MSU-ECE Alumnus Don Saget: The Embodiment Of The Flying M

November 9, 2020

On February 6, 1968, Don Saget watched as the second ever Saturn V rocket left the hangar where it had been constructed and headed to the launch pad. Saget had spent the past month in Cape Canaveral, Florida, working in NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building on the rocket that would become Apollo 6.

Just two months earlier, the Meridian, Mississippi, native had wrapped up a three-year varsity career on the football team at Mississippi State.

Saget (pronounced “sah-jay”) came to Starkville as a quarterback in 1963. His first season, he played four games on the freshman team before redshirting his sophomore year.

“We played other Southeastern Conference freshman teams, but the freshmen at that time were just blocking dummies for the varsity teams,” he said. “That’s about all we did that year.”

In 1965, he made his varsity debut with the Bulldogs as a wide receiver. Saget caught 24 passes, none more important than one he made at Florida that season. In the second game of the year, State upset the then-No. 8 Gators in Gainesville, 18-13.

“My claim to fame is we beat Florida when they were ranked in the Top 10,” Saget said. “We beat ol’ [then Gators’ quarterback Steve] Spurrier down in Florida, and I caught the winning touchdown pass in that game.”

Saget went on to finish the season with four touchdown receptions, a new program record at the time, while setting then-school records for receptions (24) and receiving yards (373). He would play two more years for the Bulldogs back under center at quarterback in 1966 and 1967.

With Mississippi State set to don throwback uniforms featuring the Flying M logo for this year’s homecoming game against Vanderbilt, Saget’s story is back in the spotlight. The iconic mark was created in the late 60s to emphasize MSU’s connections to the United States’ space program and the aeronautics research being done on campus.

As a man who both wore the logo on the field and went on to work in the very industry it honors, Saget embodies both sides of the logo’s symbolism.

When he was first contacted for this story, Saget wasn’t sure he’d worn the Flying M. In a way he was right. He didn’t wear the uniform that will be on the field Saturday. Instead, for one game, he donned an inverted version of the helmet, a maroon shell with a white decal, in 1966.

Photos and video clearly show Saget in his No. 12 jersey kneeling out the final minute of a 10-8 victory over Southern Miss that season.

“If that’s the case, then I wore it in ’66,” he said. “I remembered it, but I couldn’t remember it being on the helmets for some reason. But I remember the Flying M.”

He was an electrical engineering major during his time in Starkville and graduated in January of 1968. After marrying his wife, Saget immediately left for a job with IBM. So to begin the year, Saget found himself back in Florida on a platform about 100 feet in the air in the Vehicle Assembly Building.

“I knew where I was going at the end of the interview when they said they were looking for somebody to go work down in Cape Canaveral,” Saget said. “IBM had the contract on the instrument unit (IU) stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle. It was about a three-foot section of the rocket that we sat on top of the third stage. It did all the controls for the launch of the vehicle.”

The ring-shaped structure housed the rocket’s guidance systems, analog flight control computer, emergency detection system, inertial guidance platform, control accelerometers and control rate gyros.

While not as well-known as later flights in the program, Apollo 6 bears historical significance. The rocket carried on-board cameras that captured recognizable footage of both liftoff and stage separation that are often misattributed to the famed Apollo 11 in documentaries. You can distinguish the sixth flight by its service module as it was the only time the spacecraft bore white paint. And as the final uncrewed launch, it was one of NASA’s last test runs in the quest to land a man on the moon.

The Apollo program’s plans for a lunar flights all followed fairly similar procedures. After launch, the spacecraft would remain in low-Earth orbit for a few hours to give the crew time to run through a systems check before the astronauts, or on-board computers for unmanned flights, fired the engines again to propel the craft toward the moon. If anything raised alarm, the mission could be aborted and return to Earth.

When Saget was at Cape Canaveral, the moon was not in the right position to attempt a flight there and back. Instead, the sixth flight was intended to last just 10 hours and carry a lunar module bearing 80 percent of its eventual crewed weight. The craft would be sent into low-Earth orbit and safely back to Earth, simulating an aborted mission.

On April 4, 1968, after sitting on the launch pad for two months, Apollo 6 was finally ready for liftoff.

“You’re proud, anxious and worried all at the same time,” Saget said of launch day. “You know that something could go wrong. It’s quite an experience, I’ll say that. A lot of adrenaline. Of course, these were unmanned missions that I was involved in, but it was still nerve-wracking because you’ve got all that equipment expense and a lot of work had gone into getting that rocket ready to go to space.”

As Saget monitored battery levels in the IU, the computers his systems powered detected a problem. Two of the engines had shut down prematurely after launch due to a faulty fuel line, but the computer had been able to compensate by forcing the remaining three engines to burn longer.

However, the third stage of the rocket also failed, and flight directors had to come up with an alternate plan. They used the engines of the service module to redirect the craft into re-entry position, though at a lower velocity than desired. Apollo 6 eventually landed safely in the Pacific Ocean, though it was roughly 43 nautical miles from its intended splashdown zone when it was recovered by the USS Okinawa.

The spacecraft from the flight is now on display at the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and an unused instrument unit of the type Saget helped construct rests in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Saget’s time with NASA was brief. He was set to be drafted into the Army, so he instead enlisted in the Mississippi Air National Guard in May. While he doesn’t have any photos from his time in Cape Canaveral, he has plenty of memories and stories to pass down.

“I’ve thought about it a lot, and I was proud of being able to do what little I could when I was down there,” he said. “I told my kids, if I hadn’t gone down there and helped NASA, they probably wouldn’t have beat the Russians to moon.”

Saget now resides in Laurel, Mississippi. He still tries to watch every MSU football game and has made multiple trips back to Starkville to see the Bulldogs play. He’ll be tuning in on Saturday when the Flying M returns to the field for the first time since 1971.

“To do something like that brings back a lot of good memories.” Saget said. “It’s just one time in your life that you get to do something like that, play football and then go down there and work on the Saturn V launch vehicle. Really an exciting time. I wish I’d had more time down there because they did a lot of great things in that space program.”

And when he sees the Bulldogs take the field, knowing how his story fits into the legacy of that logo, he’ll simply have to smile.

“It will be real rewarding, I’ll say that. It’s one of those things that doesn’t happen every day.”

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Written by: Brian Ogden, Assistant Director/Communications