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Saltwater Portrait

Jack Clemons finds a new frontier: NASA veteran pens fiction

Lewes author Clemons was engineer on Apollo and space shuttle missions
By Nick Roth | Sep 06, 2011
Photo by: Nick Roth Jack Clemons sits in the library of his Lewes home with a model of an Apollo spacecraft. Clemons worked as an engineer with NASA during the Apollo and shuttle programs. Since retiring, he has become a published author of science fiction.

The first time Lewes resident Jack Clemons watched "Apollo 13," he was overwhelmed, caught up in the suspense of Ron Howard's film about the events of April 1970.

His wife, Denise, found it particularly amusing because of Clemons' connection to the National Aeronautics and Space Association and the Apollo program itself.

"When we were watching the movie she said, 'You know how it comes out,'” he said. “The movie was so realistic that it just took me back to that.”

Clemons worked with IBM as an engineer 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 reentry back into the Earth's atmosphere and directly trained astronauts.

Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, is considered one of the biggest accomplishments in the history of space exploration. Clemons was along for the ride and still remembers it vividly.

“My boss, his boss, and his boss were all getting interviewed, and the Japanese national network wanted to do an interview on reentry, so they sent me over,” he said. “I had been on the job less than a year, and here I am live on Japanese TV drawing my little pictures. It was kind of neat. It was an interesting time.”

Apollo 13 was much far nerve racking. But no matter how challenging or stressful the job may have been, Clemons said he knew his work on the Apollo program was history in the making.

“Sometimes you don't know if what you're doing is such a big deal until later, but we knew it,” he said. “Everybody involved knew it.”

In 2008, Clemons was featured in the Science Channel's six-part documentary series called “Moon Machines.” The series covered the various aspects of the Apollo program, from the space suits to the command and lunar modules. The film cast a spotlight on the people working behind the scenes, Clemons said.

“Watching the series was the first chance I had to really see the other people who worked on the program,” he said. “When you're working on it you're down here in the mire, and you're doing a lot of neat stuff, but you only have a vague sense of what else is going on.”

As the Apollo program began to phase out - the final three missions were scratched - Clemons 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 felt 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, where he's started a new career as a writer.


Coming full circle

Clemons was interested in reading and writing at an early age. The Hardy Boys series particularly piqued his interest because his father was a private detective. His earliest memory of writing was around 12, crafting books similar to the Hardy Boys, starring himself and his father.

He soon graduated to full-length novels and gravitated toward the science fiction genre and planting the seed to one day work in the space program.

However, it wasn't until his time at the University of Florida that Clemons finally figured out his career path. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered the famous speech announcing his intention to put a man on the moon. Clemons was sold.

“Like a lot of people, when I went off to school I didn't know what I wanted to do,” he said. “After the speech I thought, 'what do I have to do to do that?'”

Florida had an aerospace engineering program, and Clemons signed up. In 1967 he graduated with a master's degree, and a year and half later he was working with NASA.

All the while, his passion for writing fell by the wayside.

“While I was doing that I didn't write because I was living it,” he said.

After he settled into his work, he started writing again. He penned a few unpublished short stories he admits weren't too good, but stumbled onto something special in the late 1970s. In what turned out to be his first published work, Clemons wrote a short story about two people who traveled back in time to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

After shopping the story around to every science fiction publication he could find, Clemons finally found a buyer in Amazing Stories magazine. To his surprise, the piece was featured on the cover. Clemons still keeps the cover art framed above his home computer.

In recent years, Clemons has developed the short story into a novel. He has reworked the book seven times to appease his agent in New York, but the novel remains unpublished.

“It's complete,” he said. “I'm very happy with it. I'm very proud of it.”

He has also developed a historical fiction story revolving around a Nanticoke boy working in the Lewes area, which is still a work in progress. His most recent published work is featured in a collection of works called “No Place Like Here: An Anthology of Southern Delaware Poetry and Prose,” which is available through the Friends of the Lewes Library and on Amazon.com. A poem written by his wife, Denise, is also featured.

Clemons retired early to focus on his writing, and, for the most part, that's what he's been doing.

“I write pretty much all week,” he said. “I'd like to lie and say I'm like Stephen King and in there in the chair at 8:30 and out at 4, but some days I don't get in there at all. It's a passion. There's something in your life you just do because you love it.”

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