A folded flag sits on a casket during ceremonial funeral training at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Feb. 22, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Sadie Colbert/Released)
Most of the people who came to say their final farewells to 90-year-old Richard “Dick” Feasel early this month in Colorado Springs knew him as a quick-witted retiree and hall of fame bowler who’d rolled several perfect 300 games during his long tenure on the lanes.
What many of them didn’t know — at least not until Feasel’s friend and former co-worker Jim Auburg took the mic to address the gathered mourners — was that the man they were there to memorialize had spent the most impactful chapter of his life focusing on an entirely different kind of strike.
“I call him an ‘unsung hero of the Cold War,’” said Auburg, who in the mid-1960s joined Feasel’s team programming and maintaining the nation’s first missile warning system from a fluorescent-lit bunker deep within the “granite shielded security” of the new Cheyenne Mountain Complex.
“Had it not been for them implementing this system, the world as we know it would not exist,” Auburg said. “And today nobody knows who they were, or at least nobody remembers.”
Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.
Dick Feasel grew up in a farming family in Ohio in the years before World War II. He graduated as his high school valedictorian but couldn’t afford the tuition it would take to earn his math degree so he joined the Army.
The military track, like farming, turned out not to be his style. It did, however, lead him to the community and work that would define his professional life, first as an RCA whiz supporting the early space program by tracking and measuring the flight characteristics of test missiles fired from Cape Kennedy, from a floating base aboard a Downrange Anti-missile Measurement Program ship.
When RCA won the government contract to implement, design, and deploy America’s first ballistic missile early warning system, the company tapped Feasel to head up the job.
It was the late 1950s and tensions had been mounting with the Soviet Union, then the only other nation with nuclear capabilities. The world’s superpowers were armed and ready, but everyone was still in the dark defense-wise.
“We had no way of knowing at that time if we were under attack until the missile impacted, which is a bit late,” Auburg said.
The nation needed a detection system that not only would let it know if Russia had launched long-range weapons, but whose mere existence would let its rival know it had the capability to detect such aggression in time to retaliate. Knowing what the other nation was doing and could do tactically was key in maintaining the fragile, tense peace of the era, Auburg said.
That’s where the policy of MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction, kicked in.
“Russia knew that we had developed this system — I mean, the parameters were classified, but the capabilities were known,” Auburg said.
“The Russians knew that if they fired something at us that we would have minutes to detect it and let the president determine a response to it.”
In other words, there was no way to launch a sneak attack that wouldn’t be met in equal, awful measure.
“I like to think we had something to do with the future to turn the Cold War to keep it from conflagrating into a hot war,” Auburg said.
Feasel’s son Rich has no doubt they did.
“I knew my dad was important, I knew he was saving the country and stuff, but as a kid it was, like, ‘Yeah you’ve got a cool job’ … but I didn’t really know details until much later,” said Rich, who lives in Colorado Springs.
“They set the foundation for what we’re doing today, with Star Wars and missile defense. They were making algorithms before computers could do it for you.”
The U.S. had powerful radar towers in strategic locations in Alaska, the U.K. and Greenland that could detect launches from traveling over the North Pole, and RCA’s system collected and compiled the data from those radar towers. At the time, Dick Feasel and his colleague Tom Crocker were the only two men who spoke its primitive algorithmic language. And they didn’t always see eye to eye.
“They got into some pretty heated arguments about designing algorithms to program the computer with. They were kind of like brothers that would start fighting — not physical, naturally, but there were a few times I had to step in and say ‘OK guys, let’s quit arguing and get back on the problem here,’” Auburg said.
When it came to problem solving, the system on which they worked didn’t offer much help. That early computer didn’t have the ability to multiply or divide, and the limitations didn’t stop there.
“It didn’t have a decimal point. Can you imagine that?” said Auburg, 89, of an early computer made primarily of vacuum tubes.
Modern handheld devices have exponentially more computing power than the tech Feasel and his cohorts were using to keep American from nuclear annihilation in the 1960s.
The vacuum tubes delivered data collected by the radar towers to a 4,000-kilobyte, 2,800-square-foot beast built of banks of 7-foot-tall processors, collectively known as the Display Information Processor, or DIP, said Auburg, sitting at the kitchen table in his Colorado Springs home early last week, wearing a three-piece suit and tie — a quotidian nod to the high style that earned him a reputation that preceded him back in his Air Force days.
The DIP was initially erected in a windowless, three-story “blockhouse” at the former Ent Air Force base (now the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center) before moving to Cheyenne Mountain, where the system served as a central tool for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD.
Dick Feasel served as the team’s manager and main human “interface” between the computing office and the Air Force.
“He and Tom were two of the most logical, bright men I have ever met in my life. They were just amazing with their mental capabilities,” said Auburg, who admitted he was intimidated when he first learned he would be joining their team to handle communications and configuration of the system.
Their knowledge of the physical system and of the “philosophy” of missiles — the characteristics of launches, where they came from and where they would impact — were unrivaled, Auburg said, and RCA was renowned for having the “foremost experts on missile warning in the United States.”
The early system wasn’t without its glitches, however.
“We knew what the capabilities were, what it had been spec’d to do, but we didn’t really know what they were until we got it online and working,” Auburg said.
Days after the system came online, on Oct. 5, 1960, an alarm went off at NORAD and the displays “just went crazy.” Radar towers had detected what appeared to be hundreds of Soviet missiles heading towards U.S. airspace.
“It scared all of us to death,” Auburg said.
America wasn’t under attack, though. What techs and military leaders were seeing was just confirmation of clear skies, and a moonlit night, and a system more far-reaching than they’d anticipated
“What we discovered was that the radars were powerful enough that they were getting returns back from the moon,” Auburg said. “We didn’t know we could do that.”
For years, those who were there for the so-called Moon Event, including Feasel, Auburg and Crocker, who still lives in the Springs — met at a local restaurant to celebrate the dubious holiday.
The DIP long outlived its projected life span as a core NORAD component but eventually was replaced with successive generations tech; Feasel and Crocker moved out of the mountain and went on to design a mobile defense warning system that could run on a laptop.
All three men had retired by the early 2000s but kept up their close friendship, meeting weekly for lunch for about 15 years before Feasel moved to Tennessee.
Missile warning might have evolved in leaps and bounds since their days at Ent and Cheyenne Mountain, but the impact of that groundbreaking work isn’t lost on those who follow in the footsteps of the few.
One of them in particular has multiple reasons to celebrate the legacy.
“Those three men, Jim Auburg, Tom Crocker and my dad, they did stuff that was very, very important for the beginning of missile defense in our nation,” said Dick Feasel’s son, Vince, who since 1988 has worked in the field his father helped put on the map.
The fact that his dad’s work helped preserve the map of America as we know it? That knowledge came much later — long after he was deep into, and in love with, a math-focused career that so closely echoed his father’s, said Vince Feasel, a civilian contractor and systems engineer who, as part of his job at Schriever Space Force Base, runs simulated war games and exercises to help the military come up with response strategies.
The fact that he’s continuing a military tech legacy his dad helped establish didn’t really hit home until the memorial service last month.
Mostly because he was among those at the memorial who hadn’t known the full scope of Dick Feasel’s story.
“I knew some of the stories … but all this about the DIP computer and what they were doing … I had no idea,” said Vince Feasel, 60.
“It’s sad that it took his passing to find this out, but I’m so glad Mr. Auburg got up and talked so openly and candidly about my dad’s professional career.
“Now these guys can be recognized for what they did, and how very important it was.”
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