NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Carol Butler
Falls , TX –
23 February 2000
Butler: Today is February 23, 2000. This oral history with Jerry Bostick
is being conducted at his home in Marble Falls, Texas, for the Johnson
Space Center Oral History Project. Carol Butler is the interviewer.
Thank you very much for allowing me to come up and visit with you
today and for participating in the project.
It's my pleasure.
To begin with, if maybe you could tell us how you became involved
with, or actually what your initial interest was in aviation and aerospace
and how that led to your involvement with NASA.
Well, interestingly enough, I didn't have a lot of interest in aviation.
In fact, I would say almost none. When I was in college, I majored
in civil engineering, with a specialty in structures, although beginning
in about 1957 with Sputnik, I did become interested in the manned
space program, or in the space program, and then later on with the
manned part of it. But being headed on a career path that didn't seem
consistent with that, I mean, I wasn't going to be an aeronautical
engineer, didn't want to be, or an electrical or a mechanical engineer,
so I just assumed that that was something that I would always read
about in the papers and would never be a part of.
I have to say I was somewhat envious of some of my classmates in college
who started talking about jobs that they were going to at NASA, most
of them [at Marshall Space Flight Center] in Huntsville, Alabama.
But I just thought, well, that's good for them, I'm going to go and
be a structural engineer. In fact, I had accepted a job with Boeing
[Airplane Company] in Seattle, in their weights and measurements department.
I guess I was going to weigh airplanes and compute [centers of] gravity
or something, I'm not exactly sure.
I was walking across campus one day with a friend of mine and he asked
if I would go by the placement office with him. So I walked into the
office, and the placement director happened to be there, and he said,
"Oh, Bostick," he said, "I really need your help. I
know you have accepted a job already, but I've been trying to get
NASA Langley Research Center [Hampton, Virginia] to come here and
interview for years, and they're finally coming, and now I don't have
anybody to talk to him. So would you please go in and talk to this
guy? He's coming next Tuesday or whatever, just act interested and
please don't tell him you've already accepted a job. But I need some
Unfortunately, I don't remember the person's name, but he interviewed
me and convinced me that I should go to work at NASA. So I got out
of my job that I'd agreed to take with Boeing in Seattle, and in January
of '62 I headed out for the Langley Research Center.
It seemed to work out pretty well then, right?
Well, yes and no. I was in the structures division at Langley, and
specifically in erectable structures. The branch that I was in was
working on all kinds of equipment that you could package into small
volumes and then deploy once you get into space, things like antennas.
In fact, my specific assignment was to develop a space antenna that
you could package in a small volume in a launch vehicle and then deploy
it once you got into space. I thought this was really exciting, at
least for the first couple of weeks.
Then I started asking my section head about what the program was and
what was going to happen. As I developed the thing, what do I do,
and questions like that, I didn't get a lot of real satisfactory answers
out of him, and so then I ended up talking to the division chief.
He said, "Well, you'll write all of this in a NASA tech note
and it'll go into all the libraries at all of the NASA centers,"
and he said like there were thousands of them or something. "People
will read it and they will then call you up and say, 'Hey, we need
one of these,' and you'll probably continue to work in the actual
development of that. But right now, for at least a year you'll just
be doing research."
I said, "Well, what if nobody calls?"
He said, "Well, then we'll assign you another project."
This was all within the first month I was there, and I guess I realized
that I really wasn't cut out for research, I had much rather work
on known problems to try find solutions, other than pure research.
One of my co-workers in the division at that time was a guy by the
name of Ed Martin, and I noticed that about two or three times a week
for a couple of weeks in a row, he would disappear for an hour. That
wasn't like him to do that, so finally one day I asked him, "What's
going on here?"
He said, "Be quiet," and he called me out into the lab.
He said, "I'm going over to the Space Task Group side of Langley
Field. I've been interviewing for a job up there, over there, and
it's going to be renamed the Manned Spacecraft Center and they're
going to move to Houston, Texas."
I said, "These are the manned spaceflight guys?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Well, sign me up for an interview." [Laughter]
And he did, and I went over and talked to a gentleman by the name
of Chris [C.] Critzos. Chris was a very nice gentleman, but he said,
"Unfortunately, I don't think that we need anybody with a civil
engineering degree. We're looking for electrical, mechanical, aeronautical
types, and we just don't need any civil engineers."
So I was actually leaving the office, and Chris [Christopher C.] Kraft
[Jr.] walked in and Critzos introduced me to Kraft and he said, "This
young man works over at Langley and he wants to go to Houston with
us, but I told him we aren't looking for any civil engineers."
So Kraft looked at me and he said, "You're a civil engineer?"
"What do you do?" I told him. He said, "Why do you
want to join us and go to Houston?"
I said, "Well, I really would prefer to work on real problems,
finding solutions to real problems rather than just doing pure research.
Unfortunately, it's taken me a couple of months to figure that out,
and I just would much prefer to work on the manned space program."
So he turned about to Critzos and he says, "Hell, hire him. We
might need somebody to survey the Moon."
So they hired me and assigned me to John [P.] Mayer, who was head
of mission planning and analysis at the time. So in April of '62,
after just working at Langley for a couple of months, I was on my
way to Houston.
John [H.] Glenn's [Jr.] flight had occurred at the time that I was
at Langley, but as soon as I got to Houston, then they put me to work
in mission planning on [M.] Scott Carpenter's flight, MA-7. In fact,
on Glenn's flight there was some question about what the exact weight
of the spacecraft was [at retrofire and] that might have caused it
to miss the landing point a little bit. So specifically on Carpenter's
flight, I generated a lot of plots, graphs, showing the variation
in landing point for a given retrofire time, depending on spacecraft
weight and also depending on the attitude of the spacecraft at the
time of retrofire. I thought that was really exciting work. In fact,
all of that data went into the MA-7 mission planning document and
even a couple of the charts went into the flight data file that Carpenter
took with him on board the flight.
But unfortunately, when I was in college I was in ROTC [Reserve Officers
Training Corps], and when you graduate after being in ROTC, you have
to sign a commitment to go into the service. I was in Army ROTC, so
I had to go into the Army then, in May of '62, just before Carpenter's
flight. I went out to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, for nine weeks
of officers' school, and had to listen to Carpenter's flight on the
radio and read about it in the papers. When I heard that he had landed
about 250 miles long because he wasn't in attitude [at] retrofire,
I thought, jeez, didn't he look at my curves? [Laughter]
My ROTC commitment was for two years, but Chris Kraft somehow arranged
for after my nine weeks of officers' school at Fort Bliss, he arranged
for me to be assigned back to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.
So in mid June, I guess it was, of that year, I was back at Houston
and again working on Mercury flights.
Well, it was certainly something that was important to the country
as a whole, so I guess the Army saw the good of that.
Well, we weren't at war at the time, and I guess they figured they
didn't need me that bad. [Laughter] I'm not sure exactly how he did
that, but anyway, I think there was something like twenty-two people
there in officers' school class, and as I recall, they all went to
wonderful places like Okinawa or Germany or something, and I got assigned
to Houston, Texas. So they were a little bit envious of me there,
you know. [Laughter]
But when I got back to Houston then I started working on the MA-8,
Wally [Walter M.] Schirra's [Jr.] flight. Did the launch abort analysis.
I hand-drew the plot board that they used in the control center at
the Cape [Cape Canaveral, Florida] at the time for the launch phase
that has all the limit lines, the nominal trajectory and the limit
lines for the various aborts, established the different abort modes.
So then I got to go down to the Cape for his flight with Carl Huss,
who was my boss in MPAD [Mission Planning and Analysis Division] and
was the chief retrofire officer. So I obviously worked very closely
with him, and he used a lot of the data, and the launch abort stuff
was used by the Flight Dynamics Officer [FDO], who at the time was
Glynn [S.] Lunney. So I got to go down to the Cape and support them
there in the simulations and in real time. That was a pretty exciting
thing. It's one thing to see the flights on television, but to be
in the control center at the Cape where the building would shake when
the Atlas launch vehicle went off, it was pretty exciting.
Oh, I can imagine. It must have been good now, since you said you'd
worked on Carpenter's flight but then weren't able to follow it other
than on the radio and such, must have been nice to be able to see
everything you'd worked on being then put into place.
Yes, it really was. I had to pinch myself a lot with that. I hadn't
even been out of school for a year and here I am in the most wonderful
job in the whole world. How could it get any better than this?
But I continued to work in MPAD and worked on Gordon [L.] Cooper's
[Jr.] flight, MA-9, which turned out to be the last. We did a lot
of planning for a proposed MA-10 flight, but that didn't happen. In
the meantime, we, of course, started working on Gemini. I continued
in mission planning, doing more or less the same thing that I had
been doing for the Mercury flights on Gemini.
But not too long after the last Mercury flight, MA-9, Carl Huss, my
boss, had a heart attack, and so they asked me if I wanted to work
in the control center as a retrofire officer, and of course I said
yes very quickly.
John [S.] Llewellyn, who had been the number-two retrofire officer
after Carl moved up to the prime position and then I was the number-two
Retro. Did that for the first three Gemini flights, and then after
Gemini III, Glynn Lunney and Cliff [Clifford E.] Charlesworth, who
had then come on board as number-two flight dynamics officer [behind]
Glynn, came to me one day and said, "We think that you need to
move over from Retro to flight dynamics officer." That sounded
pretty good to me, because the flight dynamics officer was the lead
trajectory guy in the trench, and he was really over the retrofire
officer and the guidance officer, which was a new position for Gemini.
So, to me, that was a promotion going from Retro to FDO, and I wanted
to do it.
So I went to talk to John Mayer, who was my division chief, and he
advised against it. I talked to Lyn [Lynwood] Dunseith, who was another
branch chief at the time within mission planning and analysis, and
he also advised against it.
Well, they both kind of told me the same thing. "Hey, this is
where all of the good work is. We're doing all the work and the flight
controllers are just the people who sit at the consoles and do what
we tell them to do. Without us, they wouldn't be anything, so we think
you need to stay here." But after thinking about it for a couple
days, I decided I really wanted to do it, so I went back to Mayer
and told him and he said, "Well, I'm really disappointed and
I'm going to refuse to sign your transfer." [Laughter]
So it went up to Chris Kraft then, because he was director of flight
operations and over both—well, a part of the deal, if I was
going to be a flight dynamics officer, was I had to transfer to the
flight control division. Of course, that's the main reason John Mayer
was against that, because I guess he was going to lose me and I was
going to go to the flight control division. Because Lunney, rightfully
so, felt that to be a flight dynamics officer was a full-time job
and I wouldn't be able to continue what I was doing in mission planning.
So it did involve the transfer of divisions.
So anyway, it went to Kraft, and he called me on the telephone one
day and he said, "Young man, I understand you want to transfer
to the flight control division and move over to flight dynamics officer."
I said, "Yes, sir, I do."
He said, "Why do you want to do that?"
I said, "Well, I really love working in the control center, and
I think that's what I want to do."
He said, "So be it," and he hung up. [Laughter] That's the
last I heard of that.
Nice and straight and to the point.
Yes. That's the way Chris usually is about things like that, all things,
I guess he'd seen enough of your work up until then to know that if
it was something that you wanted to do, then you were going to be
able to be good at it and do it.
Well, I would like to think that. It was a good move, in retrospect.
It was a good move.
About that time we were bringing the control center in Houston along
also. It had been under construction for at least a couple of years,
I guess. After a lot of testing, it was decided that we would use
it for the first time on the Gemini IV flight, but because of the
little bit of remaining uncertainty, it was decided that we would
activate the control center at the Cape also, and have a skeleton
crew down there for the launch phase, which was the most critical.
So Glynn Lunney went down as flight director and I went down as a
combination retrofire officer, flight dynamics officer, and guidance
Literally had a chair with wheels on it that would slide back and
forth between the three consoles. Arnie [Arnold D.] Aldrich did a
similar thing for the systems. He was a combined guidance, navigation
and control officer [GNC] and the EECOM, the electrical, environmental
[and communications officer]. So he also covered two or three consoles.
Al [Alan B.] Shepard [Jr.] was the capcom [capsule communicator].
So we went down for a couple of weeks of simulations and then for
the real launch.
As luck would have it, John [D.] Hodge was the flight director back
in Houston and Cliff Charlesworth was the flight dynamics officer.
They actually lost power in the control center, went down for a few
seconds, and we kept saying, "Switch over. Switch over. We've
got it." They wouldn't do it. [Laughter]
They were determined.
Yes, but it worked out all right.
You've mentioned a couple times now the simulations and that you were
a little bit involved with that in Mercury and then again here in
Gemini. If maybe you could talk about some of what that involved and
how that changed from the two different programs.
Well, the simulations really served a number of purposes. The two
main ones were to train people who were going to work on the flight,
but also to test out our mission rules. Before each flight—and
this is a concept that people take for granted, but if you think about
it, it's a pretty darn good concept and it kind of applies to a lot
of things besides manned spaceflight. I give most of the credit for
developing that concept to Chris Kraft. Walt [Walter C.] Williams
was also involved, but I give most of it to Chris.
It's a simple concept. Before we'd go into a flight, in your area
of responsibility, [whether it be]…systems, trajectory, medicine,
whatever, you'd sit down and you'd think, okay, what could go wrong.
You'd write them all down. This could go wrong and it could go wrong
here, here, and here. Then you write down your action to correct the
failure or what's going on. So it's a concept of preconceived solutions
to potential things that can come up in the flight. You do that on
paper. We called them mission rules. You write down everything that
can happen and then what you're going to do about it. So the simulation
served to test that to see if you do have the right solutions. We
would refine the rules as we went through the simulations.
The main difference in the sims [simulations] between Mercury and
Gemini had to do with the control center. The control center at the
Cape, the computers that drove all of the displays there, the tracking
displays, the telemetry that came in from the remote sites from the
spacecraft, were driven by computers that were in Greenbelt, Maryland,
at the Goddard Space Flight Center [GSFC]. They had very limited capability.
Then when we got into the control center in Houston, beginning with
Gemini IV, we had our own bank of computers down on the first floor
in the control center, and we had a lot more capability.
