Williams, O. S. 1921–
O. S. Williams 1921–
Inventor and engineer O. S. Williams was the second African American to receive a degree in aeronautical engineering and the first to be hired as a design engineer by Republic Aviation—one of the leaders of the industry in the 1940s. At a time when blacks were discouraged from the engineering field, Williams blazed many trails. His accomplishments over the years included heading the team that originated the first experimental airborne radio beacon for tracking crashed aircraft and managing the development of the control rocket systems for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Apollo missions, including the fateful thirteenth one in 1970. William’s rockets are credited with saving the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts.
Oswald S. “Ozzie” Williams was born on September 2, 1921, in Washington, D.C., to Oswald S. Williams, a postal worker, and Marie (Madden) Williams, a housewife. He grew up in New York City, graduating from Boys High School in Brooklyn in 1938. As a teenager, he loved making model airplanes and decided to become an engineer after a family friend explained that engineers design things.
Williams had hoped to enroll in the program offered by New York University (NYU), but he was discouraged by a dean. As he recounted in an interview with Notable Twentieth Century Scientists, the dean told him that “people of your race are not ready for engineering, and engineering is not ready for you. I warn you not to waste your ambition and training where you cannot get a job.” Despite such advice, Williams matriculated at NYU, completing his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1943.
Around the same time Williams joined Republic Aviation’s technical staff. Just as the NYU dean had warned, Republic Aviation had not wanted to employ a black, but Williams dazzled those he met there, and he was quickly brought on board. Hired as a design engineer, Williams quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a senior aerodynamicist within four years. In that role—achieved as World War II ensued—he helped design the P47 Thunderbird, an escort plane used to protect highaltitude bombers. Via wind tunnel testing, Williams was responsible for estimating and calculating the lift of the plane’s wings, its propelling forces, and its drag in order to determine how well the airplane would fly and its overall stability. The P47 aircraft proved to be pivotal in the U.S. war effort.
In 1947, the same year in which he earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from NYU, Williams moved to Babcock and Wilcox company, where he was a design draftsman. He then spent two years as a technical writer with the U.S. Navy Material Catalog Office, leaving in 1950 to take an engineering position at Greer Hydraulics, Inc. A group project leader, Williams helped develop the first experimental airborne radio beacon, which was used to locate airplanes that
Born Oswald S. Williams on September 2, 1921, in Washington, DC; son of Oswald S. (a postal worker) and Marie (Madden) Williams; married Doris Reid Williams, 1943; children: Bruce, Gregory (died 1982), and Meredith. Education: New York University, B.S., 1943, M.S., 1947; St Johns University, M.B.A., 1981.
Republic Aviation, design engineer, 1942, steadily promoted to senior aerodynamicist, 1943-46; Babcock and Wilcox, design draftsman, c 1947-48; U.S. Navy Material Catalog Office, technical writer, c. 1948-50; Greer Hydraulics, Inc., design group project leader, c 1950-56; Thiokol Chemical Corporation, Reaction Motors Division, small rocket engine designer, 1956-61; Grumman Aerospace Corporation, propulsion engineer, 1961-c. 1973; Grumman International, marketing department, 1973, vice president, 1974. St. John’s University, marketing professor, c 1980s—.
Member: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Addresses: Office— St John’s University, 8150 Utopia Parkway, Jamaica, NY 11439.
had crashed. The beacon was fired by catapult and parachuted to the ground as an airplane disintegrated, potentially landing anywhere: in water, in a tree, on level ground, or on a mountainside. Thus the project was very challenging since the beacon had to operate equally well wherever it landed and whatever the weather conditions. Williams’s team developed a beacon that could recognize where it had landed and transmit its position, but unfortunately, it was never produced commercially.
In 1956, Williams moved to the Reaction Motors Division of Thiokol Chemical Corporation, where he was responsible for pioneering work in the area of small rocket engine design. He had several papers published on the subject of rocket engines, and was quickly becoming a highly sought after commodity in the field. One of his papers— “On the Feasibility of Liquid Biopropellant Rockets for Spacecraft Altitude Control”—was even translated into Russian by Dr. Leonid Sedov, the president of the Soviet Space Academy. In need of someone with expertise on liquid-fuel rockets, Grumman Aerospace Corporation, a NASA contractor, hired Williams as a propulsion engineer in 1961.
At Grumman, Williams managed the development of the Apollo Lunar Module reaction control subsystem. He was fully responsible for the $42 million effort for eight years. He managed the three engineering groups that developed the small rocket motors—which used 100 pounds of thrust in comparison to the 10,500 pounds of thrust of the lunar module’s main engine—that guided the lunar module, the part of the Apollo spacecraft that actually landed on the moon. It was these engines that enabled the crew members of the Apollo 13 mission to make it safely back to earth after the ship’ s main rocket exploded in flight.
According to an account published in African Americans: Voices of Triumph, “With their chief source of propulsion gone and power for their life-support systems dwindling, the crew had to depend on the lunar module’s small rockets to get headed back toward earth. Then they had to use Williams’s 16 tiny steering rockets to maneuver the craft to reenter earth’s atmosphere at a safe angle. Had the steering rockets not been up to the task, Apollo 13 might have struck the atmosphere at too shallow an angle and caromed off into space to be lost forever or come in too steeply and been incinerated from the friction of a too-rapid descent. Ozzie Williams’s devices proved to be the little engines that could, and the Apollo 13 astronauts splashed down safely in the Pacific [Ocean].”
