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Ben Etkin
Ben Etkin

Obituary

Bernard Etkin helped avert Apollo 13 tragedy Add to ...

It was not supposed to happen. When Apollo 13, the third manned mission intended to land on the moon, took off from the Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, no one imagined that after minutely detailed planning, testing and preparation it would have to be aborted just two days later because of an exploding oxygen tank.

The explosion had crippled the service module where water, food and oxygen were stored, but luckily some additional supplies were available in the lunar module, which became the crew’s life raft. The lunar module was needed as long as possible, but then had to be jettisoned. But how?

The U.S. contractor Grumman Aerospace Corp., which had built the lunar module for NASA, put in a call for help to the University of Toronto, where they knew there was a wide range of engineering expertise.

That a tragedy was averted was in large part due to a team of engineers at the university – led by Bernard Etkin as the senior scientist – who stepped in at the crucial moment with nothing more than their slide rules and powerful brains.

Prof. Etkin, usually called Ben, died at the Baycrest Centre in Toronto on June 26, at the age of 96. He had begun as a young lecturer in aeronautical engineering in 1942 at the University of Toronto and never really retired.

“He was a giant in Canadian science and engineering,” said Gabriele d’Eleuterio, a professor at the U of T Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) and one of his former students.

“Ben Etkin was one of the best scientists the university ever had,” said his colleague Rod Tennyson, who had been a member of the six-man team convened on April 16, 1970, to figure out how to push the lunar module off from the command module to which it was attached so that the command module could re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere unimpeded.

If the moon landing had succeeded, the lunar module would have been left behind and no such problem would have arisen.

Without the service module, the crew were suffering from carbon dioxide buildup and dropping temperatures, “but the big problem was ‘Okay, guys, how do we get rid of this lunar module prior to re-entry?’” recalled Prof. Tennyson. “That was the basis of the call. There was only a day left before they had to do something; there wasn’t much time.”

A small tunnel connected the modules. “The tunnel had a hatch in it, and if they closed the hatch and pressurized the tunnel, they would explosively separate the lunar module, then blow it away from the command module just prior to re-entry,” explained Prof. Tennyson.

“They didn’t want the lunar module to come tumbling after them.”

The pressure required had to be precisely calculated. “Too high, and it might damage the hatch and the astronauts will burn up because they won’t be sealed in the spacecraft. Too low, and the lunar module would not get separated enough from the command module.

“We had maybe six hours to make the calculations, and in those days we didn’t have numerical models or computers,” Prof. Tennyson remembered. The Toronto six (it included also professors Barry French, Philip Sullivan, Peter Hughes, a specialist in orbital mechanics, and another senior scientist, Irvine Glass, a specialist in shock waves) assumed that they were not the only ones sweating over the slide rules.

They believed that others were working on the same calculations, perhaps at MIT or Caltech.

“The guy from Grumman never told us that we were the only ones he had asked. We found out later when he sent us a thank-you letter. It kind of shook us,” Prof. Tennyson said.

The calculation they came up with was relayed by Grumman to NASA, and from there to the astronauts. It worked perfectly.

You won’t find the U of T engineers in Apollo 13, the movie about this nail-biting event, starring Tom Hanks; perhaps the image of these six modest Canadians with their slide rules does not fit heroic American stereotypes.

It took 40 years for their roles to be publicly recognized and for one of the astronauts, Fred Haise, to thank them personally. In 2010, the still-living members of the group were honoured with medals by the Canadian Air and Space Museum. Mr. Haise spoke at the presentation.

Bernard Etkin was born May 7, 1918, one of five children and only son of poor Jewish immigrants from Belarus, a contested land north of Ukraine. His parents Samuel and Mary Etkin (originally spelled Itkin) ran a small cleaning and tailoring business until they lost it during the Depression. Young Ben, a top student, had to drop out to go to work to support the family; he completed high school via night classes. His adoring sisters, by then out in the working world, helped pay for his tuition when he entered U of T and obtained an honours degree in engineering physics in 1941. A master’s degree in aeronautical engineering followed, then a doctorate from Carleton University in Ottawa.

At 21, he was a counsellor at Camp Yungvelt, a summer camp in Pickering, when he met Maya Kasselman, then 16. “He was playing chess and my mother walked by and said, ‘Are you sure you want to make that move?’” said his son, David Etkin. They married five years later; a daughter, Carol, came along in 1946, followed by David in 1949.

Bernard Etkin liked to build model airplanes and gliders with his children and pose science problems at the dinner table, challenging his kids to solve them by dinner the following day.

But it was Maya (a family therapist) who mainly raised the children, while Prof. Etkin’s academic career took off. He became a professor at UTIAS, chairman of Engineering Science (1967-72) and dean of the university’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, the largest in the country. Even as dean, he taught first-year students, who found him endlessly encouraging and kind.

“My father exemplified the best qualities of a scholar. He had no ego,” recalls his son. “He was pre-eminent in his field but extremely humble. He was an enabler of other people, especially his students.”

At UTIAS he designed and built a large wind tunnel where he tested the effects of air movement on buildings, among other things. In the 1960s, when the new Toronto City Hall was to be built, he was invited to provide input on how well the two wings of the boomerang-shaped structure would stand up to strong winds, and found that they needed to be more strongly anchored.

Prof. Etkin held 11 patents, including one for a novel way to stabilize a satellite and another for a particle separator.

He wrote the standard textbook Dynamics of Flight, which has gone through four editions since 1959 and is still in use today in English and other languages.

He produced a string of papers on aerodynamics for learned journals, consulted to industry on everything from the stability of airplanes, the design of heliports and the reduction of subway noise and vibration, to the most reliable windshield-wiper design.

He was showered with honours, including an Order of Canada in 2003 and an honorary degree from Carleton University, and was made a member of the Royal Society of Canada. He was invited to lecture in Japan, China, Hong Kong and Israel, where he was on board of governors of Ben Gurion University and Technion university.

Troubled by global warming, he published his last scientific article at the age of 92 in the Journal of Climate Change. According to his son, Prof. Etkin graphed CO2 concentrations in the upper atmosphere against global average temperatures over a span of 420,000 years (he used data derived from ice cores taken from Antarctic glaciers) to demonstrate that the two are now out of whack in a way that is historically unprecedented.

In their final years, Maya and Ben Etkin lived in a retirement home in Toronto. Prof. Etkin’s last patent, which he was working on not long before his death, was inspired by a friend who sat at his table there.

This gentleman had Parkinson’s disease, which caused his arm to jerk upward uncontrollably. “My father thought there must a mechanical way to reduce the degrees of movement, and came up with a sleeve fitted with plates, and lined with stretch fabric,” recalled daughter Carol. He sent his design to be refined and patented by an engineer he knew in China.

Bernard Etkin died after a short illness of mantle cell lymphoma, which chiefly affects men over 60.

His wife had died in October. Mr. Etkin leaves his daughter, son and two grandchildren.

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