Center Snapshot: Bill Abeyounis
When aerospace engineer Bill Abeyounis, pictured here at the 14 x 22-foot Subsonic Tunnel, isn't working or at home he moonlights as a tennis official. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith
Bill Abeyounis was a senior at North Carolina State University in 1972 when he went to Florida to watch Apollo 17 carry astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt deep into the night sky on the last manned Moon mission.
It was a dream come true for Abeyounis, an aerospace engineering student who had only seen previous Apollo, Gemini and Mercury missions on TV. He still remembers the feeling of breathless anticipation in the moments just before liftoff.
He also remembers walking away from the launch with a souvenir — although it wasn't one he picked up on purpose.
"I remember it specifically because we were sitting on the causeway and it's kind of sandy or something like that," he said, "and I came away with a case of chiggers."
Abeyounis laughs about it now. He certainly didn't let a few chiggers discourage him from pursuing a career at NASA. In fact, just a few months after the launch, in July of 1973, Abeyounis reported for his first day of work as an aerospace engineer at the 16-foot Transonic Tunnel at NASA's Langley Research Center.
"When I came here," he said, "man, I was on the cutting edge because I had done some computer programming with our mainframe."
This was in an era when computer programs were run using punched card decks. Handheld calculators hadn't been around for long either. A lot has changed in his nearly 40 years at NASA Langley.
Some things haven't changed, though. And that's where Abeyounis's story jumps from Moon launches to being "on some one-sided conversations with Mr. McEnroe" — as in tennis legend John McEnroe.
Abeyounis has a lifelong love of tennis. It's a passion that goes all the way back to his childhood in Bethel, N.C. He picked it up from his dad.
"Dad was an avid tennis fan," he said, "to the point he scraped off the grass in the backyard, put up a dirt tennis court with a net, and that was the tennis court in Bethel for a long time."
With a tennis court that was literally right in his backyard, there was no way tennis wasn't going to be a big part of Abeyounis's life. And his love of the game did eventually take him to some of the biggest tournaments in the world — but not as a player.
Instead, he moonlights as an official, which is why he's caught heat from the notoriously cranky McEnroe.
But he's had plenty of good experiences, too.
He was on the court in 1990 when Pete Sampras won his first U.S. Open championship in a match against Andre Agassi. And in 2002, he was on the court again when Sampras once again beat Agassi for his final U.S. Open championship.
Abeyounis has worked parts or all of every U.S. Open since 1985. He's also been to the Australian Open twice, working up through the quarterfinals — "some of my friends here actually saw me in the wee hours on the center court there the last time on TV," he said. He's even been on the court for quite a few qualifying matches for Wimbledon.
Some of his best tennis memories involve Jimmy Connors.
In 1991, when Connors, then 39, was nearing the end of his career, he made an improbable run at the U.S. Open, beating a handful of much younger opponents. He got as far as the semifinals before losing to the fourth seed, Jim Courier.
Abeyounis was on center court for a couple of those matches, and he remembers thinking to himself, "Am I on Jimmy Connors' last pro match here or not?"
He also remembers seeing Connors take a swig of a green drink a couple of times when he was down and dangerously close to being eliminated, only to come back and win.
"I've got to have some of this green stuff," Abeyounis thought to himself.
It wasn't until a few years later at an exhibition match in North Carolina that he finally found out what that miracle green drink was. Connors was there. Abeyounis struck up a conversation with Connors and his trainer and asked, "I've always wondered, what was that green stuff?"
Connors' trainer started laughing. Turns out the mystery green drink wasn't a miracle drink, just a Gatorade-type electrolyte replacement beverage.
Connors also figures prominently in what Abeyounis calls one of his "biggest thrills" — a senior circuit match in Richmond between Connors and McEnroe. Abeyounis was the chair umpire.
"Let me tell you, that was not a hit and giggle match," he said. "That was a real match. That was better than I saw Connors play in his last five years in the pros. Those guys were going at it."
Abeyounis's thrills don't all come from tennis, though. He's also an avid skier who has ventured to New England, Colorado, Utah and even the Swiss Alps to hit the slopes.
He's a licensed pilot, too, and although he doesn't take to the sky as often as he used to, he's had some memorable flights — including one with the woman he would eventually marry, Liz. For their first date, he flew her up to Luray Caverns.
Then, a few months after they got married, he flew her to the Bahamas.
"That was scary," he said. "The thing I remember was getting up to altitude and flying out straight away from the land and not being able to see anything except water."
They made it, of course — to the Bahamas and back. He and Liz have been married for 25 years now and have three adult sons. With his kids all grown up and so many years at NASA under his belt, you might think Abeyounis would be ready to fly off into retirement, but not quite yet.
He's not done with tennis either. In the coming months, he'll be at tournaments in Miami and Memphis.
He'll probably be back at the U.S. Open this year too. If you watch carefully enough, you might even catch a glimpse of him on TV.
By: Joe Atkinson
The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman