Richard H. Battin, 88; worked on Apollo missions
When NASA called MIT’s Instrumentation Lab asking how big their computer for the Apollo space mission would be, Richard H. Battin looked around at all the equipment and wondered just how they would make it fit.
“They said, ‘Well, we’ve got to give him a number.’ And so I said, ‘Well, just tell him it’s a cubic foot,’ ” Dr. Battin recalled in a popular lecture titled “Some Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Moon,” which he gave at scores of scientific gatherings around the country.
“We were able to squeeze it,” Dr. Battin said. “You couldn’t make it 2 cubic feet, because that’s all they had room for . . . And it weighed about 70 pounds, consumed 55 watts, which, that’s pretty good.”
Decades later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught until 2010, he marveled at how the capabilities of his students’ mobile phones dwarfed the power and memory in that computer that landed the first humans on the moon in 1969.
Dr. Battin, who developed and led the design of the guidance, navigation, and control systems for the Apollo flights, died Feb. 8 in Emerson Hospital in Concord of pneumonia and complications from a fall. He was 88 and formerly lived for many years in Lexington.
Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who piloted the Apollo 11 lunar landing module and was the second astronaut to step onto the moon, described Dr. Battin as a brilliant, patient professor whose work during the space race was visionary.
“His course in astronautical guidance was a real eye-opener to all of us in the Air Force who were undergoing an advanced program at MIT,” Aldrin, who had been one of Dr. Battin’s graduate students, said in a phone interview.
“He was a confident person who entertained questions in the most welcoming and respectful manner, sometimes with a slight smile on his face because the question usually indicated a bit of non-comprehension by the questioner,” said Aldrin, who graduated from MIT with a doctorate in 1963.
As astronauts Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were approaching the Sea of Tranquility on that historic July 20, 1969, flight, Dr. Battin was at Mission Control in Houston with MIT Instrumentation Lab founder Charles Stark “Doc” Draper.
They were wringing their hands when Armstrong notified Houston that the computer’s alarm was going off. Its display read 1202 and then went blank.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, what the heck is a 1202 alarm?’ ” Dr. Battin recalled in a 1989 interview with the Globe.
For an agonizing moment, it appeared the mission might be aborted. But an engineer from MIT’s Lab, which later became the Draper Laboratory, recognized that the alarm signified the computer had been overloaded with data.
“People who know better still say there was a computer malfunction during the landing,” Dr. Battin told the Globe. “The computer was doing exactly what it was told to do.”
Born in 1925 in Atlantic City, Richard Horace Battin was an only child whose father worked in advertising for Sears.
He graduated in 1941 from Forest Park High School in Baltimore, where he was valedictorian at age 17, according to his family.
He knew nothing about MIT back then, he told his family. His mother and guidance counselors steered him to apply because of his math skills. He graduated in 1945 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and began teaching freshman calculus the following year. He received a doctorate in applied mathematics from MIT in 1951.
He had several other future astronauts in his MIT classroom over the years. His former teaching assistant Janice Voss, who died of cancer in 2012, flew in a space shuttle five times, logging some 19 million miles while orbiting the Earth.
During his career, Dr. Battin received numerous awards from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. MIT students in the department of aeronautics and astronautics honored him in 1981 with their first student award for teaching.
When he retired from the Draper Laboratory in 1987, he was associate head of the NASA program department.
“Dick literally wrote the book for much of the algorithm work in the field of guidance and control,” said Jim Shields, president and chief executive of Draper Laboratory.
“Dick stands as a giant among contributors to technology developments and applications in strategic missile and planetary navigation systems,” he added.
In a course in astrodynamics he taught at MIT until 2010, Dr. Battin peppered lectures with lore from the Apollo program.
“Because of his personal experience, this was a unique class that only Dick Battin could teach, and students loved it,” said Jaime Peraire, head of MIT’s aeronautics and astronautics department.
Dr. Battin also offered a popular class on the development of the Apollo computers, which was open to everyone at MIT.
“It was interesting to see that the audience was usually comprised of people who were not born until many years after the moon landing,” Peraire said.
Dr. Battin had been married for 64 years to the former Margery Milne when she died in 2012 at 85. She was the first woman elected town moderator in Lexington and held the post for 22 years. In Lexington, Dr. Battin served as a Town Meeting member for 53 years.
The couple first met when she was a student at Wellesley College and he was teaching at MIT. Dr. Battin told his family that he saw her photograph in a book of Wellesley freshmen and set out to meet her. He showed up at her dorm and asked her out.
Dr. Battin’s children said he was devoted to his family.
“He was prouder of my mother’s accomplishments in town government in Lexington than he was of his many achievements in his field of astronautical guidance,” said their son Tom of Lexington.
Astronauts were sometimes guests at the family dinner table when Dr. Battin’s children were young.
“I can’t tell you how exciting it was to meet and eat with real live astronauts,” said his son Jeffrey of Castle Rock, Colo.
A memorial service will be held at a later date for Dr. Battin, who in addition to his two sons leaves a daughter, Pamela Battin-Sacks of Portsmouth, and five grandchildren.
In his leisure time, Dr. Battin enjoyed the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and he passed along to his children an appreciation of theater.
When Jeffrey was in grade school, he taught him how to be an amateur magician. “He spent hours teaching me techniques and patter,” Jeffrey recalled.
“Despite his incredible intelligence and professional accomplishments, he possessed great humility,” Jeffrey added. “In his mind, his greatest accomplishment was his family.”