Space engineer pencils in many small steps, giant leaps

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comFebruary 28, 2013 

Leonard Rabb

The cake was shaped like a red, white and blue rocket at Leonard Rabb's surprise 90th birthday party.

To friends and relations gathered Saturday at the Palmetto Hall Golf Club, Rabb is something of an icon. One person called him a "national treasure."

But Rabb would have you believe he's just your average rocket scientist.

Actually, he was an engineer, one of the first to get a degree in aeronautics from Ohio State University. That was right after World War II, and he went straight to work for NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

He helped develop the heat shield for the Mercury spacecraft. He worked on the Delta rocket program. He spent 11 years helping get a successful Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, a precursor to the Hubble Space Telescope, above the Earth's atmosphere.

Love for math came easily to Rabb. His parents ran a mom-and-pop grocery store in Cleveland, and he got involved as a boy. "Of course, you had to add up the bills," he said.

His dad introduced him to flight on trips across town to the airport. "He would park the car by the fence at the end of the runway, and we'd watch the planes go right over our heads," Rabb said.

He soon found himself in the rarefied air of mankind's space race.

Now 20 years into retirement, Rabb uses his engineering skills -- always with a pencil, never a computer -- to organize the Saturday Men's Golf League at Palmetto Hall.

He knows that computers are now much slicker than the clunkers that came along during his career. But he still believes the old expression: "Garbage in, garbage out." It's better to know the subject matter, he says, than to punch things into a computer.

Leonard and Helene Rabb moved to Hilton Head in 1994 because of the weather and golf.

He believes we have many unrecognized national treasures -- like geniuses he worked with and scientific advances made possible through unmanned spacecraft.

And he worries about a disconnect in today's society.

"People don't know their own history, and it would be nice if the education system would focus more on our nation's history," Rabb said. "People just don't realize what has taken place in order for them to be where they are today."

That shouldn't be considered rocket science.

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