The sim guys, to start with, had a lot more capability to enter faults
into the system and they looked a lot more real. In the Mercury control
center, some of the faults that the sim people had to show us, they
were a little hokey. I mean, they would even unplug consoles sometimes.
You'd see a guy crawling across the floor, you know, and unplug it.
Beginning with Gemini, the simulation supervisors who conducted the
sims had a lot more capability, and the problems or the faults that
they gave us in the sims were a lot more realistic. Of course, they
delighted in giving us four or five problems at once and things like
that. We kept saying, "Come on, guys, this is a little unrealistic,"
but it was good training, very good training, and training from the
standpoint of seeing how the controllers would react, but also to
test out the solutions that we had derived in the mission rules process.
Would you often, or maybe not often, but were there instances where
you'd established certain mission rules and then in the training realize
that something needed to be changed in that?
Quite frequently. In fact, after each simulation, we would debrief
the sim and we would discuss, "Okay, I applied mission rule 7-62
and it says if this happens, you do that," and we would say,
"Well, but that didn't really solve the problem," or, "You
did it too quick," or something. So we would change the rules.
That was a common occurrence. It wasn't a wholesale change, but that
frequently happened, and we expected to do that. In fact, the debriefings
sometimes could get very bloody. I mean, you know, "Why didn't
you catch that?" or, "Well, you know, it wasn't my responsibility,"
or, "Why didn't you take action quicker?" Or the sim guys
would say, "Well, I gave you this failure and you didn't even
see it." So, you know, sometimes. I don't recall anybody getting
mad at anybody or anything. It was good training, it really was. It
was not an easy thing to do. I never dreaded going into sims. I always
thought it was a good exercise, and felt much better after having
gone through a couple of days of sims at least.
Certainly rather have all those problems or misses come up in a simulation
than in a real mission.
Yes, and it was in some respects rewarding, because if you did the
right thing, you felt good about it. Or if you did the wrong thing,
you'd say, "Well, at least I learned something. I did what I
thought was the right thing, but it turned out maybe we need to look
at that a little bit more." So the simulations were very valuable.
In fact, I've always thought that the simulation people were kind
of unsung heroes in the manned spaceflight program, because they didn't
get any credit for anything. They weren't in the limelight. Once the
mission started, they kind of went away and started working on the
next mission. But they knew their jobs, they knew the jobs of the
people in the control center as well as the people who sat at the
consoles, and they had to.
I bet they knew the spacecraft pretty well, too.
Oh, yes. Oh, yes, obviously they had to know the spacecraft. We occasionally
had what we called the integrated sims, which included the flight
crew. Those were especially beneficial. Usually we would start out
with what we called standalone sims with just the flight controllers.
We'd go through the exercises. Then, of course, the flight crew was
doing the same thing in their simulators. But then we would do integrated
sims where we would both come together. Those were especially rewarding.
It showed that we could work together as a team and that we agreed
with their actions and they agreed with ours. In addition to training
the people and exercising the mission rules, it was a team-building
Very important, especially in this business.
Very important. Very important. In fact, in later years I've—you
know, it seems like every two or three years there's a new management
trend in total quality or teamwork, or all these courses that people
[started coming up with]. I've been to a number of those, and after
a while I thought, "Hey, this is what we used to do back in the
sixties at the Manned Spacecraft Center. We just didn't call it this."
Just didn't have a fancy name.
Yes. We were doing teamwork. We did all of this.
Somebody's making a fortune off of putting it in books and selling
it to other people.
People buy a lot of different things nowadays.
Talking about the team-building and the teamwork, you had the flight
control team and you had the support people that were in the back
rooms, and you had the flight crews, and then you had the engineers
working on the spacecraft and the managers. How were relations among
everyone? Any reflections on that?
The best I have ever seen, and it is teamwork. That's why I give so
much credit to people like Bob [Robert R.] Gilruth and Chris Kraft,
who made you feel—like when I was a GS-7, the low man on the
totem pole, and here's Bob Gilruth, as a director of the center, he
made you feel like your job was just as important as his. In fact,
he would almost say that much as, "Hey, you know your job, I
don't. You go do yours. Unfortunately, I have to sit up here and worry
with all this budget and administrative stuff, and I'll try to take
care of that, but you do yours." And that attitude was prevalent
throughout the center.
Chris Kraft, for example, is the ideal boss that anybody's ever had.
He did more to encourage people who worked for him than anybody I
have ever seen. For example, if the center director, whoever, had
a question about a given flight, then Chris would find the person
who knew the most about that and have them go and answer the question,
make a presentation or whatever. I found out later, that's not the
way a lot of people operate. A lot of bosses, in fact there were even—well,
as I'm sure you know, a lot of bosses want to give all of the presentations
themselves. That's how naive I was.
I had worked at JSC, the Manned Spacecraft Center, Johnson Space Center,
for probably a decade before I realized that everybody didn't operate
like that. It was a real team atmosphere. It was that way with the
managers, it was that way with the flight crew. I mean, they would
tell you in a minute. Boy, I mean, I've had a number of astronauts
tell me, "Boy, I respect you guys for what you do in the control
center, your job. I wish I understood all that. I wish I could do
it. I feel kind of bad because here we are getting all of the credit
and you guys do all of the work." It was just real teamwork.
Within the flight control team, we had some real friendly competition,
especially between the trajectory guys and the systems guys. Later
on in Apollo, especially between the command and service module guys
and the LM [lunar (excursion) module] guys and stuff.
But if somebody got into trouble during a flight or during a simulation
or whatever, everybody in the room did everything they could to help
out. The competition was ended at that point.
People recognized the need to have a good camaraderie, a good atmosphere,
but also the need when it was time to be serious, it sounds like.
Yes, and more so than I have seen in most jobs that I've had since
then. In the control center, people didn't really try to do other
people's jobs. I mean, we knew what our boundaries were. We knew we
were responsible, that nobody else was, and so we didn't try to blame
other people for our problems, or we didn't try to overstep our bounds
and go help them when they didn't ask us or something like that. Jobs
were well defined and people executed their responsibilities within
those bounds. It was a good team. A lot of pleasant memories, looking
back on it.
It really is.
In fact, I have discovered in my later years that I measure my life
by pre-1969 and post-1969.
If somebody says, well, in 1975 I did this, or something happened,
or I read something, the first thing that comes to my mind, for some
reason, is, well, that was before we first landed on the Moon, or
it was after that. So I've kind of divided up my life into what happened
before 1969 and what happened after 1969. I don't mean it was bad
after '69. A lot of good things, a lot of good things happened after
1969. But it was such a pivotal milestone in my life, that that's
usually the first thing I think about when a date comes up.
That's certainly a very critical milestone for the whole world it
I'd like to think so. I mean, it's really kind of sad to think here
we are, what, thirty-one years now after we first did that in 1969,
and what, twenty-eight years since the last time we did it. That's
unbelievable. In fact, people frequently ask, when they find out I
worked on the manned space program, "Well, how did you guys do
that in such a short time period?" And I don't have a real good
answer for that.
John [W.] Aaron, a friend of mine who was EECOM flight controller,
and one of the best there ever was in the control center, said one
time there was just an unusual way that the dominoes lined up at the
time, I guess, or something like that. He said it much better than
that. He's much more eloquent than that. But it was an unusual set
of dominoes that lined up at the time.
We obviously had a challenge from the President [John F. Kennedy],
and that was important. I mean, if you live in the United States,
who's more important than the President? Especially back in those
days. You think, hey, the President has established this challenge,
the country, by and large, is behind it, it's the most exciting thing
that's ever happened, and the money was available. So we just went
and did it. And I'm not sure you could do anything like that again
in that short a time period.
Certainly takes all of the right pieces coming together, everything
from the President and Congress, down to having the right people in
the right places.
The right people. You know, again, if there hadn't been people like
Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft, Sig [Sigurd A.] Sjoberg, and a whole
bunch of others, it wouldn't have happened.
They certainly made a lot that didn't initially seem possible become
You started with minimum technology and so many things had to be created
along the way.
Yes. I guess we didn't understand that it wasn't possible. There were
no textbooks. There were even no degrees then in aerospace engineering,
especially not space studies. But I don't know, [it was] sometime
at least in the mid-sixties or later before any colleges I ever heard
of starting offering degrees in aerospace and there were textbooks.
What we had to learn from in the trajectory area about orbital mechanics
were a few NASA technical notes that people had written. Even the
physics books didn't have anything about orbital mechanics. We had
what today would have to be the crudest computers that you can imagine,
you know, but we thought they were pretty good and we would just keep
running trials and errors until we figured it out.
Well, they were certainly good in comparison to what else you had.
Made it all work.
Beats slide rules, anyway.
You mentioned, we had talked up to about Gemini IV, and getting the
control center in Houston, coming on line, and that you were down
at the Cape for Gemini IV. Then the Gemini missions began to really
get up to speed and really working to accomplish some of the critical
goals of rendezvous, docking, space walking. What did you do in between
missions, actually, I guess would be my first question, to help prepare
for all of this and to help get ready for the missions, besides the
training that you talked about earlier? Were there other daily activities?
Well, at that point in Gemini we were also trying to get ready for
Apollo, so we were trying to find out as much as we could at the time
about Apollo, about the systems, the launch vehicles, and the spacecraft.
But we were flying missions at that time fairly frequently. It wasn't
unusual to have a two-month turnaround.
As you know, we had two identical control centers in mission control,
one on the second floor and one on the third floor, and it wasn't
unusual that we would have the simulations going on on both floors,
one for a Gemini mission and one for an Apollo mission, maybe even
two different Geminis at the same time. They were coming fairly rapidly.
There wasn't a lot of time in between the flights to even stop and
reflect about what had happened on the last one, except from a technical
standpoint. It was one mission right after another, and there wasn't
a lot of time to do anything else, except to work on the things you
had to, like mission rules and procedures.
Each mission was a new challenge, because, as you said, we were doing
new things and we had to learn how to do new things like rendezvous,
which was the most exciting thing in the trajectory area, where I
was. Of course, we were scheduled to first try that on Gemini VI,
and we lost the Agena, the target vehicle that were going to rendezvous
and dock with. So the managers, within a couple of weeks there, came
up with the idea that we would launch Gemini VII first, and then VI
a few days later, a week to ten days later, as I recall, which is
about as quick as you could turn around the pad. In fact, there were
people who questioned if that could be done, and that was obviously
one of the controlling things. We only had one Titan launch pad at
But we did that, we launched VII first, and then a week to ten days
later, as I recall, we launched VI and it rendezvoused with VII, which
was a great thing. We couldn't dock, because it didn't have anything
to dock with. That was really a pretty exciting day when that happened,
because even though we've never really talked about it a lot, among
the flight controllers we didn't, we knew we were in competition with
the Russians. We knew that to get from ground zero to landing on the
Moon, there were a lot of things that you have to learn how to do.
You have to learn how to get a man into orbit and sustain them there,
for one thing, and you have to learn how to do space walks and EVAs
[extravehicular activities]. You have to learn how to rendezvous and
dock. You have to learn how to navigate and all that.
So we knew in the back of our minds for sure the technical targets
that had to be met and we knew that the Russians, unfortunately, had
beaten us by a few days or a few weeks on the first two, you know,
getting a man into orbit and then on a space walk. So we knew that
we were pretty close together. Neck and neck [really]. But then with
Gemini VII and VI, when we rendezvoused, that's the first time we
had really beaten the Russians at what we thought was a critical,
one of the critical milestones that had to be met on the way to landing
on the Moon. So we were pretty excited that day.
It's my recollection in talking with Kraft and [Eugene F.] Kranz and
others, I think they agree, that that's the first time that we ever
waved the American flags in the control center. We considered ourselves
very, very professional and tried to hold down any celebrations, you
know, in real time, or anything like that, because you shouldn't celebrate
until the mission is over. But that's the first time that I recall
that we ever made some slight exception to that and showed some enthusiasm
in real time and waved flags, because it was a proud day.
Like I say, we didn't really sit around and talk about it, "We've
got to beat the Russians," and all that, but we all knew that
we were in a race and for once we had beaten them. We kind of waved
the flags and said, "We're proud to be Americans and, oh, by
the way, take that, you Russians." [Laughter]
[Laughter] Sounds good to me. I don't think anybody would quibble
with you on that one.
That certainly took some interesting planning, too, on the part of
the mission control, having the two flights up and going at the same
time. That wasn't something that had originally been planned for in
Gemini, if that's correct.
That's correct. We had obviously planned to have two vehicles like
the Agena, the target vehicle, and the Gemini, but not two live Gemini
spacecraft with all the same, or very similar, telemetry streams and
the same tracking beacons and stuff. Yes, we had to make some accommodations
in the control center. We even had to do some of the stuff off line.
We had what we call the auxiliary computer room, the ACR, over in
the office wing of Building 30. The mission planning people over there
were running some of the stuff on off-line computers and feeding it
in to us in the control center. Mostly it's just to check on what
we were getting out of the real-time computer complex [RTCC]. But
on that mission for a few of the things that we couldn't do simultaneously
in the RTCC, we were doing them over there. So, yes, it was a challenge,
but that's kind of what made life interesting in those days.
You always have to have challenges to keep it interesting.
Of course, both of those missions were very successful, although one
of the times that Gemini VI attempted to launch, they had the shutdown
and the near abort situation.
Yes, that was the second attempt, as I recall. Gemini VII had already
been launched and it was Wally Schirra was the commander. It shut
down on the pad and he was as calm and cool as you would expect, and
he had his hand on the abort handle, but he didn't pull it. Tom [Thomas
P.] Stafford, I'm sure, is very glad that he didn't. [Laughter] In
fact, I talked to Wally after that, a number of us did, and I think
the reason he didn't is he had seen some of the test dummies that
they brought back from some of the ejection tests that had been run,
and they were missing arms and legs. [Laughter]
The ejection seats were something, that was a entirely new thing on
Gemini. We didn't have those in Mercury; we just had the launch escape
tower, that was the way to get off the pad for the first minute or
so of flight. But on Gemini we had these ejection seats, and everybody
was always afraid of the ejection seats, and rightfully so. But Wally
was pretty cool that day and he didn't pull the handle, thank goodness.
