Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Kevin Rusnak
Houston, Texas – 6 June 2001
Today is June 6, 2001. This interview with Ken Young is being conducted
in the offices of the Signal Corporation in Houston, Texas, for the
Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. The interviewer is Kevin
Rusnak, assisted by Carol Butler and Kirk Freeman.
I'd like to thank you for taking time out to join us today.
We're glad to have you here. If we can start out with you telling us
maybe a little bit about growing up, what kind of interests you had
in either engineering or aviation, the things that perhaps guided you
into a career in the space program.
Okay. I'm out of Austin, Texas, grew up there, went to school there,
went to the University of Texas. “Hook 'em.” [Chuckles]
Actually, decided in high school—I've always been more or less
pragmatic kind of scientifically minded person, although not deep science
or not academic science, more engineering, curiosity about how things
work and such. So I decided in high school that I wanted to be an engineer.
I wasn't sure what that was, but I decided that's what I'd enroll at
UT in. Actually, I enrolled in summer of 1957 as a civil engineer. I
really didn't know one engineer from another.
Then fortunately, I guess for me, the Russians launched the Sputnik
in October, October 4th, 1957. Just like Homer Hickam, the Rocket Boys
fame, that inspired me to change my major, and I went the next day and
changed to aeronautical engineering. There wasn't even an aerospace
at that time, degree.
So that's what I did, and throughout my five years there at UT I think
I had two space courses, one in orbital mechanics and one in astronomy-type
subjects. But that's what the curriculum consisted of. Then the rest
was fundamental engineering, which, of course, is really the key to
any engineering, the math and calculus and some of the higher, tougher,
harder math. Analytic geometry, that's a good one.
So by the time I graduated in '62, they had added quite a few courses
to the space part of it, but I was mainly aeronautical, although I never
really liked it. I disliked high-speed aerodynamics, it's so tough,
for one thing. Fluid flow and all that is really a tough subject. So
I was always more interested in orbits and trajectory work.
I had an excellent guy for that, he's still there at UT, I guess, he
must be a professor emeritus now. A guy named Byron [D.] Tapley, he's
in orbital mechanics. In fact, it was engineering mechanics that he
taught. He was really good, and I kind of owe my real love of orbital
mechanics to Byron.
Got out in the summer of '62 and had several aeronautical offers. I
had worked two summers in Silver Spring, Maryland, for the Navy in the
wind tunnel, the high-speed wind tunnel. They called it then the Naval
Surface Weapons Lab. I think it's changed the name. It's still there.
I came out of there thinking I didn't really want to work aerodynamics,
and NASA gave me a pretty good offer. It wasn't the best I got, but
they just said they were moving down here to Houston. I decided that
was great. I didn't really want to leave Texas, so it worked out. So
it's been, what, thirty-nine years this month that I started with NASA
down here. Not here, because this was all cow pasture, I mean literally
all of this. NASA Road 1 was a two-lane gravel road from the Webster
railroad tracks to Kemah.
I remember coming down in late '62 just to see what it looked like,
the site looked like, and going on this gravel road and seeing all the
cows out there in the site. They hadn't started building anything at
that point in the middle of '62. So we were housed in several office
buildings mainly off the Gulf Freeway [now Interstate 45]. I'm sure
you've heard about some of those. I was in one called HPC, Houston Petroleum
Center, which distinguishing feature is its oil derrick. It's still
out there, or it may not be the same one. That was thirty-nine years
ago. There's still an oil derrick out there. I think they've changed
the name of the place. There's a gas station in the old parking lot.
But those one-story buildings are still there where we were in offices
for, what, two, two and a half years. I joined Flight Operations Division
under Chris Kraft at that point.
What kind of job was it that they had offered you? What were you expecting
to be working on when you signed up?
Just space, manned space. Of course, they had already picked Houston
as the Manned Spacecraft Center in the fall of '61, so I knew that much,
but as far as particular task or job, I just came in. The personnel
[office] was in the East End Bank on Telephone Road, upstairs in this
little office no bigger than this. I went up there and a guy named Les
[Leslie J.] Sullivan, who, unfortunately, passed away not too long ago,
helped me decide where I wanted to go. I mean, they just hired a bunch
of us. I went in there without a real idea, just knew I wanted to work
on trajectories and orbits, so he put me in a mission planning branch.
That was Mission Analysis Branch, as it was called in those days. John
[P.] Mayer from Langley was our branch chief.
Shortly after that I showed a real interest in a rendezvous problem
which was just being worked. Nobody had ever done a rendezvous, including
the Russians. I started working for Bill [Howard W.] Tindall and with
a couple of guys that really were the best guys I ever worked with at
NASA, Ed [Edgar C.] Lineberry and a couple other guys. Bill Tindall,
he was probably the best boss I ever had. That guy was so dynamic, it
was unbelievable. He wasn't always technically right. We had to set
him straight a few times. Of course, none of us knew what we were doing.
We were just trying to make plans for Gemini. I started working on Gemini.
