NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
F. Gordon, Jr.
Interviewed by Michelle Kelly
Houston, Texas – 17 October 1997
[This] interview of Richard Gordon was conducted [at the Johnson Space
Center] in Houston, Texas on October 17, 1997 by Michelle Kelly and
assisted by Carol [Butler]. …The first question I'd like to
ask you is how you decided to join NASA and how you got involved in
becoming an astronaut?
Gordon: Oh, the involvement is really kind of basic. All my peers
were involved in the program. I should explain that a little bit.
I was at Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland and just
graduated from test pilot school in July of 1957. And when Sputnik
flew in October of that year, it obviously got everybody’s attention.
And it wasn't until 1959 when the seven Mercury guys flew and I knew
all of them at that time. Even though I was in the Navy, I had worked
with the Air Force people on several projects at Patuxent River. Al
Shepard [Alan B. Shepard, Jr.] happened to be an instructor of mine
in test pilot school.
And I knew John [H.] Glenn [Jr.] because he was the desk officer in
the Bureau of Aeronautics and he had flown one of the things that
I had done later on in 1961. But he was the project officer for the
F8U-3. And General, now, Tom Miller was the F-4 project pilot. That’s
one of the projects that I worked on. So knowing them and being involved
in that work, I was not in a selection group for the Mercury. I keep
telling those guys that I was far too young to have been accepted.
But in 1962, I was involved in the second selection process. And it
was, really, when you think about it, it’s a normal professional
evolution, if you will. You learn to fly and we were all carrier pilots
when we went to test pilot school and space, obviously, is the next
addition to it. So 1962 came around and they said, "Would you
like to participate in the selection process." All the hands
go up and all that. I failed for selection at that time. And fortunately
had an opportunity then when the selection came about in 1963 and
was selected at that time.
Kelly: And can you tell me a little bit about the
selection process and what you went through to become selected?
Gordon: Well, in a nutshell, the selection process, it’s kind
of interesting, because it’s a computer run that you had the
basic requirements to become an astronaut. Age, experience, blah,
blah. Do you desire to continue in the selection process? And then
the affirmative, of course, then gets you invited. At that time in
1962, was a week of physicals at the School of Aerospace Medicine
in San Antonio, Brooks Air Force Base. A week as an out patient, a
full week of extensive physical examinations. Those that passed that
satisfactory were invited to back to Houston, I believe it was in
Houston at that, yes it was, it was Houston, for a week of technical
interviews. And then after that was over, go back home and wait for
the process to be completed. And there were nine guys selected in
1962. Repeated the process in 1963 and I was one of fourteen people
selected in that year.
And once then you did become selected, they went through an extensive
training program from what I understand for the new astronaut group,
or astronaut candidate group.
Yeah, they had somewhat of a syllabus. It wasn’t firmed, really
firm academically but they had a syllabus where we went to kind of
ground school for about six months. Academically, as well as, learning
pieces and parts of hardware, what spacecraft were all about, what
rockets were all about, and that sort of thing. And at the end of
that period, we were all assigned to arenas, or areas of, so called,
specialization. I’m not so sure that that’s the proper
terminology. But I was assigned to look and monitor cockpit design
for the Apollo spacecraft. Gemini was already well on its way so there
was no activity for me in that. But the Lunar Module and the Command
Module cockpit design was under my auspices for a period of time.
Oh, really? And I understand that you received that assignment because
you were probably one of the most experienced test pilots of the group.
Of course I was.
Well can I ask you a little bit what you did and did you work with
some of the engineers in the design or did you make early recommendations
Basically, the design is somewhat basic but you work directly with
the system engineers, here at the center. You know in the cockpit,
you’ve got all the systems. You got the navigational system,
the electrical system, communication system, propulsion system. So
you’re really involved with all of them….So that gave
me an opportunity to get to know each of them here. In addition to
that, you spend a tremendous amount of time at the contractor facility.
And in the case of the Command Module, we were always at Downey, California.
Fly out on Sunday night and come back Friday night after work. That
type of thing. And we did the same thing with the Lunar Module with
Grumman Aircraft in Bethpage, Long Island. So it was coast to coast
we were in Houston so we had to fly in from Houston to New York or
Houston to L.A. And we kind of rotating and it depended upon what
was scheduled in the review process. We had systems set up where you
had a preliminary design review. Well, all of the system engineers
and the contractor engineers, as well, would get together and critique
what the design was at that time. Now, the first one was called a
preliminary design review [PDR]. And then after those problems that
were identified in a PDR were corrected, hopefully, then we had a
critical design review. And after that was completed and problems
corrected, then you went right into actual manufacturing. So that
was the process that we went through.
And what types of problems or challenges did you find in designing
the Command Module and the LM [Lunar Module]?
Oh, mostly arguments between what the government wanted and what the
contractor wanted to provide. But those were normal. I don’t
mean to be that they were confrontational necessarily although sometimes
they were. Because every time you change something, you’re talking
evaluation of delays and costs and those kinds of things. And we were
under a great deal of pressure … I shouldn’t say great
deal of pressure … but some pressure because the edict that
President [John F.] Kennedy sent down in 1961 that we were going to
go to the Moon before the decade was over. So there was always that
in the background. So we wanted to do things in a hurry but we wanted
to do it properly and right. So there was always that conflict and
that mix but things went fairly well until we had the fire.
And can I ask you a little about that? Did you become involved after
the fire in redesigning the Command Module?
