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Ex-NASA machinist pens debut historical novel at 79

Posted on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 11:46 am

Staff Writer

John Coffelt

book_webFormer NASA machinist Frank Mann, of the Ragsdale community, completed his first novel, “The Los Cruces Trail,” at the young age of 79.

Mann, now 80 – a machinist by trade, and an artist and inventor following his retirement, completed the novel, typing hunt and peck on the computer, in just about a year.

He said that that the attention to detail in his work is a carryover from his years at NASA.

The novel’s genesis comes from a story Mann read 30 years ago about corruption in Panama long before the building of the canal in the early 20th century.

Mann’s novel opens in Panama in 1850, during the California Gold Rush, a time when crime in the small jungle country topped even that of New York.

Panama was, ironically, the easiest way to California before the transcontinental railroad was built, but the miles of muddy ruts of the Los Cruces Trail, the only means to move men and materiel from the waterways connecting to Changres River across the isthmus, were ripe for theft.

Along the jungle route only the most hardened men attempted to keep order, often from the wrong side of the law.

Mann places his protagonist, Walter Wilson, into that turbulent mix of outlaws and political corruption.

“He burns one of the places [on one of their many raids] and captures some of the people who ran off,” he said.

It’s a novel rich with texture and attention to details. Some of them Mann learned during his four years in the Navy through associations with the Underwater Demolition Team frogmen that he was tasked with driving around as they trained.

“They taught me so many things,” Mann confided. “They call them SEALS now, but back then they were UDTs. I watched all their stuff. They taught me to fight dirty.”

Before putting pen to paper as a writer, Mann studied Thomas Kinkade for inspiration as a painter.

“I showed my art to an uncle. Those two there,” Mann said indicating a pair of wildlife paintings hanging modestly in his office, “when [the man] saw them, he said. now you’re a real artist.

“That’s what he called me,” Mann said with pride.

Still, it’s not art that made Mann his living but machining precision parts since the early days of NASA.

He patented an invention, a universal precision sine bar attachment, to help a future generation of workers to do just that.

According to his patent, issued March 7, 1989, the device attaches to a lathe to measure the angle on materials being milled. His sine bar is an improvement over a Russian design from the 70s that only measures cylinders.

“What it does,” Mann explains further, “is makes it so much easier cut angles – for more precision.”

Mann invented the part while working at the George C. Marshal Space Flight Center. In the early days he would eat in the same cafeteria as rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, who Mann said would some times come down to the shop to check on the men.

Many of the specifics of Mann’s contributions to the country’s space program have been lost to time, but in the years Mann spent in Huntsville, space exploration evolved from simple rockets originally built to hurl nuclear warheads in a sub-orbital arc at the Soviet Union to a post-Cold War space shuttle containing over 2.5 million separate parts, many requiring very precise fabrication.

It was the need for precision in a part for a satellite that brought Mann out of retirement in 1992.

“He got called back to NASA to do the job that no one else could do,” Mann’s wife decades later recalled. “He worked six more years.”

Mann recalls, “My boss said I had empirical knowledge.” That means, Mann explains, “knowledge gain through experience. My boss said I had plenty of that.”

Mann, who had retired in the late eighties at as a Lead Engineering Technician, came back to fabricate with fellow NASA man Dick Lamb the prototype of a complex corrugated microwave feedhorn (an advanced version of the device mounted in the center of a satellite dish to capture the incoming signals). Each type of feedhorn is uniquely shaped to match its parabolic dish. The tolerances on a cable television receiver are forgivable, but in micro bandwidth devices requiring specific return losses, everything must be perfect.

“I’ll tell you one thing, my invention was easy. This thing was hard,” Mann said.

Locally, “The Los Cruces Trail,” is available at Square Books Round Cookies, just off the square on E. Main St., and from the publisher or at Trafford Publishing at