On AprilS, 1993, Vice AdmiraJ Levering Smith died in San Diego. His distinguished record of service in the United States Navy culminated in his extraordinary management of one of the most complex technical systems ever, namely the Fleet Ballistic Missile. As Aerojet’s Director of the Polaris rocket propulsion system and as a member of the Navy Steering Task Group, I was the fortunate beneficiary of Levering’s keen judgement and counsel, as he guided us through the arcane art of how to cope with the growing pains commonly experienced in rapidly evolving rocket technology.
Almost 40 years ago I walked into Admiral Rabom”s confer-ence room, that Sanctum Sanctorum of the Benevolent and Protective Order of U.S.N., Special Project Office, with the same feigned confidence I recall affecting upon entering the offices of my local draft board. The occasion was the introduction of Captain Levering Smith as Technical Director of the fleet Ballistic Missile Program. It marked the beginning of years of impeccable fidelity to the Polaris and its homologues.
My initial impression of Levering was of a man with immense reserves of calm wedded to a skepticism worthy of a Parisian Agent de Police. He could be as frosty as a Finnish winter or as dour as the second act of an Ibsen play. These characteristics were employed by their master with positively virtuosic effect, particularly when one stood up at a Special Projects briefing and had the temerity to deliver a Regress Repon. The look thereupon elicited from the front row was capable of effecting a swift and devastating transfiguration of the speaker who, at that point, may well have envied a pillar of salt its conspicuous advantages.
When the outlook through the blockhouse window of a missile launch was at its bleakest, with a multitude of doubts then assailing our ambitious enterprise, Levering invariably provided a unique and essential cohesive strength. Our own knowledge about a compromised missile flight was usually incomplete, if not inaccurate, beclouded by ambiguous evidence and biased analysis . He always saw through the pseudo-confidence of the individual who refused to deal with this kind of knowledge on its own terms. The bravado of the man who simplified, who had hastily assem-bled a manageable minority of facts, was fatally misdirected at this particular audience. And yet it was axiomatic with Levering that we must operate with partial knowledge, that we must be provi-sionally content with probabilities and that all rigid formulas are inherently suspect. He regarded with bemused tolerance attempts to force the behavior of a system into theoretical patterns or logical grooves, knowing they would play havoc with our generalizations, and knowing further that the truth, in all of its unanticipated baroque convolution, would eventually emerge to astound us.
And so we began to realize that the surface of our exploratory path was fluid form and, with the tentative steps of Peter upon the waters, did we make our perilous way. Having emerged relatively unscathed from the error-haunted woods of the early development stages, we somehow suspected Levering knew the potential ability and genius lurking in the chromosomes of the next generation of the system.
This quiet man sent many of us on various dangerous missions of defense, on uncertain explorations of the mysteries of the “off the shelf technological breakthroughs”, and not rarely did we find ourselves left uncomfortably in the intellectual lurch. Requests for Pin Money to finance the Scientific Supporting Acupuncture usually met with a lean and negative response from this enthusias-tic practitioner of Navy parsimony. His notes, models of brevity, clarity, and grace (such as “NO”) often plunged us into vaporous doldrums while, on the other hand, his facility for describing in unsettling detail the liability of an approach usually called for mild rejoicing, particularly when he made us aware of present intima-tions of future catastrophe.
The impassive air that penetrated every corridor of the Byzantine edifice, called DDR&E never perturbed him. The ministers in that seraglio would, in the end, oblige him insofar as they had been granted the strength to do so by God and the Secretary of Defense. As an apostle of naval technical excellence, he preached a doctrine that was suited to the temper of the times and to the capabilities of the institutions, academic, industrial, and governmental. He always viewed the Navy as a durable horse, but he knew that even Bucephalus had to walk now and then.
Levering was never paralyzed by doubt or cynicism as he listened to the sterile chant of competing technical liturgies. Utterly unshakable and armed with his remarkable retrieval function, his distilled wisdom invariably being followed by an information chaser, he succeeded in taming even the most obstreperous of our tribe.
Levering Smith will always be remembered as insisting upon what was narrowly vital, not necessarily what was broadly appealing. Constantly vigilant, he never permitted the Navy to slip into the easy state of conjugal bliss with a contractor without the benefit of clergy.
The memory of Vice Admiral Levering Smith occupies a particularly warm place in my heart and, as I look back over the old trials and errors, I recall not only the hard work and the challenges but also the comradeship and sense of shared excite-ment in pursuing what was one of the truly great technological adventure of our times. As we get older our memories become more and more cherished, and those I have of Levering will always remain part of my best.