Yeah, most of us did. Frank Borman, of course, was on the review board
at that time to determine the cause of the fire. And that was the
only one … well, we were first going to fly two of them. Block,
so called, block one vehicles and they were only designed to go into
Earth orbit. But after that, we decided that, or NASA decided they’d
go immediately to the, so called, block two. Incorporating all those
fixes that were identified from the fire. Number one, a quick opening
hatch. One that you could open within seconds rather than taking minutes
to open. And there’s a story behind why that hatch was designed
in that manner to begin with.
then had to eliminate all flammable material which … creature
comforts, we had a lot of flammable materials in there for our convenience
and the things that we needed to do. The redesign of the spacecraft
itself in the terms of potting of the instrument panel, wire tray
runs, we protected electrical wiring throughout the spacecraft because
this was assumed to have been the source of the ignition in Apollo
1. So we had worked on those things and worked very closely with the
contractor as well as the other new thing that was in the block twos,
the tunnel and the docking mechanism, the probe, if you will, that
they put on the Command Module. So once those thing were done, we
were ready to fly and finally in October of 1968, we were back on
And can I ask you what you think perhaps NASA’s most valuable
lessons learned were at that time after the fire and redeveloping
the Command Module?
Well, we did one more thing. The probably the big thing they learned
that, we were very, very fortunate and we became complacent because
of the environment we were working in, 100% oxygen in both Mercury
and Gemini. And all of a sudden here … and that had been an
original design argument to begin with, mixed gases as opposed to
100% oxygen. But we had been successful for ten Gemini flights and
six Mercury flights and so we were operating a Command Module with
a 100% oxygen. At that time, we seemed to have no problem but we had
flammable material and 100% oxygen. And all that was needed for a
disaster was a source of ignition. Well, we found that too.
I think that was probably one of the biggest things in the spacecraft,
the design of the hatch was axiomatic. It evolved very logically.
But the reason it took a long time, we had to start designing systems
in the vehicle that would provide nitrogen and oxygen, at least for
the pad operations until we got into flight. Then as the atmosphere
leaked out, which it does at a very slow rate, nitrogen would be replenished
with oxygen so eventually, in flight, we were back to 100% oxygen.
But I think that in itself, the time to redesign and test between
January of ‘67 fire and October of ’68 flight. Took a
while to get those things done.
I understand from some of the other people with whom we’ve spoken
about how they felt at time when they learned about the fire. And
how did you feel when you learned of it? Were you surprised at all
Oh, I think that we were all shocked about it. I certainly was. You
know, we hadn’t contemplated anything like that. And here was
a routine test on the pad. Who would have suspected anything like
that was going to happen in that particular environment. And I think
it was a shock that it happened. I think it provided resolve in all
of us that we were going to continue and do the things we had to do
to accomplish President Kennedy’s edict that we were going to
go to the Moon and safely come back before the decade was over. Recognizing
we had a problem, the ability to correct and do something about it,
and a strong desire to continue with that commitment. Because we could
have very easily said, “Well, this isn’t worth it.”
But it is worth it.
Absolutely. And it seems like that was a really extensive project
for you to be involved with?
Well, I’m sure it was. It was about that time, of course, when
I finished my Gemini career in September of ’66, I was reassigned
right away to an Apollo crew. So we were involved in that. I was part
of Jim [James A.] McDivitt’s crew as a backup Command Module
pilot. So were immediately involved in taking the second, excuse me,
it was the third Command Module but the first Lunar Module into flight
on Apollo 9. So we were happily involved with all of that activity.
And we were very concerned with about the weight of the Lunar Module.
It was overweight like some of us are today. And we had to go through
a super weight reduction program. So that, of course, delayed some
of the early Lunar Module flights to the Moon because they were overweight
and didn’t have the capability to perform a lunar landing.
I was wondering if we could go back a little bit to Gemini?
You can go back to anywhere you want.
And talk about some of your experience on Gemini. And I understand
that you were assigned as part of the backup crew of Gemini 8. And
what was your work like in preparing for that mission? Did you work
very closely with Neil [A.] Armstrong and Dave [David R.] Scott?
Gordon: Oh, very much so, very much so. Pete [Charles
C. Conrad, Jr.] and I were backup crew. And you obviously …
when you first start out, you do everything together. Everything is
identical. You go to the same places, you do the same thing. And it's
not until very near the end that the backup crew kind of steps back
a little bit and lets the primary crew take the load of the training
because this is really what it’s all about. But Gemini program
was very interesting. When President Kennedy said we were going to
go to the Moon, we hadn't even been in orbit yet. You know, what's
this idiot telling us that we're going to the Moon, we haven't even
been in orbit so we had a lot to learn.
had to learn ... the essence of the Gemini was to give us the experience
that we needed to go to the Moon. Long duration, we hadn't even been
in orbit yet. So we had to at least stay in orbit, or zero g, for
ten days which was the design mission to the Moon. We did that with
Gemini 7, staying in space for fourteen days. And the next thing you
started working on which was essential to Apollo was docking, or excuse
me, was rendezvous first. You have to rendezvous first before you
can dock. In other words, you have to meet before you can link up
if you catch my drift. So the rendezvous problems were many and varied
and we tried a lot of different techniques from 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, and
12, different ways to accomplish a rendezvous. And then, of course,
the docking procedures with the Gemini vehicle. That, with the maneuverability
of Gemini, we could change its orbit which you couldn't do with Mercury.
Once you were there, you were there. We could maneuver during reentry
so that we could, hopefully, navigate to a precise landing in the
addition to that, Gemini, even from Gemini 4, gave us a little bit
of insight into extravehicular activity. What was required to do those
kinds of things. So it led to some of the redesign or the design of
the Lunar Module suit. The environmental control system that you worked
in to control metabolic rates and those things. So Gemini was a very,
very important bridge between Mercury and Apollo. And it was essential
that we did ... it was a very exciting time too because we were flying.
