Plaque on lunar surface bears Pocatello High alum’s name

September 18, 2018

POCATELLO -- Bob Graveline’s name is inscribed on a metal plaque that landed on the moon’s surface more than four years before man first stepped foot there.

Graveline, a 91-year-old Pocatello High School alumnus from the class of 1945, explained the plaque bore the names of about 20 top scientists involved in the Ranger 9 mission.

On March 24, 1965, NASA’s Ranger probe, carrying the plaque, transmitted photographs and videos that were broadcast live to millions of U.S. viewers, before impacting on the moon. It wasn’t until July 20, 1969 that Neil Armstrong became a household name, as the first man to walk on the moon.

Graveline, an early pioneer in rocket science who now lives near Palm Beach, Florida, returned to his childhood home during Pocatello High School’s homecoming weekend. At the school’s Monday morning homecoming assembly, Principal Lisa Delonas invited Graveline, who was in the crowd with family members, onstage to briefly address the student body. The principal told students they had a “true rocket scientist” among them, and proof that Pocatello High School graduates can go on to change the world.

Graveline’s specific area of expertise was devising mathematical equations to translate telemetry signals from missiles and rockets from “gibberish to English,” enabling engineers on the ground to later make evaluations to improve future missions.

“Dad was there at the very birth of the space age, and he was helping develop technologies that led to the birth of the space program,” said his son, Bryan.

Graveline, one of six siblings, was borne in Denver. He lived in Pocatello from second grade, when his father moved the family from Boise to work as a manager with Metropolitan Insurance, until he graduated with a bachelor of science in math/physics from Idaho State University in 1950. He also served in the U.S. Navy for a year near the end of World War II.

Graveline said his love of aircraft traces back to a model airplane his father bought him. When Graveline was just 15, he misrepresented his age to a Pocatello flight instructor in order to get his pilot’s license early.

During college, he helped his younger brother, Kenny, run Pocatello’s only toy store, Gravelines Hobby Shop, where he sold model airplane kits.

Shortly after his graduation from ISU, Graveline moved to California, along with a brother, a sister and his mother, where he took a job with Northrop Aircraft. The company sent him to Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 1952. Five years later, he met his wife, Betty, who worked in finance for Northrop.

Calculations he made using an IBM Card-Programmed Electronic Calculator were used to translate, or “reduce,” telemetry data from the top-secret SNARK missile. The SNARK was designed to travel 6,000 miles without a pilot and to drop an atomic bomb within a quarter of a mile of a target.

“I helped to protect America,” Graveline said.

His daughter, Rebecca Doane, of Palm Beach County, reasons Graveline contributed to developing a technology that continues to profoundly affect modern life.

“Think of life without satellites,” Doane said.

While later working for Lockheed, Graveline reduced telemetry data from Agena rockets, which were used in space programs such as Gemini, Mariner and Ranger.

The Ranger program’s earlier unmanned space missions weren’t all successful. The power supply failed “half way up” during one mission, and another launch missed the moon entirely. Graveline explained much of the trouble was caused by NASA’s practice of “baking” equipment to kill microbes, concerned about contaminating the moon.

“In doing that, they destroyed the electronics,” he said.

Graveline has remained active in retirement, offering historical perspectives as a tour guide at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Space & Missile Museum and operating a tram at MacCarthur Beach State Park in Palm Beach.

As a surprise for his most recent birthday, Graveline’s children decided to book him a trip to Pocatello -- the source of countless stories starring their dad, who was known to use his keen intellect to pull lavish pranks.

Doane loves the story about how her father put his knowledge of chemistry to use by making a coating, applied to a piece of chalk that combusted in a teacher’s hand. Bryan chuckles at the thought of his father helping a big brother rig a chair to emit an electric shock to members of his mother’s bridge club. Bridge club members were always on high alert within his household. Another bridge club member was in hysterics after Graveline connected a radio to a downstairs microphone, interrupting the broadcast with a phony “Pocatello news alert” about her home being on fire.

“Dad was a mad scientist from birth,” Doane said.

While in Pocatello, seeing the old Chief Theater sign brought back memories, as did touring the Pocatello High School library, which was a study hall on Dec. 7, 1941, when he sat there listening to a broadcast of President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“It surprised me,” Graveline said. “I didn’t expect to see so many things I recognized.”

Bryan’s wife, Joy Graveline, also made the trip to Pocatello.

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