The GI Bill in Outer Space

William E. Price was 17 when he signed an early-enlistment commitment to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps. The son of a World War I combat veteran from Reading, Pa., and brother to a B-24 radio operator who was shot down and killed over Austria on July 24, 1944, Price entered his World War II training fully aware of the risks and no idea of the rewards, if any should come his way.

He was training in Mississippi, Washington and Utah as World War II came to a close. His military occupational specialty: Aircraft Electrical Mechanic. He worked on the B-29 and was later assigned to repair electrical issues with P-51s and P-38s.  In January 1946 he was stationed in Korea after the war’s end, as combat personnel were finally heading home, en masse, to use their new GI Bill benefits and restart their lives.

When he was discharged at age 20 on Dec. 13, 1946, “I thought I would be an electrician,” says Price, now 91. “I applied to a trade school only to be turned down. The schools were full of returned GIs taking advantage of the GI Bill. I was told that I needed more mathematics. College was the only place I could think of that had math courses.”

“I entered college in 1947 with my tuition and books paid for by the GI Bill. I also received $75 a month for lodging. I found the courses easy enough, so I continued and graduated in 1951 as a physicist. Remember that electricity is just one branch of Physics.”

So, began a journey that would propel Price and his GI Bill education across the nation, around the world, above it and beyond it, into the solar system, past the outer planets and into deep space. No one knows how long the journey will continue. Some say 40,000 years or more. Price and his GI Bill education were instrumental in the engineering of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts, whose NASA missions continue to collect data, somewhere in outer galactic space after passing by the four planets” Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  Sending back pictures of the planets and their moons as well as scientific data.

After college, Price took positions at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory and later the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington where he specialized in the effects of high-energy radiation exposure on electronic materials and components.  His growing expertise was essential to a number of nuclear research projects and programs. He worked at the Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee for a year operating a small research Nuclear Reactor for Pratt & Whitney following that developing shields that could protect crews flying a nuclear-powered warplane, a project that never got off the ground.  He spent five years with Lockheed Research Laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif., “where I bought my first house with a GI Bill-guaranteed mortgage.” 

His work included testing the effects of radiation on various devices and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center brought him in for two years where he designed a major radiation testing complex known as Building 22. Later, For Philco-Ford Aerospace, he worked on the hardening of spacecraft against the effects of radiation doses, followed by two years of radiation testing work for the Minuteman missile project at Autonetics in southern California..

In 1970, Price went to work for the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Lab where he led and carried out radiation testing on parts and systems for spacecraft destined to fly to the outer planets of the solar system – NASA’s Voyager missions. During this time, he developed and wrote the first version of a standard method for testing radiation effects on components known as               MIL-Standard 883, Method 1019. He later received an award for being the first author.

 For Voyager he was charged with testing all electronic systems on the spacecraft as well as the semiconductor devices used in the systems of the spacecraft.  The objective was to allow Voyager to survive the massive challenge of passing through Jupiter’s intense and high energy radiation field.  Jupiter has a band of trapped belts of high energy electrons and protons similar to Earth’s radiation belts known as the “Van Allen Belts” but Jupiter’s belts consist of higher intensity and energy and therefore more dangerous to the spacecraft. 

For the Jet Propulsion Lab, Price also developed heavy-ion testing methods for “single-event upset” – the infiltration, for instance, of just one atomic particle that could change a “0” to a “1” and scramble the code of an unmanned spacecraft. He also lobbied for – and got – $6 million in funding necessary to design and construct a radiation-testing facility for NASA.

Through the years, Price became a leader among associations, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) that worked in nuclear science and space radiation effects, in which he held a number of offices, calling for research papers and coordinating conferences that expanded human knowledge about the effects of radiation exposure on electronic components and systems.  After the Voyager was launched a similar kind of radiation testing program was required for the Galileo spacecraft which orbited Jupiter for a number of years and later for the Cassini spacecraft which flew past Jupiter to orbit Saturn for several years.

Price retired in 1989 – the same month Voyager 1 passed Neptune – believing he had made the most of his GI Bill benefits.

Last January, at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles, Price – Commander of American Legion Post 257 in Laguna Woods, California – stepped to the podium at a moderated panel discussion, where he told his GI Bill story. The discussion helped open a two-month installation of “The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill” at the historic hall, home of Los Angeles County Military & Veterans Services.

“Voyager is still out there in intergalactic space, having left the solar system, and is still sending back data after being launched in 1977,” he told the crowd after sharing with them his service experience, education and astronomical career path. “I feel my education, paid for by the GI Bill, was very useful to me and the space program.”

At the event, he thanked The American Legion and the GI Bill for his opportunities, but he did not bring along a treasured, leather-bound scrapbook containing photos, programs, tickets, ribbons, autographs and other memorabilia from his parents’ 1927 pilgrimage to Paris with The American Legion. Often called The American Legion “national convention” in Paris, the pilgrimage was in fact a return to Europe for veterans of World War I a decade after they entered the fighting there. At the time of his parents’ trip, Price was barely over 1 year old, having been born on July 3, 1926, at a veteran’s hospital in Philadelphia. He stayed home with family friends while his parents went overseas with The American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary.

Price’s father, Elmer Price, was a member of Conley-Hahn American Legion Post 94 in Pennsylvania and later worked for the Department of the Navy during World War II. His mother, Helen, was a member of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 202 in Gettysburg because her oldest brother, Earle Deardorff, was in WW I and was gassed there.

Shortly after his discharge from the U.S. Army Air Corps, Price joined the American Legion post in Gettysburg, where he remained a member for several years. He later joined Post 257 at Laguna Hills, Calif., where he has been commander for a year. The post and its Auxiliary unit, with about 150 members, conducts Boys State and Girls State programs, provides color guards for local ceremonies and raises money to purchase walkers and wheelchairs for veterans and others in the community who need them as well a visiting the vets at the long Beach Veterans Hospital once a month..

Through the years and his many travels, Price has made occasional trips to St. Avold, France, to pay respects to his World War II brother Donald, who is laid to rest there. He sends money to have his grave decorated for Memorial Day, ever reverent of the sacrifice his brother and so many others made so that the dreams of future generations could come true, no matter where those dreams may take them.

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.