REACHING FOR HEAVEN: From Pershing To Apollo, Sherman Seltzer Prefers Ranch To Rockets
December 28, 2009
He doesn’t remember the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon, but he helped it get there.
“When I turned 80, things started slipping away from me,” Dr. Sherman Seltzer is saying. “You just sort of grab the memories as they go by.”
Now 83, he catches many of those memories from the porch of his brick ranch house that sits atop a knoll near New Market in Madison County. Down below, he can see his Hereford-Red Angus cattle grazing, and in the distance, Tater Nob rising from the floor of Hurricane Valley.
It’s the kind of view that can swallow up a man, much like seeing Earth from the moon. “Every morning when I come out here, I say a prayer,” he says as he grabs his seat on the porch. “I thank God that He’s allowed me to use it for a while.”
Seltzer is an aerospace engineer who spent a lifetime reaching for the heavens, but there’s no place on earth he’d rather be than here. Here, he can watch his cattle graze and his horses run and kick up their heels. Here, the childhood days on his grandfather’s Montana ranch — and his beloved late wife Lou — somehow don’t seem so far away.
If some of his old engineering buddies from NASA (National Aeronautical Space Administration) were to stop by, they may talk about the days spent preparing the Saturn V rocket that launched Neil Armstrong up to his “giant leap” on the moon. Mostly, though, those memories stare back at him from the photographs that adorn the walls of the office inside his home.
Photos of Saturn rockets, Skylab, the Hubble Space Telescope, Pershing missiles and Polaris missiles testify to Seltzer’s many contributions to aerospace and defense. A specialist in guidance and control systems, he left his thumbprint in the heavens on more than one occasion.
The celebrated rocket scientist Wernher von Braun said as much in a photo he addressed: “To Sherman Seltzer, in appreciation of your fine contributions to the work assigned to the Marshall Space Flight Center — Wernher von Braun.” Next to it hangs a certificate for “Exceptional Scientific Achievement” signed by NASA Administrator James Fields.
There’s a photo, too, of Seltzer sitting proudly in the cockpit of the YO-3A, one of two silent airplanes he designed for Lockheed to fly reconnaissance during the Vietnam War. “I designed the YO-3A while I was working for Kelly Johnson at Lockheed,” Seltzer says. “I designed it so it could be flown over the enemy and see how they were resupplying the troops invading South Vietnam. I was real proud of that because it was never detected, never shot at.”
Above them all hangs a photo of Seltzer as a young soldier with Army buddies during the Korean War — and the two Purple Hearts and Silver Star he was awarded during that conflict.
Still, there’s an odd dichotomy to this cluttered little office, a strange mixture of rocketry and ranching. A pair of worn leather chaps are flung across the back of his chair, and paintings by popular cowboy artist Charles Russell compete with NASA certificates and photos for wall space. Aviation magazines share the desktop with beef cattle publications.
“In his heart, he’s really and truly always wanted to be a cowboy. That’s his heart’s desire,” says Tally Fanning, a longtime friend who helps Seltzer tend more than 130 head of cattle and keep track of doctor’s appointments. “I’ve asked Sherm (that’s what he wants his friends to call him), ‘Do you not realize all the things you’ve done?’ To me, the engineering work that he’s done far surpasses anything else he’s done in life. But to him, that is the least of his accomplishments. He wants to be a cowboy.’”
When Fanning first began tending Seltzer’s cattle, he says Sherm insisted on nothing but purebred Hereford, the same white-faced red cattle his granddaddy had raised back in Montana. In fact, Fanning says, he and long-time Hereford producer Glynn Debter of Horton frequently went to Montana and purchased bulls and cows together.
Fanning says he eventually convinced Seltzer to try some Hereford-Red Angus crosses. “That way, we’d still get some of those white faces every once in a while and that seemed to make Sherm happy,” Fanning says. “But Sherm has always tried to have good, quality cattle. When we started buying cattle at the R.A. Brown Ranch sales in Texas, he’d always want the best. Sometimes, you’d have to tell Sherm to quit bidding because he wanted to buy the best at whatever it was, and you can’t do that when you’re running just a commercial operation.”
