Joe Schneider Finds His Tranquility Base and Sticks the Landing
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
Between bites of bagel, Joe Schneider—late of Schneider Autohaus—is patiently explaining why it’s so hard to land a spaceship on the moon. “One of the things that happens on the moon is that to maneuver, you need large angles. On the moon, to get a given rate of acceleration—or more importantly deceleration—you know, coming in and you’re trying to slow down? You need six times the angle.”
“…yeah. Because there’s less air to push against,” I offer.
“There’s no air,” Joe reminds me. I nod sagely. Undismayed, he continues.
“So if you’re used to flying typical angles like on a helicopter, you know, five degrees—on the moon you’re talking thirty degrees to get the same rate of deceleration. So seat- of-the-pants, it feels like you’re standing on your head.” What Joe means is, an experienced pilot trying to land on the moon is going to have to fly very counter-intuitively to be able to successfully put the craft down without smashing it to bits. A quarter million miles from home. Teaching guys to land on the moon was Joe’s first job out of college.
We’re sitting on the sunlit patio at the Daily Grind on upper de la Vina, a stone’s throw from Santa Barbara’s premier Porsche and BMW surgical center, Schneider Autohaus. Joe and his lifelong partner in chrome, Kathie, sold the business a dozen years ago to a young couple, Henry and Paula Hinck, whose German-Irish engineering moxie and embraceable customer chemistry would, they knew, boost the Schneider Autohaus blue-chip legacy into an even higher orbit. As we speak this Saturday morning, Joe is wearing a Schneider Autohaus work shirt. Why?
When Joe and his wife Kathie sold the business those years ago, he engineered into the transaction a job in perpetuity with the business he once owned. Later this morning he’ll be heading in to the “office”. Schneider, automotive engineering kingpin here in SB for 47 years—the Pasha of Porsche, say—cut his engineering teeth on NASA’s Apollo project, it turns out; in particular the lunar landing portion of the mission. To those of you who have wondered “…who in town combines Porsche expertise with Neil Armstrong’s moon landing?” I give you Joe.
Love, Love, LLRV
Joe Schneider is a guy with slate blue eyes, a half-smile that suggests sardonic and ongoing amusement, and the bristly, graying engineer hair one sees on the short-sleeved Mission Control guys in NASA file footage. “This program predated the Lunar Module development,” he says. “It was just…how are they going to do this? They were just trying to figure out how to land something on the moon!”
Way back in May of 1961, near the start of what would become a truly bewildering decade, a youngish and vibrant President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress, and in his long-voweled Massachusetts twang uncorked a crazy scheme to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Which sort of fits the kaleidoscopic theme of the “Peace, Love, and Spaceships” sixties.
“When I started at NASA I was a Research Engineer,” Schneider says of the program. “They’d had five flights when I got there. When we ended the program at Edwards AFB, we’d had 205 flights.” Joe is talking about the LLRV. See, following Kennedy’s speech, NASA started working on the mechanical (and brute mathematical) nuances of the moonshot, and just incidentally realized they would have to devise a program to teach a pilot to fly and land whatever it was they were going to build.
So NASA had Bell Aeronautics build them a strange and unprecedented training contraption called the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV)—a flying jungle gym with a vertically installed jet engine at its center and a laughably exposed little seat perched on top. Test-pilots swooned. We’re talking 500 feet straight up and a controlled “lunar” descent. What’s not to like?
Joe grows animated trying to break all this down for the numbskull reporter seated opposite. Picture that what he is describing is essentially a large lawn chair 500 feet over the desert around Edwards Air Force Base. “You’re hovering on the jet engine, right? That’s 1g. To initiate the lunar simulation mode, the pilot would fire up the lift rockets. When the acceleration upward got to 1.1g, the vehicle would weigh itself. It knows how much thrust it used to get to 1.1g, and now it knows how much the whole machine weighs. And the computer compensates. So seat-of-the-pants, the pilot is flying 1/6 of the weight.”
For all that the LLRV was an albatross to look at, it represented several technological culminations, not least a computer program whose analog conversation with the LLRV’s engine and thrusters would effectively mimic lunar descent conditions. Lives depended on it. Joe leans over his cooling bagel, his eyes lit like Christmas lights.
“This was the first completely fly-by-wire machine. You know, completely electronic. No aerodynamics, no wings or anything. No cable controls. Since it was electronic you could have degrees of redundancy, three backups and so on.” Flying-wise, Joe and the guys were literally reinventing controlled flight. Segue-wise, I can tell you that Joe’s arrival at the Flight Research Center at Edwards is the story of still more controlled flight, approximately as unlikely as that of the LLRV.
Joe Schneider is a good family man and a practicing Catholic; soft-spoken, no-nonsense, big heart. A teddy bear, but you didn’t hear it from me. I’m sure his lovely wife Kathie would agree wholeheartedly. Joe’s story—and then Joe and Kathie’s story, once their paths cross and The Adventures of Joe and Kathie begin in earnest—is rife with forks in roads and serial interventions that suggest either a supernatural agency or the happily loaded dice occasionally handed to nice people whose essential natures seem to earn them a break from the House.
