Interview with Vern Westgate; Technical Writer NASA Apollo Program

Angel Candelario Rodriguez, founder and manager of the LinkedIn group “Technical Writer in Action,” interviewed Vern Westgate on July 19, 2012. Originally posted on LinkedIn for group members; reprinted here with permission.

“History never looks like history when you are living through it.”

John W. Gardner

Apolo 1On January 27, 1967, tragedy struck the Apollo program when a flash fire occurred in command module 012 during a launch pad test of the Apollo/Saturn space vehicle being prepared for the first piloted flight, the AS-204 mission. Three astronauts, Lt. Col. Virgil I. Grissom, a veteran of Mercury and Gemini missions; Lt. Col. Edward H. White, the astronaut who had performed the first United States extravehicular activity during the Gemini program; and Roger B. Chaffee, an astronaut preparing for his first space flight, died in this tragic accident.

I had the opportunity to interview a technical writer who participated in the drafting of the procedures of Apollo 1, Vern Westgate. An insatiable reader, writer, and learner, during the Korea war he joins the Air Force and spent a year on a mountain in Korea. He wrote the Spacecraft Operating Procedures for the Apollo Program. Very kindly, Mr. Vern Westgate shares with members of Technical Writer In Action his experiences, his life, and the value of an effective technical communication. I am excited to share with you the interview and the information I learned from Vern.

TWIA: Thank you very much for joining me in this interview.
Vern Westgate: You’re welcomed.

US War Dogs Memorial New JerseyTWIA: Could you please tell us a bit about you? Where are your from?
Vern Westgate: I was born in Minnesota…a small town. My family left when I was seven, so I grew up in Los Angeles.
I graduated from George Washington High School in 1952. I was 17 and had a good chance of being drafted when I turned 18 and signed up for the draft. So I joined the Air Force. A short time later, I was a Sentry Dog Handler on an isolated radio relay site somewhere in Korea. We climbed the hill (mountain) by foot. There were never more than 14 of us on top of the mountain. The sentry dog, Albo, and I were site security. Since there was no point in climbing the mountain to get us, and hardly anyone knew we were up there…and I had a .50 caliber and .30 caliber machine gun and more, we felt safe. And were. I came back to California and finished my 4 years.

TWIA: What was your professional background before you chose a technical writing career?
Vern Westgate: I went to a tech school, went to work nights for North American Aviation as a tech, then systems tech, then moved up to tech writing.

TWIA: Since when have you written professionally?
Vern Westgate: I got started in 1960.

Gam 77 Hound DOGTWIA: How did you start your career as technical writer?
Vern Westgate: I did a combination of systems engineering, systems support, and tech writing. I worked on Guidance & Control systems, Navigation systems, and related systems on GAM-77 Hound Dog missiles (an early days cruise missile), then the G&N system for early atomic subs, then similar systems on Minuteman Intercontinental missiles. Then North American Aviation’s Missile Division won the prime contract for Apollo. I transferred to Space Division (the renamed Missile Division) and joined the Tech Writing group. I volunteered for the Spacecraft Operations Group and was accepted. There were about 12 of us.

Then I volunteered to be the guy responsible for Astronaut liaison and was the Spacecraft Operating Procedures writer. Since my focus was G&N systems and that’s where the major focus was for the astronauts, I did the procedures writing. The other guys in the group have expertise and tracking responsibility for the other systems and gave me the support I needed with systems interface and such. I usually worked 4 days a week with Roger Chaffee, 3 days a week also with Ed White and Gus Grissom. We also tracked and worked with Dave Scott, Jim McDivitt, and Rusty Schweikert, the backup crew.

This was Apollo 1.

Time MagazineThis was the first manned mission, so the training, programming, and such was done with some theory, some facts, and, as it turned out, some poor performance.
We went to Boston to MIT Instrumentation Labs, who did the Apollo Guidance Computer programming fairly often. We went to Manned Spacecraft Center south of Houston at times, and that’s where the astronauts and their families lived. I worked with the guys for about 2 years, were friends, and when they died in the Launch Pad fire, I moved on.

TWIA: Have you written for large companies?
Vern Westgate: I wrote and worked for North American Aviation for 8 years (now owned by Boeing), wrote and edited for 1 year at Philco-Ford Aeronutronics (long gone), Hughes Aircraft Company field service for 10 years, then bailed on defense/aerospace and owned a Honda motorcycle shop in the Silver Valley of North Idaho. Then went to ISC Systems in the early phases and became Publications Manager and started 6 department…kept 3 and gave the others away…
Then did 3 different contract gigs for Boeing Commercial Airplanes…for a total of about 5.5 years. Solved problems which included writing, engineering, project management, and simple figuring out things that needed to be figured out and fixed.
Worked later for Johnson-Matthey (now Honeywell) in Spokane. Did a lot of different training, writing, and similar stuff for small and medium sized companies.
Now that I’m 77, I generally do editing, copy editing, development editing, and manuscript reviews for a company in Florida… (love that internet).
I see stuff from people all over the world and have made some far-flung friends as a result…a screenwriter in Australia, a dog lover who moved from Australia back to Texas, a professor emeritus and lifelong malaria researcher in the U.K., an Australian lady who moved to Philadelphia, a Vietnamese man who was a boat person and is now here, successful, and a good writer…and more.