But one thing I was thinking through these memories, and people find
it hard to believe, but in the summer of '62, I think it was in August,
I used to have the notebook from this series of meetings they sent me
to, but I've lost it in the garage somewhere or something. But it was
a series of meetings on space stations. It was General Dynamics [Corp.],
Boeing [Co.], and one other big contractor. It wasn't Lockheed [Aircraft
Corp.]. It might have been McDonnell [Aircraft Corp.], but I don't think
it was even McDonnell. Convair [Division of General Dynamics] maybe.
This was in the days where [Wernher] von Braun was still the guru of
NASA future, anyway, and he was expounding on the artificial gravity
rotating 2001. That's strange. It's 2001. A station like that, where
of course everybody thought you probably would have to have artificial
gravity for man to survive in space. It turned out to be at least for
a short time, that's not really that necessary.
But anyway, there was a series of meetings and I took notes for our
branch, and nothing came of it. It was just some concepts of how these
big stations could be launched and set to rotating and accommodate men.
But that was in the summer of '62.
So my first real task—well, I actually worked on a couple of Mercury
flights, the last two Mercury flights. I say I worked on them, I plotted
data and did some curves through the launch trajectories. I didn't know
what I was doing there, but I was plotting data. So I'd say that really
was my first task, was working on Mercury.
Later I was happy to say that I worked on every manned space program
from 1962 on. I guess I can still say that, except for individual Shuttles
that have been flying. I worked on Apollo-Soyuz with the Russians in
'75, and Skylab. I've seen it all and pretty much done it all.
But in the fall of '62 we started working Gemini, which, in my opinion,
is the best program we ever had as far as real what you'd call basic
preparation for manned space. Mercury, of course, was important to catch
up with the Russians, for one thing, but as far as technological advances,
they were mostly made in Gemini, that made us able to get to the Moon
in '69, in eight years from nothing.
I imagine some people have probably told you this, at least it's my
opinion that if we had to go, if we wanted to go back to the Moon, which,
of course, a lot of people do, I don't think we could do it in eight
years. The red tape and the politics and the bureaucracy is so bad now
that I really don't think we could do it. For one thing, we don't even
have a manned vehicle that could go there, much less land there. I mean,
we can do a circumnavigation of the Moon, manned, for four or five years,
because we just don't have the vehicle. But anyway, we did actually
land on the Moon, though.
Those of us here don't have much doubt about that. We've talked to enough
First of all, it would have been an even neater trick to fake it. I
mean, I don't how anybody could have done that. Steven Spielberg maybe
can now, but not in the early sixties, there was no way. That Fox program
[“Did We Land On the Moon?”] made me so incensed, I shot
them off a couple of e-mails, which they probably just discarded with
the thousands of others. But I told them I'd never watch another Fox
program. I lied, because I watched the [Houston] Rockets on Fox Sports
Net. That's the only one I'll watch. But I mean, that thing was so absurd
it just—I told them the producers were irresponsible morons to
just get ratings and whatever. Just every point they had is refutable.
In fact, I was reading one today, I'd heard this before from buddies
that are radiation experts, and there are only two to three of them
in the world, but one of their claims, I didn't watch the whole thing,
I couldn't take it. But one of their claims was if Apollo so-and-so
had launched in August of '70 or whenever it was, '72, I guess, the
crew would have been killed by this big solar radiation event. Truth
is, even if it had been launched then, which it wasn't, if they were
in the command module, they would have had no problem and would have
had enough protection.
All the other flights, the ten flights of Apollo, were minimal radiation
problems. Now, if they'd have been in the LM [lunar module] or on the
lunar surface, yes, they'd have had a problem. I mean, we had a warning
system for that flare, which occurred in August. We didn't launch 17
until December. But they could have gotten in the LM and gotten back
to the CSM [command and service module] in time to be protected. So
that's just one of the many fallacies that they tried to throw in there.
We've talked to Rod [Rodney G.] Rose, who is one of the people working
on the radiation at the point, and he had no concerns that the Apollo
crews there were going to be overly exposed to anything like that.
Rod's one of these few experts. Art [Arthur] Reubens is another one.
In fact, he's probably the best EMI [electromagnetic interference] guy,
electromagnetic guy, there is. He's still doing some consulting over
at NASA. Another guy is Cal [Calvin F.] Herman, he's an ex-NASA guy.
Then there's a guy, in fact, what I was reading today in the Apollo
write-up, was [J.] Vernon Bailey, who worked for me at Grumman, worked
on the Space Station. Vernon wrote a summary of all that, not because
of the Fox thing, but back in the nineties he wrote a summary of the
Apollo radiation threat or lack of threat and so forth. That's all documented.
I think it's on a Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama]
website. I didn't take it down. But there's a lot of proven data out
So anyway, I started working Gemini, and we worked, what, three years,
two and a half years, before we flew the first Gemini in '64, I guess
it was. Gemini III. John [W.] Young and—
Gus [Virgil I.] Grissom.
