On the desolate red surface of Mars, a ridge capped with dark boulders and rocky inclines was greeted by a robotic visitor. In January 2014, NASA rover Opportunity explored the escarpment with curiosity by its operators back at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Such distinct geological features on Mars are given thoughtful names commemorating certain aspects of space-exploration history. And, for this venture, the command team wished to select names honoring heroes of the field.
This one became named the McClure-Beverlin Escarpment for two dynamics mechanics technicians from the 1960s whom saved the Mariner 6 rocket – which accomplished the first dual-probe mission to Mars and returned the first photographs of the planet.
Bill McClure, one half of the escarpment’s namesake, did not live to see his name on Mars. But, his life was worthy of the honor beyond his actions that saved the rocket.
The walls of his home gave clues to the life he lived: A photo of McClure shaking hands with a vice president, a photograph of the red planet, a bronze star, and a purple heart, among others. And if one inquired, he’d be happy to sit in the living room – feet propped up – and share what he had seen.
McClure was born in Wichita Falls, Texas. He grew up with his parents and siblings in the small oil towns of Santa Rita and Texon near San Angelo. Smart, friendly, and caring, McClure reputation preceded him. He helped build the area’s Boy Scout troop building and became an Eagle Scout.
And although this character was innate, adult maturity was forced upon him at a younger age than most. When his father left the family, McClure was forced to step up and help provide for his siblings. Learning how to trap from his grandfather, he began making a living by trapping and selling pelts. In his teens, he later attained a job working in the oil fields in Santa Rita and Texon – the oldest oil towns in Texas. Although the oil company did not accept workers under the age of 18, McClure was recommended because of his hard work and diligence and was allowed to work on the rigs at age 16.
The hard times of his childhood, however, were just preparation for what was to come.
World War II
When the United States became embroiled in World War II, McClure enlisted in the army.
Adding to a sense of duty, McClure additionally was told by recruiters that he would be well compensated and his family would be provided for. He was sent far from his Texan home to the east coast. While there, his superiors noticed the young man’s potential as a soldier and sent McClure to be trained as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne 508th paratroopers.
McClure jumped as part of the Normandy D-Day invasion, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was a member of General Eisenhower’s Honor Guard. Although he man kept the details of his service veiled into an elderly age, he permitted glimpses into what occurred during his deployment.
McClure rescued a fellow soldier, carrying him on his shoulders through enemy fire and to the safety of a fox hole.
His legs were frozen in France and the medics insisted on amputating them. But, McClure refused to allow them to have them cut off. His legs thawed, but, because of the damage done, they pained him the rest of his life.
Another time, McClure and other soldiers were under fire from an enemy machine gun nest – cornered with no options for escape. McClure ran into the open and threw and grenade into the machine gun nest, saving the lives of his comrades and opening an escape route.
By the end of the war, McClure was a decorated veteran having been recommended for the Silver Star and receiving the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Life post WWII
Following the conclusion of the war, McClure returned home and married his childhood friend, Martha. The young couple moved to Louisiana where McClure continued to work for the oil company.
Back in his homeland, he continued the heroism of his service and never ran from a chance to help someone in need. During his continued time with the oil company, he was once working on a company boats when it caught fire and exploded. McClure and one of his fellow workers were sitting on top of the ship’s roof when they were suddenly shot up in the air on the roof platform and then fell back down into the water. McClure grabbed one of the men who was injured and swam him to shore. He continued returning to the water and retrieving injured workers from the ship rubble until everyone he could save was back on shore.
After the birth of their first two children, the family moved to Florida where McClure began working for NASA’s general dynamics division at Cape Canaveral Space Center.
In 1969, McClure was one of two given the first NASA Medal of Exceptional Bravery. He and his fellow propulsion technician, Charles Beverlin, were cited for their bravery and quick thinking when the Atlas-Centaur rocket began to lose pressure and collapse on the launch pad. Risking their own lives, McClure and Beverlin ran towards the rocket and up long flights of stairs to close critical valves and stop the rocket from imploding, thus saving hundreds of lives and millions of government dollars.
The men were flown to California to receive copies of the first pictures ever taken of Mars and to be personally thanked by the current vice president. The Medal of Exceptional Bravery has only been awarded to two others since.
McClure retired after 31 years of service for General Dynamic Convair.
After a life of adventure, McClure settled with his wife and children in central Florida after retirement – and their family grew. At the time of his death, he was father to 3, grandfather to 12 and great-grandfather to 27. He enjoyed attending a local Baptist church, traveling the world, and working on vehicles. McClure always sought to stay active and offered to assist his neighbors, friends, and family with any home or mechanical projects.
McClure continued to remain active until the last year of his illness when his health took a steep decline, and was mentally sharp until the day of his death.
On April 15, 2009, McClure died from cancer at the age of 83.
In March 2014, NASA announced the dedication of the McClure-Beverlin Escarpment. Although he was not alive to witness the honor, his place in the stars commemorated a life well lived in serve of others.
For those who miss him on earth below, the glittering red star in the sky makes his memory closer.
For all who listen, his story serves as a reminder to what ends a willingness to serve may lead and how the universe may be changed as a result.
Hanna Smith is editorial director of Honor Duty Press. She is an award-winning journalist and studies neurobiology and surgical technology.
Smith is the great-granddaughter of Bill McClure.