That would have set us back quite a bit.
The amazing thing about that flight, besides the rendezvous, which
made us all proud, but we accomplished another big milestone on that
flight, is [that] the VII crew went for fourteen days. And if you've
ever seen the inside of a Gemini spacecraft, you know it's not very
And, you know, to be in the air for fourteen days and not be able
to stand up or really move at all with another person is not something
that I would look forward to myself. [Laughter] But I mean, we proved
that under harsh conditions, much harsher than what they would experience
in Apollo, because it would be [more] roomy and without a lot of the
conveniences that they would have on Apollo, I assumed were going
to be developed, like better food and better toilet provisions and
all that kind of stuff, they survived. I'm sure—I never talked
to either [Frank] Borman or [James A.] Lovell [Jr.] about that, I
guess, but it has to be the most miserable two weeks of their lives.
I can imagine.
But that was a big thing. I mean, it sounds kind of silly now, but
there were still people who questioned could people live as long as
ten days in zero G [gravity]. Well, they lived for a couple of weeks,
and it wasn't a big problem. They were a little awkward when they
got back to land, but within a day or so they seemed to be, physically
they seemed to be back to normal.
I'm sure mentally they were just ready to have a little bit of space
for a while. [Laughter]
I would think so. I should ask Jim Lovell that. I never have.
Certainly very unique experience for them, but did, as you say, pave
the way for the future flights. Critical step.
Now, had you worked, going back a step, had you worked on Gemini V
Yes. The Gemini V, as I recall, was the first time that I was the
prime flight dynamics officer. That means I did the launch phase.
So that was a good mission. I enjoyed doing that. As I recall, V was
the one where they were to deploy a balloon and track it. That was
going to give us some rendezvous experience and that didn't work at
all, and that was kind of a nightmare. I guess they had some fuel
cell problems on V.
My recollection of that, I was concerned about the balloon, because
that was a trajectory thing and we hoped to get some good tracking
data. I recall the systems guys agonizing over the fuel cells, and
my only thought there was, well, that's a development item, and we
have to have those to get to the Moon, so I hope these things work.
[Laughter] But that was their problem, and if I couldn't help, then
we left them alone.
So I wasn't directly involved in the fuel cell problem, only from
the standpoint of thinking, well, if that means we have to cut the
mission short, then there's certain things we have to do trajectory-wise
to get ready for that. You're ready for that all the time, but if
you hear in your headset, if you begin to pick up problems going on,
your first thought is, "Hmm, okay, well, maybe I ought to sit
up a little straighter in the chair here now, because if there's some
problems going on, we might have to do some of this stuff that we've
been planning for."
But V was a good mission. We learned a lot. You never have a mission
that's perfect. I don't recall any that were. [Laughter] But if you
learn from the problems that you have, that's part of the process.
In reality, we had a lot fewer problems in Mercury and Gemini than
probably most people had anticipated. We were trying out a lot of
new systems. Fuel cells, for example, nobody had ever—we didn't
know what fuel cells were. Magic things, you mix hydrogen and oxygen
together and it makes electricity and gives you drinking water. I
mean, you know, that's pretty magical stuff. [Laughter]
That is, even in today's world. [Laughter]
Yes. You know, these were pretty crude devices back in those days
compared to what we have now. They worked, and we learned a lot.
Always a goal, learning. Well, we've talked about Gemini VI and VII,
of course, next came Gemini VIII, which, unfortunately, had quite
a few—not quite a few, but had a major problem with the thruster
getting stuck in [Neil A.] Armstrong's flight.
Oh, yes, I was again the prime flight dynamics officer, so I did the
launch phase and then the rendezvous and docking, and probably felt
as well as I'd ever felt in my life at the end of that. I mean, you
know, really proud. I mean, we've pulled off a fairly significant
I remember—it’s a memory etched in my mind, it was shift
change time and the new shift was coming in, and I was just sitting
there so happy thinking about I just want to go home and celebrate.
Then we heard Neil and Dave [David R. Scott] at the next pass [talking
about] "we're spinning out of control," and I mean, it was
like, oh, my God, what's happened? This perfect day has now turned
into the most horrible thing you can imagine.
John Hodge, as I recall, was the flight director that was on my shift,
on the prime shift that had gone through launch phase and the rendezvous
and docking. Anyway, he decided that due to the criticality of what
was going on, that he wanted to keep his team there and stay on the
console, and the new team that was coming in could help, but it wasn't
the time to do the shift changeover. So we ended up staying and flying
the full mission.
Of course, in a normal mission, we'd [have] for every revolution of
the Earth, we'd have at least one contingency landing area planned,
and we started looking at the possibilities of coming in. This was
not in the best place in the world; it was up in the northwestern
Pacific, as I recall. As I said, we didn't have any recovery forces
or anything out there, but it was due to our knowledge on the ground
[of] what was going on up in the air at the time, [that] we needed
to get them home quickly. They had used up a lot of the attitude control
system gas on the spacecraft, trying to control their spinning. The
ground rules, the mission rules, said that once you get down to a
certain level, then you come home, because you start running out of
any backup for using the attitude control gas in the reentry. So we
brought them in quickly, a bad place, and the recovery, I guess, was
another whole story, but we got them back safe and sound, anyway.
That was kind of the first time when I had been on the console where
we had really had a real contingency situation where we ended up having
to act on it and abort a mission. We weren't real happy about that.
We were very unhappy about having to have done it, but at the same
time we were pleased that the mission had ended successfully and the
crew was healthy. That's the main thing.
So that was a pretty exciting mission, too.
Certainly a lot that could be learned off of that one. Luckily, I
guess, all the experience and training both of the flight controllers
and of the flight crew was able to pay off to make that able to come
Yes, it was a good test of what we had trained for, and once the decision
was made, and it was made by the book and by the rules, and once it
was made, it was just, "Let's go do it." The system worked,
and as you said, it did point out the benefit of the training that
we'd had and all the simulations that we had run. So we tried to look
on the positive side of all of that. [Laughter]
Always a good thing to do.
Time to go work on the next flight.
That's right, work on the next one and make sure that what happened
before doesn't happen again.
Well, the next one was Gemini IX. Were you involved with that mission?
Yes. I was on some shift in the control center, either as a Retro
[or as a FDO]—I guess for all of the Gemini and Apollo missions
and as we discussed in Mercury, in a back room staff support room
thing. But I don't remember—I didn't do the launch phase and
the rendezvous on [Gemini] IX. That's when we had what became known
as the "angry alligator," I guess. We lost a target vehicle
called the ATDA, augmented target docking adapter, I think, or apparatus.
Adapter, I guess it was. ATDA, anyway. We launched it a couple days
ahead of the IX mission, and it had a shroud, a two-piece nose cone
over the docking mechanism, and it failed to release completely, so
once again we weren't able to actually dock. But we did do a very
Because I'm a trajectory guy, I always thought that the rendezvous
is the complicated part. If you get them up there within twenty feet,
if they can't dock, that's like navigating somebody across the whole
United States. If you get them within a block and they can't find
a parking space, that's their problem. [Laughter]
So I mean, I don't mean to belittle the importance of docking and
the development of the hardware that had to go into that, but that
wasn't my area anyway. I thought, well, at least we did the rendezvous
part, we'll get this docking [thing] figured out here one of these
days. We just kept having a problem with the target vehicle.
Well, a lot of these later Gemini missions, like IX, X, XI, and XII,
were testing various different rendezvous methods. Can you talk about
some of those and how they were important for Apollo especially? Some
of them were they would go up and dock within one orbit basically,
and others where they'd have different approaches. Were you involved
much in that?
Yes, because we had to obviously understand all of that and have the
capability built into the computers in the control center to compute
all the maneuvers. Rendezvous in space is a very interesting procedure,
and there are some unsung heroes in that world of people who developed
those procedures, like [Howard W.] Bill Tindall [Jr.] and Ed [Edgar
C.] Lineberry, both of whom, unfortunately, are not with us anymore.
But they spent years and years, along with a lot of other people,
but they were two of the leads who worked out some of the mechanics,
orbital mechanics, of how you can rendezvous two objects in space.
But in the early Gemini days, we had to tailor that sequence, and
this is where people like me in flight control got involved with the
mission planners to tailor the sequence, because we had to tailor
it to the ground network. We had to have certain maneuvers occur near
our over-ground stations so that we could know if they were successful
and then track them after that and compute the next maneuver, etc,
So when we started out, there were quite a few constraints imposed
by the limitation of the ground system at the time, and the on-board
systems, because you could only do certain magnitude maneuvers. For
example, plane changes which dictated how close you had to launch
the chase vehicle to [get] within the orbit of the target vehicle
that you were going for.
But as we got more capability ground-coverage-wise and maneuver-wise
and more experience in doing, we tended to simplify the process. On
one mission, which I can't even recall which one now, we did a rendezvous
within the first orbit, which was a pretty amazing feat. That put
some real constraints on the launch [window]. It means you have to
launch within a few seconds of the intended time, whereas if you're
in an extreme case, or the longest case we used, we would take up
to four orbits to accomplish the rendezvous and that gave you a lot
more latitude concerning the launch window of the second vehicle that
you launched to chase the target, because you could either slow it
down or speed it up to make up time.
Rendezvous in space is basically a phasing and altitude problem. You
just have to get the two vehicles at the same altitude at the right
time and going at the same velocity. So it's like driving down the
freeway at 85 miles an hour beside another car. You have rendezvoused
with that vehicle, and relative to it, your speed is almost zero,
just coasting along beside it.
But I found rendezvous to be a real interesting subject. Obviously
we had to do it in order to accomplish the lunar landing. Unfortunately,
as I mentioned, when we started out in Gemini, we had more constraints
then than we knew we were going to have later on, but we had time
to learn and overcome those constraints, and it all worked out.
It did work out very well.
[Edwin E.] "Buzz" Aldrin [Jr.] was an interesting rendezvous
guy. He like majored in rendezvous in college or something. [Laughter]
We called him Dr. Rendezvous. So I would always get into discussions
with Buzz about rendezvous, and I thought I understood it as well
as he or anybody else. I think I did. I still think I did, except
that Buzz would always say, "Well, now I'm coming up on terminal
phase and the sun is coming over my right shoulder." I'm standing
there thinking, "How does he know where the sun is now?"
Because that's an aspect that I wasn't worried a lot about. It was
one of the constraints, obviously, because you wanted good lighting
for the chase crew to be able to see the target vehicle, but it always
bugged me that Buzz knew where the sun was. Usually I would run back
to the office after talking with him and I would run that case on
the computer, and, lo and behold, he was always right, the sun was
coming over his right shoulder just when he said it was. Dad gum,
Buzz, you do know some things. [Laughter]
[Laughter] That's pretty good. Well, I guess that's how he majored
in it in college, by knowing his stuff. [Laughter]
It came in handy for him on XII. He did some of the manual calculations,
if I recall correctly.
Well, he was always doing his own backup stuff, but the ground was
prime. Our numbers were—we had the final say-so. They had a—it’s
almost a crime to call it a computer on Gemini; it was a very sophisticated
calculator, I guess the way it was. It was the first computer we'd
ever used in space. It could do some rendezvous calculations. Buzz
had developed his own charts and stuff, and he was computing his own
stuff and it came out pretty close. It was interesting. You need some
capability like that on board, obviously, in case something happens
to the ground. But we were prime and our answers were right. We never
let Buzz forget it. [Laughter] But he had fun doing his own stuff.
Well, that's good. Somewhere during Gemini, I assume, is when—and
this is kind of going back and talking about the teamwork and the
camaraderie of the center—is when the "trench" name
evolved and the special relationship between those members of the
control center. Can you reflect on that a little bit and how that
Yes. In the control center at the Cape for Mercury, the retrofire
officer and the flight dynamics officer had mechanical plot boards
that they displayed the trajectory data on. For that reason they were
off to the side of the control center, so as not to obstruct, so the
plot boards wouldn't obstruct the view of the rest of the controllers
of the world map up front.
Then in Gemini, we added the position of the guidance officer who
in Gemini his primary responsibility was the Titan launch vehicle
guidance system. So he, likewise, had mechanical plot boards, big,
huge, humongous XY plotters with ink pens that drew on graph paper.
They looked like something came over with Noah on the ark now, but
that's what we used in those days. So it was kind of a little "trench"
off to the side of the control center, on the right-hand side, that
actually they faced 90 degrees to the right of everybody else in the
Okay. Then we moved to Houston. Well, let me back up. The Retro, the
FDO, and the guidance officer were a team. They all were concerned
with trajectory and guidance stuff. The retrofire officer primarily
worried about how to get the spacecraft back. The FDO was responsible
for all of the tracking data that came in, the different sources,
orbit determination, calculation of any maneuvers to get where we
wanted to go, except for the retrofire maneuver. FDO worried about
how to get there, the Retro worried about how to get back, and then
the guidance officer was kind of the navigator of the deal. He monitored
the guidance systems on board the spacecraft, the launch vehicle during
the launch phase, spacecraft once it got into orbit. So we were all
three concerned with the trajectory and guidance. We were all in the
same branch together administratively and we worked as a team.
So now we get to Houston, a new control center. These plot boards
are to be replaced with the big screens in the front of the control
center with computer-driven plot boards. It turns out that a few of
us, Cliff Charlesworth primarily, who was a FDO at the time, were
really kind of reluctant to give up these old mechanical plot boards.
So for Gemini IV and V in the new control center in Houston, we still
had the old mechanical plot boards sitting out in the middle of the
floor, and we finally had to give up the dinosaurs and use the projection
plotters, and it worked out fine.
But again, these three positions were on the front row in the control
center in Houston and down in what could be conceived as a trench.
John Llewellyn, who was a retrofire officer at the time, was an ex-Marine
also, in fact, has an extremely interesting history in the Korean
War. He was one of very few survivors in a major battle. So he was
always and ever the Marine, you know. Somebody said to him one day
in a simulation, something about, "Why don't you get your act
together, Llewellyn?" He said something like, "Well, you
ought to get down here in the trenches with the rest of us and then
you'd know what's going on." [Laughter]
So that's my recollection of how it became known as the trench. It
was the front row in the control center, and if you've been there,
it does look somewhat like a trench, and then Llewellyn called it
that one day and that was it.