Gus. Yes. I was in training then, and I was still in MPAD [Mission Planning
and Analysis Division], but several of us had been recommended to be
training for flight controllers. I was a FIDO [Flight Dynamics Officer]
flight dynamics trainee. We had the option, it turns out, to either
stay in MPAD, be a mission planner, which was my basic role, trajectory
expert, or switching to flight control and become a flight dynamics
officer or a guidance officer. Some of us were guidance officers. Jerry
[C.] Bostick was a flight dynamics guy. He's one who did switch. I decided,
me and Bob [Robert W.] Becker, were the two that decided we'd rather
stay in mission planning for our various reasons, and so we did.
But we went through, like, Gemini III, we went to the Cape. Our first
trip as NASA employees, we were GS-7s and went to the Cape with Chris
[Christopher C.] Kraft [Jr.] and Glynn [S.] Lunney and John [S.] Llewellyn
[Jr.] and John [D.] Hodge and the whole original flight control team,
[Clifford E.] Charlesworth. We went through all the rules. They have
these flight rule readiness sessions where you have to memorize all
My fondest memory of that is after, I don't know, a week of that kind
of training and rehearsal, we were out our last night prior to flying
back home and we were having kind of a celebration party at a restaurant
there. Everybody was sitting at this big long table, the whole crew,
and Cliff Charlesworth asked Bob Becker, he said, "Well, Bob, you
know, what do you think of flight dynamics officer now?" Cliff
was the flight dynamics officer, he and Glynn Lunney. Becker, he's always
been kind of an outspoken Missouri mule, he goes, "Piece of cake."
[Laughter] And Cliff never let him forget that. It was like, "Oh,
so you don't think this is a task or a job?"
We just really, both of us thought it was just kind of boring and really
too simplistic. I mean, not to knock those guys, because they did great
work and you had to do all this immediate response and all this quick
action kinds of things and make abort calls and that kind of thing.
It's very critical, of course. But we really just thought it was—console
time was just too boring and too regulated, so we preferred to work
on mission plans and future concepts and that kind of thing.
Which I've always said, and I hope Cathy said the same thing, Cathy
[Catherine T.] Osgood, that MPAD to me filled a role that now there's
a void at JSC, anyway. We didn't know it at the time, because we didn't
have this terminology down, but actually MPAD, which is Mission Planning
and Analysis, it was an operational entity, but it was really an engineering
integration, systems integration entity. So we were the bridge between
engineering and spacecraft design, so to speak, and operations. Not
only how to fly, but how to design it to fly it easier or better. Now
that's called systems integration, but we didn't really have that term
in those days. So they always called us mission planners, but we started
like at least five, sometimes ten years ahead of the final launch, or
the launch, working on a mission, set of missions.
For instance, in spring of '69, before we landed on the Moon, I spent
three weeks in Washington working on Space Shuttle concepts and mission
requirements. So from '69 to April of '81, I worked twelve years on
Space Shuttle off and on, when I was doing Apollo, Skylab, and some
other missions. We didn't even call it the Shuttle then; it was called
the logistics vehicle. Its prime mission was to resupply a big space
station, which was Marshall's baby, and they were pitching ahead and
trying to get money to build it. Von Braun was still pushing it. It
turns out the Vietnam War and everything killed all those ambitious
plans and the country could only afford one big project, and for various
reasons we won out. I say "we." JSC won out over Marshall
in terms of the Shuttle over the Space Station.
But that's just an example of how we worked way ahead of the flight
controllers, or the operations people, although most of our guys either
worked on the front console some, or definitely in the back rooms in
real time. So to us it was the same as flight control, but instead of
boring simulations, not that they were all boring, we went back to our
offices and did future planning concepts and such. That's basically
why we chose to stay in MPAD, and haven't regretted it.
Another thing I remember, I don't know how personal I'm supposed to
get, but that flight we took on the NASA airplane down to the Cape [Canaveral,
Florida], that first time we'd ever flown. Like I say, we were just
lowly GS-7s, Bob Becker and I, Jerry Bostick, and a couple of others.
Here we were flying with Chris Kraft and John Hodge and the NASA elite.
So we take off from Ellington [Air Force Base, Houston, Texas] early
in the morning and it's like a four-hour flight down there in the Gulfstream.
This guy, a steward, is in there and he asked us if want some sandwiches,
some drinks. So, sure. So we ate our fill of sandwiches.
Then Becker discovered Kraft was having a drink, and everybody was having
a drink, and he ordered a couple of drinks. He said, "Hey, this
is really good." So we all had a few drinks and he kept ordering
them. We got there and that was great. About a month later when we got
back, we got a bill. His bill for that flight was like $93, and our
take-home was like $200 every two weeks, so it was like a week's worth
of pay. [Laughter] He didn't realize that we had to pay for that stuff.
He thought it was all just a perk. I didn't either, but mine was luckily
only about $30. That was funny. We never let him forget that.
Maybe it's a perk for the guys like Chris Kraft sitting up in the front
of the plane.