Once we started flying with Gemini 3, we were flying every two months...I
need a glass of water too.
Would you like to stop for a moment?
Gordon: Yeah. OK. That was basically the reason for Gemini. And my
first crew assignment was backup Gemini 8 with Pete Conrad. And, of
course, Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott flew that flight.
Kelly: And did you work with mission control after
you found out that Armstrong and Scott had been gyrating wildly after
they got …?
Gordon: I was actually in Mission Control at the time. We seemed to
gravitate toward there and stay up when the crew stayed up. As the
backup crew, you're usually behind Capcom, Capsule Communicator. I
don't know why they would call it capsule anymore but I guess we still
do. But we were there to help them. Interpreting what the crew was
doing and where they were at that particular time. That was a little
hairy if that is the proper word to describe the event as well.
It sounds like it.
Oh, they were in trouble. We didn't really realize that at the time
but when we got a look at the revolution rate that they were experiencing
and that thruster staying on, until they got that under control, they
had a problem.
Kelly: And were you available to help them in any
Gordon: Oh nope, just sitting there helping the Mission
Control sort that thing out. And actually they had that problem out
of, I think if I recall correctly, basically out of communication.
They solved it and they solved it by using the reentry control system.
When they came back AOS situation, acquisition of signal. When we
learned that they had indeed activated the recovery system, well that
was the end of the flight. They were obligated to reenter at the first
opportunity. The only Gemini flight that landed in the Pacific Ocean.
Kelly: And then, moving on. You went onto become
a pilot on Gemini 12 then, I'm sorry, Gemini 11?
Gordon: Deke [Donald K. Slayton] had a, apparently,
a three flight rotational system set up for crews rotating from prime
to backup which didn't hold true in all cases because every now and
then, he’d slip somebody else in as he did on our backup crew.
I flew our backup on 8. Three more flights later, I was prime on 11.
Consequently, it happened with my experience in the Apollo program
as well. So we came off the backup crew for 8 and were immediately
assigned to Gemini 11.
Kelly: What was your experience like on 11. Once
you got up, I understand, you conducted one of two EVAs [Extravehicular
Activity]. And on your first, particular, EVA, I understand that you
did some work in trying to create artificial gravity. And I'm wondering
if you wouldn't mind elaborating on that EVA and part of your mission?
Gordon: Well, that was something I was looking forward
to a lot. We had not been too successful in doing work outside the
spacecraft in EVAs. If you talk to Gene [Eugene A. Cernan]. Well Gene
Cernan had a problem on 9. Of course, Ed [Edward White II on Gemini
IV] was very successful because he didn't have to do any work. All
he got to do is have fun, float around outside. But Gene had trouble
on 9. And that was basically a metabolic problem as well as anything.
Mike had some problems on 10 in getting to the other Agena and being
able to control himself. And I thought we had a pretty good handle
on that for 11.
experience that we gained in training in the zero G airplane looked
like we were going to be okay but we, once again, had problems. I
got myself in a real bind. Pete and I were so jacked up for that EVA
and excited about it that we actually completed all of the procedures
at least an orbit, or an hour or so, before we were to go out. So
there we were sitting there in a pressurized suit getting ready to
go outside. Well the last thing I had to do was put this gold visor
on my helmet. And I couldn’t get the damned thing on. I mean
I struggled and struggled with that thing and apparently. <Loud
noise - microphone drops> Golly!
That’s all right.
You know what I’m going to do. I’m going to put that right
there if that won’t bother anybody.
We were so far ahead of the procedure list that we were sitting there
in those pressurized suits and when it came to for me to put the visor
on, the fit tolerances were tighter than I had anticipated. Even though
I had put it on my helmet before. I’d probably done it without
the suit being pressurized. And I struggled with that thing. Tried
to arms up there and get that gold visor over my helmet. I totally
exhausted myself. I even put my head down inside that cockpit and
had Pete try to put it on. And we couldn’t get…and finally
I got the thing on but I was behind the power curve, if you will,
in terms of metabolic rate. So I had really worked up a real heat
load in there.
then when I got out of the spacecraft. We opened the hatch and I flew
out with all of the debris. And the first thing that I had to do was
to install the camera on the outside. Which was easy enough to do
because I was still basically standing on my seat and being able to
hold myself in. But then the next thing I was to do was to propel
myself to the Agena and attach the tether which would keep the two
vehicles together. It had a 100 ft tether on it. And in training,
I had been able to always wedge my legs between the Agena and Gemini
spacecraft. And then be able to use both hands to attach the tether.
Well, I couldn’t keep myself in that position. I kept floating
away so I ended up having to hold the docking bar with one hand and
put the tether and the locking mechanism on there with the other.
And I’ve always equated that to the task of trying to tie your
shoelace with one hand. And that was a lesson we brought back from
that EVA. And I was so far behind the power curve with metabolic rates.
I was perspiring. My eyes were stinging from my salt solution that
they decide to quit.
the lesson learned there, which finally Buzz [Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.]
did it on Apollo 12, was we need restraint systems when you’re
out there. And developed those restraint systems whether it was a
place for your feet, a window washer belt, or something that keep
you in place while you have both hands free. Because if you don’t
do that, you’re just going to float away or float off somewhere
else. That was the basic lesson there. Painful for me because I wanted
to complete it. I was supposed to go back to the adapter section and
eventually have a little propellant system that I could fly around
with and never got to do it. So that was the end of that.
I have a classic picture here of you.
