Robert Gregg Chilton died in his sleep on Wednesday, February 8, 2017. He was born December 21, 1922 in Springfield, Tennessee to John Cecil and Sarah Mayes Chilton, where he grew up and graduated from Springfield High School in 1941. With assistance from the National Youth Administration, Robert enrolled at Austin Peay State College in Clarksville, Tennessee where he attained a Junior College Diploma in 1943. During that same year, he began pilot training for the US Army Air Force (USAAF), to be commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in April 1944, completing his training as a B-17 pilot assigned to the 486 Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force and deployed to England in January 1945, where he flew bombing missions over Germany through the end of the war in Europe—being awarded four Air Medals for service that had him flying a mission about every other day.
In fall of 1945, the Red Raider—as Chilton was nicknamed while serving in Europe—enrolled at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the GI Bill, where he earned a BS and an MS in Aeronautical Engineering in 1949, and where he was recruited to serve on research teams for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley Field, Hampton, Virginia—mainly for the Stability and Control Branch of the Flight Research Division. Working for NACA on multiple tasks relating to flight research from 1949 through 1958, he had embarked on a career path toward his playing a vital role in the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, transitioning at that time out of NACA’s Space Task Group for which he also served. As such, he was to fill key positions in NASA’s Project Mercury, the U.S.’s first human spaceflight program, and in the Apollo program that culminated in six lunar landings between Apollo 11 in July, 1969 and Apollo 17 in December, 1972.
Serving with NASA’s Space Task Group as Chief over the Flight Dynamics Branch of the Flight Systems Division from 1958-62, Robert was primary in conceptualizing the dynamic between man and machine in pioneering U.S. space flight—that is, in integrating the role of astronauts with automated control systems (computers), operating mutually, neither fully manual nor fully automatic—the astronaut performing “a balanced role,” in his words more like “being the captain of the ship and not just the pilot [of the aircraft] . . . making command decisions, monitoring the systems, and supervising navigation and control.” With this overlying vision, he was instrumental in specifying the Mercury Capsule control system while also selecting and supervising the contract to incorporate the system into the spacecraft; thus he was named co-inventor of the Mercury Capsule in 1962, one of seven patent holders. Likewise, he initiated and oversaw the contracting for Apollo’s navigation and control system in 1961, the first contract for the entire Apollo program—the Apollo guidance system being widely regarded as the most intricate and complex of any of the Apollo subsystems.
With the Apollo program off and running and with Mission Control established at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, Robert advanced to Assistant Chief of the Spacecraft Technology Division (1962-1965); Deputy Chief of the Guidance and Control Division (1965-1970); and to Chief of the Guidance and Control Division (1970-1973). Finally, the Space Shuttle program getting underway at the end of the Apollo program, he concluded his twenty years at NASA as Chief of the Control Systems Development Division (1973-1978). He then retired from NASA in 1978 to sign on with the college of engineering faculty of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, as Visiting Professor of Aerospace Engineering from 1978-1988. Retiring from the classroom in 1988, professor Chilton stayed on to advise aerospace students through the fall of 1993.
In short, he had a remarkable career and a remarkable life; but Robert Chilton defined himself foremost as a family man: a devoted son and brother, and a devoted husband and father. A friend and a mentor; a teacher and a scoutmaster; a jazz and swing enthusiast, a self-taught carpenter, a model airplane hobbyist and a Buck Rogers romanticist—he lived beautifully and he will be missed.
By his love most of all we remember him.
Robert Chilton is preceded in death by his wife of sixty years, Ruth Lee Martin Chilton, and his son, David Lee Chilton; his parents, John Cecil Chilton and Sarah Mayes Chilton; and by his brother-in-law William Curtiss, his nephew James Curtiss, and his sister-in-law Laura Martin Mueller.
He is survived by sons Donald Chilton and wife Patricia, and Lawrence Chilton and wife Lori; his seven grandchildren, Courtney Chilton, Nathaniel Chilton, John Chilton, Brendan Chilton and his daughter Crissy, Robert Chilton, Alec Chilton and wife Kimberlie, and Eli Chilton; his sister, Ann Chilton Curtiss, and his niece, Amy Davidoff; his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, James and Emily Mueller, and his two nephews, Robert Mueller and Andrew Mueller.
A graveside memorial service is to be held at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Heathsville, Virginia on a date yet to be determined.
For those who desire, please send contributions in Robert’s honor to the Aerospace Engineering Excellence Scholarship Foundation through one of the following links:
Flowers may be sent to Callaway-Jones Funeral and Cremation Centers at 3001 S. College Ave., Bryan TX, 77801. You may express condolences to the family at CallawayJones.com.Print This Obituary