No, he paid. The Gulfstream just holds thirteen passengers and, no,
they all paid, had to pay. I'm sure Chris had to pay also. Which, by
the way, I'm sure you've either interviewed him or plan to, I would
hope. His book is excellent. I just finished it about a month ago. To
me, the most interesting part was his early—it's pretty autobiographical
really. It's more about him than the program per se, although that was
interesting to me to see how he got into it, how he ended up at Langley,
and his early years there as the test engineer. I told him the other
day—of course, I got him to autograph it, but I told him, "It
was great, Chris, but you had one mistake in it."
He said, "Well, I think I had a lot of mistakes."
I said, "Well, I didn't see but one."
He said, "What was that?"
I said, "Well, you talk about the landing of Apollo 11 landing
on the Moon was at 3:19 or something central standard time, 1969, July
20th." I said, "It was central daylight time. We went to daylight
savings in '66."
He said, "Yes, I thought, you know, I had it that way and my editor
I said, "Well, he was wrong."
So he said, "Write that up on an e-mail and ship it to me so it
will remind me." I haven't done it yet.
He'll fix it for the next edition.
Next edition. It's really a good book. Of course, he is a great leader,
great guy, he and Bill Tindall, which he gives Bill a lot of credit.
Bill was really the best guy to work for. Chris was a good guy to work
for. I mean, he was pretty tough.
It's unfortunate that Bill Tindall is not around for us to talk to.
Yes, it's a shame. I guess he died about five or eight years ago. Yes,
he really was one of the best, or the best. I had some great arguments
technically with him. He finally would come around. The main thing was
he was just so dynamic and can-do, get things done, get to the point
and get it done.
Kraft was pretty much that way and willing to listen to good technical
arguments. Of course, I didn't work directly for Kraft, because he was
up there managing the whole affair. Bill Tindall was my branch chief
for all through Gemini. Good program.
In fact, our proudest moment, or to me my proudest moment at NASA was
December of '65 when we did the first rendezvous in space, Gemini 76.
Another error, by the way, they had that wrong at the Air and Space
Museum in D.C. There's a little plaque about Gemini VI and VII, and
they had the date as December 16th, I think. It was December the 15th
that we did the rendezvous on the fourth orbit of the Gemini VI.
Since you brought it up, why don't we go ahead and talk a little bit
about planning rendezvous for Gemini. You mentioned this earlier as
one of the big problems that you worked on early on. Then they tried
some various rendezvous earlier in the program, Gemini IV rendezvous
with the booster and such, and the phantom rendezvous a couple of missions
later, these sorts of things. Why don't you take us through this progression
and how you guys attacked the problem and came to the fruition in Gemini
Yes, Gemini IV, I don't know who all has told you some of that story,
but that, to us, was never a rendezvous, first of all. It was an attempted
stationkeeping exercise. Rendezvous, to us, or the ones that originally
planned it, it was taking one vehicle to a target from the ground, first
of all, and rendezvousing, or at least getting close enough to dock
or be able to dock if you had the mechanisms, whereas stationkeeping
was if you separated, like Gemini IV's case, the capsule from the booster
and turned around and tried to fly back to it and stationkeep with it,
that's what that was. The terms weren't that well defined in those days
and some people mistakenly said it was a rendezvous attempt, or least
in my opinion, it's a mistake in terminology.
The other unfortunate thing about it was that it was kept secret from
just almost everybody. I was barely knowledgeable about it myself. Ed
Lineberry and Bill Tindall were two of the main pushers for this exercise
with the McDonnell Douglas people in St. Louis and the crew, of course,
[James A.] McDivitt. But probably one reason that it wasn't successful
is because they had some people that really didn't understand the rendezvous
problem or even orbital mechanics well enough to have been planning
this separate, turn around, and fly back at it, including McDivitt,
frankly. No fault of his. He didn't ever have a background in orbital
mechanics and didn't realize that if you thrust towards something that
it will raise your altitude and it will slow you down, at least over
a quarter of an orbit it's not effective. You have to really force yourself
back on a linear trajectory. He didn't really realize that.
The other thing was they didn't think about the Titan venting its remaining
excess propellant. Well, I think they did, but they couldn't estimate
it. They never really thought about measuring it. Of course, Gemini
III was only a couple of months earlier, and I don't even think they
had the concept then. So they didn't measure it on III, and it probably
would have been different each launch, including the Shuttle, is different
depending on the ascent and loads you encounter.
So he got off of it, off the end of the Titan, and it continued to vent,
and by the time he got situated and turned around, it was quite a ways
off and he tried to drive at it like a car. That would have been all
right if he had really expended quite a bit of propellant. Of course,
he had a real restricted budget of propellant, because at that time,
of course, we were still worried about de-orbit, and you always had
to keep enough RCS [reaction control system], the reaction fuel, to
backup the de-orbit retro pack. On Gemini we didn't have a retro pack,
but anyway, the retro fuel was separate. You made sure that you had
enough, even if it failed to get back.