Oh, ride ‘em cowboy. Yea, that’s it. That was it. You
see how I have my legs wedged between the collar on the Agena and
the spacecraft and it just wouldn’t stay there. But that’s
it. One of those pictures. And I’m trying to use both hands
to work. I finally couldn’t do it, I had to hang on to the docking
bar with one hand and operate the thing with the other. The second
EVA was easy. That was no problem at all. It was basically one of
looking at source of UV in the solar system. Standing up in the hatch,
outside the spacecraft, but pointing this camera or the spacecraft
at a particular area in the solar system where the dark places where
they suspected that there may be…UV photographs that they were
taking. Actually, Pete and I, in the two orbits they were doing it,
I fell asleep during EVA. So that’s how difficult EVA is when
you can fall asleep. It was a totally different experience.
Was that really true? I read that you and Mr. Conrad both fell asleep.
True! Daytime I was leaning up against the spacecraft and he was inside
like this. We were going over the Atlantic and he said, “Hey
Dick, guess what, I fell asleep.” And I said, “Guess what,
I did too.” It was nice and warm and cuddly. Back in the womb,
you know. I’m nice and snugly. But it was a totally different
experience between the two because one was so easy. And Dr. [Robert
R.] Gilruth had suggested that maybe it would’ve been better
off if we’d reversed the two EVAs. And I think he has a point.
Because, I think, the more you’re in that environment the more
you pick up and the more you learn. And by that time, I would’ve
not had the problem with that bloody damn visor. I wanted to throw
that thing as far as I could throw it. But that’s life.
And what kind of training did you undergo to prepare yourself for
Two methods basically. I had an air bearing table here at the center
that we used for the propulsion gun I had to propel myself as part
of the experiment. That, and the zero G airplane. And those were the
basic two training devices except, you know, going through the procedures
step by step by step in one G while you’re back there looking
at the backpack that you were going to put on and that sort of thing.
And that’s just to get you familiar with step 1, step 2, step
3, on through the recipe book. Unfortunately, we hadn’t learned
to use the water. This is what Dr. Gilruth had come up with after
11 as well. He said, “We have got to do something different
because we’re not succeeding very well.”
he came up with the idea of utilizing underwater training which simulated,
if you didn’t try to swim in the water, if you let the environment,
pretended like you were in zero G. And they could put weights on your
pressure suits so that you could actually think you were in zero G.
So it gave us a much better feel for what tools were needed. And it
also gave us a better feel for the timeline. In other words, we could
stay in the water and stay there for an hour and continuously go on
and do the work. In the zero G airplane, you got 25 seconds of simulated
zero G going over the top of the parabola, and 2 G pullout and then
you’re recovering again. So you’re always starting each
parabola from a very stable position which led to false assumptions
as well. But there wasn’t enough of the right training for that.
Finally we learned how. It’s like a school teacher, you do it
over and over again until you get it just right.
And I understand on your mission on Gemini 11, it was the first mission
that you rendezvoused and, I believe, docked on the first orbit?
And can you tell me a little bit about your work in that area?
Well, we approached the rendezvous problem, do KISS, [keep] it simple
stupid, to begin with so things worked fairly under control and stabilized.
And I think the first one was done with, what they call, M equals
4. In other words, four orbits to make adjustments with the orbits
to stabilize. Well there’s four times one and a half, that’s
six hours of rendezvous activity. The lunar mission, because of the
short life span of the accent stage said that we couldn’t afford
to do things like that in case we had a problem. So we had to rendezvous
much faster than that.
we came up, or the people here at the center came up, with the idea
that we shouldn’t be able to rendezvous within the first orbit.
And there was a lot of controversy about that. It was going to be
too expensive in terms of fuel and this, that, and the other thing.
Well, it did cost a little more fuel but it was pretty dynamic and
pretty exciting when you’re launched after the Agena and your
rendezvous was by the time to get to Hawaii and dock was by the time
you get to the United States. So it was a different way, a different
method, of rendezvousing which cut down the time required for rendezvous.
It gave you all the rest of that time to take care of other problems
that may or may not develop. And it eventually was the way that we
rendezvoused on all of the lunar missions.
and 12 did somewhat of a hybrid rendezvous technique because we had
a CDH [Constant Delta Height], and I forget even what all these terms
are now, but it took a little longer than a direct ascent rendezvous.
But basically the rest of the missions did the same thing that we
did on Gemini 11, they rendezvoused within the first orbit.
Now did you work with sextants, did you work with computer guides?
What type of navigational tools did you use?
In Apollo, we used a sextant and radar. There are two things. In the
Command Module, we had the sextant sighting on the Lunar Module and
we also had a ranging device from the VHF. We could tell the ranging.
You’d tell the computer what those sextant angles were and what
the range the VHF said and it would make the computation. On the Lunar
Module, it had radar which was its primary method of rendezvousing.
So the two were complimentary and very, very accurate.
Did you use similar devices on Gemini 11 as well?
I’m almost sitting back here trying to figure out what we did
use. We had the ground providing calculations and the other way we
did was to calculate angles against time and I had charts. And I would
look into, kind of lookup, enter here, exit here, type thing that
would give us the velocity correction that we needed for rendezvousing.
And of course, we got that information from the rendezvous radar that
was in the Gemini spacecraft.
And did your work on Gemini 11, as far as rendezvous and docking were
concerned, really help you out in your mission on Apollo as well?
Yeah. Yeah, except, of course, in Apollo you had a partner in the
other vehicle that was doing the reciprocal calculations. So then
you compared notes. So basically, the techniques were virtually the
same. So we, Pete and I, have always felt very comfortable with that
kind of rendezvous because it was the only thing we really worked
at. Of course, when I worked on backup on 8 and 9, they did things
a little different too.