Having said that, in his youth Joe was occasionally the sort of Catholic kid for whom the saying “Well, he’s no choir boy” came into vogue. There was a teen period (God bless him) when Joe’s common sense entered a period of dormancy familiar to kids who become suddenly aware of the doctrine of Free Will and begin recklessly testing its frontiers. In Joe’s case, though, his early flirtations with innocent mischief comprised a crucible that produced an engineer.
Making the Most of a Sermon
Born in Flushing, Long Island, Joe was soon California-bound. “As soon as I reached the age of reason, which in our Catholic background is seven years old, I came west,” Joe says, then pauses. “Actually, I didn’t have much to say about it.” His father, an accountant by trade, had decided California was it and hauled the family over even before he’d secured a job, quite sensibly figuring “who doesn’t need an accountant? The family landed in Long Beach, where his dad worked several odd jobs before answering an ad for Accountant at the Valley Club in Montecito. He got the job. “We moved north,” Joe recounts. “I’m about 8. Our first house we rented was a gardener’s cottage on someone’s property in Montecito. Up in the hills. The whole world was our backyard. I remember it well. It was fantastic. I could have chickens!”
Time passed and the future beckoned, as it will. Not that Joe particularly noticed. “I went to Catholic High, now it’s Bishop Diego.” By that time already smitten with cars, he foresaw a life of automotive tinkering. Joe’s slate-blues light up. “I had a buddy whose dad had a junkyard in Summerland, just in his yard. You could do that then. His dad was a big burly guy, hands like hams. I clearly remember his dad telling me, ‘Joe, you need to become an engineer.’” Joe would take that advice, arriving at his destination somewhat circuitously. First, though, his love of cars and devotion to the Church would find a holy confluence in the parking lot of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Montecito.
“We’d go to Mt. Carmel Church,” he says, voice rippling with a stifled chuckle. “I’d think, ‘who’s saying Mass today? Okay, it’s Father Cook, he’s long-winded’. I’d go out in the parking lot, and invariably there’d be cars with the keys in them. So I’d, you now, take the car, zoom around Montecito for the length of the sermon, bring the car back, put it back exactly where it was.” He pauses. “I never got caught,” he says with something like wonder. So the sermons did inspire in Joe a sort of awe. “One day I found a brand new Oldsmobile with the engine running. It’s a sign when that happens!” he says, laughing sheepishly.
If It Please the Court
Joe was a Santa Barbara kid making ordinary mischief. When a violent storm swept into SB in 1952, flooding streets and dimming the lights all over town, little Joe Schneider took the occasion to switch off the main circuit of Mt. Carmel’s schoolhouse. “For three days they had us all bringing candles to school,” he chortles with muted delight. When he finally went around the back to switch the lights back on, a classmate witnessed his expertise and enthusiastically reported him to the teacher. “Joe fixed the lights!” That earned him a chewing out (“It didn’t seem fair we had lights while so many people went without. They didn’t understand me,” Joe deadpans).
By his teen years he and a pal were renting a place in the foothills and needed a roommate. The guy they took in turned out to be seriously bad news. When one night he asked Joe and the pal to accompany him on an errand, the guy ended up kicking in someone’s door and stealing personal property – a score-settling that scared the stuffing out of Joe, and inevitably involved the police and a judge. To let Joe truly taste the medicine, his dad played the “tough love” card and allowed Joe and his buddy to spend the night locked in the drunk tank, at that time located in the City Hall basement in de la Guerra Plaza, and with guys who would surely petrify the boys. The next day Joe and his buddy were cuffed and marched in broad daylight to the real jail in the courthouse. They spent a weekend there.
When on Monday Joe nervously appeared before the judge for his arraignment and was about to speak, a professionally sonorous voice intoned from behind him. “He pleads not guilty, Your Honor.” His tough-as-nails dad had hired an attorney to spare Joe the worst of it. “My poor dad. I don’t know what it must’ve cost him,” Joe says with some emotion.
Adult heads came together in conference. “My dad and the lawyer and the judge got together and said ‘What this boy needs is basic training’.” The year was 1959. Joe went to basic at Fort Ord and then on to artillery school. While in the service he saw men of such low caliber as he’d never known; scary troublemaking guys without direction or compass. “Some of these guys were just…in Santa Barbara I’d never experienced guys like this.” Joe saw the light, for the first time leveraged his math acumen and took a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Northrop Institute of Technology.
Fly Me to the Moon
When NASA came calling, Joe initially turned them down. “Space was exciting and all, but I was much more a car guy than an airplane guy,” he summarizes. And the money didn’t seem that great. It turned out a woman on the hiring committee was not that excited about Joe, and was low-balling his rating in the vetting process. Gene Matranga was excited about Joe, however. And Gene was the storied Chief Engineer on the LLRV project for which Joe would be recruited while his NASA hiring nemesis was away on vacation.
