Remembering NASA Engineer Jerry Woodfill, the Inspiration Behind “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13”

Jerry Woodfill, an engineer who worked diligently behind the scenes during NASA’s Apollo program, has passed away at age 79. Jerry was still employed by the Johnson Space Center (JSC) at the time of his death, working there for over 57 years. Most notably, Jerry worked as the lead engineer behind the Caution and Warning System on the Apollo spacecraft, which alerted astronauts to issues such as Apollo 11’s computer problems during the first Moon landing, and the explosion of Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks.

While continuing his work as an engineer at JSC, Jerry’s infectious enthusiasm for spaceflight led him to also be part of NASA’s public and educational outreach, where he spearheaded programs for children, teachers and adults about science and space flight. He routinely gave over 40 lectures a year, both in person and online to listeners around the world. His unique sense of humor and sometimes unabashed showmanship could hold even the shortest of young attention spans. Jerry usually had his audiences either in stitches or fully captivated by his stories.  

His passion and never-ending interest in spaceflight history was the inspiration behind Universe Today’s multi-year series on Apollo 13, “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13,”13 MORE Things That Saved Apollo 13,” and “Even More Things That Saved Apollo 13.”  I first interviewed Jerry in 2007, and have been honored to call him my friend ever since. His passing leaves a void in the universe.

Jerry Woodfill in 1965 shortly after he started working at NASA. Drawings of the Apollo Command Module display are taped on the wall behind him. Image courtesy Jerry Woodfill.

Born as Jared Ryker Woodfill IV in 1942, he thought his given name was too formal, and so preferred being called Jerry. He tended to downplay his role at NASA, calling himself a “low level engineer,” but he was an integral part of the cog of engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make it possible to reach the Moon.

One of his passions was to encourage students who might be experiencing challenges. Jerry often shared his story of overcoming his own academic and athletic shortfalls in his younger days. While attending Rice University on a basketball scholarship, his life on and off the court wasn’t going as he had hoped.

“Sadly, I hold the record of the lowest shooting percentage in Rice University history…one out of eighteen shots!” he told me years ago. “And the one shot I made at Baylor University with seconds left in the first half was a desperate 35-foot pass to our center under the basket. It sailed too high and went through the hoop. My only basket was actually a bad pass! In truth, I was zero for eighteen.”

He wasn’t doing well in his classes either, and was unsure of his future. But then President John Kennedy visited Rice University in 1962, and delivered his iconic “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, which helped propel NASA’s Apollo program into reality. Fully inspired by the speech, Jerry turned in his basketball shoes and focused on his studies of electrical engineering, intent on becoming part of the space program.

His dream came true and he joined NASA in 1965, just in time to help to build the Apollo spacecraft.

Jerry compared the Caution and Warning alarm system on the spacecraft to the lights that come on in an automobile when the battery is low or the generator isn’t working. “We had to come up with the best means of telling the astronauts they had a problem,” he said. We had to make sure the alarm system worked right.”

He worked with contractors, fellow engineers, flight controllers and astronauts on the alarm systems for both the Command Module and the lunar lander.

The Mission Evaluation Room for Apollo, Jerry Woodfill is seen on the far left. Image courtesy Jerry Woodfill.

Jerry was also part of the Mission Evaluation Room (MER), which was responsible for solving in-flight problems during the Apollo missions to the Moon.  MER operated as a support room for Houston’s Mission Control, and housed a diverse team of engineering experts across several different disciplines for both the spacecraft and the crew, as well as experts from the various contractor companies that built the spacecraft or systems.

During the Apollo missions, approximately 100 engineers at a time worked in around the clock shifts, constantly analyzing incoming data from the spacecraft and sharing any pertinent data with other support rooms and the flight control team.

The video below is a panel session of people who worked in the MER, and Jerry’s discussion (at about 16 minutes in) shows his great sense of humor.

“We were an unsung group,” Jerry explained “We were there for mission support. We weren’t flight controllers, but we were experts the flight controllers turned to for insights and analysis.”

 Jerry was at his seat in the MER the night of April 13, 1970, when the oxygen tank in Apollo 13’s Command and Service Module exploded. He helped ascertain exactly what his alarm system was telling the astronauts and flight controllers, so that the crew could be brought home safely.

Jerry Woodfill and Nancy Atkinson in 2018 in Houston, Texas. Image by Nancy Atkinson

Over the years, Jerry worked on many other projects at JSC, such as helping to design thermal sensors and instrumentation for the space shuttle, coming up with innovative ways of using guidance systems to control shuttle operations, and helping to manage data from satellites.

He compiled a database of NASA spinoffs, and notably created the Space Educator’s Handbook, an early online space education resource, which he also made available to teachers on floppy disks. While searching for old educational materials, he found the “lost lessons” of teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe, whose life tragically ended in January 1986 when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crewmembers. While McAuliffe never got to teach her lessons, Jerry made sure that teachers and students from around the world could use and experience what McAuliffe undoubtedly wanted to share from space.

Jerry Woodfill, a ‘force of nature.’ Image courtesy Craig Scott.

Words fail in fully explaining Jerry. One-of-a-kind, unique, energetic, multi-faceted, inspirational, funny, passionate, and incredibly kind are just a few that in combination don’t fully encompass everything that Jerry was.

Craig Scott, a space enthusiast from Wales, was also a friend of Jerry’s and he shared his insights on our mutual friend.  

“I sent Jerry a T-shirt that I felt encapsulated everything that he was: It said ‘Force of Nature’,” Craig shared with me via email. “If there was anything that defined Jerry, it was that. I can say, with 100% certainty, that I have never known anyone with the ability to spread energy, happiness and enthusiasm like Jerry did. Jerry was undoubtedly unique. Thankfully, I am happy with the knowledge that I told him I loved him during his life but it was surely no surprise to him. How could anyone who interacted with Jerry not love him?”

We agreed that everyone who knew Jerry will undoubtedly miss him, but also smile at the legacy of his life.

“As far as mourning, smiling at their memory is probably the best version of it that exists,” Craig said.

You can read Jerry’s obituary from his family here.