Bill Mellberg, a Clarifying Voice

Farewell to a wise and thoughtful commentator on space.

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First Lady Nancy Reagan, Bill Mellberg, and President Ronald Reagan after Bill’s performance of “An Evening With the Presidents” at the White House.

William F. Mellberg, a good friend to many, passed away this week from pancreatic cancer (the same affliction that took noted space giant Dr. Wernher von Braun). Bill dealt with this terrible disease with courage and humor, just as he’d dealt with life’s tribulations in general. Bill embraced life with a passion, and his strong will to live kept him with us 18 months after his diagnosis (astonishing to those who know the virulence of this disease). He stayed mentally sharp until the end.

We were born in the same year, and became space enthusiasts in the Sixties—a remarkable time in our youth that informed both our worldview and our interests. But we only became friends within the last decade. Bill was fluent in space, technology, science, history, politics and the Moon. He contributed to the conversation in books, through numerous articles printed in well-known publications throughout the years, and by his generous outreach to people of every age who were interested (or showed promise) in learning more about aviation, space and astronomy. He kept us all honest and on our toes, and in the process taught us much by commenting at my blog (and other blogs)—always intelligently and politely as he engaged in debate. His wide knowledge and understanding of the history of spaceflight and aviation informed his comments and added much needed clarity and understanding.

Bill grew up in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. His father Frank Mellberg worked for Bell and Howell and was a principal design engineer for the television imaging system flown on the Surveyor spacecraft—America’s robotic soft-landing lunar probes. Bill and I shared many of the same interests and experiences in our youth—building space models, flying rockets, and eagerly collecting all of the printed PR “swag” of posters, lithographs and mission reports that NASA used to mail off to inquisitive kids all across America (in my opinion, the best educational outreach NASA ever engaged in). Bill was one up on me in that, although we had both toured the various NASA Centers around the country (including the Cape), he and his father were able to attend the last launch of a mission to the Moon—Apollo 17 in December 1972. He told me how during the countdown, he ran into Wernher von Braun himself at the Visitor Center bookshop! Okay—so maybe he two-upped me.

Bill decided (wrongly, in my opinion) that his academic strength was not in science and engineering, so he pursued and graduated with a degree in business. He went on to work for Fokker Aircraft and other aviation companies. Bill also had a talent for writing and public speaking on space and aviation topics. He wrote Moon Missions, an excellent book for the general public on the Apollo missions and Famous Airliners, a lavishly illustrated history of commercial aviation, in addition to many feature articles for a variety of magazines. Bill was a humorist with a talent for mimicry and impressions; he was particularly good at being the voice of the Presidents. This talent came to life in a show he called “An Evening With the Presidents,” which he performed for many years, including a White House appearance before President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. He told me that the President and First Lady really enjoyed his performance, in particular, Bill’s impression of Reagan himself. In 1991 he was made Honorary Staff Sergeant of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and, until he had to stop due to illness, Bill had a weekly political satire spot on Chicago’s 93.5 ESPN radio, making us laugh in spite of ourselves.

In recent years, both Bill and I have watched in dismay as America’s civil space program has deteriorated from an ever-advancing effort to push the boundaries of human experience beyond low Earth orbit into a self-deluding, Potemkin Village obsessed with a “Journey to Mars.” Despite detailed studies of Mars mission architectures over the last 50 years, the current agency instead relies on various “magic beans” technical solutions that supposedly make human Mars missions easier and affordable (e.g., previously nuclear electric propulsion; currently solar electric propulsion—obviously, a “greener” version was needed). Despite the hype, we are in fact no closer to a human Mars mission now than we were 50 years ago (and in many respects, farther from it). Bill would forgive me this rant, as he knew the argument inside and out.

One feature touted about the “new” space program was that “commercial” human spaceflight would rapidly move into and fill the gap in space transportation left by the retirement of the Space Shuttle. Bill’s business experience and deep knowledge of aviation and spaceflight history convinced him that analogies between New Space commercial efforts and the early history of commercial aviation are not valid (see his comments in the discussion section here). He clarified how early airline companies received government contracts to carry the mail, but that their airplanes were not built for that purpose. From the beginning, commercial aviation had identified a need and future market of moving mail, goods and people rapidly across the continent. The aeronautical companies designed and built a wide variety of aircraft in response to this market-based need, and the U.S. Postal Service was simply one of the first of many entities to take advantage of this emerging capability.

The only identified markets for commercial human spaceflight is transport to and from the International Space Station (currently, an entirely government-funded activity) and a somewhat wishful idea that space tourism will soon be a commercial bonanza. The winning of the Ansari X-Prize happened over 12 years ago, and the first commercial human spaceflight (with paying passengers) has yet to be scheduled, let alone flown. This situation is hardly comparable to the frenzy of barnstorming, county fair rides and wing-walking extravaganzas of the 1920s. Bill understood history, and knew when it was being used inaccurately to justify and prop up a weak argument.

Bill Mellberg, a Clarifying Voice
Mellberg (second from left) with Apollo astronauts (left to right) Jim Lovell (Commander of Apollo 13), Jack Schmitt (Apollo 17 Lunar Module Pilot), and Gene Cernan (Commander of Apollo 17) in Chicago, 2012.

Bill knew most of the Apollo astronauts, and carried on an active correspondence and friendship with many of them. He worked closely with Apollo 17 Lunar Module Pilot Harrison H. (Jack) Schmitt, the first scientist-astronaut and only geologist to go to the Moon. He edited Jack’s web site, “America’s Uncommon Sense,” which discussed national scientific and engineering policies and how to reform NASA to reclaim the greatness of the space program. In addition, Bill was actively engaged in editing Jack’s memoirs on the flight of Apollo 17, a detailed, first-person account that the lunar exploration community eagerly awaits. Bill honored me by passing some of my writings along to the astronauts. A memorable occasion was when Bill sent some columns I had written on asteroid missions (herehere and here) for Air & Space to Neil Armstrong. Neil subsequently submitted those columns as an attachment to his Congressional testimony on NASA and the future of human spaceflight. Bill was truly a “people person” who brought many interested parties together—he connected us and kept us thinking about the possibilities, while reminding us about the history (as we truly do learn from it).

Bill’s voice of sanity and reason will be greatly missed. My wife Anne and I treasured him as a friend, and are grateful that he is now at peace. I salute his love of knowledge, his deep insight and uncompromising sense of fair play. The world of spaceflight is poorer for his absence. William F. Mellberg lived a full and wonderful life; his final resting place will be the Town of Maine Cemetery in Park Ridge, Illinois, a place filled with history and loving testament to many wonderful and interesting people. I will miss him.

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