You might not recognize the man smiling behind the controls.
But Calvin Fowler ’55 certainly earned his place in the history along the more famous men and women of our nation’s space program. When this photo was taken in 1963, Fowler had launched more men into space on board manned Mercury rockets than anyone in the free world, men that include astronauts Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and the man who later autographed this photo for Fowler. (The caption reads “To Calvin Fowler — Thanks for the ride on Mercury Atlas 7. Scott Carpenter”)
“It was an exciting time to work for the space program,” Fowler recalls. “But I’ve always been a problem solver, and that was the most rewarding part of that job: preparing the rockets for launch, so nothing could go wrong. When they started putting people in space, you’ve got a very different — far more valuable — payload to manage.”
Fowler joined the Navy in 1946 after graduating from high school in South Carolina to earn the GI Bill for college. While in the Navy, he taught at the electronics technician school at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois for one year, and after being released from active duty, enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But when the Korean War began during his sophomore year, he was called back to duty in the U. S. Naval Reserves to reactivate World War II destroyer ships at Long Beach Naval Station.
By the time Fowler returned to civilian life and transferred to UW-Madison in 1953, he was far ahead of his electrical engineering classmates. He recalls a prank that nearly got him kicked out engineering fraternity Eta Kappa Nu, which invited Fowler to join during his final semester. He turned in a fake bridge circuit project made in a plastic box with a battery he modified to make the lite flash — and got 10 fraternity members and an instructor to approve it before revealing the joke. “Boy, they were mad at me when they found out, but they couldn’t kick me out, because I technically hadn’t violated their bylaws.”
After graduating, Fowler accepted at job with a company in California because of the sunny locale and high pay. His work at Convair Air Craft — later called General Dynamics — led him to projects with the United States Air Force and NASA, including the Mercury launches in the early 1960s.
For the next three decades, Fowler continued working for contractors on NASA projects including on the Apollo and Shuttle programs, before retiring in 1993 to teach in Florida, where he now lives with his wife, Beatrice.
Fowler credits both his sharp problem solving skills, and his degree from the UW, for his life path.
“I was a South Carolina boy,” Fowler says, "but if I had gone to college there, I probably wouldn’t have ended up at General Dynamics, or working on the Mercury program, or any of the other things I’ve done. Plus, I just had a blast as a student at the University of Wisconsin.”