Billy Childers relaxing at his home in Ball Ground. Childers worked for 41 years with the space program including the Apollo moon landings and the Space Shuttle Program.
By Larry Cavender
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Those memorable words were declared by Neil Armstrong 47 years ago this week when he first set foot on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969 as the commander of Apollo 11. A local connection to Armstrong, the moon landing, and many other NASA space missions is a Ball Ground resident who worked with the space program for forty-one years.
Growing up in the 1940s and 50s on a farm in rural northwest Alabama just five miles from the Mississippi border, young Billy Haynes Childers could never have foreseen where the road on which he would travel during the course of his lifetime would lead, from his first "small steps" in the beginning, to his own contributions to mankind's "giant leap" and beyond.
As a teenager, Billy Childers had decided to follow an older brother to Detroit, Michigan to land a good-paying job in the automotive industry. However, at this pivotal point in his life, his father convinced him to stay home and pursue a good education. Young Billy did just that and graduated from Auburn University in 1958. From there, he landed jobs with the Army Corps of Engineers and later with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Childers moved around the southeast from Savannah, Georgia to Knoxville, Tennessee and was involved in a number of projects including Hartwell Dam as well as being the primary designer of the Melton Hill Dam near Lenoir City, Tennessee and Nickajack Lodge west of Chattanooga among other projects.
He left his job with the Corps of Engineers when he was hired as a part of the Design Support Group with the National Aeronautical and Space Administration in Huntsville, Alabama and from there, he moved to the Mississippi Test Facility. At both locations, he was involved with the testing of the Saturn V Rocket in preparation for the Apollo Space Missions. While in Huntsville, NASA sent him back to school and Childers received his Masters Degree in Civil Engineering in 1966. The road then naturally led to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida where he went to work in 1968.
One of his first jobs at the Kennedy Space Center was as the Assistant Engineer for high pressure gas systems, and it was in this capacity, training astronauts in the use of their breathing apparatus, that Childers became personally acquainted with all of the Apollo astronauts including Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and James Lovell as well as some of the Gemini astronauts, although that program was finishing up when he arrived. Of Neil Armstrong, Childers said, "He was a really nice guy."
He was still serving as the high pressure gas systems engineer at the time of Apollo 11. The HPGS facility, which was less than two-hundred yards from the launch control facility, is where he viewed the 1969 launch. Childers remembered, "I worked thirty-six straight hours to get ready for that moon shot."
From the high pressure gas systems job, he later worked with the NASA Apollo Transporters, or "Crawler," which moved the Saturn rocket to the launch pad. According to Childers, moving the rocket to the launch pad took many hours, since the transporter only moved at a little better than one mile per hour. During his stint with the transporter, he kept in touch with all of the astronauts.
Later, Childers was named by NASA as the Chief Engineer for Support Operations and Facilities and while at that position, he worked extensively with the Lunar Excursion Module. "It was a very interesting job," said Childers, who estimated his job took eighty percent of his time. He added, "My wife, Alene, raised four wonderful children while I was with NASA." He had met Alene years earlier in Savannah and were married when they both worked with the Corps of Engineers.
Following the Apollo Program, Childers continued working with NASA heading up the maintenance of all facilities for the Shuttle Program.
“When the Shuttle Program started, I took over the operations group to support the Shuttle," he recalled. However, in 1983, Lockheed-Martin won the Shuttle launch contract, and his position was gradually phased out. By October of 1995, Lockheed-Martin had assumed fifty percent of his responsibilities, so at the age of forty-eight, he retired as a federal employee from NASA.
However, his career did not end at that point. Lockheed-Martin basically hired him for his previous position, but now he was employed by them instead of NASA. He was working in this position on January 28, 1986. When asked about that fateful day, Childers replied with emotion evidently rising within him, "Yes, I have memories of that day! It was an extremely cold morning."
