Notable Runners Larry Berman and Jimmy Gilbert Contributed to Apollo 11 Moon Success

Larry and Sara Mae Berman
Apollo 11 landed on the moon 50 years ago today--on July 20, 1969. Many of us, at least those with a few years on their calendars, remember the day and the images very vividly. 

Two notable runners had a front-row seat on the Apollo-success team. It turns out both were mathematicians/computer programmers: Larry Berman and Jimmy Gilbert. 
Jimmy Gilbert

Berman, who has a personal best marathon time of 2:38:03 (Boston Marathon, 1970) is married to Sara Mae Berman, three-time winner of the Boston Marathon women’s race (1969, 1970, 1971.) He was a founder of the influential Cambridge Sports Union athletic club in Cambridge, MA, and is still active in nordic skiing and orienteering. 

Gilbert, 76, has run over 100,000 miles in his lifetime. In 1979, he helped famed exercise physiologist and running coach, Jack Daniels, develop the first iteration of what many now know as Daniels’s VDOT tables and calculations. The original work, titled “Oxygen Power: Performance Tables for Distance Runners,” primarily amounted to 82 pages of pure numbers ( vdots, distances, and times). Gilbert, a matematician, helped Daniels turn his data into equations that generated all the numbers.

Bermans finish 1970 Boston together
In a recent email, here’s how Sara Mae Berman summarized her husband’s contributions to the Apollo program: “From 1962 to 1972, Larry worked on the Apollo Program at MIT's Instrumentation Lab, which designed the guidance and navigation system, both the hardware and the software. Larry was in the software group, and wrote the program that guided the ascent of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) from the moon surface to rendezvous with the Command Module. 
Berman working out at home in Cambridge

“It was an exciting time. He and his group worked long hours, often got called in the middle of the night if they were needed at the Lab. (Fortunately we lived only 1-1/4 miles away.) Larry has many stories to tell; met many of the astronauts, especially when some took courses at MIT. He tells of visiting a classroom for astronaut training in Houston, and seeing a motto spread at the top of the blackboard: "Relax. Remember that every piece of your spacecraft was built by the lowest bidder." The astronauts were test pilots, risk-takers, and had a good sense of humor.”

Gilbert worked at NASA for 35 years, retiring in 2001 at age 58. He has continued running since then, and has also worked on several race crews of unlimited hydroplanes, including the famous Miss Budweiser and most recently Madison Racing's Miss HomeStreet Bank (of the Pacific Northwest).

Here's how he describes his work on the Apollo project:

Jimmy Gilbert
"I was assigned to the Apollo onboard computer group.  Our particular group was tasked with building a mathematical simulation of the Apollo spacecraft's, including most systems on all the vehicles (Command Module, Lunar Module and the Saturn launch vehicle). The simulation that we built was for training flight controllers prior to mission launches. We could run our outputs into the telemetry streams for a fraction of the cost that a full-up simulator manned by astronauts, and we could do that at any hour of any day. Our math models did an excellent job simulating what would happen.  Also we built our models so that we could insert faults to gauge the response of the controllers being trained.  Math models were a good idea.

"We built our models by taking the code written by MIT's Draper Laboratory and copying its functionality into our math models. The models we built were robust. They were used quite extensively for training for all the Apollo missions, and it eventually became difficult to tell if Mission Control training exercises were receiving inputs from mission simulators or the math models."

Here's what my "Oxygen Power" book looks like, including a title page autographed by Jack Daniels, and a page full of numbers. Aren't you glad we have interactive websites now?