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Dr. Galen A. Etemad: Iran’s Mr. Apollo

January 18, 2020 by  

Dr. Galen A. Etemad: – Iran’s Mr. Apollo – By Nakissa Etemad

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic moon landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Dr. Galen A. Etemad was one of the first Iranians to work in the American space program, becoming a prominent figure in his native country, earning the nickname “Agha-ye Apollo” (Mr. Apollo). Invited to tour Iran in the fall of 1969, Mr. Apollo was a national celebrity, making the papers almost daily, hosted and entertained by scholars, officials and the elite of his nation, an example and role model for both his family and his countrymen. 
Dr. Etemad’s beginnings played a large part in the man he was to become. Born on November 1, 1922 in Mashhad, Iran, he was the second youngest of eight siblings. Having lost his mother at age 6 and his father at age eighteen, Etemad developed very close relationships with his siblings and later their children. He ended up putting all his attention on his education – he often says that school was everything to him. If he didn’t get the maximum grade of 20, he was unhappy. His teacher would tell him that 17 or 18 was great and that 20 was for God; however young Etemad wanted to see if he could achieve the 20! From an early age, those who knew him saw that he was destined for a successful and fruitful life. Always a studious, responsible, and conscientious boy, he grew into a young man of moral standing and integrity. 
For his four years of high school, Etemad had maintained the highest grade point average for a student in Tehran and was annually awarded Iran’s highest academic honor, the “Medal Darageh Yek Elmi.” After his mother’s death, the family had moved to Tehran where he would study at University of Tehran. He started in medical school, but after just a few months, he realized he was best suited to engineering, having always possessed a logical mind, keen eye for detail, a great memory for numbers, and a love of mathematics. His father supported the shift in study. Even though the new student registration had closed, the young Etemad petitioned and eventually convinced the head of the school that he would study hard to catch up, and his years of excellent grades as a top student made it an easy choice. Science and numbers came naturally to Etemad.
At University of Tehran at that time, the first and second years of Engineering School focused on basic mathematics and basic engineering, such as mechanics and heat transfer. Third and fourth years were for specializing in one of three branches – Civil Engineering for building, such as roads and bridges, Electrical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering, which ultimately became Etemad’s choice. He recalls that all his teachers were French and educated in France, among them a famous engineer called Foroughi who had designed many buildings in Tehran. He required the students to take copious notes during class and turn in their notebooks at the end of the course to count for 25% of their course grade. Etemad’s notebooks (from courses in architecture, civil engineering, bridge building, crafting of combustion engines, lighting) are so meticulously drawn by hand, with such precision and accurate diagrams, that they appear to be official textbooks. He would take quick shorthand notes during class and copy from the blackboard, then rewrite them at night to perfection. His notebooks received the maximum grade of 20, and those of which he was proudest were among his sole possessions when he moved to America. 
Newly graduated in June 1945 with a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Tehran, Etemad went to the head of engineering school to ask for a summer job to help fund his move to America for higher education. During World War II, the U.S. Army had a military base just outside of Tehran in Amirabad, that Etemad recalls was visited by Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill in 1943 when their nations met to unite in the fight against Germany. When the war in Europe ended in May of 1945, the U.S. Army gifted its base to the Iranian government, who in turn gave it to the University of Tehran. The school asked Etemad to investigate to see what they could do with the base. Etemad observed that it was like a modern city, much more advanced than Tehran at the time, with modern plumbing, a road system, electricity, a working ice plant, a power plant, plus a central kitchen, cold storage facility, and cafeteria that provided food for the 4000 soldiers and officers who lived there. Some food was still preserved frozen in the many compartments of the cold storage building. 