And then I’d like to ask you a little bit about your transition
into Apollo. You had mentioned earlier how you were working with the
modules themselves and their development. How did you find your transition
between the Gemini and Apollo programs since Apollo was already underway
once you’d finished up with Gemini 11?
Well, it was a transition between the two. I was working on the spacecraft
and its design on Apollo. I was taken off of that and put in a Gemini.
I mean I was assigned to a flight crew. So I was working on Apollo
for a period of time up until we started training for Gemini 8, and
then I sat on a flight crew. And from that time on, I was on a flight
crew until I retired, or virtually until I retired. So then when Gemini
11 flight had finished in September of ’66 then we were right
back in the Apollo, picking up virtually on where we had left off
And was the training, at all, any different?
No, more the same. You know, more complicated. The vehicles were more
complicated. The things that we were trying to do were more complicated.
The simulators were much more sophisticated. So the transition was
easy. I mean it was not that difficult. You just had a different vehicles
and more sophisticated training devices and you stepped right into
it. It’s like going from say a DC-9 to a 747 type of transition.
And it’s things that you could easily make without any problem.
That’s great. And I understand you were then assigned to the
backup crew of Apollo 9?
And when you were assigned to that backup crew, was it known as Apollo
9 at that point?
No, I think not. And I’m just trying go back. I’ve always
been mad at Jim McDivitt because we could have been on Apollo 8 instead
of Apollo 9. And there’s a significance to that.
Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Well, as things turned out, the decisions that were made after 7 flew
which was nothing more than, nothing more, the first flight of the
Command Service Module. Then we were ready to fly Apollo 8 and we
didn’t have a Lunar Module for it. So what are you going to
do with Apollo 8. Jim’s [James A. McDivitt] crew was the next
one up. I mean in a normal rotation of things, he would have been
assigned [Apollo] 8. But he, in his own reasons and wisdom, as the
crew commander, wanted to stay with the Lunar Module. He had worked…as
a crew, we had worked on the Lunar Module so long that he wanted to
go ahead and stay with the flight that would have the first Lunar
Module with it.
I don’t recall all of the machinations that went on then with
Frank coming on to Apollo 8 and Mike Collins had surgery about that
time and then Jim Lovell [James A. Lovell, Jr.] took his place, Bill
[William A.] Anders was on 8. And the decision was made since there
was no Lunar Module to send it to the Moon. Which in retrospect, was
a pretty damn bold decision because if we had done that and it was
Apollo 13 they would have never had gotten back because the Lunar
Module was the only thing that saved them. So I look back at that
and say, “You know, that was a pretty damn bold decision and
the proper one to make at that time because why repeat the same things
that Apollo 7 had done.” So they decided to something different
with Apollo 8.
in those days, we had other plans. First of all, we were going to
go into real high elliptical orbit and test the heat shield gradually
up to thirty six thousand feet per second and all that sort of stuff.
And that got all modified, thankfully, or we’d never made it
before the decade was over. But with that decision having been made
and Jim wanting to stay with the Lunar Module, Apollo 9 became the
first flight of the Lunar Module in Earth orbit as well. So that’s
where we were. We were still the backup crew for McDivitt and his
crew which was Dave [R.] Scott and Rusty [Russell L.] Schweickart.
So I’ve always blamed Jim McDivitt for not letting his backup
crew be on Apollo 11.
I think I understand. And I understand then, just from your inference,
the reason why you are disappointed because then you weren’t
assigned as the prime crew on 11.
Oh, that’s a jester. I mean I’m jesting. There’s
no control over that. It could have been anybody or anyone and nobody
was selected to be the first crew to land on the Moon. It just happened
to be Apollo 11. If Apollo 10 had not been successful, it probably
wouldn’t have been Apollo 11. So most of this is talking amongst
us girls, ribbing each other about who should have been where when.
But we weren’t. And then as 9 was very, very successful flight.
Both vehicles in Earth orbit. And we moved onto Apollo 12.
that process of going onto Apollo 9, we’d lost one of our crew
members. C. C. Williams [Clifton C. Williams, Jr.] was killed in an
airplane accident and Al [Alan L.] Bean was reassigned in his place.
So Conrad, Gordon and Bean were together through Apollo 9 and also
prime crew on Apollo 12. Which was great for us. We were extremely
compatible and had a lot of fun. The only surprise on Apollo 12 was
a lightening strike. Everything else was, as they say in the community,
nominal which, of course, means insignificant. I’ve never seen
a connection between the two but that’s one of the vernaculars
of space language.
Well, I wouldn’t call it insignificant by any means.
Well, that’s what nominal means if you look it up in the dictionary.
But that was a surprise. Something nobody thought about, nobody trained
for and that thunderstorm in November of 1969 about thirty-six seconds
after launch got everybody’s attention.
And would you mind telling me a little bit about that?
Well, there’s not much to tell you about that really. It struck
and some people say it was a static discharge, others were…it
didn’t make any difference because the consequence of it was
to knock the fuel cells off the electrical busses. The fuel cells
were providing us electrical power at the time. Fortunately, during
launch, procedures say that you’ll have the batteries turned
on as a back up system. If we hadn’t had those on, we’d
of had an automatic abort. So the batteries picked up the required
electrical load and we proceeded from there. Al Bean got the fuel
cells back on the line during the boost phase and the only thing that
left once we got into orbit was realigning the platform because we
lost a platform in a little subsequent strike at fifty-three seconds.
inertial measuring unit, well it didn’t fail, but the information
form the inertial measuring unit to the computer was interrupted so
we had no indication of what our attitude was. The attitude reference
system was doing this. So once we got into orbit and got it realigned,
everything was okay. I mean we checked everything we could in the
orbit and a half before we had to reignite the S4B [rocket]. And the
only the lost was the quantity gauges on the reaction control system.
