Most people love to hear stories about the downtrodden who manage to turn things
Wally Kern, a 1958 graduate of Frankenmuth High School, is just that type of person.
Growing up on a farm in Frankenmuth in the 1950s, Kern was often the butt of jokes
in school because of his stuttering. He wasn’t in the “cool” group and he wasn’t
a “jock.” He lacked confidence and self-esteem but with the help of several people
who took an interest in the young boy, things would change dramatically.
Kern, now a retired scientist from the aerospace and defense contractor McDonnell
Douglas, can claim experiences like working on Skylab, Gemini and our country’s advances
in missile systems to his credit. In fact, at the NASA Space Center in Cocoa Beach,
Fla., a monument giving Kern and others who worked on Gemini credit for participation
on the advances made in America’s space exploration.
Skylab was the United States’ first space station. Work on it started prior to the
moon landing in the late ‘60s. The actual Skylab was referred to as S4B Saturn Rocket
Shell. The invention was going to be used to go to the moon but, instead of going
to the moon, Skylab was outfitted with instruments, cameras and living quarters.
Finally it was launched in 1973, according to Kern.
Skylab also had what was called an Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). It consisted of
a lunar lander with a telescope mounted on it, similar to today’s Hubble telescope.
Kern worked on the Skylab’s airlock module, the nerve center of the spacecraft where
the core of the electrical power system is found. He ran the algorithms to calculate
how much energy the spacecraft would generate from the sun.
“Skylab needed electrical power. This was before computers, so I would sit down for
a whole week and go through a series of equations by hand. I’d have to calculate
the solar ray battery power systems. We would charge during the daytime when Skylab
would be in the sun and then when it went behind the earth and was hidden from the
sun, we would charge the batteries. This is how we could calculate how much power
we’d need to generate,” Kern said.
The week’s worth of calculations done with a slide rule can now be done in a matter
of seconds with a computer.
Kern’s work on the Gemini project was to develop a system for transporting man to
the moon and keeping the astronauts there to practice maneuvers for at least two
Kern was part of the team that checked the spacecraft before it left the McDonnell
facilities. The astronauts would come to St. Louis and actually sit in the spacecraft
and go through a simulated launch, orbit and deorbit. Kern also tested the equipment
that was on board the Gemini.
Kern says the most exciting thing he worked on during his 39 years with McDonnell
Douglas in St. Louis, Mo., was working on the Joint Directed Attack Municians (JDAM).
For 20 years, He tried to figure out how they could improve survivability of bomber
pilots and how to make the bombs more accurate. By 1997 they figured it out. Through
GPS and by putting small wings on the bombs themselves, the problems of accuracy
and pilot safety were significantly improved.
“In the old days, when a pilot would deliver the bombs, there was a good chance that
he’d be shot down by gunfire or missiles. So we developed a system where the pilot’s
aircraft was far enough away from the target that he wouldn’t be sacrificed. Now
pilots can fly higher and drop the bombs from a much farther distance,” said Kern.
The GPS improved the accuracy factor so the pilots could maintain distance from their
targets, according to Kern.
Grade school and high school were a challenge for Kern. He was teased ruthlessly
because of his stuttering. The scientist credits the mentors he had during high school,
who took an interest in his well-being, for helping him become who he is today.
While Kern attended FHS, Robert Wallen was his algebra teacher, shop teacher and
the school’s principal. During Kern’s freshman year, Wallen detected the young man’s
interest in electronics and bought him the equipment to build a radio.
“I was interested in finding out how a radio worked, how the sound would come out
of this box. Mr. Wallen also facilitated my going to college and going to a six-week
speech clinic after my junior year. He saw my capability and I am so grateful for
Despite the trauma caused by other students bullying, Kern managed to become involved
in photography and that led him to work on the school newspaper and yearbook. He
became a photographer for the Frankenmuth News. He had always been curious about
how a photograph could materialize from a camera.
“In seventh grade, Richard Rummel helped me get a camera and showed me how to use
it and he showed me how to develop pictures. This led to a job working at the Frankenmuth
News with Irene Zeilinger. She gave me a lot of encouragement, telling me I could
do anything I wanted in this life if I just worked at it.
“Clinton and Helen Grainger, publishers of the Frankenmuth News at that time, gave
me the responsibility of developing the pictures and using the photo engraver, a
tool that the newspaper used to offer other papers across the state, so I did that,”
The cold war and the country’s ability to send satellites into space were both fascinations
In a speech given to the Frankenmuth Rotary Club in 1979, Kern quotes James McDonnell,
founder of McDonnell Douglas, “Peace is maintained through a position of strength,
the strength of a superior defense will defer aggression.” Kern still stands by these
words despite the current situation in Iraq. He attributes our problems in today’s
war with a lack of intelligence in the Middle East, poor planning and the fact that
the Bush administration didn’t listen to its generals.
Kern admired McDonnell for his hands-on approach. “He was involved with his employees
and he cared about them. He would walk around the offices and ask people what they
were working on and then compliment them on their work. You couldn’t ask for a better
“The thing I respected him for most was his ability to look into the future. He
had the foresight to do research. He did research before anyone ever got serious
about spacecraft so when the country was ready his company was in a prime position.
He did this research with his own money. He was ready with the technology and the
design to put a man on the moon.”
Kern feels that a major problem we have now relates to the investment or lack thereof
“Company’s these days don’t like to do independent research and development because
of the toll it takes on their profit margins. This is a real problem,” he continued.
In Kern’s estimation, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing are the three
strongest companies working on aerospace research to date.
“We need to support and fund scientific programs that include physical and biosciences.
To me, I worry about both areas. They have such potential. The biosciences have
tremendous potential. There are tremendous discoveries waiting with the human body.
This for some reason really scares society. I’m talking about stem cell research
and bioengineering. We could find cures for so many diseases. I feel there is a
lot of room for technology development in these areas,” Kern said.
He feels it’s important to fund such programs. He says that many of today’s technological
conveniences, like cell phones and computers, often come about because of the work
done on military programs.
Although hesitant to make a statement, Kern acknowledges that the Republicans are
more apt to support funding for defense than the Democrats.
“My fear is toward a portion of our society that is headed towards socialism. This
is a drawback when it comes to funding our technologies and our economic future.”
At Central Michigan University where Kern received his bachelor’s degree in physics
and mathematics, he tested in the bottom five percent of his class at freshman orientation
and graduated in the top 11 percent.
An amazing career in space exploration and weaponry; a loving family, including
two children and a supportive wife; a home in the suburbs of St. Louis; and a monument
at NASA...not too shabby for the class nerd. Success is the best revenge!
Wallace Kern’s career in space exploration . . . scientist credits mentors From the
Frankenmuth News on September 24, 2008.