imperiled by the loss of a thermal shield on its launch in 1973, was saved.
Mr. Kinzler saved it with a parasol.
A constitutional tinkerer, Mr. Kinzler, who died on March 4 at 94, was for decades NASA’s resident Mr. Fix-It, building the impeccable full-scale models of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft used in a welter of preflight tests, and solving a spate of other mechanical problems over the years — all without the benefit of a college degree.
Mr. Kinzler, the longtime chief of the Technical Services Center at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, also put six flags — and six plaques — on the moon and helped make possible the rarefied sport of lunar golf.
A diagram illustrates the sequence of parasol deployment.
“Whenever we run into trouble,” he told The Associated Press in 1973, “that’s when I really get interested.”
Mr. Kinzler’s finest hour indisputably came after the launch of Skylab, designed as a scientific research station. En route to what would be a six-year mission, it went up unmanned on May 14, 1973; a three-man crew was due to follow the next day.
But the loss of the heat shield proved a grave concern. Though Skylab was able to ascend to orbit, it would be uninhabitable without sufficient protection from the sun. Temperatures would be unbearable, onboard food and film stores would spoil and overheated plastic components could exude toxic gases.
The crew’s departure was delayed until a solution could be found. Without one, NASA knew, Skylab would remain forever untenanted, a ghost ship in space.
The proposed remedies, urgently solicited by NASA from its own engineers and from outside contractors, included ideas ranging from “spray paints, inflatable balloons and wallpapers to window curtains and extendable metal panels,” as the aerospace website AmericaSpace reported in a commemorative article last year.
Mr. Kinzler bought fishing rods.
Jack Albert Kinzler was born in Pittsburgh on Jan. 9, 1920. His father, a photoengraver and inventor whose formal schooling had ended with fourth grade, held patents on several photoengraving devices.
An ardent model-plane builder, Jack flew his creations in national competitions. He was offered a scholarship to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh but declined: College, he felt, would take time from aeronautical pursuits.
He took a job as a bank clerk. One day when he was in his early 20s, he stopped into a local post office. There he saw a help-wanted poster seeking builders of model airplanes.
The poster was from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the federal agency, founded in 1915, that was a precursor to NASA. With the war on in Europe and the threat of war preoccupying the United States, the committee was seeking recruits to build accurate models of military planes for testing in its mammoth wind tunnels.
Mr. Kinzler joined the committee’s aeronautical laboratory in Langley, Va., becoming an apprentice model maker and toolmaker before being named the assistant superintendent of the machine shop there.
In the late 1950s, when the committee was superseded by NASA, Mr. Kinzler moved with the new agency to Houston; he was its technical services chief from 1961 until his retirement in 1977.
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When Skylab shed its shield, most of the proposed solutions entailed a spacewalk, with all its inherent dangers. To Mr. Kinzler, that was an unattractive prospect: The commander of Skylab’s crew, Charles Conrad Jr., known as Pete, was his next-door neighbor and friend.
What was needed, Mr. Kinzler knew, was a fix that could be done from the inside. He learned that Skylab had an airlock — a narrow passage meant for use as a camera port — near the site of the damage. It might be possible, he thought, to build a kind of flat, collapsible shade tree, which could be extruded through the airlock and, once outside, made to bloom.
He phoned a sporting-goods store and ordered a set of fiberglass fishing rods. The salient thing about them was not that they caught fish, but that they telescoped.
To build his prototype, Mr. Kinzler arranged four rods like the ribs of an immense umbrella, securing one to each side of a piece of parachute silk roughly 24 feet square. Folded, the parasol would just fit into the airlock. Once extruded, its canopy could be snapped open by means of springs.
Normally, Mr. Kinzler said in interviews, the design, building and approval of such novel equipment might take NASA six months. His parasol was ready in six days — six days in which he and his staff of more than 100 lived, worked and slept in the Johnson Space Center.
The finished parasol, built from telescoping aluminum tubes and silver-and-orange fabric of nylon, Mylar and aluminum, was stowed aboard the crew’s Apollo spacecraft. At 9 a.m. on May 25, the crew — Commander Conrad, Joseph P. Kerwin and Paul J. Weitz — took off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Just before midnight they docked with Skylab, where the interior temperature was approaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit; wearing spacesuits, they could work there for short periods.
On May 26, after ensuring the station was free of hazardous gases, crew members pushed the parasol through the airlock and released the canopy. It did not open fully — it remained partly puckered — but in the end that did not matter.
Over the next few days, Skylab’s inside temperature fell to a companionable 70 degrees. Shedding their suits, the astronauts completed their 28-day mission.
For his work, Mr. Kinzler received the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA’s highest honor.
By the time he saved Skylab, Mr. Kinzler was already an experienced unfurler. In the late 1960s, as the United States raced to put a man on the moon, NASA officials asked him to suggest what that man might do to mark the occasion once he got there.
Plant a flag, Mr. Kinzler said, and leave a plaque.
Mr. Kinzler was charged with designing a moonworthy flagstaff. He ordered a large American flag and, recalling how his mother used to hang curtains by sewing a hidden sleeve at the top and inserting a rod through it, did likewise.
In his design, the sleeve was supported by a collapsible crossbar attached to the flagstaff. Just such a staff, neatly folded, was stowed aboard Apollo 11 when it set off for the moon on July 16, 1969.
Planted on July 21, the flag, held by the crossbar, remained permanently snapped to attention in the moon’s airless atmosphere. (In a photograph taken before the crossbar was fully extended, the flag, hanging in folds, looks as though it is rippling in a breeze.)
Each of the five succeeding crews to reach the moon planted one of Mr. Kinzler’s flagpoles. He also oversaw the design and manufacture of the commemorative plaques attached to all six lunar landing vehicles, left on the moon after each crew decamped.
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In a covert operation — a golfing holiday seemed out of keeping with NASA’s august mandate — Mr. Kinzler’s department helped fabricate the collapsible club, comprising a 6-iron head attached to the handle of a lunar-sample scoop, that Alan Shepard carried aboard Apollo 14 in 1971.
Mr. Shepard hit two balls, shanking the first but connecting with the second.
Mr. Kinzler’s survivors include his wife, the former Sylvia Richardson, whom he married in 1947; two sons, John and James; a daughter, Nancy Kinzler, who confirmed her father’s death, at his home in Taylor Lake Village, Tex., a Houston suburb; and seven grandchildren.
Skylab, which over time was home to two additional crews, remained in orbit — Mr. Kinzler’s parasol still in place — until 1979, when, unmanned, it disintegrated on re-entering the atmosphere.
On the moon, Mr. Kinzler’s flags still fly. His plaques endure. And, thanks partly to him, two small white spheres now grace the lunar surface, one of them hit some 200 yards in what will forever remain the most famous golf shot in the universe.