And that was of no consequence really because the ground was able
to tell us what quantities we had. In the school of physics, PV does
equal RT. So with the pressures and temperatures, they were able to
tell us what quantities we had. And it wasn’t missed at all.
But that was the only thing that we found. Fortunately, the recovery
system was not interrupted.
Yes, I understand that. I read in Mr. Slayton’s [Donald K. “Deke”
Slayton] book, Deke!, that he mentioned that they had contemplated
what to do about the situation. And how do you feel about that? That
they thought, ‘Well, you know, there’s nothing we can
do now, why not let them go to the Moon.’
Well, and that’s the only correct decision that they could have
made. If they would have made us come back, we would have been highly
upset. The word is pissed-off…is what we would’ve been.
But yeah, they were concerned about the pyros because the recovery
system was full of explosive devices. And they thought, ‘Gee
whiz, if that system has been bad, the crew would have been just as
dead coming back from Earth orbit as they would coming back from the
Moon so why not go ahead.’ And it was altogether fitting and
proper. We never even thought about it. We never even discussed it.
I mean we were going to go. I mean, that was the only thing we were
even concerned about. Once we saw that the spacecraft…the integrity
of the vehicles looked to be pretty good, we didn’t even contemplate
that we were going to come back. We thought maybe they’d take
a little longer look and keep us in another orbit or something but
they didn’t even do that.
And it also seems significant too that President [Richard M.] Nixon
watched your launch. And I believe that that was the first time a
president had ever seen a launch.
Yeah, he got all wet too. That is correct. And some people say the
decision to launch was simply because he was there. I don’t
believe that. I don’t think that NASA…makes decisions
based upon those kinds of inputs. That’s not the way we did
business. And I hope they’re not doing it today because that
would be totally incorrect. If he didn’t get to see the launch,
there were many more that he could come back and go to. So the idea,
and I’ve heard that in some corners, that the only reason they
launched us in that kind of weather was because he was there. I’m
not buying that one.
And once you did go ahead and launch and once you checked out your
vehicle and realized that, you know, your spacecraft was intact and
you were on your way to the Moon, what types of things did you perform
at that time, what types of things did you do to prepare for your
mission out to the Moon?
On the way out?
Well, that’s a three day trip. And we were still all excited
about, not the flight and the trip because we hadn’t accomplished
a mission yet. Which was a totally different thing than coming back
home because the mission had been essentially completed except for
reentry. We had the Lunar Module onboard. We could see it out there
in front of us on the way. We had to do a barbecue maneuver for thermal
control. In another words, we had to have the spacecraft perpendicular
to the plane of the orbit so that we would stabilize the temperature,
a slow barbecue maneuver. Exposing all pieces and parts of the exterior
of the spacecraft to the sun. And it was an acclamation period. We
had a lot of things to do. We looked into the Lunar Module, we opened
the hatch. The three days going out went by fairly, fairly rapidly.
You know, it was always a fascination to look back at the Earth and
see it getting smaller and smaller and smaller and the Moon getting
bigger and bigger.
that was…it was a relaxed time but we were still excited because
we hadn’t done anything yet. And, of course, when you first
arrive at the Moon, that’s kind of an exciting time itself because
it’s a totally different place to be. And the first time you
get a chance to look at it you really want to see most of it. And
you only get to see half of it because that’s all that’s
ever illuminated. But once we got into orbit then, of course, it was…the
rest of the work had to be done.
And once you did get into orbit then, I understand, you had, the LM
probably took off and you were in your Command Module. And when we
were speaking with Mr. Collins, he mentioned that he wasn’t
able to track the landing sight of the LM. And I understand that you
were able to.
Well, you know, that’s somewhat of a…probably the reason
that Mike wasn’t able to track it, he didn’t know where
the hell they landed.
And they didn’t know where they landed. The ground didn’t
know where they had landed because of the navigational problems that
they experienced. You know, the accuracy with which their state vector
was and then Neil had to fly beyond the boulder field. Well, to correct
those kinds of problems, we were assigned a specific target called
Surveyor 3 which was in a specific crater on the lunar surface. And
the reason for learning how to do that was later missions we’re
going to land along side thirteen thousand foot mountains and big
valleys that were six hundred meters deep and a kilometer across,
the highlands of Descartes and Hadley Rille on 15 and Taurus-Littrow
on 17. Later on, these sights were not picked but we knew that we
wanted to go to other places that were going to require precise navigation.
It sounds very interesting. It sounds like it was probably a difficult
job for you.
Well, that and the difference was, I knew where that spacecraft was
going to land. And I could see the crater in my optics. I could identify
the crater and I saw a source of light, reflected light, on the rim
of that crater. And I didn’t see the shape of the LM or anything
like that. But I knew that they were going to land on that crater
and I knew the only thing that was going to look like that, my own
interpretation was that had to be the Lunar Module. Well I stuck my
neck out to about here and said, “I see the Lunar Module.”
And it was but it was just a source of reflected light off of the
Lunar Module that I saw. It didn’t look like anything else down
there. I think, who else saw the landing sight, I think Stu [Stuart
A.] Roosa claims that he did also on 14. And I think that trick of
it was that you had to know where they landed. If you didn’t
know where they landed, you’d never find them.
What types of things?
I always said I had superior vision. That was the only reason I was
able to see.
Well, maybe that’s true as well. I’m sure you’ve
been asked this a million time and I want to apologize if it is being
redundant or repetitive. But I’d like to ask you what types
of things did you do in your Command Module while they were on the
I was very busy on the Command Module. I had a lot of assigned tasks.