Then, I don't remember, Newsweek or Time magazine also did an article
in the mid sixties about the flight controllers, primarily about Kraft,
who was still the flight director at the time. But somewhere in the
article it said, "And then there's the retrofire officer, the
flight dynamics officer, and the guidance officer who represent the
trench, the first line of defense in manned spaceflight." [Laughter]
So there was a lot of pride about being a member of the trench.
Obviously for good reason.
Obviously for good reason, yes. Right. We talked earlier about competition
and teamwork and all of that. There was a lot of friendly competition
and we would always tell the systems guys, "Don't forget, you're
here, your systems are here to support our functions. Okay, now, it's
our responsibility to fly this mission, so you just keep your systems
working and stay out of the way, and we'll fly." [Laughter] Of
course, they didn't quite see it that way.
Well, that's all right, friendly competition always brings out the
Right. We always thought, and I think if you talk with John Hodge
or Gene Kranz or any of the flight directors, except Lunney, because
he grew up in the trench himself, most flight directors didn't really
understand what we did in the trench. I mean, they knew what our function
was, but they were not orbital mechanics. I mean, they understood
a fuel cell. They could look at schematics and they could go look
at the real box, and they could take it apart and look at it and kick
and all that. Well, in the trajectory world, it's all software. We're
getting in tracking data and computing maneuvers and doing all this
stuff. So to most flight directors, what we did in the trench was
some kind of a black art. [Laughter] Some people, I never did that,
but some people in the trench would kind of pull the flight directors'
legs occasionally or try to snow them occasionally. [Laughter] But
you [couldn't] do that with Kraft or Lunney or Charlesworth, because
they understood what [we] did. In fact, they could have come down
and done it. Well, Lunney and Charlesworth did, but Chris could have
done it, too. He understood that.
In fact, I think on the first attempt of Gemini VI, as I recall, but
before some rendezvous mission, and Chris was still a flight director
then, just before launch, not too far before launch, I remember he
came down at the console and sat down beside me and started asking
me these detailed questions about rendezvous. And I was thoroughly
impressed that he knew enough to ask, I mean, very, very detailed
questions. My conclusion from that was, he was testing me. He knew
all along. He knew the answer to every question that he asked me,
and I think he was—and I've accused him of this since then and
he's denied it—it I really think he was just making sure that
his FDO knew what he was doing. [Laughter]
Chris is an extremely intelligent person. He could absorb more data,
I think, than anybody, and understand it, than I've ever known.
Sounds like certainly an interesting man to work with and work for.
Yes. I feel very fortunate to have worked for him. One of the best
things that ever happened to me.
Absolutely. It certainly does seem to have worked out well for you.
I'm going to go ahead and pause right now and change out our tape.
Okay. We've talked pretty well about Gemini and covered most of the
big details about it. Is there anything that you can think of that
we didn't cover, that we might have needed to on any of the missions
or any of the events going on during the Gemini program?
No, I think we pretty much covered it. At least I can't think of anything
else right now.
We can always come back to it later if we do.
At the end of Gemini, you were promoted and became the head of the
flight dynamics officer section. Did this have a lot of changes in
what you were doing, or did this just add a couple extra responsibilities?
It didn't really make that much of a change. It made me the boss of
all of the FDOs, but we still worked as a team. Yes, it gave me a
few more administrative duties, but it really didn't—I mean,
I liked it. It was a title and probably a grade increase or something,
but as far as the work that went on in the control center in supporting
the missions, it didn't make that much of a difference.
With the change from Gemini to Apollo, you mentioned that sometimes
during the Gemini program you'd be running simulations for the Apollo
missions and, of course, doing various planning along the way. What
major changes were there, though, to the control room itself, or to
even the training process, from one program to the next?
Well, the control room itself stayed pretty much the same. By that
I mean the same number of consoles. We did add a few positions in
the systems area for Apollo. The main thing was that we had a lot
more data, had a lot more stuff coming down on the telemetry stream,
we had more tracking sources, better sources. We had a much more sophisticated,
complicated spacecraft than what we'd had before, but to support that,
we had a lot more data. So on one hand, the problem was more complicated,
but along with the complication came more resources to be able to
deal with it.
So basically the job in the control center really didn't change that
much. We still had us guys in the trench worrying about the trajectory,
how to get there and how to get back, how to navigate. We had the
systems guys worried about hardware, the life support systems, the
electrical systems, communication systems, and all of that.
A big difference was that in Mercury and Gemini we had flight control
teams deployed out to remote sites, and so they talked [to the flight
crews]. They had capcoms at each of the remote sites, and they had
systems guys. They would monitor the spacecraft when it came over,
and we didn't get that data in Houston. So with Apollo, a big difference
was that we didn't have all these people out at remote sites anymore
and all the data was shipped to Houston, and it made the operation
a lot smoother than it had been with the individual remote sites.
It helped in training, because all of the people that you had to deal
with from a flight control standpoint were all in the same room. So
that part of it made it a lot easier.
I really hadn't thought about that question before, but as the vehicles
got extremely more sophisticated and complicated, our resources that
allowed us to deal with those complications grew right along beside
of us. So, overall, there wasn't that much of a difference.
Just a normal growth process.
That's good. What was your first assignment with Apollo? Was it just
to begin working on the first missions?
Well, I had actually started on Apollo back in mission planning and
analysis back in the early sixties. In fact, I had developed the Apollo
launch abort modes, and that's one of the reasons I think that Glynn
Lunney and Cliff Charlesworth decided they wanted me to transfer to
flight control division and become a FDO, because the FDO is the person
in the control center that's most concerned, [he] and the Retro, about
launch aborts and limit lines and all of that. And I had done that
Then once I got over to the flight control division, initially we
had separate groups of people working on Gemini and Apollo. I don't
remember exactly when, but sometime near the end of the Gemini program,
say, '65 or '66, along in there, we combined the Gemini [and Apollo
groups]. Well, certainly before the end of the Gemini program, we
combined activities within the branch and we had the same people working
on [both] programs. It allowed the experienced people that had worked
on Gemini to carry that over into Apollo, and the people who had been
isolated on Apollo for a number of years before that were a good resource
for us to tell us all the stuff that we'd missed while we'd been off
working on Mercury and Gemini.
You mentioned the abort modes for Apollo that you had worked on earlier
on. This was before you were working in the control center, as you
said. At that time what planning had already been done for the spacecraft
and for the boosters for you to be able to do that abort planning,
and then did that change any by the time you actually got to the Apollo
It didn't really change a lot. We already knew what kind of launch
vehicle we were going to have. We had the specifications. It couldn't
have been completely built yet.
We knew, for example, that we had a launch escape tower once again,
like we had had in Mercury. So that gave us the capability to look
at the possible regions of failure in the launch phase; engines out,
guidance systems failures that would carry [you] into unsafe regimes,
and to design abort modes which would involve either using the escape
tower or separating from the booster and landing the command module
by itself in different parts of the Atlantic Ocean.
Then, of course, as the hardware was actually built and tested and
we had to refine that a little bit, the exact parameters, but the
basic abort modes stayed essentially the same all throughout the program.
It's interesting that you mentioned that you'd already been planning
for the escape tower when you were first working on this, but yet
then for Gemini they ended up using the ejection seats. Do you recall,
even though it wasn't your direct area of focus, any of the discussion
on that and how that came about?
Not specifically. As I recall, it was basically as simple as nobody
really liked the escape tower; it added more weight. Astronauts were
test pilots in those days and they were used to ejection seats, so
I kind of think that in Gemini they just decided they would try the
ejection seats and very quickly decided that was not a very good solution
either, and then for Apollo went back to the escape tower. But, as
you said, I really wasn't involved in any of that decision-making.
Well, it worked out for both programs all right.
Yes, and fortunately we never had to use any of them.
I think that's probably a very good thing all around.
Apollo 6 was your first flight as FDO for the Apollo program, is that
correct, or was there one before that?
Well, by this time I was chief of the flight dynamics branch and therefore
over all the Retros, FDOs and GUIDOs, and, yes, I had worked most
of the unmanned flights, or at least a couple of them as either the
prime FDO or as a backup, usually in a backup role. Apollo 6, as I
recall, Jay [H.] Greene was the prime FDO on that flight and I backed
him up, but that's where we had a problem with the cross-wiring of
the engines. I'm not sure that I ever—I was there, but I don't
think I ever took the console in a prime position on Apollo 6. That's
my recollection, anyway.
Well, that works. You probably remember better than what I have anyway.
It was certainly an interesting mission. There were, as you mentioned,
a couple interesting glitches that eventually did get worked out.
Yes. Well, the Saturn V was a pretty enormous vehicle. Of course,
with the FDO being concerned about the launch phase, the proper functioning
of all of the engines and the various abort modes and all of that,
it was a lot more complicated than it was back with the Atlas. But
overall, it worked pretty well. We had a few problems with it. It
had some pogo effect in the early flights, where it was kind of bouncing
up and down, and a few development problems, but by and large, when
we needed it, it worked.
It certainly did. It had an excellent record, especially in comparison
with the Atlas.
Saturns came through all the time.
The Germans from Huntsville [Marshall Space Flight Center] came through.
Absolutely. Did you then work on Apollo 7? Were you working on console
at all for that one, do you recall?
Yes, I pulled a shift on Apollo 7, it was not the prime shift. In
fact, by that time I was heavily involved in Apollo 8 already. In
fact, several months even before we flew Apollo 7, which was the first
manned mission that actually made it into orbit after the horrible
catastrophe that we had with the fire, a few people had been challenged
by Chris Kraft to go figure out why on the next flight, which turned
out to be Apollo 8, that we couldn't go all the way to the Moon, which
was, in retrospect, a very aggressive move, because here we were,
we'd had the disaster, the Apollo 1 fire, and totally redesigned the
command module, and we hadn't even flown it yet to prove that it would
work, and here we were working on going to the Moon, which at first
was a big shock.
In fact, the first meeting when I was called to Kraft's office, I
think it was just me and Gene Kranz and Arnie Aldrich, as I recall,
and he asked us to look into the possibility of going to the Moon
with the second flight. And I thought, "This man is crazy. What
are we talking about?" [Laughter] But by the time we left the
meeting, you know, I was already thinking, well, okay, why can't we,
and what do we have to do, and what we have to accelerate. Within
a couple of days, we figured out there's really no reason why we can't
do this, which I think is the boldest, most aggressive thing that
ever happened in the manned space program, was the decision, and I
think it started with George [M.] Low, but I don't know. That's debatable,
I guess, as to who came up with the idea at first.
Here, as I said, we just totally redesigned the Apollo spacecraft,
had never flown it to see if it was going to work or not. We had a
very logical path laid out to get to the lunar landing, and it involved
at least two more flights in Earth orbit. So at that point we were
a long way from thinking about flying it to the Moon. The capability
that we had in the control center was not ready for that.
My initial reaction is, "Hey, we aren't ready for this. What
are you talking about? We've got a plan here. We've got to go through
7, 8, 9, 10, and then maybe 10, we go to the Moon. But not on 8, not
the second flight around." But after a small group of people
looked at it for a few days, we couldn't come up [with] any reason
why we couldn't do it, and started a lot of detailed planning. Our
bosses didn't even know it. I couldn't tell Lunney, for example. John
Hodge was my [division] chief at the time. I couldn't tell him that
we were working on this. We were having to steal computer time over
the weekend. We'd go back to Chris and say, "Well, I need these
two other guys to be involved," and usually he would say yes.
Sometimes he would say, "Okay, well, you can get one of them,
but not the other." They just didn't want the cat out of the
bag, you know, until a real thought-out decision had been made.
So my involvement, to answer your question, my involvement in Apollo
7 at that time was kind of minimal. I just kind of held things together
between shifts in the control center when nothing was going on, but
already spending a lot of time trying to get ready for Apollo 8.
Kraft had already said to me, personally, "If we do this, you're
going to go back and be a Retro," also. Because the question,
the first time—well, when you start going to the Moon, actually
we didn't call it retrofire anymore, we called it return to Earth,
because you aren't just retrofiring out of Earth orbit, you're leaving
the Earth orbit, so it was called return to Earth. That was the big
question, if we had any problems, we obviously have to get back. So
that was one of the conditions [for going ahead with the Apollo 8
Chris really made out the manning list himself for Apollo 8. I hadn't
been a Retro, even though I supervised the Retros, but I hadn't sat
at the console since Gemini, and so I had a lot of catching up to
do to get familiar with all of the Retro stuff for the return to Earth
stuff for Apollo. So I was spending most of my time on that.
I guess you breathed a big sigh of relief when at least technically
everything went well with Apollo 7, so that you knew the spacecraft
Yes, [there] was obviously a condition that [said] we [must] prove
that the spacecraft works on 7, which we did. The biggest problem
on 7 was non-technical, and that was [over] who's in charge, the astronauts
or the ground. I think we settled that one. [Laughter]
But, yes, the spacecraft worked great. You see, [the other] thing,
to go to the Moon on 8, we had to use the Saturn V, and we had had
some problems with the Saturn V. But there was enough confidence in
[the] hardware, both the launch vehicle and the spacecraft, and in
the people, flight controllers, that the decision was made to go do
I'm convinced that if that had not been done there in, well, it started
in the summer of '68, I guess, that we would not have met the President's
goal to land on the Moon before the end of the decade, because as
I mentioned earlier, when we first started into this, it was square
one or square zero. It [doesn't] take you long to figure out how [do]
I get from here to landing men on the Moon. Well, there's all of these
milestones you've got to do.
With Apollo 8, just sending a crew around the Moon and going into
a lunar orbit and coming back home, that was a very, very high percentage
of all the things that was on our milestone list. We honestly had
a lot of things to do to check out the lunar module. That was a big
[unknown]. In fact, that was the prime driver for taking Apollo 8
to the Moon, was that the lunar module wasn't ready. That was supposed
to be the next flight after 7, was to check out the lunar module in
Earth orbit like we had done the command and service module [CSM]
on 7, but it wasn't ready to fly. So the options were to sit and wait,
or to do something bold.
