Hildreth Walker, the African-American who made the ever accurate measurement of the distance between the Earth and the Moon

by Duke Magazine
Image credit: blogwallet.com

Hildreth “Hal” Walker, Jr., in 1969, led a team that adapted a ruby laser for measuring the distance from the Earth to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission while working for Union Carbide’s Laser Systems division.

Walker was the man who projected the KORAD K-1500 Ruby Laser to the Moon successfully. He led the manufacturing, testing and operation of the KORAD K-1500 ruby laser system in 1969, thereby playing a role in the Apollo Moon Landing.

The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment was the interactive planetary experiment that only took place for the first Moon Landing. However, Walker’s key role for KORAD contracted by NASA was discovered 25 years later.

Walker, born in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1933, Walker grew at a time when African-Americans were denied numerous opportunities, and his family prevented him from seeing his estranged father.

But, Walker visited his father occasionally, and from where he did receive Buck Rogers toy gun as a gift. Whil growing up, he also worked as an informal apprentice at a white family’s vacuum cleaner repair shop.  He then gained the experience that paced him through is technological career. 

Walker’s family later moved to Los Angeles, and there he brushed his skills in mechanics and electronics. After his graduation, he proceeded with a pursuance of a career in the film industry, but was blatantly rejected because he was African-American. He was only able to find work with the Navy, installing radar systems in fighter planes for four years till the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Subsequently, RCA hired him to help develop the U.S. government’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, which was to warn the U.S. in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack. He later gave a directive to other global telecommunications projects, including the first television broadcast transmitted from Earth to a satellite and back to Earth again in 1962, according to reports.

Image credit: Getty images

Walker’s greatest achievement was leading the team that adapted a ruby laser for measuring the distance from the Earth to the Moon. His team recording was the most accurate measurement of the distance, which is very close with 5 meters. The equipment used for the experiment is presently on display as a historical tool at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“When America needed its best, they sought people like me out which is why I ended up working on the first ever science project in outer space. But ultimately it’s your inner space that defines everything,” Walker once said.

Walker afterwards proceeded to working with Hughes Aircraft, where he developed the first laser targeting systems for the U.S. Army in 1981. On his retirement from Hughes, Walker then established his own international laser systems consulting firm, ‘Tech Plus’ in 1990. He and his wife Bettye, also founded the African-American Male Achievers Network, Inc., or “A-MAN” in 1991, an initiative that supports boys and girls who have shown keen interests in math, science and business.

“In the 21st Century, we must use technology as a solution and promote technologists,” Walker once said.

In 1997, Walker and his wife were invited by the South Africa president, Nelson Mandela, to initiate and establish science and technology programs in schools and localities across South Africa.

The couple made a milestone achievement and history in 2019, when they opened the first chapter of the National Space Society on the African Continent, the Cape Town Space Society in Cape Town, South Africa.

 Walker, today spends quality time working for the non-profit organization and sharing his huge wealth of knowledge and experience with the global society.

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