Number one, I was all alone, I had to fly a three man vehicle. That
kept you fairly busy. But I had a lot of landmarks to track for navigational
purpose. A tremendous amount of photographs to take. We had a four
camera array, Hasselblad array, that fit into the circular window
on the hatch that required a certain amount of tracking to take more
photographs. And the film was different. I had IR film, we had false
color IR, we had black and white, and we had normal color. So we were
mixing the cameras and it was on an interval. As you went across certain
parts of the Moon, the illuminated part obviously, you were taking
The rest of the time was involved with housekeeping, a sleep period,
and then I also had a plane change to make. I had to ignite the SPS,
Service Propulsion System, by myself to make a plane change because
we simply had landed, I think, three degrees south of the equator,
something like that. So as the Moon rotated, I had to make a plane
change to get back overhead for their rendezvous. And that was basically
it. It was a fairly busy time. If you knew those two other clowns
that I lived with, you’d been happy to have a little time alone
yourself. So that’s what I always tell everybody. “Were
you sad being alone?” I said, “Hell no, if you knew those
guys, you’d be happy to be alone.”
Were there a lot of antics on the mission?
Well, yeah. We just had a great time with each other. We have a lot
of fun. We’re very comfortable with each other. Pete and I got
so that we communicated without speaking and if you know what that
means. And we still do that today.
We had a lot of fun. They had a good time on the lunar surface. They
came back so damn filthy that I wouldn’t let them in the Command
Module. I made them strip, take every bit of clothes off they had.
I don’t know what it was about the storm, but it had an extraordinary
amount of dust that clung to their suits. When I looked into that
Lunar Module when they took that hatch apart, all I could see was
a black cloud in there, I didn’t see them at all. I looked in
there and said, “Holy smoke. You’re not getting in here
and dirtying up my nice clean Command Module. So they passed the rocks
over, they took off their suits, passed those over, took off their
underwear, and I said, “Okay, you can come in now.” That
was something. And, you know, the dust disappeared on the way back.
Did it really?
Never found it. It had migrated outside the bags we had the suits
in and everything. Of course, we clogged up all the filters and everything
with the dust but it was all gone by the time we got back or we thought
it was all gone. Maybe it wasn’t.
And at that time, I understand you went through your reentry procedures
after arriving back at the Earth. And were you in charge of those
Yeah. Once we got into orbit, the Command Module was mine to fly.
So I did the transposition and docking with the Lunar Module. I didn’t
do the rendezvous but I did the docking. I was the active participant
in the docking. And I occupied the left hand seat when I wasn’t
down in the lower equipment bay doing star sightings or whatever.
So I was the bus driver, yeah.
It sounds like you had an excellent landing as well.
Well, yeah. There wasn’t much to do other than monitor the landing.
Once you start the reentry, of course, fortunately the computer does
very, very well. So you’re sitting there basically monitoring
its performance in case something obvious goes wrong, you can take
over and manually fly the same kind of reentry that it was going to
fly because all the information is there for you to be able to do
that. And you just sit there and watch it and it did its thing. It
was spectacular, it was absolutely spectacular. Eight minutes from
the time you enter the atmosphere at roughly four hundred thousand
feet until the chutes open. So it’s a very dynamic time.
…How was it so dynamic in your opinion?
Well, it’s very fast, the G loads build up, you’re anxious
to get, what we call, sub-circular and it digs into about 6 G. And
it gets sub-circular and then it starts maneuvering but the visual
aspect. Damn, I’d jump up and go holler at those guys but it’s
there office, isn’t it. As the ablative material comes off as
the heat builds, the colors behind you and because the spacecraft
is maneuvering for entry, it’s kind of a corkscrew out there
behind you. And the material is burning off at different temperatures
and there’s yellows and reds and greens and purples and they’re
all mixed up. So it’s like, “Wow, look at that!”
But then your inside, your head’s inside monitoring the performance
because you’re trying to navigate back to where the ship is.
You have a specific point in the Pacific Ocean that you’re supposed
to land and you want to land there as close as you can just to get
the hell out of it. That’s all.
And I understand too that once you did get out of it, they threw you
some garments. I understand that they did not use the biological …?
We didn’t use the BIGs [Biological Isolation Garments] on 12.
We wanted to do as little of that as possible being the kind of people
we are although at the same time, appreciating some of the requirements
of the medical community and the people on Earth. They found out from
11 that there was nothing there to cause any problems so they eliminated
the BIGs but we did have to wear our respirator when we got out …
in case we had bad breath. Oh dear. Anyway, that’s all we wore
and then we had our blue flight suits on. We went immediately into
the … well we didn’t, we had the white coveralls on. We
had blue flight suits in the Mobile Quarantine Facility [MQF]. We
went directly then into the Mobile Quarantine Facility.
And how long were you in the MQF?
Uh, all the back here from Hawaii. Well in the ship for a day to get
back to Hawaii and then the flight back to Houston. I’d have
to go back and really look at that. I think we were probably there
for three days maybe, two or three days, three days probably. That’s
a long flight from Hawaii to here. It was probably fourteen hours,
a day and a half. It takes a lot of time just to get off the ship
and get into the airplane to get us back here as well. But it was
comfortable. We had everything … no, we didn’t have everything
we needed but most everything we needed.
That’s great. And then you proceeded onto the Lunar Receiving
Yeah, they backed the MQF up to, what is it, building 37 at that time.
I think it was. And we were right in quarantine.
What types of things did you do when you were in quarantine?
Must you know?
You don’t have to tell me if you wouldn’t like to.