So he had a real restricted budget, so he thrust at it for a little
while and seemed to be closing, and then he let off, thinking, "Well,
I'll just coast in there." Then orbital mechanics started to take
hold and he was starting to go above and slow down relative to the Titan,
and the Titan was continuing to thrust because of the venting. So they
got further away and then he got kind of desperate and compounded his
The simulations they did, which were totally in secret up at St. Louis,
just weren't valid enough to give them any real training for that situation,
both the orbital mechanics effects and the effect of the venting. That
was the reason it failed, but none of us rendezvous guys ever considered
that a failed rendezvous. That was just a failed stationkeeping exercise.
So several of us spent months analyzing what went wrong and what the
trajectory was. Of course, that was difficult to reconstruct.
A friend of mine who's one of the few still over there in what was left
of MPAD, DM [Flight Design and Dynamics Division], Flight Dynamics Branch
of MOD [Mission Operations Directorate], is a guy named Jerry [Jerome
A.] Bell. Jerry probably spent six months of agonizing post-flight analysis
on trying to figure out what the trajectories really were, looking at
the telemetry of how much McDivitt had input and what direction and
what the venting was doing on the Titan. It was just hard to reconstruct.
But basically those were reasons it was so-called failed.
Unfortunately, the media got hold of it as if it were a rendezvous attempt,
but it wasn't. They did the space walk on that mission. They were trying
to match the Russians to put a little jazz in our program to do a rendezvous,
because the Russians had allegedly rendezvoused two Vostoks back in
the previous summer, I think, where they flew by like that within two
or three miles at hundreds of feet per second relative velocity and
tried to call that a rendezvous. We said, "Nah, that's not rendezvous.
That's just shooting at something." So we still feel like we did
Now, the first failure, so to speak, was the phantom, what turned out
to be the phantom rendezvous on Gemini V. That was with a little device
that we ejected from the Gemini V spacecraft, it was called the [Rendezvous
Evaluation] Pod. I forget what that stands for, but it was a little
radar package, transponder. We deployed it in a certain direction and
then X hours later we were going to try to acquire it with the Gemini
radar and fly back to it, a true rendezvous.
They started having fuel cell problems on that flight right after insertion,
so they had flight rules that you have to come home if one of your three
fuel cells craps out, which it looked like it was doing. So after they
decided, "Well, it's probably very iffy, we'll probably have to
come home early," they didn't want to waste any fuel on the setup
or phasing maneuvers to the Pod, which, of course, was out in never-never
land. NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command], the Cheyenne
Mountain guys, were supposed to be tracking it, but they couldn't find
it. It was a little bitty thing. In those days it was pretty hard to
track that kind of object.
So they just blew it off and said, "Well, we're going to have to
come home early anyway, so all you rendezvous guys go home." We'd
been practicing for months, of course, to pull this off.
That's another funny story. A bunch of us ended up going over to the
Flintlock on NASA Road 1, one of the local saloons, and proceeded to
get pretty inebriated, including several of us, except Bill Tindall.
He didn't go. He was, I guess, hanging around for other reasons. About
ten o'clock that night—this all happened in the afternoon, and
ten o'clock that night they sent a guy over to get us and decided that
the fuel cells were okay and we ought to go ahead and try to re-rendezvous
with it, with the Pod, which still hadn't been found by NORAD. Some
of us were a little high, to say the least. Lineberry, he was too far
gone, we couldn't even—we had one of the guys take him home. He
couldn't even drive. We were kind of letting off steam and it was pretty
disappointing, because we had practiced for months and we were sure
we could pull it off, if we could find the Pod, or if NORAD could find
Anyway, several of us, Bob Becker and I and a couple of others, managed
to wobble back and we worked all night waiting for NORAD to find it,
and they never did. So we ended up, Bill Tindall had this concept of
doing the phantom rendezvous, where we just built a ghost or a phantom
target and then did the maneuvers that we had planned to do, the phasing,
a little plane change, as I recall. The Texas maneuver was one of them,
over the Texas tracking station.
We flew the Gemini right through the target, so in essence we stationkept,
or went into the same orbit as this phantom orbit. Post-flight analysis,
we verified that we had done within just a few tenths of a foot per
second matching this target. They never did find the Pod. I'm sure it
reentered a few days later.
But that was pretty funny. Wasn't real funny at the time, but somehow
we made it through the night, and nobody—well, they never said
anything. Dr. Kraft or even Bill Tindall never said anything about wondering
why we were in such a good mood doing all this work all through the
night. Some of us managed to sober up about dawn. [Laughter] We pulled
it off. That was the first phantom rendezvous.
Then the original Gemini VI, which was actually the plan that Cathy
Osgood and I worked on for like a year, year and a half, she and I and
Bill [William A.] Reini, who's another one that's departed us, he was
one of the best software programmers I ever worked with. In those days,
in the early sixties, he was a genius in software, which nobody even
really knew much about. He and I and Cathy did the mission plan for
the Gemini VI Agena rendezvous and worked on it at least a year and
a half to two years, the plan itself.