Williams went on to a career in marketing at Grumman International, including a market survey mission conducted in West Africa in 1973. The following year, he was elected as a company vice president. After leaving Grumman, he became a marketing professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, where he had completed an M.B.A. in 1981. Working with students was natural for Williams, who had already been part of a task force that attempted to attract more black students into business-and technology-oriented fields.
The respect Williams has earned throughout his career has permanently enshrined him as one of the most important African American contributors to science and technology. He has received varied recognition from being featured on a U.S. Department of Energy poster featuring prominent blacks in science to being profiled on Queens Public Television in the one-hour program entitled O. S.Williams, A Man of Three Careers. The highest recognition and support has come from his family, however. Williams has also been happily married throughout most of his career. Together he and his wife have raised three children.
The African American Almanac, seventh edition, Gale, 1996, p. 1060.
African Americans Voices of Triumph: Leadership by the editors of Time-Life Books, Time Life, 1993, p. 60.
Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists, Gale, 1995, p. 2216.
—Terrie M. Romano and Lorna M. Mabunda
On January 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger was destroyed by a technical malfunction approximately 72 seconds after lift-off. The explosion took the lives of all seven crew members: Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis, and Sharon Christa McAuliffe. This was the worst National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) disaster since Apollo 1.
Mission Commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee was born on May 19, 1939. Scobee received a bachelor of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Arizona in 1965. He obtained a commission in the Air Force in 1965 and, after receiving his wings in 1966, completed a number of assignments. In August 1979 he completed a one-year training and evaluation period that made him eligible for assignment as a pilot on future space shuttle flights. He first flew as the pilot of the Discovery mission, which launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 6, 1984. With the completion of this flight he had logged a total of 168 hours in space. His next assignment was flight mission 51-L aboard the Challenger in 1986.
Pilot Michael J. Smith was born on April 30, 1945. He received a bachelor of science degree in naval science from the United States Naval Academy in 1967 and a master of science in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1968. He completed Navy aviation jet training at Kingsville, Texas, receiving his aviator wings in May 1969. In May 1980 he completed the one-year training and evaluation period. The Challenger mission was to be the first voyage into space for Captain Smith.
Mission specialist Judith A. Resnik was born on April 5, 1949. She received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1970 and a doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland in 1977. She was a senior systems engineer in product development with Xerox Corporation before her selection by NASA in 1978. She completed the one-year training and evaluation period in August 1979. Resnik first flew as a mission specialist aboard Discovery, which launched from Florida on August 30, 1984. With the completion of that flight she had logged 144 hours and 57 minutes in space. The Challenger mission was to be her second spaceflight.
Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka was born on June 24, 1946. In 1969 he received a bachelor of science degree. Later that year Onizuka earned a master of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. Onizuka began active duty with the U.S. Air Force in January 1970 after receiving a commission at the University of Colorado. He joined NASA in 1978 and completed the one-year training and evaluation period in August 1979. He first flew as a mission specialist aboard Discovery, the first space shuttle Department of Defense mission, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on January 24, 1985, logging 74 hours in space. Challenger was to be his return to space.
Ronald E. McNair, the third mission specialist, was born on October 21, 1950. McNair earned a bachelor of science in physics from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971 and a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. After his graduation from MIT in 1976, he became a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. He qualified as a mission specialist astronaut in August 1979 and flew as a mission specialist aboard Challenger(Mission 41-B) on February 3, 1984. With the completion of that flight he had logged 191 hours in space. His flight on Challenger was to mark his return to space.
Born on August 24, 1944, Gregory B. Jarvis was a payload specialist. He received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1967. Additionally, he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering and completed the course work for a master's in management science at Northeastern University in Boston and West Coast University in Los Angeles, respectively. He was selected as a payload specialist candidate in July 1984. The Challenger mission was to be his first spaceflight.
Sharon Christa McAuliffe, born on September 2, 1948, was the second payload specialist. She received a bachelor of arts degree from Framingham State College and a master's degree in education from Bowie State College in Maryland in 1970 and 1978, respectively. She taught various classes for grades nine through twelve in Maryland and New Hampshire. As the primary candidate for the NASA Teacher in Space Program, she was to make her first spaceflight aboard Challenger.
see also Astronauts, Types of (volume 3); Challenger (volume 3); Emergencies (volume 3); External Tank (volume 3); History of Humans in Space (volume 3); Space Shuttle (volume 3); Teacher in Space Program (volume 3); Women in Space (volume 3).
Frank R. Mignone
Burgess, Colin. Teacher in Space: Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger Legacy. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2000.
Ellis, Lee A. Who's Who of NASA Astronauts. New York: Americana Group Publishing, 2001.
Dumoulin, Jim. STS-51-L, The Challenger Mission Report. NASA/Kennedy Space Center, FL: 2001. <http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/mission-51-l.html>.
Gibbons, Gloria, ed. Astronaut Biographies. Flight Crew Operations Directorate, NASA/Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX: 2001. <http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/>.