No, the normal routine stuff. I think we had some movies and we had
some pretty good meals and we worked on … I think Pete worked
on a Heath kit at the time. But it gave us the opportunity to write
all of the reports that were required of us. All of the pilot reports.
In addition to that, all of the briefings. Between a biological barrier,
we briefed other flight crews, we briefed Mission Control, Flight
Control Division, system engineers. So once we got out of quarantine,
we were all done. We didn’t have anything more to do, Apollo
12 was over with except for the studying of the lunar materials that
was brought back. So it was an appreciated time. Even though we felt
that we didn’t need to be in quarantine, we used it to our advantage.
And by the time we got out, all of the reports were written, all of
the debriefing had been accomplished and that was it.
That’s great. Now did you have any time for reflection on your
flight? It sounds like everyone was so busy.
Not during the time of flight. I think that you do afterwards. And
they’re pieces and parts you remember. You read the transcripts.
You [watch] the videos. “Oh yeah, I remember that.” But
at the time of the flight, you’re busy enough doing other things
that you really don’t have time to look at that. Al Bean didn’t
even have time to reflect because he slept most of the way coming
back. Crawled into his cocoon and he stayed there. I think most of
the reflection of what you saw and what you did probably comes subsequent
to the flight, in retrospect. And I think that the best comment. I
made it and others have made it. We’ve often been asked, “What
did we discover when we went to the Moon?” “We discovered
the Earth.” Think about that because you don’t get to
see the Earth from that kind of distance before and it takes on a
whole new perspective.
And for you, what type of perspective did it take on?
Oh, its beauty. Its apparent fragility. Its uniqueness in the solar
system, maybe the universe. Who knows. And I think you look at it,
it has been likened to a delicate Christmas tree ornament that’s
hanging out there all by itself in a black void of space. Blacker
than that black briefcase there. Blackest black that you’ll
ever see. It looks like velvet. And it’s the only thing out
there that looks like that’s the place you ought to be because
it exhibits a tremendous amount of fragility. Which I think environmentally,
we‘re probably appreciating more and more. The sheer beauty
of this planet is awesome. The blues of the oceans, the whites of
the clouds and the khaki color, the appearance of the continent. It’s
awesome. It really is.
I would like to ask you, just very quickly, a little bit about your
reassignment after you returned from 12 then?
I understand that they had plans on going through Apollo 20 at that
Originally, yes. Not…I’m not sure when the decision was
made but the missions had been so successful and the risk, reward
ratio was diminishing or increasing depending on which is the denominator,
that decisions were made not to fly 18, 19, and 20 and to utilize
that hardware in a Apollo applications which became Skylab. To utilize
that hardware with the exception of the Saturn Vs, of course, for
other purposes and not go back to the Moon. When I flew on 12, I did
not have the opportunity to fly the last sixty miles which was my
desire. And I was reassigned as the backup crew commander on 15 thinking
that under the normal rotation process from 9 to 12 to 15, possibly
18, that I’d have an opportunity to go back again which I wanted
to do. And that’s why I wanted to stay in a crew cycle with
the Apollo program.
18 didn’t fly so that was the end of that dream. And I’ve
always had a lot of fun with Cernan about Apollo 17 of who was going
to be assigned on that flight. And logically, Gene was because his
rotation, coming off of Apollo 14 as a backup commander, said that
he was going to fly 17. But he stole my Lunar Module pilot and that
was the reason that I had told him that he couldn’t fly because
I had trained Jack [Harrison H.] Schmitt as my Lunar Module pilot
and he stole him. The decision, of course, was made that Jack was
the only scientist, so called, in the program. In particular, his
Ph.D. was in geology. And it was a natural that he should have the
opportunity, or the community. I shouldn’t say Jack necessarily
but he was in line to do so but the community, at least, would have
the opportunity to send a scientist to the lunar surface. Now whether
it would have made any difference or not is problematical but it did
satisfy the community.
Jack did a good job. I trained him very, very well. And Gene and I
used to, and still do, have a lot of fun about who was to fly Apollo
17 when he stole my Lunar Module pilot. And of course, the guy that
I’ve always felt bad for was Joe [H.] Engle who was on his crew
and didn’t have the opportunity to fly. And Joe handled that
very, very well. Like a real man. The cookie crumbles in strange ways.
Yes it does. I guess my final question, I’d like to wrap this
up for you, is what do you feel that NASA really gained in your experience
and in your opinion and how do you feel that they’ve used what
they may have brought into it right now in their current program?
Tough question. What NASA gained from the Apollo program is a how-to
attitude. I’m not so sure, I guess we could but I sometimes
wonder if we could do that again today. And I’m not sure what
they learned. In terms of corporate memory, I sometimes wonder if
they had learned anything. I know they have. I’m being somewhat
facetious but trying to make a point at the same time.
You’re not alone in that.
Yeah, is that right.
Yeah, you’re not.
Well, it’s changed a lot. And that can-do attitude, the vigor,
and the enthusiasm that was experience in the sixties, I don’t
know that it exists today. Maybe it does. Maybe I’m just not
exposed to it. But I think that’s an era that is gone by.
Where do you think they should go right now?
Oh, obviously they’ve got to go with the Space Station. No question
about that. I’d wished they had at least gone back to the Moon.
The Moon is going to be a great training ground for those things that
are needed to go to Mars both in terms of hardware and personal experience.
All of those things that I’m disappointed that we haven’t
done that. So twenty five years this December, the last flight was
on the Moon and I would have thought that we’d of been back
there before now but times have changed. Politically, economically,
leadership, desire, willingness, all that’s different today
than it was then.
Well, I would really like to thank you so much. I’m very honored
that you agreed to talk to us.
No, it’s kind of fun.