Leonard Lindelof has drilled holes from Ovando to the moon.
The Minnesota engineer has become a fixture in the Blackfoot River Valley through his regular hunting season visits. Much of the connection stems from his fondness for Ovando Elementary School.
“He’s real proud he started in a one-room schoolhouse, and ended up at NASA,” Ovando supervising teacher Leigh Ann Valiton said of Lindelof’s annual visits. “He always tells the students they can achieve great, great things from small beginnings.”
Now 92, Lindelof was introduced to the Blackfoot area in 1972 while drilling mineral test holes for E.J. Lonyear, an engineering firm hired by the railroad corporations that had legacy landholdings along their lines. His crews would poke two 2,000-foot holes in each section checkerboarding the railroad route, to catalog the potential mineral rights before the railroads decided to log or mine there.
At the same time, he was on loan to NASA as a chief engineer developing equipment for the Apollo moon missions. One of his biggest tasks was designing a drill that could operate on the lunar surface.
Solving the moon drill problem meant working with extreme heat and extreme cold at the same time. Drill bits get hot as they grind through rock, and typically use water or air to conduct the heat away and keep the metal from melting. Neither water nor air are available on the moon. Lindelof designed a way where molecular layers of the steel itself would shed the excess heat and protect the drill.
Cold presented more of a travel issue.
“We couldn’t find 60-below weather,” Lindelof said. “Canada could hit 70 below, but only for a week. Even getting 40 below is hard on a consistent basis. We even tried to get permission from the Russians to test in Siberia.”
The Apollo 17 trip took a drill with batteries similar to what a carpenter’s hand drill looks like today. It could only penetrate a few feet of the lunar crust. Apollo 18 would have taken an atomic power generator that would have enabled drilling 2,000 feet down.
But Congress shifted focus from moon exploration to Mars and canceled the lunar missions. Lindelof went back to terrestrial engineering. Among his design breakthroughs was a snow skid originally intended for arctic aircraft that worked equally well on snowmobiles.
But he kept his outdoor fascination alive with regular visits to the Blackfoot during hunting season. He still lives Plymouth, Minnesota.
“He had me fishing when I was 3 years old,” nephew Brett Lindelof said. “He started taking me deer hunting when I was 12 in Minnesota. In 1982, we started coming to Montana together.”
When he discovered the Ovando Elementary School had substandard computers, Lindelof donated $40,000 to upgrade the resources. He also sends roses to the teachers every Valentine’s Day.
Lindelof hopes to encourage more children to aim for engineering careers during his school visits. But he often surprises them with his primary piece of advice.
“He always tells them communication skills are of utmost importance,” Valiton said. “If you can’t write it so everyone understands it, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”
“Math is No. 2,” Lindelof said. “NASA called me once with a problem. They had 1,200 engineers on computers and couldn’t get an answer. I took the problem to my hotel room overnight and found they were putting the wrong number in the equation. They were using a figure to the 10th power, and it should have been to the 16th power. I still don’t like using a calculator.”