Bobby [Bob K.] Culpepper, by the way, was the one that was my lead guy
for Gemini V. He worked on it for two years, I guess. It was a disappointing
mission, I guess.
But then VI was planned for the fall of '65. The Agena blew up right
after insertion or at insertion. I think they didn't even make orbit,
the Agena target vehicle. So that was another reason that we were really
proud of Gemini 76, is we planned that whole thing and pulled it off
in like two months from mid-November, maybe even a little after mid-November,
to December 15th, and used VII the target, that long term.
That's an interesting story. I don't know if you've heard from Frank
Borman or anyone but [James A.] Lovell [Jr.], but Gemini VII was the
fourteen-day-long duration test mission in that little bitty thing that,
it was like me and my co-pilot here for fourteen days in that little
can. The story I always heard, on landing, I think we landed in the
Pacific on that one, and the frogmen who would jump out and put the
flotation collar around the vehicle. After Grissom lost the Liberty
Bell [7 Mercury capsule], it was always a worry about losing it, sinking.
So frogmen, and they usually had three frogmen jump out, put the flotation
collar around, and then open or help the crew open the hatch. They say
when the crewmen opened the hatch and these frogmen looked in and got
a whiff of the fourteen-day-old air, that two of them got sick. And
these are Navy frogmen, sea legs out the kazoo, and yet two of them
threw up on the side of the Gemini. I mean, it must have been rank,
really rank. [Laughter]
I can only imagine.
But, of course, luckily, the Gemini VI was only like a day, one-day
flight. We rendezvoused on the fourth orbit, which we called M=4. Actually,
our apogees, the first apogee was M=1, or N=1 and then rendezvous orbit
was designated in the software as M. N was the orbit count, and M was
the one for the rendezvous. So that was an M=4, which was our standard
planned rendezvous technique. You got into orbit, of course trailing
below the target typically, and then you do a series of maneuvers on
those apsidal lines that mark apogee and perigee, line of apsides, and
do a phasing and a height maneuver to get up to the target altitude.
Then you do the terminal phase.
There's where Bill Tindall and Ed Lineberry, particularly, were the
fathers of the terminal phase, where you do the closing intercept and
actually did the rendezvous and stationkeeping in this case, because
we couldn't dock. But it takes about four orbits or six hours from launch.
That was a pretty great achievement.
When you say, for instance, that you'd been planning the original sixth
mission for two years, what kinds of things are involved in that planning?
What takes up those two years?
Again, like I say, in '63 and '64 we really didn't know what we were
doing. We knew how to work the equations of motion, plan and maneuver
the right orbits, but as far as rendezvous goes, you have the relative
motion solution. So they have a set of equations called the Clohessy-Wiltshire
equation, CW equations. You'll probably hear sometime during this. Two
guys, Clohessy and Wiltshire, derived these equations of motion with
some assumptions that simplified solving them. When you had a target
at the center of your relative coordinate system and then you have the
chaser coming to it, you figure out some linearizations, but, of course,
you have to have orbital mechanics factored in there to avoid the McDivitt
kind of problem.
But you program all that in, that's when guys like Bill Reini and Jerry
Bell and some other guys came in. They were mainly software guys. Bob
[Robert] Regelbrugge was their section chief. Bill Tindall was the branch
chief. We had to program that all into an IBM computer. Back in those
days, well, when we first started in '63, we had a 1620. That's another
story that's always funny. Headquarters, NASA Headquarters in D.C.,
had a contractor named Bellcom. It's the Bell Laboratory guys. They
always were supposed to do oversight for NASA on the centers and the
center work. They got all the equations and the software from us, but
they put their own program together in the 1620 up there.
By the time we started really doing serious rendezvous simulations,
we had graduated to a 1094, bigger IBM number cruncher. They still had
a 1620. They would call us saying, "Give us the data, your target
orbit and all that for what you're simulating. We want to verify that
it's all working for you." "Okay, don't bother us." But
they had to put it all on like Friday afternoon and leave it running
all weekend, because on the 1620 it took forever to crunch through these
equations, a bunch of iterations. They would frequently come in, apparently
on Monday and find that the temperature in the room had been too high
or something and the 1620 was really delicate, and they'd call us and
go, "Well, it went down sometime and we never got an answer, but
give us your answer, the time of rendezvous or something, and what the
height maneuver was and we'll go back and rerun it again." So we
had to put up with those guys for about a year, and they finally quit
trying. That 1094, which took ten minutes, but the 1620 took about twenty
But you did that, you programmed all that in, and then you did all these
simulations and a whole bunch of contingency analysis, the error sources,
like venting of the target, or drag. Atmospheric drag is the toughest,
one of the toughest things to work out for long-range rendezvous. Now,
when you're close in it doesn't matter. When you're within a few miles
or a hundred, it's pretty negligible, the differential drag on your
target and your chaser, but at hundreds or thousands of miles and different
lower orbits, you have to account for drag and so forth.
