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 fired 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, playing a role in the Apollo Moon Landing.
The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment was the only interactive planetary experiment that took place for the first Moon Landing. However, Walker’s key role for KORAD contracted by NASA was discovered 25 years later.
Born in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1933, Walker grew at a time when African Americans were denied many opportunities and his family barred him from seeing his estranged father.
However, Walker reportedly visited his father and on one occasion, he received a toy Buck Rogers ray gun as a present. He also worked as an informal apprentice at a white family’s vacuum cleaner repair shop. He gained the experience that would lead him to a career in technology.
Walker’s family moved to Los Angeles and there he honed his skills in mechanics and electronics. After graduating, he pursued a career in the film industry but was rejected because he was African American. He only found work with the Navy, installing radar systems in fighter planes for four years until the Korean War ended in 1953.
Later, 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 subsequently directed 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.
What is probably his greatest achievement was leading the team that adapted a ruby laser for measuring the distance from the Earth to the Moon. His team recorded by far the most accurate measurement of the distance ever, exact to within 5 meters. The equipment used for the experiment is now on permanent exhibit in 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 also worked with Hughes Aircraft, where he developed the first laser targeting systems for the U.S. Army in 1981. Retiring from Hughes, Walker founded 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, which supports boys and girls interested in math, science and business.
“In the 21st Century, we must use technology as a solution and promote technologists,” Walker once said.
Walker and his wife were in 1997 invited by South Africa’s then-President Nelson Mandela to establish and implement science and technology programs in townships and schools across the country.
The two made 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.
Today, Walker spends his time working for the non-profit organization and sharing his knowledge with the world.