It was so cold that ice had formed on the Shuttle and its components, the rocket boosters and external tank. "It seemed icicles were forming everywhere," he said. Childers was actually in attendance at the"Go-no go" meeting which decided whether or not the Challenger Space Shuttle would be launched or aborted. It was decided that the ice should be removed and then the final decision would be made. "I was the engineer who assembled the crew that swept the launch pad and inspected it," Childers said, and added that personally, he did not think the launch should be made. But he wasn't the one responsible for making the decision. "It was Rockwell who said, 'We're go,'" he remembered. (Rockwell Corporation was the designer and developer of the Shuttle orbiter.) Seventy-three seconds after it was launched, the Challenger broke apart killing all seven crewmembers..
For 10 years, Childers continued working with Lockheed-Martin as their Director of Operations and Maintenance Facilities at the Kennedy Space Center. In 1995, he was offered a job by Lockheed-Martin as head of all facilities, operations, and maintenance at the Idaho Engineering Lab in Idaho Falls, Idaho. It was there that nuclear power generation was tested and also where radioactive waste is stored. Life there was much different than at Cape Canaveral and Childers said he remembered often working in sub-freezing weather and from November to May, he had at least two feet of snow at his residence.
In 1999, Lockheed-Martin lost their contract at the Idaho Engineering Lab, and despite the fact he had worked for forty-one years, Childers began looking for another job. He applied again with NASA, but this time at Houston, Texas. While his application was being processed, he visited his 95 year old aunt. When she learned he was looking for another job, she asked, "Why do you want to continue working? Do you have to work? Do you not have enough pensions and retirement to live on?"
After her questioning of him, Billy Childers began to question himself. After all, he was 62 and had worked many long days, always beginning at 5:30 in the morning and often working twelve hours or longer. He was dedicated and worked most Saturdays and Sundays. He thought to himself, maybe it is time for me to retire. He contacted Houston and basically told them, "Houston, we have a problem," and said he was no longer interested in a job. When he told his wife of his decision, she was surprised, yet glad.
However, he wasn't sure he could abruptly stop working and enter his sunset years, but he promised his wife, that for six months, he would not "hit a lick" at anything. Instead, they would rent a condo near Cape Canaveral so they could be near their eldest son, Steve, who followed in his dad's footsteps and was working at the Kennedy Space Center. The Childers would also be near their grandson who was one-year old. But, in the back of his mind, Billy Childers thought to himself, if I want to go back to work, I can always land a consulting job with NASA.
Sadly, it was during this six month's interval that they discovered that their daughter-in-law had terminal cancer. Billy and Alene Childers stayed on in Florida to be near Steve and their grandson during this trying time and to help out in any way they could. Within a year, their daughter-in-law passed away. After that, Billy Childers never looked back. He decided he was ready for retirement.
The Childers decided to move to the Atlanta area because, at that time, around 2002, their other three children, daughters Stacy and Karla, and son Michael, all lived in the Atlanta area. They began looking in north Georgia for their dream retirement home. Coincidentally, through her work, one of the daughters had met Ball Ground Mayor Rick Roberts who told her to ask her parents to consider making his town their home, because, as he said, "We're going to do great things in Ball Ground." The Childers didn't give it much thought, however.
Not until one day, when they were driving around looking at homes and property and saw a sign directing them to Ball Ground. Billy Childers said he thought, "Why not?" so they drove on to Ball Ground to give it a look. They saw a sign advertising homes and property for sale, and they followed up. Billy Childers found the lot he wanted and said the price was right, so Ball Ground became their retirement home. When asked if he ever regretted the decision to move to Ball Ground, Billy said, "No, not at all. We've never regretted it." Saying he and his wife love the town, he added, "It's quiet, has no crime, and little traffic." The Childers now have eight grandchildren including two identical red-headed twins, and the grandchildren often visit with their grandparents in Ball Ground.
Neil Armstrong passed away in 2012, but two years before his passing, Billy and Alene Childers visited their daughter, Karla, who had since moved to Chicago, Illinois. Their daughter decided to treat her parents to dinner at a restaurant that just happened to be owned by former astronaut Jim Lovell. Lovell was at the restaurant that night, and Billy Childers decided to talk with him about old times with NASA. When he walked up to Lovell, the former astronaut said, "Neil's here," and took Childers to Armstrong's table. When Armstrong saw Billy Childers, he recognized him even after more than forty years, and told him, "I remember you! You were the head of the high pressure gas systems." That was a true testament to Billy Childers, a man who dedicated much of his life to America's space program.