Etemad saw its potential and submitted a proposal to the dean of engineering to turn the base into a University Village for student life, to convert soldiers’ and officers’ quarters into sleeping quarters for students, and use the abandoned army jeeps, trucks, and buses for transportation between the university village and the university. The dean marveled at his plan but informed him that no funds existed, so Etemad proposed that they create their own income through dividing the cold storage to customers – among them purveyors of penicillin and caviar which were in high demand at the time – and selling the clean ice to different government agencies. The resulting income funded the labor and conversions of the base to create University Village, which from planning to completion took 17 months. It was there that Etemad became fascinated with subjects such as refrigeration, electrical power, and water purification, and where he taught himself to drive on the American army jeeps left behind. Little did he know that this first hands-on exposure to American mechanics would later lead to his instrumental role in the first-ever space landing by American astronauts. 
In December 1946, at the age of twenty-four, Etemad had saved enough money to set out for America to further his education in mechanical engineering and find a new life in pursuit of his own American Dream. He was limited to one big suitcase for the move. He was the first of his family to emigrate from his homeland. With no less than five hundred dollars in his pocket, he put himself through graduate school at Harvard with half his courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) through their cooperation with the engineering department. In addition to classwork and teaching, he worked as a night engineer at a cold storage plant in Boston Harbor, and also found himself doing all manner of odd jobs, such as selling hot dogs in the university gymnasium, sweeping up popcorn in movie theaters, serving as the summertime canteen operator on the Nantucket ferry, and even selling a few pressure cookers door-to-door in Nantucket, Massachusetts.
On June 10, 1948, Etemad earned his Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Harvard University. It was time to pursue his Ph.D. He applied for a teaching position in several universities with strong programs in refrigeration and heat transfer: Berkeley, UCLA, and University of Florida. The best offer came from UC Berkeley. After earning some money from a few post-graduate jobs in Boston, Etemad took a 3-day train in September to see the country and move to California to pursue his doctorate. While at Berkeley, he taught a mechanical engineering lab with several different courses in which students could experiment and get hands-on experience. Favored by his students, Etemad was working toward his Ph.D. in heat transfer and fluid mechanics, all the basic principles for aerospace, for which there was no specific degree at that time. By January of 1954, he was awarded his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, specializing in Heat Transfer and Fluid Mechanics, from the University of California at Berkeley. 
His doctoral thesis entitled “Free Convection Heat Transfer from a Rotating Horizontal Cylinder to Ambient Air, with Interferometer Study of Flow” was published by The American Society of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford in a book on heat transfer. They included the chart Dr. Etemad had developed that illustrates how heat is transferred between two rotating cylinders and follows a pattern by various physical characteristics, and the book penned it “Etemad’s Number.” 
While finishing up his Ph.D. in 1953, Dr. Etemad received a professorship from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where within one semester he was elevated to Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering. He applied and received a grant from Carnegie Mellon to build them a heat transfer lab, which made it possible to begin a new graduate program, and soon they awarded their first master’s degree. By 1956, Dr. Etemad was again a popular teacher and had been publishing numerous articles on heat transfer. In 1956, he was giving a lecture on heat transfer and an executive from Bell Aircraft approached him to ask if he could tour his heat lab at the University of Buffalo. The meeting went so well that Dr. Etemad was offered a job as a consultant for Bell Aircraft’s X-1 Program, working on heat issues of this rocket-engine-powered aircraft. He had become a U.S. citizen in 1955, which was a requirement to work in the aerospace and defense industry. In 1956, he left Buffalo and started his venture in aerospace with a job at North American Aviation in Los Angeles until 1958, working on their X-15 program to determine re-entry heating of orbital spacecrafts. 