The NASA management, whether it started with George Low or George
[E.] Mueller or whoever, I give a tremendous amount of credit for
even considering something like that and then for getting all of the
inputs and saying, "Okay, yes, I'm willing to take that risk.
Let's go do it." Unfortunately, I don't think you see decisions
like that being made in NASA today. But that's old-timers that like
to say that. [Laughter]
But it was a very bold and daring decision and one that obviously
worked. As I said, I don't think we would have been able to meet the
President's goal of landing men on the Moon by the end of the decade
if we hadn't done it.
Do you recall, were you in the control room when the command was given
for the first time that for them to make their—they’d
made Earth orbit and they were ready to move out and go to the Moon,
the translunar injection?
Yes, I remember probably as much or more about Apollo 8 as any other
mission, just because it left such a lasting impression on me. We
had so many firsts, you know, starting with, as you mentioned, translunar
injection, and it hits you, my God, we're leaving Earth. I mean, translunar
means you're going to the Moon, and oh, by the way, you're leaving
Earth and somewhere up there you're going to hit a point where you're
going to leave the gravitational influence of the Earth and be under
control of the gravitational influence of the Moon.
We're shooting for a target that's not there yet. Translunar injection
is kind of like duck hunting. You don't shoot at the duck; you shoot
way out in front and let the duck fly into it. So we're aiming at
this point up in the sky, and we're depending on things we've never
done before, tracking data, computing maneuvers, relaying the information
to the crew, loading it in their computers, and doing all this. A
lot of miracles and magical things, almost, have to fall into place
to make it all successful.
When you consider the margin of error and how, as viewed from the
Earth, that the altitude that we were shooting for above the Moon
wasn't even as thick as a sheet of paper. So there were a lot of firsts
involved, a lot of memorable events.
The fact of when it occurred, over Christmas, also was extremely special
after translunar injection, and it really did—and we're all
fairly intelligent people, we knew what we were doing, but I tell
you, for at least a half an hour there were a lot of us around looking
at each other saying, "We're really going to the Moon. We've
got these guys headed out of Earth orbit. They're leaving us."
Then there was almost a fantasy with, well, what's the equidistant
point? The flight director would say, "Tell me, FDO, when we're
exactly equidistant from the Earth and the Moon." It was something
that was kind of a nice little game we could play. Then [tell me when
we have] left the sphere of influence of the Earth and [are under]
the influence of the Moon.
We did very detailed minute-by-minute return to Earth planning. Okay,
if this happens now, then we'll have thirty minutes to figure it out.
Okay, so here's a time we can fire up the engine and then come back
to Earth and where we'll land. I mean, we probably way overdid that,
but in a situation like that, there's no way to overdo it, because
you can't be cut short.
Then, of course, when we got there, you'd say, "Hmm, these guys
are going to go behind the Moon and we're going to lose contact."
On the way there, by the way, was wonderful, because we could talk
to them all the time. There probably was excessive dialogue also,
just because we weren't used to that. We could talk to them all the
Then the next big thing was when they go around behind the Moon and
we lose contact. All the flight controllers kind of sit there and
after a while they realize we have no data, we can't talk to them,
this would probably be a good time to take a break, but we don't take
breaks. [Laughter] It was kind of awkward, it really was. We can't
desert them, all get up and leave the control center, but for the
next twenty-five, thirty minutes, however long it was, there's no
way we can talk to them, we have no data, so why not? [Laughter] So
there was a big rush on the restrooms then all of a sudden.
And tremendous satisfaction, by the way, on the part of the people
in the trench especially. When we did lose them, lost the signal as
they went behind the Moon, it was [snaps fingers] exactly when we
had predicted it. So, yes, orbital mechanics works. [Laughter] God
works. He brought the Moon in exactly the right spot at the right
Then a very similar thing when we had acquisition of signal on the
way back, as they came around from the back side of the Moon, it had
to be one of the happiest moments of my life and for most of the people,
I think, in the control center. Again, it was, hey, orbital mechanics
works, and there has to be a God, because he's doing His part. [Laughter]
Then when the crew started reading from the Bible, I think it was
kind of the first time that a lot of us could relax enough to say,
"Hey, we just sent people around the Moon and it's Christmas.
And they're reading from the Bible and relating this, 'God created
the heavens and the Earth.' This is unbelievable." [Laughter]
One thing that I regret about my career at NASA, especially for the
first ten years while we were going to Moon, is we didn't really have
a lot of reflection time. We were working so hard, flying so frequently,
that we didn't have time to sit back for a few days, a few hours,
a few weeks, whatever, and just say, "We're flying men in space
and we're doing all of this. We built a new spacecraft from the ashes
of Apollo 1, and here twenty-one months later we're flying people
to the Moon."
Again, John Aaron said it better than anybody I've ever heard, he
said, "We gulped fine wine." We didn't have time to enjoy
it. I've talked to a lot of the astronauts about the same thing, especially
the ones who walked on the Moon. It's just a crying shame that most
of them didn't have time just to stop for a minute and look at Earth
and look at all the stars and stuff and say, "My God, I'm on
the Moon!" [Laughter] They were so busy that they had very little
time to do that, and that's kind of, I think, how most of us that
were in flight control feel about the sixties. It just went by so
fast, that we didn't really have time.
I think, I know for me personally, that Christmas day, or Christmas
Eve, I guess, when the crew of Apollo 8 started reading from the Bible,
at that point we had accomplished a big part of the Apollo 8 mission
and, in my mind, a big part of the whole Apollo program. So it was
a moment just to relax, and so that's one of those unforgettable moments
of, hey, you know, we can sit here and take a sigh and say, "Thank
you, Lord, for letting me be here and be a part of this." But
we still had a long way to come back home, so we straightened up and
we got back to the consoles. Of course, the transearth injection was
a big sigh of relief to get them headed back home.
Again, although we were, for the most part, fairly intelligent people
and we were all trained for this, you're headed home at 36,000 feet
per second, you think, "We're just going to crash into the atmosphere
and land this thing." [Laughter] We've only known that all of
our lives, but this is the first time we've done it. I mean, we are
going around in Earth orbit and we're going to fire the retros, these
guys are coming in, and we have this little bitty corridor that they
have to hit. If they're too shallow, they'll go skipping out and go
into permanent orbit about the sun or some other nice thing like that.
Of if they're too steep, we're going to burn them up. So let's pay
attention, guys. Make sure we do this right. [Laughter]
So we probably overdid the mid-course corrections and the tracking
and the planning and all. But not really, because that's something
you don't want to screw up.
But Apollo 8, certainly with me, and I think with a large percentage
of the flight controllers, is a standout mission in our memories.
I've told people, on Apollo 8 we baked the cake; on 11 we just put
the icing on.
Many people agree with you on that. We've heard very similar—
The interesting thing is, again, unfortunately, most of us didn't
realize that until much later. I mean, again, we were so busy, we
didn't have time. [It was one of] those frivolous questions, like
"which mission stands out in your mind." You say, "What?
I'm busy. Don't bug me now." [Laughter]
"I've got a job to do."
Well, and you did still have the goal in front of you to actually
land on the Moon.
Oh, yes, but, boy, what a motivation. By this time we knew we were
well ahead of the Russians. I mean, we, or at least me personally,
I rightfully, as it turned out, suspected that we were ahead, because
we were much more visible in what we were doing. Of all of these thousands
of things that had to be done to get from here to the Moon, we were
clicking them off. The lunar module would be a snap. We'd figured
that out. Just go land that little thing. [Laughter]
Well, Apollo 8 certainly was a bold step and a great success, as you've
said. Made a big difference for the program ahead, and the lunar module
did come along and get up to speed and the next couple of missions
tested it out.
Worked wonderful, yes, obviously.
Were there any particular thoughts that you had or reflections on
Apollo 9 and 10 and their goals in both testing out both ships in
Earth orbit and then with the dress rehearsal for the lunar landing?
Well, I think, let me go back to Apollo 1. You know, at the end of
Gemini we were pretty confident that we were going to meet the President's
goal. Apollo 1 was a big blow. Not only was it a technical failure,
but we lost three people, and most of us knew those three people.
And that was hard to overcome. But we were still working—hard.
Apollo 7, for flight controllers, was a success in that the hardware
worked and we were extremely grateful and happy, but it was not a
fun mission because of the problems that we'd had, the debate between
the ground and the crew about who's in charge. It was not something
we were proud of, okay?
Then we hit Apollo 8, and I've already talked too much about that,
but we were on fire after Apollo 8. The team was so reinvigorated
after 8 to a point that I hadn't seen since the middle of the Gemini
program, maybe, or the early Mercury even. I mean, but after 8, boy,
it was full steam ahead. We weren't trotting; we were running. We're
going and we've got to do 9 and 10, and then we're going to land those
guys. And they worked like clockwork [Apollo 9 and 10], a few minor
problems here and there, but we proved that the LM works and that
the techniques work. I thought Tom Stafford was almost going to land
on 10, he got so close. [Laughter]
So that's what I remember about 9 and 10 is, yes, from a technical
standpoint and a procedural standpoint we still had a lot to do, but
we were running full steam and we were doing things right and left,
and they were working and we were all happy and we were going to land
on the Moon. Nobody could stop us now. [Laughter]
So then when we got to 11, it was, "Okay, Neil and Buzz, it's
over. You guys just go do it. It's anticlimactic now." [Laughter]
Until we got into the mission, then it was like I described earlier
about 8. I think it hit most of us then, again, "Hey, for all
of our careers we've been working on this one goal, landing men on
the Moon, and there's still a lot of nay-sayers. The Moon's made out
of cheese. It's made out of dust. It can't be done. And today we're
starting the mission that's going to do that."
So it was kind of like 8, it was another sobering time, and it's good
that it was, because, as I said, through 9 and 10 we were running
full speed. I mean, you know, go get 'em, charge 'em. I think it's
good that we got a little sober after the launch of Apollo 11. We
didn't talk about it, but I've talked about it since with people,
especially Kranz. Of course, he's kind of an emotional guy, gung-ho
guy, anyway. But I think it hit a lot of us that, "Hey, today
we're going to do what we've all been planning on doing for our whole
careers; for the last ten years." [Telephone interruption.]
We were talking about the launch and how sobering to think about that
Yes. So the closer that we got to the Moon, I think the more serious
we all got. It was another one of those moments, I guess. People not
involved in the program frequently ask, "Well, did you really
think that you could do that? I mean, did you really think it was
going to work, or were you just scared to death that they were going
to crash and get killed?" The answer is, no, I knew we could
do it. There was no doubt. I mean, there was some doubt, very small,
that we would successfully land, but the alternative to that was an
abort, and, you know, we wouldn't be able to land, if you'd have to
abort and go back into [lunar] orbit, but we'd get the crew back alive.
I mean, that's not something you worry about. I mean, we were all
comfortable enough that that option was covered.
But I have to admit that during the descent, and I was not on console
at the time, I was there as a supervisor for all my guys who were
doing it, as an observer. I think every team that ever worked in the
control center was there for the descent, and at least every astronaut
who ever flew or wanted to fly. The control center was pretty full
for that. In fact, I sat by [Charles C.] Pete Conrad [Jr.], who was
scheduled to go next. He couldn't find a place to plug in up by the
capcom console, so we had a spare place to plug his headset in down
on the FDO console, and I invited him down there.
That has to go down in one's mind also as a fairly good day. It was
not without its problems. Had a few computer alarms on the way down,
but Steve [Stephen G.] Bales, who was one of my guys, an outstanding
member of the trench, came through like we all knew he would, and
the whole team did and he obviously had a lot of people talking in
his ear from the backroom. And Will [William E.] Fenner, who was also
on the console.
We landed and there was not a real sense of relief or exuberance at
landing, because that's a very critical time still in the mission.
We had to make decisions about do we stay, or no-stay, a lot of powering
down the LM and systems checks. So I don't know, it was probably at
least another twenty or thirty minutes before it hit me and I think
most other people, "We've got guys sitting on the Moon."
Then it was, "Okay. Now they do their job [while they're there]
and now we've got to get them back." So we started thinking about,
well, we've got to launch this LM and rendezvous with the CSM and
do all that and get back home."
But I think, well, for me personally, it was not even until after
the mission was over and for the first time in my career anyway, I
took like a week off, and said, "Okay. We've done what we came
to do, we want to do it a bunch more times, [but] we have proved it
can be done. We met the President's goal. We beat the Russians. So
there ain't nothing to this landing on the Moon stuff. How many times
do we want to do it again?" [Laughter]
That was, for me anyway, the first time in seven or eight years that
I had just really been able to take some time off, several days, and
say, "Okay, here's what we did and it's done and we were successful."
Successful and ready to move on.
Yes. That's probably why I still measure all of the events in history
as pre-landing and post-landing.
Certainly makes sense.
It absolutely does. Quite a momentous event.
The next mission in line, Apollo 12, then got into even more detailed
trajectory-type work. They wanted to land very specifically. In Apollo
11, Apollo 10, and Apollo 8, you'd begun to deal with the mass cons
[mass concentrations] and some of the surprises there, and as you
mentioned, well, Neil Armstrong when he was landing didn't land precisely
where they had planned.
Yes, the Apollo 12 was a real challenge, because, as you mentioned,
we had those mass concentrations, mass cons, which means that, you
know, the Moon's not homogeneous. It's got big rocks, kind of like
Earth. We had a real good model of the Earth for doing trajectory
stuff, but obviously we didn't have one for the Moon, and it took
a while to figure all of that out. Emil [R.] Schiesser and others
over in mission planning and analysis did a great job in doing that.
So we knew, we felt confident that we were getting better at lunar
orbital mechanics as we had flown around it a number of times.
So on 12 they wanted to land as close as they could to the Surveyor
spacecraft, the unmanned spacecraft that had landed there previously.
