Mayor of Space Town

How Rollins’ first computer helped launch David Schechter ’65’s more than 30-year career at NASA.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

By the time David Schechter ’65 retired from Kennedy Space Center in January 2003, he had risen through the ranks to oversee some 400 full-time and contract employees as chief of the ground systems division.

Thirty-six years earlier, as a high school math teacher applying for his first job at NASA, something we take for granted today set him apart: Schechter knew how to use a computer. Those skills were honed, oddly enough, during late-night homework sessions in the basement of the Warren administrative building.

“The registrar had an IBM 1620 down there, and it was the only computer on campus,” says Schechter, a recipient of Rollins’ 2017 Alumni Achievement Award. “Dr. John Bowers was my math professor, and he taught a group of us how to use Fortran. The neat thing was, the administration would let us go in and work on the thing even when they weren’t there. We’d load up a deck of punch cards and boot it up ourselves.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

After graduation, Schechter took a job at Melbourne High School, where he met the love of his life, French teacher Ruth Clay. School rules prohibited married couples from working together, so when they wed in August 1967, Schechter put his name in the hat at NASA.

A double major in math and physics, he quickly landed a job as a computer analyst with the Atlas Centaur rocket program. His division, which also supported the Apollo moon-landing program, handled guidance systems, telemetry data, and flight trajectory, among other responsibilities.

Later in his career, after getting his master’s in computer science at Florida Institute of Technology, Schechter was in charge of “all the equipment that didn’t fly”—things like cranes, elevators, and the massive crawler-transporters that carried space shuttles to the launch pad.

“It was fabulous because there was so much variety,” Schechter says of his time at NASA. “It was also amazing to be there during the Apollo time frame because everyone felt the excitement. Whether you were working on that mission or something else, everyone was considered part of the team.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

A resident of Satellite Beach since 1978—where he has served as mayor and has a community center named in his honor—Schechter almost embarked on a different path in life. Growing up in Detroit, he had planned to attend a small college in Michigan. Then fate intervened.

“My senior counselor said there’s a good school down in Florida that’s interested in scientists, and I only recommend one person a year to go there,” Schechter recalls. “I’d never been south of the Mason-Dixon Line, so it was quite an adventure. They put me on a bus in Detroit, and 36 hours later they dumped me off in Winter Park.

“There was a guy we picked up in Jacksonville, and he was going to Rollins too. When we got here at 2 in the morning, they wouldn’t give us our luggage because the bus depot was closed. Finally a cop saw us and said, ‘Just go onto campus, lay down in one of the buildings, and someone will take you in.’ That’s just what we did, and a house mother came out the next morning and said, ‘Are you boys the freshmen? Let’s go to the beanery for breakfast.’”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

It didn’t take long for Schechter to immerse himself in the Rollins culture. He rushed Tau Kappa Epsilon, wrote for The Sandspur, served in the Student Government Association, sang in the choir, and joined Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honor society.

For spending money, he worked the U-shaped docks on Lake Virginia, near where the swimming pool is now located. On Fridays, he and the SGA would lunch with President Hugh McKean.

“With the small class sizes and tight-knit campus, I had the opportunity to take part in a lot of things I couldn’t have done if I went to a large school,” says Schechter, who celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary this summer. “Next to my marriage and family, Rollins stands out as the best time of my life.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook