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Tiburon aerospace engineer Galen Etemad helped Apollo 11 complete mission to moon

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

Tiburon aerospace engineer Galen Etemad, who headed a team that worked on the Columbia command module of NASA’s historic Apollo 11 flight to the moon in July 1969, died Oct. 31, one day shy of his 99th birthday.

As one of the first Iranians to work in the American space program, Mr. Etemad became a prominent figure in Iran after the moon landing, earning the nickname “Agha-ye Apollo,” or “Mr. Apollo.” When he toured Iran a few months after the landing, he was treated as a national celebrity, hosted and entertained by elites, including the shah.

The Columbia was living quarters for the crew — NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins — and the only of the three modules to return to Earth, where it was toured across U.S. cities before being transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1971. The other two modules were the service module and the lunar module, better known as Eagle.

As a thermodynamics expert, Mr. Etemad and his team designed the heat shields used on all Apollo missions to allow for safe re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Born Nov. 1, 1922, in Mashhad, Iran, Mr. Etemad was the second youngest of 10 children of Mohammad Ebrahim Etemad and Amaneh Alavi. His mother died when Mr. Etemad was 6, and two of his siblings died in infancy. After his mother’s death, the family moved to Tehran.

For all four years of high school, Mr. Etemad maintained the highest GPA for a student in Tehran and was annually awarded Iran’s highest academic honor, the Darageh Yek Elmi Medal.

His father died when he was 18.

Mr. Etemad went on to study mechanical engineering at the University of Tehran, graduating in 1945.

His first job was for the university, an assignment to study a future use for the U.S. military base in Amirabad, just outside Tehran. When World War II ended, the U.S. Army had given the base to the Iranian government, which turned it over to the university. Mr. Etemad observed that the base was like a modern city, much more advanced than Tehran at the time, with plumbing, a road system, electricity, a working ice plant and a power plant, as well as a central kitchen, cold-storage facility and a cafeteria to serve the 4,000 soldiers and officers who had lived there. Mr. Etemad proposed turning the base into a student village, financed by selling the cold-storage capability to customers — among them purveyors of penicillin and caviar, which were in high demand at the time — and selling the clean ice to different government agencies. His idea was carried out.

By December 1946, Mr. Etemad had saved enough money to immigrate to the U.S. He put himself through graduate school at Harvard University, taking half of his courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also worked part-time as an engineer at a cold-storage plant in Boston and took odd jobs, such as selling hot dogs at sports events in the university gym, sweeping up popcorn in movie theaters, serving as the summertime canteen operator on the Nantucket ferry, and even selling a few pressure cookers door to door in Nantucket.

After receiving his master’s in mechanical engineering in 1948, Mr. Etemad went on to earn his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in mechanical engineering, with a special focus on heat transfer and fluid mechanics, in 1954. His doctoral thesis, “Free Convection Heat Transfer from a Rotating Horizontal Cylinder to Ambient Air, with Interferometer Study of Flow” was published in a book by the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, which titled his heat-transfer chart as “Etemad’s Number.”

He was named associate professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and received a grant to build a heat-transfer lab at Carnegie Mellon University, which made it possible for the school to launch a new graduate program.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1955, which was a requirement to work in the aerospace and defense industries.

By 1956, Mr. Etemad had published numerous articles on heat transfer. That prompted Bell Labs to recruit him for a job as a consultant in Florida on thorny heat issues with Bell Aircraft’s X-1 rocket-engine-powered aircraft, which had earlier made history as the first manned plane to exceed the speed of sound.

Mr. Etemad relocated to Los Angeles, where he was employed by North American Aviation until 1958, working on their X-15 program to determine re-entry heating of orbital spacecraft.

Between 1958 and 1963, Mr. Etemad worked at Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. in Palo Alto. He served as thermodynamics department manager before being promoted to assistant flight sciences manager of the Polaris missile and Agena spacecraft programs, where his team worked to solve base-heat problems with Polaris.

He was the editor of a collection of papers by various presenters at a 1962 symposium on spacecraft thermodynamics sponsored by Lockheed in cooperation with the space-systems division of the U.S. Air Force Systems Command at the LMSC Research Labs in Palo Alto.

From 1963 to 1965, he worked at the Martin Co. — which then became Martin Marietta and later merged with Lockheed to become Lockheed Martin — as division manager of aerodynamics, thermodynamics, propulsion and ordinance for the Sprint anti-ballistic missile program, where his team solved its complex silo-propulsion system requirements.

He returned to North American Aviation in Downey in 1965 and remained there until 1978. The company, renamed Rockwell International in 1973, had been selected by NASA in 1961 as the prime contractor for the Apollo command and service modules. Mr. Etemad became head of his department in the space division, which designed the heat shields for the Apollo series, starting with the Columbia on Apollo 11.

On July 20, 1969, the work culminated with the safe landing of the Eagle lunar module on the moon and a moonwalk by astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin while Collins orbited alone in the Columbia. After the two modules rendezvoused and the Eagle was jettisoned, Columbia successfully returned the three astronauts to Earth, splashing down in the North Pacific Ocean on July 24.

Five more successful Apollo missions to the moon followed.

A few months later, Ariamehr-Sharif University in Tehran, now known as the Sharif Institute of Technology, hosted Mr. Etemad’s three-month tour of Iran to give lectures on the American space program. The program included a live presentation on Iranian television and a visit with the shah of Iran.

On the same day as his visit with the shah, Mr. Etemad attended a party where he met his second wife, Jaleh Azarbeygui, a cancer researcher. The two, who each had two daughters from previous marriages, were married in December 1969. The American Embassy fast-tracked her visa, and she returned with Mr. Etemad to Los Angeles at the end of the tour. They had two more children together, a daughter and a son.

Mr. Etemad retired from his engineering career and began a successful career in commercial real-estate investment. The family moved to Tiburon in 1988 to be near Mr. Etemad’s brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Jacqueline Etemad, and their family.

In his free time, Mr. Etemad enjoyed listening to TED Talks, reading historical biographies and listening to classical music and jazz standards. In years past, he had loved tending his garden.

In addition to his wife, Jaleh Etemad, Mr. Etemad is survived by four children, Marguerite Etemad and Nakissa Etemad, both of San Francisco, Rosemarie Etemad-Green of Portland, Ore., and Cyrus Galen Etemad of Los Angeles; two stepdaughters, Pardissa Safavi Davis of Alexandria, Va., and Natasha Safavi Martin of Sheffield, England; five grandchildren, Jason Etemad-Lehmer, Jazelle Green and Jonathan Green, all of Portland, Cosmo Southall of Sheffield, and R.J. Davis III of Alexandria; and one-great-grandson, Olorin Etemad-Lehmer of New York City. His nine siblings, including his brother in Tiburon, all predeceased him.

A private service was held. His ashes were divided and are to be scattered at three locations important to the family, including Richardson Bay. A celebration of his life will be held sometime next year.

Donations in his memory may be sent to Donor and Gift Services, Attn: Dr. Galen and Jaleh Etemad Undergraduate Scholarship Fund (FN3360000), 1995 University Ave., Suite 400, Berkeley, CA 94704-1070. Checks should be made payable to the U.C. Berkeley Foundation with “Etemad Scholarship” on the note line.

Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.



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