That was kind of a real challenge for us FDOs, and we kidded back
and forth with Pete Conrad about "We're going to put you right
down on top of it and you're going to have steer a few feet off to
the side, so that's up to you. But you're going to put you right on
top of Surveyor." And we essentially did. [Laughter] I think
he believed us after that.
Unfortunately, though, 12, the things that most people remember about
12 is the lightning strike in the launch phase where John Aaron came
through with flying colors and saved the mission, and then the pinpoint
landing. A lot of people don't even remember that. The other thing
they remember, though, as another problem is the camera went out,
so there really are no television pictures from the Moon on 12. So
I kind of feel sorry for that crew, because in history, that mission's
just kind of wiped out, because there's not a lot of documentation
video-wise of that mission. But technically it was a huge success.
We did the pinpoint landing. They extended their lunar EVA times.
They conducted all kinds of good experiments. As I recall, even more,
you know, we always planned more than we thought they could do, and
we gave them more than we thought they could do in a normal time line.
But they were even asking for more stuff to do. So it was, overall,
a very successful mission, probably so successful that by the time
we got to 13, that the public at large was just kind of blasé
about the whole lunar landing thing. It's amazing that the impossible
can go, within a year, to something that everybody just takes for
granted and doesn't even want to pay any attention to anymore. There
were people who just said, "It wasn't meant for men to land on
the Moon, and it can't be done, and you'll never do it," and
then when they did, they said, "Oh, okay, no big deal."
Totally amazing. It's still hard to believe.
You mentioned Apollo 13, and that certainly did bring the space program
back into the public eye, for unfortunate reasons, but luckily it
did all turn out well. Can you share some of your thoughts about that
mission and the events that happened and what your involvement was
Well, from a flight controller's standpoint, Apollo 13 was probably
the most at the same time frustrating and satisfying mission that
we ever flew. By that I mean it was a disaster that we had to overcome,
but we overcame it, and that's why it was satisfying and rewarding.
More than any other mission, it put the flight control team to a test,
and it wasn't a systems test or a trajectory test or a communications
test, it tested everybody in the control center, and we pulled it
off. Talk about something impossible.
At the time that it happened and by the time we figured out more or
less not what had caused it, but the results of what had happened,
things were looking kind of dim. I never did and I don't think anybody
else in the room ever gave up. I mean, it never occurred to me that
we wouldn't get them back alive. I just didn't know how. But I guess
I don't know if I was playing tricks with my mind or being overconfident,
but I would not allow myself to think we aren't going to get these
guys back. It was always a question of how.
But, you know, everything fell into place just like it should have
and like we were trained for it to do. When the explosion happened,
we were not on a free return trajectory. Prior to that, in going to
the Moon we had used what's known as a free return trajectory where
that with minor course corrections, hopefully even without any, that
if you went around the back side of the Moon and were not able to
go into lunar orbit, i.e., you couldn't do the lunar orbit insertion
burn, that you would come back to Earth, and hence a free return.
But because of the landing site and the launch window and other things
and fuel efficiency, on 13 we were not on a free return trajectory.
We had just passed within a few minutes the last direct abort opportunity.
But us experts in the trench, the trajectory guys, knew that there
was some fuzz on any kind of boundaries like that, so we started immediately
computing options to come home immediately, and there were still some
options. We could do it for another thirty minutes or so, and we let
the flight director and everybody else know about that.
The problem was, we didn't know if we had an engine. The service propulsion
system engine on the service module we were pretty sure was not going
to work. I mean, the service module was dead or dying, and the odds
of it working were just pretty slim. So we gave that up, and the immediate
thing then was, well, let's get them back to a free return. Until
we figure out where we are, at least let's get them back on a course
that would bring them back to Earth. So we did that within a few hours
of when the accident occurred. At that time the crew had already abandoned
the command module and done down to the lunar module.
Of course, the systems guys were trying to figure out things that
nobody had ever done before or ever thought of before, like how do
you power down the command module when it's in orbit. Now, why would
you even write a procedure to do that? If somebody had bought that
up before the flight, we would have said, "You're crazy. That's
wasting time. Why would we do that?" Well, it turned out that
this very unusual circumstance that we had, then the command module
systems guys were trying to figure out how to power down the command
module, and oh, by the way, we'd like to reserve the option to power
back up because we need it when we come back into the atmosphere.
Oh, okay, no big deal. We'll go figure that out.
Then the LM guys were trying to figure out how to get three people
to live inside a vehicle that was designed for two, and to have them
to live for three or four days maybe, when it was only designed to
accommodate two people for like a couple of days and that's it. [At
So everybody was busy. In the trajectory arena, once we got them on
a free return, then the immediate question—that was, by the
way, back to the Indian Ocean and in several days, which we didn't
like, but at least they were coming back. So we then, not knowing
how the systems guys were going to figure out how to make everything
work, we started figuring out every option that there was on how to
speed them up, get them back quicker, and there were a number of opportunities
for that. We could bring them back to the Atlantic Ocean, and that's
quicker than the Indian, where they were headed, but we didn't have
recovery forces out there. But so what? They're commercial ships and
they can do that. But if we could afford enough thrust out of the
engines, we didn't know which engine at the time, then we could bring
them back to the Pacific where the recovery forces are.
But we soon realized that the engine had to be the lunar module descent
engine, the one that was designed to allow the craft to descend on
the Moon. It wasn't designed to do maneuvers in orbit. It certainly
was not designed to do a burn when it's docked with the command and
service module and push it around. In fact, we didn't even have the
capability in the control center computers to compute a maneuver like
that. So we had to crank up this auxiliary computer room, the ACR
that I mentioned, over in the office wing of Building 30, and we did
make some real-time modifications. We brought in all of the IBM programmers
and the flight software people, the mission planning people, and made
some changes in the control center, in the software, to allow us to
compute docked burns using the LM descent propulsion system. I don't
remember how long that took, but a few hours, and normally it would
have taken a couple of months. But we did it and did it to our satisfaction
that [it] would work.
So that continued to go on while we went around behind the Moon, and
by that time the systems guys felt that they could squeak out enough
consumables in the lunar module to keep the crew alive until we got
back to the Pacific. So we computed a maneuver to do a couple hours
after we passed by the back side of the Moon to speed them up and
bring them into the Pacific.
An option at that time was to bring them back to the same point in
the Pacific, but a day earlier, twenty-four hours earlier, and that
would be better obviously, right? I mean, less consumables, bring
them back. Problem with that is in order to do that, using the LM
descent engine, we would have had to get rid of the service module,
to get rid of the mass that it represented, because the engine was
not [powerful enough]. The LM descent engine would not do a burn large
enough to speed it up an extra day if the service module was attached.
So, rightfully so, everybody concluded that that's a little risky
to do at this point. We don't know what happened back there. We've
got to use the command module and its heat shield to survive entry
back into the Earth's atmosphere. We think we're close enough on the
consumables, so let's don't speed it up the extra twenty-four hours,
just get them back to the Pacific and we could do that with the LM
descent engine and the service module still attached.
So we did that, and they're headed home and that's another good feeling.
The systems guys, by the way, are still trying to squeeze every ounce
of consumables out. The command module guys are trying to figure out
how to power the command module up again from being dead for three
days, to bring it back to life. They, of course, would like to delay
that as long as they can, because they only have limited power. All
they have in there are batteries that were intended for emergency
batteries for entry, because there are no fuel cells anymore.
So it was probably the greatest example of teamwork that I've seen
in my life. All of the systems guys, the LM and the CSM guys and the
trajectory guys are all working hand in hand in an extremely well-integrated
fashion to make it all come out. It was give and take the whole time.
Like, "Well, I've got to have power to use the navigation system
just for a few minutes to figure out where they are, but I can't spare
the power. Well, got to figure out something else we've got to turn
That went on for the whole time. We were pleading with the systems
guys, "We need such and such to turn on, because we have to track
them. We want to turn on their computer and we want to do a star check
and we want to do this and that."
They'd say, "But we don't have the power. They're going to run
out before they get back. So anyway, you can't do that, you've got
to figure out another way to do that."
So we had guys figuring out how—we always double checked or
triple checked or quadruple checked everything we did. One of the
things that we'd do trajectory and navigation-wise is to have the
crew to check attitude, always out the window. We would give them
the attitude, we would send them commands to go into the computer,
or we would send them by voice and they would put them in their computer,
and then the spacecraft would go to a certain attitude. But just to
make sure, look out the window and see if you see this star, or if
you see the Earth's horizon. The Earth horizon was a check that we'd
always use for getting [into] entry attitude, because [the spacecraft]
obviously has to be in the right attitude to enter the Earth's atmosphere.
But the problem then was that they couldn't see the horizon, because
it was going to be dark. So Chuck [Charles F.] Dieterich, one of the
Retros [on duty], came up [with] the idea, okay, well, they can't
see the Earth, but they can see the Moon. So let's do a Moon horizon
check. We figured out when it would be visible, and sure enough, it
The closer we got home, the more comfortable the systems guys got
about, yes, we're going to squeak this out. They had the horrible
problem with the carbon dioxide in the [lunar module] atmosphere.
They ran out of lithium hydroxide canisters in the lunar module, and
so the carbon dioxide wasn't getting filtered out and they were to
the level of hypoxia, I guess.
The systems guys, and these were people outside the flight control
team, over in the crew systems division, [Robert E.] Ed Smylie and
Jim [James W.] Correale and others, who figured out a way to use the
command module lithium hydroxide filters in the lunar module, because
one filter was round and the other one was square. Whoever thought
we'd have to use one in the other? I mean, it was one of those things
that if somebody had brought it up they'd say, "You're crazy,
that's a dumb thing." But they figured out using cardboard and
duct tape how to hook the thing up, and so that was one big hurdle
Finally squeezed all the consumables, but us guys in the trench were
going crazy because you have a very narrow corridor in which to hit
the Earth's atmosphere, or you'll just skip out or burn up. You've
got to hit it exactly at the right angle within very little tolerance
either way, and it kept getting more shallow and more shallow, the
angle kept getting smaller and smaller, and we said, they're going
to skip out. We couldn't figure out what was causing that.
We had everything turned off that would be causing any vents or anything.
A spacecraft has all kinds of things they have to vent to get rid
of, water and air and stuff, and it always screws up the trajectory
and we were always arguing with the systems guys, "Can't you
control your vents? You're messing up my trajectory."
But here we just really could not figure out what it was. At first
we thought it was the helium, which is used for pressurization in
the lunar module descent engine. It's used to pressurize the fuel
and force it into the engine. It's called ullage pressure, before
you burn. But that wasn't it, because the helium disc finally burst
and it was gone, so we knew that wasn't causing it. The crew heard
it on board and the systems guys saw it [the pressure loss] on the
So we did one mid-course correction. In fact, we overshot. We made
it a little steeper than we thought, than the optimum, but it would
still be safe if it turned out there, but we were unsure enough that
if it kept shallowing it would creep up and still be acceptable, but
it kept creeping, it started creeping up higher. So, unfortunately,
we had to do another mid-course correction not too long before entry
to get it back in the corridor.
It turned out later, and we didn't figure it out until after the flight,
the systems guys, I guess, figured it out, that the lunar module cooling
system, which circulates water to heat-producing instruments and takes
the heat out, like you have any kind of a system in a lunar module
that produces heat, it would be on a cold plate that they ran water
through and would therefore take the heat out of the instrument, but
it would put it into the water. Then the hot water, boiling in some
cases, went out what was designed and described as a non-propulsive
vent. It was a T-shape. It would go out and spew in both directions
and therefore be "non-propulsive." Well, guess what? It
was propulsive. That's what was screwing up our trajectory all the
way home. But we overcome that.
Probably the most tense moment on Apollo 13 was during entry when
we hit blackout. Blackout occurs in entry because an ionization shield
builds up around the spacecraft as it's coming in and the voice link
signals can't get through that ionization shield. So for a few minutes
there you lose communications, and we call it blackout. On previous
flights we had been able to predict that extremely well, as to when
it would occur and within a few seconds of when it would end, not
as precisely as other things in spaceflight, but fairly precise.
So here on Apollo 13 we've gone through the most tiring, excruciating
time in our history, working twenty-four hours a day and pulling off
four or five miracles in a day, you know, and here we've got them
back home and…this impossible thing has worked out, and they're
coming back and everything's fine, and we lose them in blackout. Then
the end of the blackout comes and we call them, there's no answer.
There's no answer. We're all saying, "Oh, no." I mean, "No,
no, no, not after all of this." You know, it's done. It's over.
We've done the impossible. It went on for like another minute and
a half and we couldn't contact the crew, and then all of a sudden
we hear them. To this day, to my knowledge, nobody's figured out why
the blackout lasted as long as it did.
No. It's one of those things that nobody seems to understand. We don't
know why it happened. But I'll tell you, it was one of the worst moments
of my life. All of us were just so dead tired that we couldn't even
hardly stand up, and here we'd done all of this, and as I said, had
pulled off these major miracles and done the impossible, and then
here ten minutes before the mission is over and for some reason we
lose them. It was just a real downer. But then when we heard them,
everybody got well real quick. [Laughter] You probably saw more exuberance,
more elation in the control center, more screaming and clapping at
that time than we had ever done before. And we didn't care, unprofessional
or not. [Laughter] We deserved this time on our own to scream and
holler a little bit.
We were always very controlled, tried to be. Like when the chutes
came out, there was, "Yay! That's good." But the mission
was not over, and we always waited until we had the crew out of the
spacecraft and on the deck of the ship and then you could relax and
celebrate. But on Apollo 13 when the chutes came out, I mean, after
we heard them at the end of the blackout, and then when we saw the
chutes out, it was just uncontrollable. Like to hell with this control
stuff, it's time to scream and holler and clap hands.
It's only natural. You're human.
Yes, yes, yes. But again, from a flight control standpoint, that has
to be the most rewarding flight that any of us ever flew, because
it proved that we were worthwhile and that there was a purpose for
us and there was a purpose for men in flight, because if it had been
an unmanned flight, it would have been lost. It would have been over.