Joe was completely taken with the LLRV mission and the challenges. “The LLRV was not an aerodynamic problem, it was a mechanical engineering problem.” But all the while he was plotting to get back to Santa Barbara. Inevitably, then-President Johnson—a Texan, it’s said—had the LLRV program moved to Houston, against the advice of many who saw Texan winds as the enemy of progress.
A new iteration of the training lander would be built for the second round of tests, and as had been warned, the breezes played heck with the training, burning up carefully calculated fuel loads in a jiffy and on one notable occasion obliging Neil Armstrong himself to eject the plummeting lander just before it hit the ground and went up in a cinematic ball of fire. One day a couple engineers from Houston arrived in Downey to help with the transition. It was a bleak, damp, depressing morning, Joe recalls. “And these Houston guys were saying ‘Wow! It’s great out here!” That’s when Joe knew he surely wouldn’t be making the jump to Houston.
“I’d been converted in college. I’d seen the light,” Joe says of his Porsche road trip to Damascus. “I’d always dreamed of a new Corvette, and one of my college buddies said ‘You oughta take a look at these cool little German cars’. The engineering was simple yet elegant. Then in 1966 they came over with the 911.”
On leaving NASA Joe started a shop in Culver City with an Inertial Guidance System buddy from Caltech. Business was hopping right away but the money…they were not living a Porsche lifestyle. Nor a NASA with Benefits lifestyle. Meanwhile, Joe had met Kathie while in college. “She was going to nursing school with my sister. I was in Inglewood in college, she was in downtown L.A. St. Vincent’s hospital. So it was a setup!” He pauses.
“Kathie is very security-conscious. So here we are at NASA making good money, great benefits. And I say ‘I wanna quit, go down to Culver City, hang out a shingle and see if we can do this. And Kathie says, ‘Well, what are we going to make?’ And I tell her, ‘Well, our labor rate is eight dollars an hour. And we’re splitting it. So I’ll be earning four dollars an hour.” He laughs suddenly, seeming to surprise himself. Pauses again. “And she went for it. I mean, that’s huge. That’s just…really huge. She went for it.” Pause. “And she never—when things got rough, our first year down there we sold our cars to get by. Never ‘I told you so’. Never ‘Why are we doing this again?’ She had to go back to work. You know.” Pause. Joe looks down. “Pretty tough. Tough gal.”
On a visit back in SB to visit Joe’s parents, Joe saw a couple places for rent. “Suitable!” he says. “It was a sign.” In the event, Joe and Kathie finally made it back to Santa Barbara, opened a shop on upper de la Vina about 2 blocks south of today’s Trader Joe’s. Another Porsche place had sewn up the local market and the Schneiders were wanting. 1971.
When the IRS (whose offices were handily located in the building presently occupied by nearby Nick Rail Music) came after them for the taxes they had neglected to collect as employers in L.A., Joe and Kathie were desperate. “$2000,” Joe says. “It might as well have been two million.”
One day a chauffeur-driven Chrysler pulled up in front of the shop. “A guy gets out. ‘I hear you’re having trouble with the tax people’”, Joe relates. “My mom was a private duty nurse. She’d taken care of this man’s wife in their home. He leaves, and a couple days later this chauffeur-driven Chrysler returns. The chauffeur gets out and hands me a check for $2000.” Joe’s slate-blues get watery. “This is from Mr. Squires. Pay it back when you can.” Joe’s voice cracks in the telling. Joe and Kathie start paying the loan back at $200 a month. A few months later the Chrysler reappears and the Chauffeur gets out. “Mr. Schneider, it’s Chinese New Year,” the chauffeur says. “Yeah?” Joe replies. “On Chinese New Year, all debts are forgiven.” Joe’s voice cracks again.
Miracle of the Wires
Several eventful moves later (Gutierrez, Sola), and twisting through more bumpy happenstance than space allows for the telling—Schneider Autohaus landed at their present location at 2703 De La Vina. Joe and Kathie have for years been happily employed at the company they founded on a shoestring in Culver City an eon ago.
From junkyard fascination to a frightened night in the slammer, and from lunar lander pioneering to Porsche Pantheon, Joe’s trajectory has been, to use an engineering term, inherently unstable. But somehow always on path. Then Kathie appeared with the guidance system and the mission took off. The horn-rimmed guys back at Mission Control now report the two have made the trip in one piece, and with a little last-minute manual-override even managed to touch lightly down on their own Tranquility Base. And with puh-lenty of fuel to spare. Speaking completely metaphorically.
One question, though. Does Joe remember the actual moment he fell in love with cars? “I remember, back when when we were in New York, looking under the hood of a ’36 Ford. I was a little guy. I remember looking at all those wires! Of which there were probably a dozen,” he laughs loudly. “And I just marveled. ‘How does anybody figure out where all those things go?’”