Walter Holm BSGE 1958

Walter Holm

Dear William,

I am responding to your invitation to communicate my career story. I do not rank with the superb scholars on the cover of the ISE booklet. I feel that I have had an interesting career and I offer it as such. I hope you will agree.

I believe my story shows clearly that an education can reach out in many directions. Looking back, after all these years, my work was exciting and produced positive results. For me, the bottom line was the moon-shot. I didn’t do it, but I was part of all those who made it happen.

I came to the U of I on the Korean GI Bill in 1955. My wife and I (she was 7 months pregnant) had a number of residences but eventually settled in GI housing across from Memorial Stadium. We lived in tarpaper single-story barracks. I was 25 years old.

My academic life became rocky and I was placed on probation. I considered dropping out. I spoke to Professor Dobrovolny and he decided to back me up. I enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering school of General Engineering.

When I graduated we had two children. My teenage dream was realized when I was hired by North American Aviation in California. I performed research and development (R&D) on the X-15 manned rocket plane. At the completion of this work I transferred to an affiliate of North American Aviation, Rocketdyne, where I participated in R&D on the Atlas rocket engine.

During test firing of these engines premature explosions would occur. High temperatures inside the firing chamber resulted in violent destruction of the engine. In order to cool the engine, liquid hydrogen (-420°F) was piped into the firing chamber. Engines continued to blow up.

The liquid hydrogen was routed in copper tubing. It was determined that the copper tubing was subject to hydrogen embrittlement and the firing vibration caused the tubing to fracture resulting in destruction. It was clear that research on material behavior at cryogenic temperatures was needed.

I was assigned to open, establish, and operate a cryogenic laboratory to research these parameters. We established destructive test procedures for various materials immersed in cryogenic temperatures.

The cryogenic materials boil at very low temperatures. They require special vacuum-jacketed vessels called Dewars.

Cryogenic Material Boiling Temperatures °F
Liquid Nitrogen         -320°F
Liquid Oxygen -298°F
Liquid Hydrogen           -420°F


Testing specimens to destruction while completely immersed required special testing equipment that had to be designed and built.

While all this development work was going on I received an unsolicited call from Las Vegas, Nevada.

I was offered a job over the telephone. At this time cryogenic engineers were rare in the country. Most were involved in propulsion research. It was an industry of the time.

The offer was testing of the KIWI Nuclear Rocket Engine. Radiation hazards required these test to be remote from habitation.

The testing range was located in the Nevada desert on the “Nevada Bombing and Gunnery Range.” Specifically a placed called Jackass Flats, 100 miles North of Las Vegas. I supervised a cryogenic laboratory which supported this nuclear test program. On site were two huge dewars. One held one million gallons of liquid hydrogen and one held one million gallons of liquid oxygen. These were used in the nuclear test procedure.

A slight digression is needed here. One of the hazards of the rocket industry is R.I.F. (reduction in force). The AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) did cancel a contract which meant engineers would be laid off. My employer offered to send me back to the home office in Allentown, Pa. I gladly accepted.

I was employed as a senior project engineer responsible for design, construction and checkout for cryogenic gas separation and tonnage liquid oxygen plants. After living happily for many years in desert country, my wife and I were not content to live in Allentown, Pa.

I applied for a job with Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory and was accepted. We moved back to Nevada and Jackass Flats. At this time, atomic tests were being performed on the range. A “hole” 10,000 feet deep was constructed and an atom bomb was placed at the bottom and exploded. We actually witnessed one of these tests. 

In 1964 I was contacted with an unsolicited offer to work as the Super-intendent of cryogenics and propellants at the Apollo test site in White Sands, New Mexico. We tested the Lunar Command Module and the Lunar Excursion Module for the manned moon-shot.

Following the moon-landing I was offered a job at Eastern New Mexico (Roswell) as an instructor, electronics, and accepted. After five years the teaching job was terminated for lack of federal funding.

I am now retired (86 years old).

The U of I blessed my life and my career.

Thank you Prof. Dobrovolny.

Thank you, U of I.

—Walter Holm G.E. ‘58

P.S. I named my first-born son Jerry in honor of my mentor Jerry Dobrovolny.


Rocketdyne Skywriter VOL XX1 No. 46, 17 November, 1961, featuring Wally Holm.
Rocketdyne Skywriter VOL XX1 No. 46, 17 November, 1961, featuring Wally Holm.


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