You say, well, but it was over then anyway because you didn't accomplish
anything after that. No, that's not true, because what we accomplished
was we learned a lot from a systems standpoint from the crew observations,
from the pictures that they took of the service module after it had
blown up. We learned a lot from that experience. That's what's kind
of frustrating to me personally about some of the failures, especially
the Mars failures that have recently occurred in the unmanned program.
Unfortunately, we didn't learn a lot from those failures because they
didn't have the data to figure out really what happened.
To me, you don't like to fail. Nobody likes to fail. But it's acceptable
to take some risk and fail if you're left in a position of still gaining
knowledge. If you can find out why you failed and correct it and make
sure it doesn't ever happen again, then that's a bad day, but it's
acceptable. You don't like it and you don't plan for it, and you don't
want it to happen, and you hope it never does, but if you fail and
learn, it's not a total failure. That's an unsolicited comment, an
aside. I'm sorry.
No, that's certainly true.
I think Apollo 13 really proved the usefulness of men in space, and
there are a number of other examples throughout the program. But it's
hard to replace somebody's eyeballs up there looking at something.
I'm an obviously very proud member of the ground crew, but the ground
can't do everything. You've got to have some eyeballs and some human
brains up there. Computers are wonderful things, and, boy, they're
getting better every day, but they will never replace a human brain,
at least not in my lifetime, I don't think, and I don't think ever.
I think that Apollo 13 was just a very outstanding illustration of
the benefit of having people up there.
It showed human ingenuity and all that experience and training that
all of you had had, too, all just paid off and came through.
Yes. Yes, we went to the Moon a bunch of times after 13, but, again,
the proud thing about that is how quickly we recovered, because this
wasn't to the magnitude of Apollo 1, because, unfortunately, we lost
three people on Apollo 1. But as far as a technical setback to the
program, it was a pretty major blow, Apollo 13 was. But we recovered,
again just like we did on Apollo 1. We figured out what happened,
what went wrong, what to do to preclude that from happening again,
and started flying again very quickly, because we still had a lot
of things to do on the Moon, things like using the rover and getting
more samples and doing all kinds of geological experiments and trying
to figure out if there's any useful stuff in the lunar soil.
Unfortunately, we only went back four more times after that and, in
my opinion, didn't complete the job, and haven't been back since,
but still accomplished a lot in the flights after Apollo 13. I think
proved that the whole program was worthwhile.
Very definitely. Very worthwhile.
Talking about the later missions, a lot of them went to different
locations on the Moon that were greater challenges to reach based
on location, based on the terrain, and so then had different challenges
for the trajectory aspects of it and the planning. Were you involved
in any of those missions?
Oh, yes, that's why it was not ever dull. We never did anything twice,
because that'd be too easy, the same way. But, again, it was a tradeoff
thing. The geologist, and rightly so, wanted to go to different regions.
They wanted to be challenged and really go see some different things
and collect some good stuff, and we understood that. We would explain
the limitations from a trajectory standpoint. If you'd left it up
to the geologists, they would have gone to the back side of the Moon.
They wanted to see around, [wanted] to land over there and see what
it was. In fact, [Harrison H.] Jack Schmitt had us off for a while
working on some of that, trying to land on the back side of the Moon.
Each mission was a challenge for all of us because it was different
from the past. Each landing site had its own particular thing, the
terrain going in, how much tracking you could get before you had to
begin power descent. Then you had to worry about the coverage after
they left the Moon during the ascent, because you had to pull off
another rendezvous. The rendezvous around the Moon was strictly controlled
from the ground. They had limited capability on board. But all during
Apollo the ground was prime, and so you had to figure out when you
could talk to them and when you couldn't. It was a challenge.
In my recollection, the mission planners and the geologists, the experimenters
and all that, were always able to work out a compromise that suited
everybody. I mean, we understood what they wanted to do, they understood
the constraints, and we would argue back and forth about doing this
and why does it take that much time to do that. But it all worked
out pretty good. We had our friendly debates and arguments.
One of the most interesting things that I remember about the later
duration missions was the rover. You wouldn't believe some of the
discussions over the years—of course, we started planning years
before we ever used it—about how far we would let the rover
go and to get away from the lunar module. Because, again, the scientists
wanted to go miles and miles and miles. The question was, you've got
to make sure you get back. We talked about everything from dragging
a string to dropping birdseed. [Laughter] All kinds of crazy navigational
schemes. Some of them probably even would be embarrassing if we talked
about it, but we were trying to figure out how to do the job and to
accommodate the people who wanted to go off to faraway places.
As most things do, logic prevailed and common sense prevailed, and
the distance that they could go was really limited by the systems,
their life support systems that they had and the battery power of
the rover to get back and all of that. We generally would try to stay
within view of the LM. [And when we couldn't,] we tried to keep it
in a straight-line distance, so that when they returned, they just
had to follow the tracks to get back.
But I can remember when we first began planning a lot of that, that
was a real question, is how can you be assured, how can you guarantee
that no matter where the crew goes in the rover, they'll be able to
get back to the lunar module. [Laughter] We certainly didn't want
to leave them driving around the Moon in this little Jeep, "LM,
where are you?" [Laughter]
Part of it was extremely sophisticated navigation systems, which we
really couldn't afford, or didn't even have time to develop then.
That's the kind of thing that probably 99.9 percent of the people
who watched [from the ground] never even thought of. It sure looked
like a lot of fun, though, didn't it?
Oh, absolutely. It looked like great fun.
I think John [W.] Young probably had the most fun of anybody driving
around on the Moon and even running around. In fact, he scared us
sometimes. He didn't worry about falling off the rover or turning
it over or even falling down on the Moon by himself. I don't know,
that would be a good question to ask all of the astronauts, who do
you think really had the most fun [on the Moon]?
That is a good question.
I think it would be John. John is a very serious and sober person,
but, boy, I tell you, a lot of it is facade. I mean, he tries to project
this image of a dumb Oklahoma guy that doesn't know anything. He's
one of the smartest people you ever met, to start with. But, boy,
he plays that, "I'm from the farm and I don't know nothing,"
thing, he really plays that to the hilt. He's gotten a lot of mileage
out of that. But he's very serious, but also he is one of the funniest
guys you've ever met, as opposed to Conrad, who was always joking.
He never was serious. And that's good. But John could be extremely
serious and then, boy, the next minute he's a laugh a minute.
Quite a personality.
Quite a personality.
Toward the end of the Apollo missions, you also took on duties as
a range safety coordinator, is that correct?
Yes, that started back about at the end of the Gemini program.
Oh, okay, that far back.
Glynn Lunney had been the range safety representative at the center.
That's when he was a flight dynamics officer. When he became a full-time
flight director, then I took over that job from him. It was an appointment
from the center director, I guess. But the reason that it was a flight
dynamics officer was because the FDO and the range safety officer
were worrying about essentially the same thing in the launch phase.
The range safety officer is trying to protect the mainland, both people
and facilities. He doesn't want the launch vehicle—he wants
it to keep going out over the water. He didn't want it to turn or
go straight up, or turn and come back over land and harm people or
Of course, we NASA guys wished the range safety officer would go away,
because we don't want anybody blowing up our launch vehicle. Especially
the flight crew; people are sitting on the end of this thing.
So it was mandatory that the FDO and the range safety officer worked
extremely close together to know what each other was going to do.
The range safety officer had a plot board, [that] looked very much
like the ones that the FDO had, but he had limit lines on his, based
on danger to people and facilities. So it was the job of the range
safety coordinator, me after Lunney, to spent a lot of time at the
Cape with the range safety officers, explaining exactly how our systems
worked, the capabilities, explaining our limit lines during the launch
phase, and convincing them that we would abort the mission and keep
it away from the things he was worried about long before it got close
to his limit lines.
It was mostly a pre-mission job then to gain mutual respect between
the two people and to ensure that they had a clear understanding of
what our capabilities and limitations were and then in real time to
coordinate it. I mean, on launch day, we talked for a couple of hours
before liftoff and we had code words back and forth. That was always
a fun thing. If you hear this code word, it had to be two syllables,
like "baseball" or something. But you recognized his voice
and if he ever said that, that meant he was getting ready to blow
it up, so we had to take action ahead. But that's what that job was.
It was a very rewarding thing, because in the early, early days of
Mercury, I guess, there was not that kind of communication between
the NASA control center and the range safety officer. This was an
Air Force person, and in the early few days of Mercury, they kind
of took the attitude, "This is my missile range and I'm in charge
and I'll blow it up when I want to." [Laughter] That was shortly
overcome by Glynn Lunney initially, who was the first JSC range safety
coordinator, after they realized they needed someone to talk to, these
people who wanted to blow us up.
Then I took that over at the beginning of Apollo. Of course, at that
time we were already—"we," the Johnson Space Center—was
already talking about the Space Shuttle. Then when it became a reality
at the end of the Apollo program, then it became a similar job of
explaining the Shuttle systems and trying to talk the range safety
people out of having a flight termination system. "Just don't
worry about it, we'll take care of it" type thing.
But it was another rewarding job, because they had some good people
down there, and I made some good friends. We developed a mutual respect
for each other.
Very important, since it's such a critical job to fill, it's good
to have that respect and understanding between the two.
Yes. Certainly didn't want to have anybody blow up our launch vehicle.
I'm sure the crew would appreciate that, as well. [Laughter]
Well, I'm going to go ahead and stop the tape one more time and change
it out and then just have a few last questions.
Looking back on Apollo and as the missions were coming to a close,
what was your general feeling, or even the feeling of the center and
the people you were working with? Were people ready to move on to
the next step, Skylab and Shuttle, or were there some thoughts about,
"Gee, we came this far, we were working so many years to land
on the Moon, why don't we do this more?"
I think we wanted to do it more. Of course, all good things must come
to an end, but we did have at least a couple more Apollo flights planned.
They were rather abruptly curtailed because of financial constraints.
That was a letdown, and it was also a big emotional letdown just after
Apollo 11. Even though we were very busy and working very hard, there
was a question of, well, how much longer do we want to keep doing
this? So there was a lot of talk at that time about either a Space
Shuttle or a Space Station. They were kind of in competition with
each other as to what would be the next big program.
In the meantime, the Marshall Space Flight Center had really come
up with the idea of Skylab, because it was using one of their empty
boosters, the S4B stage. So once we started into Skylab, I think most
of us in flight control, and even probably throughout the center,
were getting pretty bored. This is just, "Yes, we're keeping
people up there for a long time, but it's still Earth orbit. Hey,
we've been to the Moon. This is easy. There's no challenge to this."
There were problems and we had the problem with the panel not deploying
and they had to figure out how to overcome that with the parasol,
the umbrella, to shield it and all of that. Each flight had its own
set of problems, but we didn't feel like other than proving how long
that men could live in space and doing some scientific experiments
which most of us non-scientists really didn't understand [or care
that] very much about [unfortunately,] I'd have to admit, you know,
but it was just pretty boring stuff.
We wanted to keep going with the manned exploration, and there was
a lot of talk then about, "Well, we've done exploration, now
we have to exploitation. We have to prove that there's a benefit to
this. We're running these experiments on Skylab and we could do the
same thing on Space Station, a permanent manned presence in space."
That's attractive and had its own set of challenges, but then in competition
with the Station was the Shuttle debate, that says, "We want
to immediately begin to prove that useful things can be done in space
and we can carry payloads back and forth, and we can put up communication
satellites and materials processing satellites." There was a
lot of talk about things like how you can make perfect ball bearings,
and all kinds of things you can do in space. Benefits to medicine.
So I think the last couple of years of the Apollo program and throughout
Skylab there was a lot of personal questioning going on among the
people that worked at JSC about what we want to do next, what does
the country want to do, what does NASA want to do, what did I want
to do. I personally was terribly bored with Skylab. I mean, it was
just—and I argued that there was no need to have the trajectory
guys even go to the control center. That was a very radical idea at
the time, probably still is, but there's not anything that we had
to do that we couldn't do from our office. So why go over there and
sit at the console and twiddle your thumbs for twenty-four hours?
So there was a lot of that kind of discussion. Of course I lost that
debate. They wanted warm fuzzies. The flight director wanted to see
people right there. He wanted to go and talk to them, and even some
of the younger people who hadn't spent all those years in the control
center, they wanted to go over there because, hey, that's where the
excitement is. Well, guess what? The excitement's gone.
That's when I and I think a lot of others really started thinking
about other career paths, and there's got to be something beyond flight
control. [Laughter] Can't be a flight controller the rest of your
life. Of course, we wanted to go to Mars, but that seemed to be out
of the question because we didn't have the public support for it.
Certainly not support from the President like we had with Kennedy.
But we thought surely we'll do that within the next ten to twenty
years, no question, by 1990 at the latest, we'll have men on Mars.
Unfortunately, it wasn't in the cards.
Not the same kind of motivations that there were, I guess, that helped
get to the Moon.
Well, it was [both] motivation and dollars. I think people were beginning
to question, is it worth the money that you've spent. And that's an
argument that I frequently make and others, but it's an argument that
you can't win. There are always people who argue, well, there's too
much to do here on Earth. And certainly there is a lot to do here
on Earth. But, first of all, there's no guarantee that the money that
you save by not doing things in space is going to be spent on Earth,
or that it's even going to be spent well.
The money doesn't always solve all of the problems that we have on
Earth. I think that it's a very important part of human beings' psyche
to be explorative. Every great thing that's ever happened to the world,
Americans for sure, has been a result of exploration. If we stop looking
over the next horizon and trying to see what's there and learning
how to deal with it, then I think we're doomed, I mean, the Earth.
I don't know what that means. I don't know that we can find a planet
or a Moon or something where hundreds of thousands of people can live,
or that we can find some resources there that we need here, but I
think there's an answer somewhere in there.
