- Associated Press - Saturday, July 19, 2014

SIMSBURY, Conn. (AP) - To the untrained ear, Bill Newman seems to talk in code. Everything is turbine pumps and red fuming nitric acid and supersonic flight.

Once Newman gets going, it’s hard to get him to stop talking. Here is a man who built the first bipropellant throttleable rocket engine, who once met Neil Armstrong, who lived in Houston, Arizona and California. It’s understandable; the guy has a lot to say.

The 82-year-old rocket engineer is long retired. All of this knowledge, this understanding of the ins and outs of one of the most complex industries on the planet is of no use to him now. Outside of the occasional consulting gig, knowing about unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine isn’t all that useful in the quaint town of Simsbury. All it is these days is a story, which Newman is more than willing to tell with the same concise level of detail that it took to design the engine of the Bell X-1 fighter plane. Newman remembers every nut and bolt and rivet, each chemical code.

Tracing back the lineage of Newman’s rocket fascination would land you in, of all places, Winsted. In an empty parking lot at Winsted Center School, Newman and a few friends would set up model planes. He was 16 years old and the year was 1948. In two years’ time he’d graduated from the Gilbert School. Newman had already decided that

Newman was living and working for his grandfather at the time: the owner of Fournier’s Bakery. The bakery was located on Holabird Avenue but the shop moved around Main Street due to flooding and other issues. Newman’s great uncle ran the bakery and his grandfather handled the business side of things. Newman’s job was to deliver the bread.

“He really taught me my values,” Newman said of his grandfather. “Doing this, I learned the value of hard work.”

After graduation, Newman headed to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio to pursue an engineering degree. A co-op there allowed him on the job experience working at Bell Aircraft, located in Buffalo, New York. After working his way up the ranks at the ‘rocket house’ there, Newman’s dream shifted. He saw how tedious and unfulfilling the air nautical engineer job was. Just like that, he had a new goal.

“I decided I wanted to be the best rocket engineer there was,” Newman said.

Newman got his first engineering assignment later that year, and earned the title a year later, still just a sophomore at Antioch. In the wake of World War II, the priority of Bell Aircraft and similar companies was rocket technology, both for missiles and fighter planes. At the time, Bell Aircraft was contracted out by the Air Force.

“After the war, we decided that we were about 20 years behind the Germans in rocket technology. It really was a bad scene,” Newman said.

Speed was the ultimate defensive weapon in fighter airplanes, Newman said.

“The faster plane was going to win every time.”

Newman worked on the Bell X-1, which he pointed out now hangs in the Smithsonian, and later the X-2, which travelled at 2,000 miles per hour, Newman said.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was a hell of a lot of fun.”

After eight years at Bell Aircraft, Newman returned to school at Antioch and eventually got a job at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. There, the rocket engine work continued, with the work here contributing to NASA’s rocket program. One of the pilots doing test runs at this time was none other than Neil Armstrong. Newman said that Armstrong was smart, and once knew better than an engineer what had occurred during a test run. Newman said Armstrong was humble, however, and unlike many other pilots, didn’t gloat or rub it in.

Newman retired from space engineering in 1970 and spent an additional 10 years in the insurance industry. The Gilbert School graduate now has four sons and three daughters. The oldest is 56 and the youngest 38. He wears a ‘World’s Greatest Dad’ hat and a NASA T-shirt that reads ‘Rocket Scientist.’ Though the job as a space engineer is behind him, the memories aren’t hard to find. His office is adorned with pictures of space shuttles and the X-1 fighter plane. The coffee table in his living room plays host to models of rockets and fighter planes. Even at age 82, he’s still an engineer at heart.

Everything is still turbine pumps and red fuming nitric acid and supersonic flight.

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