P.D. Nicaise, who first worked with Seltzer on the Pershing missile system, remembers how Seltzer’s farm got its start on lands leased around Redstone Arsenal where he kept a couple of horses and some cattle. Later, he says, NASA engineers would show up at the farm to help round up and brand cattle.
“We all laughed and joked with Sherm about being a cowboy, but Sherm’s a technical man. He knows the engineering and the science,” Nicaise said just before relating an incident where Seltzer, decked out in cowboy hats, jeans and boots, wowed the audience at an aerospace industry event with his technical presentation on guidance control systems.
But Seltzer, a short man who casts a 10-foot shadow, is far more than a rocket scientist. He’s packed a lot of living into his years, a fact not lost on Nicaise who was so taken by Seltzer’s fascinating life story that he urged him to write his autobiography. He agreed, and sat down with Nicaise for hours to record the recollections in Sherm’s Story, self-published by Seltzer in 2004.
The son of an entrepreneurial attorney whose brother is often credited with having created roller derby, Seltzer attended high school in Hollywood where comedian Red Skelton was a frequent visitor at the family’s home.
He graduated UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an Army ROTC commission as a second lieutenant in 1950, right about the time he met Lou on a blind date. “It was the hardest campaign I ever fought,” he says with a broad grin. “I fought hard to get her to marry me. I loved her the first time I saw her.”
But the Korean War interrupted their honeymoon, and Seltzer soon found himself in an M-24 tank in northern Korea where he “welcomed the Chinese” into the conflict. He received one Purple Heart when a Chinese soldier bayoneted him, and another when a landmine exploded beneath his tank. With broken bones in his legs and his scalp blown off, Seltzer crawled from the wreckage under heavy fire as a fellow soldier held on to his pistol belt. He awoke to a chaplain saying last rites over him.
“I wrote to Lou and I said, ‘Things don’t look good, but we’ll figure something out,’” he says in his autobiography. “I said, ‘Why don’t you send me a book about agriculture so I can learn another trade.’”
It wasn’t to be. Despite a permanent limp, Seltzer’s Army career continued. After Korea, the Army sent him to the University of Michigan where he earned two master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and guidance control. Later, he would earn a doctorate from Auburn University.
In 1959, he was assigned to oversee the Army Ballistic Missile Agency’s Pershing missile project at Redstone Arsenal. Soon after, von Braun coaxed him into NASA to oversee the guidance and control systems of the Saturn rocket that carried the Apollo capsule to the moon. “I never wanted to be an astronaut,” he says. “I just wanted to make sure they got there safely.”
Still, he became fast friends with astronaut Owen Garriott as the two worked side-by-side on the Skylab, the United States’ first space station. Garriott would later visit the station in 1973 — and make several space walks — on the Skylab 3 mission, which lasted almost 60 days.
Although Skylab’s orbit ended in 1979, another project that bears Seltzer’s fingerprints — the Hubble Space Telescope — continues to explore the universe two decades after its launch.
Between retirements and lecturing, he and his engineering buddies launched —and sold — multi-million dollar businesses in the defense industry, including SVS (Shirley, Van Allen & Seltzer) which today is a subsidiary of Boeing.
Dates and names may escape him now, but Dr. Sherman Seltzer, the rocket scientist who guided men to the moon, knows the closest thing to heaven is right here in Hurricane Valley. It’s home.
It’s riding his Quarter horses and checking the cattle. It’s sitting on the porch of the home Lou designed, and watching the moon rise over Tater Nob.
“He has a brilliant mind that has been everywhere,” Fanning says. “But his heart is right there on that farm he calls his ranch.”
Seltzer wouldn’t argue with that.
“I love it here,” he says, pushing back his Stetson to reveal a wide smile. “I’m the luckiest man on earth.”