Another thing, of course, another perturbation, a fundamental set of
perturbations are the Earth, non-homogeneous Earth, non-spherical Earth
perturbations, so-called J terms or J2 terms of geomagnetic, geophysical
constants. You have to factor all those in. In those days, a lot of
that was just analytic. There was no empirical data that confirmed perturbations,
for instance, on atmospheric drag. For instance, people used a coefficient
of 2, and finally through tons of empirical data on satellites and such,
you found that 1.9 sometimes worked better than 2, or 2.1. It's a fudge
factor, is what it really was.
So we had to fit all that in and run sims and do what we called Monte
Carlo analysis, error analysis, where we run hundreds of cases to kind
of build an envelope of dispersions, and then also derive backup targeting
techniques for when the radar failed on board for the homing, more or
less, or the intercept and the homing-in devices with line-of-sight
targeting and all that.
That's where Buzz [Edwin E.] Aldrin [Jr.] came into play. Buzz was a
big help in that arena. He had some ideas that we never really went
along with and proved to him finally that we had some better techniques.
But he was one of the major contributors.
Yes, that was one of the things I had wanted to ask you about, since
he has this sort of "Dr. Rendezvous" reputation within the
astronaut corps and such, having his Ph.D.
Definitely in the astronaut corps. I mean, he was one of the few, if
the only one that understood any of it. But, yes, I mean, I give him
his due, particularly in terms of backup crew visual rendezvous, VFR
[visual flight rules], or whatever you want to call it.
In fact, I still accuse him of deliberately failing the radar on Gemini
XII. He claims it was a coincidence, but some of us don't really believe
it. But he did pull it off without the radar. It was the only flight
that it failed on, Buzz's flight.
Also on that flight we flew through a solar eclipse, a total solar eclipse.
I think I still have that photo. I've got an autographed photo of the
solar eclipse over South America that we set up and flew. I did that
more or less personally, me and Ed Lineberry figured out how to do it.
It was pretty tricky. They had like a eight-second window to fly through
the path of the eclipse. But at the Gemini altitude of 120 or so miles,
it was pretty tricky, because we didn't have anything but the eclipse
data on the ground. We had to translate it into altitude. Took a couple
of months to figure that out.
But Buzz got a real good shot of the total eclipse and he signed one
of the pictures for that. We're kind of proud of that. That was a rendezvous
with a shadow. That was a true phantom rendezvous. I think it was like
a eight-second window we had, or he wouldn't have gotten the full, you
know, he'd only had a partial eclipse. So it worked pretty good.
So, Buzz, yes, particularly for the crew backup techniques and the 130-degree
intercept arc that we used on Gemini, the equivalent of that around
the Moon for the lunar rendezvous, like 140 degrees there because of
the difference in orbital mechanics, or geometry, I should say, the
mechanics are pretty much the same, except no drag, he was a pretty
good influence on the whole rendezvous problem. I would never say he
was the father of rendezvous. That kind of goes to the guy at Langley
[Research Center, Hampton, Virginia], Houbolt, Jack [John C.] Houbolt.
Houbolt, I think is his name. He never really worked operationally;
he was kind of an academic. Did the first papers. Ed Lineberry worked
for him. In my mind, Ed Lineberry is the father of real rendezvous,
because he's the only genius I ever worked with. I mean, he was a true
technical genius, and he knew those equations. He could sit down and
write out the Clohessy-Wiltshire equations by memory, and he was just
phenomenal. Unfortunately, he died about ten years ago, heart problem.
But he, in my opinion, would be the father of rendezvous, with Bill
Tindall being the leader for the whole effort. Ed was the technical
father, Bill was the leader, or manager, father, whatever. Those guys
were something else. They were just amazing people.
So we did all that, you know, and do all these simulations, and then,
of course, and this is where actually myself and Cathy pretty well led
the way, was you build a so-called nominal plan. So we decided on the
orbit for the Agena target based on a whole bunch of factors.
You go through a bunch of analysis, drag is one of them, but energy
analysis of how much fuel it's going to take to get there and what the
dispersions of the Agena will be on its insertion into orbit and all
of that stuff, and then figure out what the best perfect plan is, and
you know you'll probably never fly the perfect one because of errors
in dispersions and failures, but you build that into the mission plan
and then you have appendix, so to speak, that says alternative plans,
which we had for all the Apollo flights and everything, we had alternative
plans. We didn't have the exact Apollo 13 plan. Those guys I didn't
work that, because I was a lunar rendezvous guy, didn't work the LM
rescue, per se. But they had simulated things that were very close to
It was lucky, in fact, of course—and you've seen Apollo 13, pretty
good movie, actually—except for the time that the explosion occurred
and exactly what it did in terms of failing the oxygen tanks and everything,
they had simulated LM lifeboat scenarios, and so it wasn't a total shock
or revision to have to do the things they did to save them. It was lucky
that it happened when it did, instead of around the Moon, or on Apollo
8, which would have been maybe the end of the space program if it had
happened on 8, or at least for a long time it would have been.
