Many have heard of the “square peg in a round hole” problem — perhaps because they’re old enough to remember, or maybe because they saw the 1995 movie “Apollo 13.”
But for Gilroy Chow that problem is personal, and he remembers it vividly. He was one of the men present in 1970 when finding a solution was a life-or-death matter.
“It was certainly an exciting time, and there was a lot of pressure,” he recalled.
It was April 13, and the command module Odyssey had been in space 56 hours since Chow watched its launch at Cape Canaveral. Suddenly word came that a piece of faulty wiring in an oxygen tank had sparked, causing an explosion. The spacecraft lost oxygen. And even more critically, the remaining oxygen tank was leaking into space.
The three astronauts — Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert — powered down the command module and moved into the lunar module Aquarius to use it as a lifeboat. It had a full oxygen tank.
But that was only a temporary solution. They needed to be able to use the canisters of lithium hydroxide in the command module to scrub the air of carbon dioxide.
That’s where the famous problem came in: The lithium hydroxide canisters from Odyssey were square, and the openings in Aquarius were round.
And time was ticking.
“All throughout Apollo you have deadlines, deadlines, deadlines,” recalled Chow, who worked on the Apollo project for seven years as a young engineer. “But here you have a situation where the deadline could be fatal unless you come up with an answer.”
He and his colleagues put their heads together to come up with a way to connect the canisters and the openings using only what was on board. In the end they were able to make a grid system using duct tape, a suit hose and lunar collection bags. The system saved the astronauts.
Honored on film
It’s been 52 years since that day, and in April, Mississippi State University, Chow’s alma mater, released a documentary film called “XIII” about him and his fellow alumnus and engineer Ed Smylie.
“People always want to talk about Apollo — well, that was just seven years out of my life,” Chow says in the film. “But then, of course, that was a very significant seven years. We did things that have never been done before and haven’t been done since. But it helped mold my life and approach to things.”
As a young boy Chow never dreamed he’d end up being part of the space race. When he was 10 or 11 years old, the closest he’d gotten to a space launch was riding the high-speed elevator in the Empire State Building where his father worked on the 80th floor.
In those days, he and his friends would sit and stare at the night sky.
“Sitting on the stoop in front of the house with three other Scouts on my block, we would look at the moon and the stars and point out the constellations,” he told The Baptist Paper. “Little did I know that in less than 10 years I’d be involved in helping send men to the moon.”
What took him down the trail of sending men to the moon?
“God, of course,” Chow declared. “God has blessed me so much. It’s been providential — I was at the right place, right time on different things.”
The biggest blessing wasn’t the Apollo project — it was his faith. After graduating from Mississippi State, Chow moved back to New York City to work for Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation.
“They built airplanes, and then they started building spacecraft,” he recalled. “I learned to be an engineer and learned to build things. All my life I’ve been interested in building things.”
Which led to an opportunity to build spacecraft in Florida.
From the ground up
“For project Apollo, we had to start from scratch — there were no launch pads, towers, mobile service structures or any of the equipment that went with it,” Chow noted.
The same year Apollo 13 happened, he married his wife Sally and they started visiting churches. Chow had grown up in a Lutheran congregation in New York City, but he admitted the gospel had never truly penetrated his heart and changed his life.
“There was an older preacher who came to our apartment and witnessed to me, and at that instant I [was saved by Jesus],” Chow recalled. “The most important thing that happened to me was before age 30 I came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. That was the turning point in my life.”
After the Apollo project the couple moved to the Mississippi Delta, where he became a plant engineer. He also worked for a while for General Dynamics and helped build the Sparrow [Air Intercept] Missile. The wall in his living room is covered with Apollo memorabilia, including pieces of the Kapton foil blanket that covered the engines of the Aquarius lunar module.
The Chows are longtime members of Oakhurst Baptist Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he has served in a variety of roles over the years, from Sunday School director to committee leader to deacon, and she has been organist. They have two children and three grandchildren.
“I try to teach my kids to do things, try things,” Chow says in “XIII.”
“If you make it, great. If you don’t make it, get up and move on forward with it.”
But the most important thing he’s passed down is his faith.
“God has been a part of our lives throughout,” Chow said.
To watch “XIII” film visit films.msstate.edu/episodes/xiii.html.