TWIA: Have you worked in varied disciplines? Could you please mention some of the technical material you have wrote? For example, submarine systems, military, among others.
Vern Westgate: I covered some of that above with North American. At Philco-Ford I worked on gating gun systems that went on helicopters for Viet Nam, a bunch of secret reports and research, and an Army tank fire control system. At Hughes I worked on, wrote for, sold off all 151 tech manuals, and fielded the 407L Air Traffic Control System, the Air Force’s first automated traffic control system, then the huge field modification system on MSC-46 Satellite Communications Systems worldwide, then the Combat Grande Air Traffic Control System in Spain for the Spanish Air Force, then a Navy Training Evaluation Program and a bunch of other programs.
At Boeing I worked on manufacturing support equipment issues, process control systems, a site communications system, a variety of projects. This included 2 gigs at Everett and 1 gig at Renton.

TWIA: How do you develop your skills as technical writer and editor?
Vern Westgate: You never quit learning, never quit asking questions, never quit challenging answers that don’t seem right, and most important of all, keep your focus on the person(s) who have to read and understand what you write. If there is any confusion over what you write, your job is not over.

TWIA: Do you see any advantage for technical writers to develop themselves in areas like project management, ISO, etc?
Vern Westgate: I worked as a project manager on field assignments, on problem solving gig as Boeing and other places, and did Project Management Seminars on the road for Fred Pryor Seminars (also Career Track). I helped a few clients on contract do the tasks to get ISO compliant. The most valuable skill of these is Project Management. I use the techniques to solve problems, to learn, to manage (back in the days when I was a manager), and found it invaluable when I worked as field engineer on projects. Some of these projects were worldwide applications, Satellite Communications Terminal modifications, and such. I also use Project Management and systems engineering approaches to learning and teaching Bible studies…This stuff has near-universal applications.

USS NautilusTWIA: Could you tell me a bit about the first technical writing project you ever worked on? What were a few of the challenges you faced during your career.
Vern Westgate: My first writing task was to write the operating procedures, theory of operation, controls and indicators, and troubleshooting procedures for the submarine G&N system for Nautilus Class Nuclear subs. My challenge was getting an education while working full time, then later hiring and training degreed engineers while still working on my education.

TWIA: January 27, 1967 had a deep impact in your life. Did you meet the Apollo I Crew?
Vern Westgate: As I note above, they were good friend, we ate together in out-of-town work, and I knew of their families. The lesson I learned was to fight a lot harder for design, production, and quality control issues not matter who the fight is with…

TWIA: Could you please share with us an anecdote related to any of the members of the Apollo I Crew?
Vern Westgate: We had a North American Aviation guy in engineering named Gary Gabelich who set the land speed record with his rocket-powered vehicle “Blue Flame” on October 23, 1970. He achieved an average speed of 622.287 mph at Bonneville. He was also a double A fuel dragster driver. We used Gary to test procedures when the astronauts were out of town. Ed White was the first American to walk in space in 1965. At the time of this incident, I was on crutches with a broken, infected leg from a motorcycle racing accident. (I’m an AK amputee now, but that’s a different story).

AstronautsOne evening the three of us were sitting waiting for Gus and Roger and a couple of engineers to come discuss something to do with the procedures. Ed told us he had a question about his 15-year old son. His son wanted a motorcycle and Ed thought offering flight lessons was a better plan…since he was gone so much.
So he got my opinion and Gary’s opinion and we discussed it for a while. Later, on my way home, it occurred to me that the three of us were probably the worst qualified guys there were to discuss what was ‘safe and sane’ for a 15-yead old boy.

When I shared my thoughts with Ed and Gary the next day, we all decided that flipping a coin was a better method…
I’m the only one of the three still living…
By the way, of the three, Ed was a natural athlete and very strong, Roger was brilliant (Masters in Math as I recall), and Gus was a quiet, natural leader. When Gus spoke up, we all shut up.

TWIA: What are the standards that make a good technical writer?
Vern Westgate: A natural curiosity, a good feel for language and a strong belief the even when the customer is wrong, the customer is right.

TWIA: What skills are most important to succeed in technical writing?
Vern Westgate: Write, read, learn, listen, and then start all over.

TWIA: Almost one year ago, the Fukushima nuclear disaster nearly led to a major catastrophe, if not for the efforts of a group of engineers, soldiers, and firemen. According to investigative reporter Dan Edge, the workers at the plant opened their emergency manual and looked for instructions for how to manually vent the radiation into the atmosphere without using electricity. There were none. Technical communication is that important?
Vern Westgate: It is vital. Buy a smart phone and try to read the manual. Most that I see are atrocious. Yet they want our money. Even more critical is tech manuals that can be used successfully without the writer or anyone else there to explain what it means, what to do, and why.

TWIA: What kind of impact has this position had on your lifestyle?
Vern Westgate: I has kept me working, learning, and teaching. I don’t believe mankind was designed to retire and these skills can be used as long as the brain is working, even after if you’re clever.

TWIA: History never looks like history when you are living through it. Could you please share with us a reflection related to this quote?
Vern Westgate: I did substitute teaching in the Coeur d’Alene schools for a while in the mid-90s. I soon learned that most of what I was talking about as part of my experience was ancient history to the kids. It changed the way I communicated with them and between their viewpoints and mine. This has value when you can find applications to life.

TWIA: Vern, do you continue writing or are you retired? Do you own a business related to technical writing, editor, books?
Vern Westgate: I do general editing of all kinds of stuff. I do get an occasional business, technical, or other non-fiction writing gig.

TWIA: What is the future of technical communication? Are there any likely changes that may affect the industry in the next few years?
Vern Westgate: The self-publishing, online blog and similar markets, ebooks, and all the rest of the methods are having both good and bad effects on tech communications. The world of knowledge management is moving rapidly, but I leave that to others.

TWIA: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to “Technical Writer In Action” members?

Vern WestgateVern Westgate: In a world were cursives writing are being dropped, texting is killing spelling, punctuation, and good language usage, the knowledge writer will…or should…thrive. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man (person) is king…”

End of Interview Questions

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