He Helped Mankind Reach For The Stars
For a guy with an unavoidably attention-getting last name, Englewood’s Ron Bierwagen is the least attention-seeking chap you’ll ever meet. If his partners on the golf course compliment his drive on the fourth hole, he’ll say, “I have no idea how that happened. My next shot will probably go in the water.” If his poker mates admire his winning a nice hand, he’ll say, “That was pure luck. I didn’t even know what I had.” Tell him his Tommy Bahama’s shirt looks really nice and he’ll say, “Carol picked it out. It would probably look a lot better on you.”
Carol is Ron’s wife, a lovely, witty, outgoing, friendly, caring and talented person. Also cheerful, loyal, brave and true. A former Washington Redskins cheerleader. Successful interior decorator. So how did their happy hookup happen? You could imagine Ron’s proposal: “I suppose you wouldn’t want to marry a guy like me, but…”
Don’t get me wrong. Ron is a friendly, warm, thoughtful, caring, generous and intelligent man with a great sense of humor. It’s just that he never gives himself credit. When I approached him about doing this article, he said, “Noooooo! You don’t want to write about me. There’s nothing there. My life has been completely mundane.”
Well, maybe so, if you consider working at NASA during the most exciting period in mankind’s pursuit of space travel and exploration to be mundane. Ron was at the Goddard Space Flight Center, the beating heart of the American space program during Project Mercury, Project Gemini, the Apollo program, the Apollo-Soyuz test project and the launching of Skylab, the Space Shuttle, the two Voyager planetary explorers and the Hubble telescope. Does that qualify
But let’s take a look at how he got there. He was born to Walter and Freda Bierwagen in South Bend, Indiana on November 14, 1932, during the peak of the Great Depression. Bierwagen is a perfectly good Dutch and German name, so was his ancestry Dutch or German? “No,” says Ron, “it was Polish.” Go figure. When Ron was three and his sister Marilyn was a year old, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where his dad got a job as a bus driver for the Capital Transit Company. Three years later they resettled in Greenbelt, Maryland, a Washington suburb. Ron got his elementary and high school education in the Greenbelt schools.
Ron’s father made the name Bierwagen familiar, respected and perhaps feared in the nation’s capital, because he organized the transit workers there and became international vice president of their union. Walter led the 54-day strike of the city’s transit workers in 1953, and he was on a first-name basis with people on Capitol Hill and in the White House. “I really didn’t know him very well,” says Ron. “He was a workaholic. When he was in town he worked two shifts sometimes, and he was on the job mornings and evenings when he was the union boss.”
Ron was a standout pitcher at Greenbelt High School, and his dream was to become a major league ballplayer. He was, in fact, given tryouts and offered contracts by the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Washington Senators, but he decided not to sign. “I didn’t like the money,” he says. “I was making more as a grocery store clerk than they were offering. I needed as much money as I could get. I never thought about college then, because my family couldn’t afford it.” But the Korean War was in full fury, and anyone not in college was a prime draft prospect for the U.S. Army. He figured that the U.S. Air Force was a better choice, and in 1952 he signed on for a four-year tour of duty. Without an ROTC program behind him, he started out as an Airman 2nd. Class, “the bottom of the barrel,” as he puts it.
After basic training he spent nine months in Biloxi, Mississippi learning to be a radio intercept operator. “I volunteered for Korea, and they sent me to Shreveport, Louisiana,” he says. That’s the military for you. A year later he was sent overseas—not to Korea but to an RAF base in Mildenhall, England. He never did get to use his radio intercept training, but a couple of good things happened there: He played on the baseball team that won the Air Force Championship, and he received a letter from George Washington University offering him a baseball scholarship beginning in the 1956 academic year, after his honorable discharge from the military. He took it, and his life took a new turn.
While at GWU in 1958, he met Carol at a swimming pool in Rockville, Maryland, where he was a part-time lifeguard. Their romance blossomed quickly, and within a year they married. “I left GWU then for financial reasons. I needed a real job,” Ron remembers. He got one with Allis-Chalmers, a manufacturer of transmissions and heavy industrial equipment. Two years later he switched to a position with ACF Industries, which had a contract with the military to make aircraft simulators. From there it was a short hop, conceptually and geographically, to NASA. “We were living in Lanham, Maryland, and Goddard Space Flight Center was just down the road,” Ron says. His background with ACF seemed like a natural fit with the manned space program that had kicked off in 1958 and was given a huge boost by President Kennedy.
What appealed to Ron about working for NASA? “A job,” he says. “At first it was just a job. In the beginning I didn’t know what I would be doing.” Over time, the job turned out to be maintaining and managing the logistics, technical documentation and personnel training for NASA’s tracking stations around the globe. For unmanned spacecraft, NASA needed instantly available, long-duration space-to-ground communications, consisting of parabolic dish antennas and telemetric equipment located at numerous sites around the world. For manned flights and for deep space flights, more elaborate data networks were required. Data feeds from the ground sites, satellites and spacecraft had to be sent without delay to Goddard and to Houston. Any glitch in the Goddard network could be disastrous to the astronauts and the program.
“There were no tracking satellites in the beginning,” Ron says, “but there were ground tracking stations around the world. My responsibility was to make sure all of our stations were operable.
During the many missions, sometimes in Third World areas, we endured coups and the takeover of our equipment.” In war-torn Senegal, Ron’s team coped with a beetle-infested wilderness station and being accosted by armed renegades. “We never knew what might occur, but my team and I had to make certain we had the parts required during a mission and that the stations could function effectively.” They worked out of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, which collected, coordinated and transmitted the data and communications between the tracking centers, the astronauts and the control center in Houston. “Goddard made Houston look great,” Ron says. “The news coverage came from them (Houston), but our guys were the silent workers who kept it all going as smoothly as possible.”
While he was at it, this peripatetic network manager finished his bachelor of science degree in business administration by going to night school at Southeastern University in Washington, D.C. He opted for early retirement in 1994 after 31 years of government service, 27 of them with NASA. He received a letter of commendation for his long and valued service during the greatest growth period of the manned space program. “What an exciting time it was for all involved,” Ron confesses. “I absolutely loved this period in my career with NASA. I had great people with me, both under and over my position.”
In 1998 Ron and Carol decided to move south to enjoy their retirement years. They settled on Englewood, “where we could enjoy the warmth of wonderful weather, golf and good friends. We feel blessed with the many friends we have in the community,” says Ron.
NASA’s commendation included an observation that during Ron’s time as head of logistics for the tracking and data network, “there were no launch delays.” That is high praise in an institution that requires high-speed, on-time data relays to do its job, one in which the lives of astronauts depend on it. Ron and his team did their job well.
Just don’t ask him to brag about it.