The Earth's population keeps getting larger and larger, and regardless
of what we do to try to protect the environment, basically it gets
worse as the population goes up. There's not a whole lot, I don't
think, that we can really do about that. If you have the Earth fully
populated, it's probably not a real desirable place. Energy is still
a problem. We are going to run out of natural resources energy-wise
here one of these days. And even the Moon is a potential help for
I mean, you know, nuclear power turned out to be not such a good thing
here on Earth. Maybe we could put a nuclear plant on the Moon. I'm
not really advocating that, but I'm not sure why not, and I think
that we certainly could do that. We've already done quite a bit of
work on how to transmit energy. There's a lot that we can do with
solar power. We worked within NASA for a number of years on solar
satellite systems, and that's still a possibility. But maybe we put
a satellite farm on the Moon, maybe we go back to the Moon and mine
There's all kinds of energy things that I don't think we're adequately
addressing right now. We're just kind of putting our head in the sand
and saying, "Well, that will all work out, and in the meantime
let's don't spend any more money on space, because that doesn't really
help us out here on Earth." It's very unfortunate.
You say, "Why Mars?" Well, because I don't know and nobody
else does. Nobody knows what we're going to find there, just like
Columbus didn't know what he was going to find there and Lewis and
Clark didn't know what they were going to find.
We didn't know what we'd find when we went to the Moon.
Yes. It's really interesting that, especially after the movie Apollo
13, young kids are just so excited about space. There's a little boy
that's about eight years old, lives across the street here in Marble
Falls from me now. He is a space nut. He's read everything there is
to read. I've run out of material to give him. He probably knows as
much as I do about it now. [Laughter] It makes me so happy, though,
that there are people like that. Interestingly enough, he said to
me one day almost exactly what I've been saying for years, he said,
"I don't know what we would find in space, but we ought to go
look. How can you not go look?" How do you explain to an eight-year-old
kid why we aren't? So for those of us who think we ought to be doing
something, we could get really depressed that we aren't.
The Shuttle is a wonderful vehicle. I'm proud of the work that I did
on that program, for longer than I did on Apollo, probably, and Space
Station. I worked on Space Station. I'm sure some great things are
going to come from that, but it's not being bold and aggressive like
we used to be back in Apollo. The Space Station is another Skylab.
It's larger and better equipped. I think [not] even larger as it turns
out, as far as habitable space, but it's an experimental facility
in Earth orbit, and in that respect it's another Skylab.
We've just about worn the Space Shuttle out, and it's been a wonderful
vehicle, but we need a new one. We need one that's a lot more modern,
because it's really thirty years old. It started flying twenty years
ago. But it was based on designs that were formulated ten years before
that, so it's a thirty-year-old vehicle. You can keep refurbishing
it and it'll keep going forever, probably, but we need some different
programs to do some bolder things, I think.
I think there's a lot of people that would agree with you. Hopefully,
without too many more years, we'll see some more coming along.
Unfortunately, I can't really figure out the mechanism that would
cause that to happen. It doesn't do any good to complain about it
unless you can do something about it. It's easy to say, "Well,
the government's not doing the right thing. The people aren't motivated."
But it doesn't do any good to say that unless you have a concrete
answer for, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" And
I don't have that answer, unfortunately, that's what's frustrating.
I hate to complain without having some proposed solution, and my proposed
solution is let's start planning a mission to Mars.
Interesting sidelight to this, [what we're] talking about there, I
worked for Jim [James C.] Fletcher when he was the administrator in
the early seventies. At his retirement, his second retirement, because
President [Ronald] Reagan brought him back after the Challenger accident,
so at his second retirement party I got a chance to talk to him for
a few minutes and he said, "Jerry, if you were the NASA administrator,
if you were in charge, and Congress authorized a manned Mars mission,
where we would go to Mars? What would be the first thing you'd do?
How would you handle that?" Because he obviously had been thinking
about it, and he was that kind of guy, he always asked those kind
I said, "Well, first thing I would do is I would probably establish
a new NASA center in Utah," because that's where he was from.
It's a good state, right? Been to Utah. "And hire a bunch of
college graduates and put them to work on it."
He said, "Oh, no, you couldn't do that."
I said, "Why?"
He said, "Oh, that's too drastic. We've got enough centers."
I said, "But, look, Dr. Fletcher, right now you've got every
NASA center fighting each other over what role they're going to play
on Space Station. I mean, they're stabbing each other in the back.
So what are you going to do? Would you divide up the Mars program
among all these centers and let them fight about it, or would you
pick one as the lead center and make the rest of them so mad that
they'll never cooperate?" I said, "You know, what people
don't realize is one reason that Apollo was successful was, planned
or unplanned, NASA formed a brand-new NASA center in Houston, and
because of the judgment of people like Bob Gilruth, Chris Kraft, Max
[Maxime A.] Faget, didn't want to hire a bunch of old aircraft workers,
aerospace engineers, experienced people. They wanted us stupid college
guys, like me, who didn't know any better. They said, 'Okay, you guys,
we're going to put a man on the Moon in ten years.' 'Oh, okay, we'll
go do it.'" [Laughter]
And I was serious. If NASA were to get approval to do a manned Mars
mission now, I am 100 percent convinced, unfortunately, and it hurts
to say this, even the Johnson Space Center couldn't do it. You would
have to go somewhere. Kansas, Utah, I don't know. Start all over again.
Get a bunch of good leaders like we had, Gilruth, Kraft, etc., and
hire a bunch of smart college people. College graduates now are a
lot smarter than we were when I graduated from college. I mean, there's
no lack of talent, and young people like to be challenged.
I have no doubt that if the President and the Congress were to approve
a manned Mars mission by 2010, within this decade, and NASA did form
a new center populated mostly by people in their twenties, as we were
at Manned Spacecraft Center forty years ago, that it could be done.
I have no doubt that it could be done. They would have the extreme
difficulties, they'd have more bureaucracy to fight than we did, they'd
figure out a way around it. They'd pull it off just like we did. Nothing
would make me happier than to see that.
That would be wonderful. It'd be great.
But it would be a kiss of death to try to divide it up among the NASA
centers right now. That's a sad commentary, but if we don't realize
that, then we're really hurting.
Yes. You mentioned again, and you've mentioned throughout, a lot of
the leaders and the people that you worked with that really made such
a big impact on you and on the program as a whole. Were there any
other thoughts you had on those individuals, or on any other people
Oh, gosh, yes. Of course, I've mentioned Gilruth and Kraft. And enough
said, they did their jobs. They were wonderful people to work with.
I had to add to that category Carl Huss who was my real first day-to-day
boss in mission planning and even in the control center. Just a real
inspiration, would not accept any kind of bureaucracy BS or anything.
His favorite phrase was, "You've got to learn how to be operational."
He would put down people in the program office or anywhere because
they weren't operational. I mean, it's time to check your gut. I mean,
it's yes or no, you've got two minutes to debate this, don't waste
all day, make up your mind. That's being operational. Get all the
facts [and analyze them].
Glynn Lunney for sure. I am extremely, extremely fortunate to have
worked most of my NASA career with Glynn. I've been his deputy probably
three or four different times in different jobs. Well, first of all,
he has a great human resource capability. He knows how to motivate
people. People like to work for Glynn. That's a special talent. More
so than anybody I have ever known, though, he can take a most complicated
situation, the most convoluted set of circumstances and sort out all
the crap and come to a logical conclusion in less time than anybody
I've ever known. It's just an uncanny capability. I mean, you know,
everybody else, even some real smart people that I've known, can look
at a situation and just wring their hands and say, "Oh, me, what
are we going to do?" Glynn just kind of casually sizes it up
and he says, "Well, you take this and you throw that away and
you ignore that, because that ain't got anything to do with it, and
it's not time to deal with that yet. The most important thing, the
first priority is, you've got to do this, and then you got to do that,
that, and that." Then everybody kind of says, "Oh, he's
Lyn Dunseith is another extremely brilliant person, very much like
Sig Sjoberg. A very nice person. Never raised his voice, never screamed
and hollered. Just very easygoing. Very much alike, Sjoberg and Dunseith,
very, very super people.
John Mayer, who was my division chief in MPAD, very smart guy. Cliff
Charlesworth, prince of a guy. He and Lunney probably taught me more
than anybody else, on-the-job training, probably because they were
my bosses, along with Huss. But very patient, or at least I always
thought he was, and you might get some debate about that. [Laughter]
He put up with a lot of crap from me, I know. I thought he was extremely
Those are the ones that really stand out. Max Faget was a person that
I didn't ever really know that well until after Apollo, but he was
a god. I mean, there was Wernher von Braun and there was Max Faget.
I mean, he invented the Mercury spacecraft and he designed the Shuttle.
I probably went to the other side of the hall when I saw him coming,
you know. [Laughter]
Then after I had served a couple of years in [NASA] Headquarters [Washington,
DC], and I was back at the Johnson Space Center in the technical planning
office, Max walks into my office one day and closed the door. I thought,
"Oh, me. Okay, what have I done now?" Because one of the
things that I did in that job was divide up research and technology
money that the center got between the various directorates, and he
was head of the engineering directorate. I thought, "Okay, well,
I haven't given his directorates enough money and he's coming in to
rake me over the coals."
But he closed the door and he said, "I have a question to ask
you." I'm just about to tremble. He said, "My secretary
tells me she's reviewed every office, every division, every directorate,
every staff office at the center, their input and output, as far as
memos and documentation and all of that. She says your office is the
most efficient. Would you tell me how you do that?" [Laughter]
So for thirty minutes then I sat and lecture Max Faget on how to run
an office. [Laughter] I remember going home and telling my wife, "Okay,
yes, I think I've arrived today." [Laughter]
But Max Faget is just a brilliant person. He still used a slide rule.
He could figure out stuff on a slide rule faster than we could on
a computer. And it never stopped. Just anytime we had a major technical
problem in the control center, he was one of the first guys that got
called. I mean, not only because he controlled a lot of resources
that we used, but because of his brain. I mean, he was just a very
For example, on the first Shuttle flight, we had a horrible problem
with the pressure buildup at engine ignition and before liftoff. The
engines are running for three seconds or so before they release the
bolts and liftoff. It was causing a back pressure, and actually it
was bending some components on the Shuttle. Not a good situation.
We were in endless meetings on how to solve that, contractors and
One Saturday, in walks Max, who had pictures and some prototype material
and stuff he'd gone and bought with his own money, some sailcloth,
and he'd set up this thing in his backyard and stuff, and figuring
out, "Hey, well, now here's what you need to do. You stretch
this cloth across there and put water in it and then on ignition it'll
finally burn this away, but the water will stop the pressure from
coming back up." It's the solution they still use today. I swear
he did it, I don't know, within a couple of weeks and by himself.
We probably would still been in those meetings trying to figure out
how to do that without Max. He has to be up there. Not a real personable
guy, and he'll tell you that. But a brilliant mind, brilliant engineer.
I wish I'd had the opportunity to work more with him. Hopefully a
little of his engineering smarts would have rubbed off. [Laughter]
Certainly a lot of very unique and good people that you had a chance
to work with.
Yes. As I think about it especially, I'm the luckiest guy in the world
because of just how I got there and then to have that many good people
around. I'll tell you something, and I haven't told many people this,
and I have to be careful because they don't understand it, I guess,
but I spent a couple of years at NASA headquarters, and then when
I left NASA I went out into [the] aerospace [industry] with the Grumman
[Aircraft Engineering] Corporation, outstanding company, and I could
talk all day about what a good company it is and what good people
But I learned at both headquarters and at Grumman, what I hadn't realized
until I got in those environments was that at JSC in the sixties I
was surrounded by competent people. It wasn't just a few like Gilruth
and Kraft and Dunseith and Lunney and Charlesworth and Faget. I mean,
yes, they're the standouts. Everybody was competent. The teamwork
that we had was just incredible.
Unfortunately, I didn't find that outside the Johnson Space Center.
And it's not just knowing who the people are, but what I hadn't realized
is that at JSC, if you needed help, you could get it really quickly.
There were people there who not only knew, were smart enough to solve
the problem, but were willing to do it. I didn't find that at headquarters.
I didn't find that in industry, either. It wasn't just Grumman; I
spent a couple of years with United Space Alliance in my last job.
Smart people. Some of the same people. Even Glynn Lunney, he was there,
that's the reason I was there. But nothing like we had at the Johnson
Space Center in the sixties. And until you get taken out of that environment,
unfortunately you don't realize that you're in it.
When you didn't have anything else to compare it to.
Right. Yes. But I was surrounded by competence, and that's a luxury
that you don't find, unfortunately.
Certainly pretty unique to be able to have that experience, that situation.
Yes. I think that probably the only way to create it again is, like
I said, if we get another great challenge, is to get a bunch of guys
in their twenties and tell them to go do it, and they'll figure out
a way to do it.
Well, maybe we'll see that happen.
I hope so. I hope so. I'm not nearly as optimistic as I used to be.
Well, Columbus certainly had his share of difficulties along the way,
so maybe we're just in one of those dry spells, and there's hope yet.
Yes. It just seems a shame that, of course, this is a sign I'm getting
old, but it's incredible for me to now meet people who weren't even
born at the time we landed on the Moon. It's like a historical event
rather than an ongoing thing. In fact, there are even people, "Oh,
did you all really do that, or is that something you made up?"
[Laughter] It's kind of sad.
It's very sad.
But even on the counterpart, the really young kids that I run into,
like here in a couple of weeks I'm going to Austin to talk to an elementary
school class, and I've done that a number of times, that just gets
me all jived up again, because they are so gung-ho. This is the Grissom
Elementary School, and they've had some experiments on the Shuttle.
In fact, you could give them the Mars project and they'd pull it off.
Well, they certainly are still enthused about it, like you said and
they've got a lot of ideas, and they certainly do have a lot of experience
on their own. They are playing with computers more now than a lot
of us have been.
Oh, yes. I heard something recently that the Air Force has been able
to cut back on their training drastically because the people, the
recruits they're getting now are so much more qualified, have much
better hand-eye coordination than in the past, that they've been able
to eliminate or cut back a lot of their in-flight, in-cockpit training
time, and they're doing it on the ground with simulators. Like you
can buy software and run on your own computer.
That's pretty interesting.
I'm sure it's true that kids now that play computer games all day
long, they probably have good hand-eye coordination.
Certainly do. Certainly do. Well, I want to thank you very much for
sharing all of this with me today. It's been fascinating.
I hope I didn't bore you to tears.
Not at all. Not at all. I thoroughly enjoyed it.