In 1961, high school physics teacher Manfred “Dutch” von Ehrenfried, R’60, walked into NASA’s offices at Langley Research Center uninvited. He ended up working for Project Mercury, the first human space-flight program in American history.

“I just walked in the door and told them I was a recent graduate,” said von Ehrenfried, a physics major. “They were looking for science types and anybody with a science degree.”

Von Ehrenfried’s nerve — his initial reason for visiting Langley was to join the Air Force as a pilot — served him well throughout his NASA career. After learning space communications at Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington, D.C., his first mission was at the Mercury Control Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for John Glenn’s historic 1962 orbit of the earth.

“We had signals that said that the heat shield might have come off and that he would burn up on reentry,” he said. “So my first mission was communicating with the remote tracking stations, trying to figure out where that signal came from and whether it was a false one.”

These were all pretty emotional flights for people, especially those of us in flight operations.

Between missions in his early days at NASA, von Ehrenfried worked in astronaut testing as an Apollo pressure suit test subject, taking on such tasks as wearing Neil Armstrong’s suit in a vacuum chamber and flying in zero-gravity aircraft.

“I was the sensor operator on the NASA high-altitude aircraft, so I ran all the infrared spectrometers, scanners, and cameras at high altitude,” he said. “Most of our missions were 65,000 feet or so. I got to 70,000 feet in one flight.”

As his career progressed, he became a branch chief, which involved writing operations manuals for astronauts to deploy lunar experiments on the moon’s surface, and worked in the early space station program — formally, the Space Station Projects Office — in the 1980s and ’90s. But his time in mission control resonates with him most viscerally.

“Now, at age 83 looking back, that’s got to be the epitome of my career,” he said. “These were all pretty emotional flights for people, especially those of us in flight operations.

“I was there for the first space walk with [astronaut] Ed White. I was there for a lot of firsts,” added von Ehrenfried, who lives outside of Austin, Texas. “We look back on it now a little bit differently in that then, it was just trying to achieve [President] Kennedy’s goal and realizing that we’re actually having somebody leave the planet.”

He may never have been a part of it if he had not had the gumption to see whether NASA was hiring almost 60 years ago.

“Sometimes the good Lord tells you to turn left instead of right, and I just walked right in the door.”