From 1958 to 1963, Dr. Etemad worked at Lockheed Missiles & Space Company in Palo Alto where he was active in various technical and managerial positions, serving as Thermodynamics Department Manager, then promoted to Assistant Flight Sciences Manager of the Polaris Missile and Agena Spacecraft programs, where they worked to solve base heating of Polaris. On March 28, 1962, when he was Consulting Scientist and Senior Member of the Research Laboratories, Dr. Etemad served as Afternoon Sessions Chairman for the “Spacecraft Thermodynamics Symposium” sponsored by Lockheed in cooperation with the Space Systems Division of the U.S. Air Force Systems Command at the LMSC Research Labs in Palo Alto. Six of the unclassified papers and their discussions were published in a book edited by Dr. Etemad, named after the symposium, published by Holden-Day, San Francisco.
In his preface he explains: “Its general topic was selected to focus attention on recent theoretical and experimental investigations in spacecraft thermodynamics. Its purpose was to assemble people conducting investigations in this and related fields for a general exchange of information on the techniques and studies that have been made.” 
Dr. Etemad moved to Orlando, Florida from 1963-65 to work for The Martin Company (Martin Marietta, later merged into Lockheed Martin) as Division Manager of aerodynamics, thermodynamics, propulsion and ordinance for the Sprint Anti-Ballistic Missile program, where they solved its complex silo propulsion system requirements. 
From 1965 through 1978, Dr. Etemad returned to North American Aviation (later renamed Rockwell International in 1973) in Downey, California, which had been selected by NASA in November 1961 as the prime contractor for the Apollo command service modules. An expert in thermodynamics, Dr. Etemad soon became head of his department in the Space Division which designed and perfected the heat shields that would be outfitted on every command module in the Apollo series, to provide the American spacecrafts safe re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. 
On July 20, 1969, he and his colleagues bore witness to the greatest achievement to date of the American space program. Following the bold vision set out by President Kennedy in 1961, the American space program, through sheer political, scientific and technological will, succeeded in landing man on the moon in a mere 8 years. Dr. Etemad’s legacy work on the Apollo heat shields contributed to one of the most important events in the 20th century.
The lunar spacewalk was an event that would see the United States leapfrog the Soviet Union in the Space Race and position the United States as a global leader in technology and science. Two of the three astronauts of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent two-and-a-half hours walking on the lunar surface. Who knew that the young, curious boy of unique intellect from Mashhad, Iran would contribute to propelling humanity in its quest for discovery and exploration of the final frontier? 
That autumn in 1969, Dr. Etemad was invited by Ariamehr-Sharif University on a three-month tour of Iran to give lectures on the American space program, equipped with archival pictorial documentation provided by NASA to illustrate the miraculous lunar walk. He was also invited to present the Apollo 12 flight live on Iranian television in November, and to visit the Shah of Iran.
On the night of his visit to the Shah, Mr. Apollo attended a party hosted by Dr. Mesbahzadeh, where he was match-made with a “black-eyed, raven-haired beauty,” according to one Iranian newspaper, named Jaleh Azarbeygui. A mere three days after their meeting, Mr. Apollo proposed, leaving his new love interest time to consider her answer while he continued his lecture tour. They each had two daughters from previous marriages. A few weeks later, she decided to leave behind a promising career in cancer research and gave him her consent. The national media splashed the news of their impending nuptials. The couple was married on December 29, 1969 with their four daughters present, and the two travelled to Isfahan for a honeymoon. The American embassy agreed to fast-track his bride-to-be’s visa, and overnight, Jaleh was able to return home with him to Los Angeles as the new Mrs. Apollo. The following Christmas, their daughter was born, followed by a son five years later. 
Dr. Etemad left the space program in 1978 and began a successful career in commercial real estate investment. In 1985 he moved the family to San Francisco to live near his late brother and his family. Now at 97 years old, he enjoys spending time listening to Ted Talks, reading historical biographies and listening to classical music.
Dr. Galen A. Etemad paved the way for his entire family to follow their own American dreams and still serves as a role model for current and future generations. His journey is a testament to the strength, perseverance, and hope of Iranians like him who are forging a lasting legacy. 

Nakissa Etemad is the daughter of Dr. Galen & Jaleh Etemad, who lives in San Francisco and works as a professional theatre dramaturg, producer, director, and French translator.

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