But anyway, that's what you do, and you start that, or in those days
we started like two years before and you revised the plans based on
changing events. Lots of times the launch dates of either the Agena
or the Gemini, because the program changes and so forth, put out revisions.
Then you finally, X months, or a month or two before the actual launch,
you put out the so-called operational plan that tries to get it down
to the nitty-gritty in terms of all the detailed launch times and numbers
and all that.
In those days, of course, that was, we had done one for Gemini III.
Of course, they'd done them for Mercury, but we'd done mission plans
for Gemini III, but my branch, because we were the rendezvous guys,
didn't really have a plan that we were responsible for until V, Gemini
V with the Pod. We had to work about two years ahead to get it all integrated,
I guess, is really the term that we ended up being mission integrators.
There again, the idea that you had to learn how all the systems work
and what to do if they fail or partially fail, like the fuel cells and
all that, is what kind of made MPAD unique in terms of its role, because
it wasn't just a matter of designing those systems or operating them,
but figuring out how they ought to be designed or were designed and
how you'd operate them in failed modes and less than perfect modes and
We had experts on all those systems. We mission planners would go talk
to them and go, "What if the radar fails here?" or "What
if the propulsion system is under-performing and you can't get but so
much velocity out of a certain set of engines?" So that's the real
challenge of mission planning, is the "what ifs."
I don't know, I haven't ever really thought back through all those missions,
but I think it's safe to say we never flew one that went exactly like
it was planned. [Laughter] That's pretty safe. I mean, the fundamental
objective didn't go exactly. Gemini VI, even, after the Agena blew up,
we tried to launch and the plug fell out of the Gemini on the pad where
Schirra and Stafford, wisely, didn't pull the eject ring. That was just
Then we had to turn around and replan the liftoff time and the targeting
for the Gemini, which by the way, was another thing I'm proud of. Myself
and a guy named Jerry [Jerome W.] Kahanek, wrote the equations and programmed
the launch targeting equations that are still used today, in essence,
in the Shuttle rendezvous launches, where you put in the target orbit
and you have to figure out Kentucky windage, if you will, or you don't
launch exactly into the target plane, because of the perturbations,
you have to drift into it. There's a thing called differential nodal
regression, and we worked all that out and flew it in Gemini VI was
our first demonstration that all that Titan targeting worked. A guy
named Stan [Stanley P.] Mann was the Titan expert that we worked with,
ex-NASA guy, and some Martin Titan builder guys.
But we did all that, and really to this day, I know they still use those
same equations basically for the Shuttle. We revised them a little bit
for Skylab and a little bit for ASTP [Apollo-Soyuz Test Project], but
fundamentally they're the same software that's been in there now for
I was over talking to Cathy a couple of months ago about an orbital
debris problem actually with the Space Station. She was showing me this
data on how the Space Station inclination has been dropping. I don't
know if anybody's told you that. It's kind of a little detail. Due to,
I think, a third-order term Earth geopotential that's neglected or it's
real long-term sinusoidal, I think. But anyway, she had a curve, she
has a curve where the Space Station went into 51.6 degrees for the Russian
inclination and it dropped about 300ths of a degree, which is nothing,
although that's about ten feet per second in plane change if you went
into the wrong original orbit not knowing, which you do, of course,
But she was showing me that curve, and a young gal, USA [United Space
Alliance], I didn't know her, came up and had a sheet with a whole bunch
of equations on it and she says to Cathy—she didn't know me—she
says, "Cathy, do you know if the launch targeting, if the target
inclination is mean or osculating?" Which is whether it has the
average perturbations or actual real-time perturbations kind of a detail.
And Cathy said, "I don't know. I think it's mean, but why don't
you ask the guy who wrote it." She points to me.
"Oh, you wrote these equations?"
I said, "Yes, thirty-five years ago." I told her it was mean.
Actually, you use the mean target and then you bias, because what you're
targeting is the Shuttle inclination. Well, the Shuttle goes in at 80-something
miles altitude and the target is typically like the station, it's 200
miles. So you have to adjust for the difference in altitude because
of the gravitational effects. So I explained to her that, yes, it's
the mean target inclination, but you adjust it for what we call an osculating
term to make it into what the Shuttle goes into, so its mean I [inclination]
at that altitude equals the mean I of the target.
Then you shift the nodes because of this differential normal regression.
It's sometimes significant, it's 100 feet per second sometimes. It depends
on how far you're behind the target, believe it or not, not only what
the altitude difference is, but how you're behind the target, because
it's phase-angle-dependent. Anyway, so I explained to her how it was
supposed to work. She was kind of amazed.
I'm sure she was.
I'm sure she wasn't thirty-five years old. She was twenty-five years
But that's what you do, you do all that, and meanwhile, of course, in
addition to doing the mission planning, we supported the flight controllers
and their sims [simulations]. We would sit in the back room and tell
them when they're running through a plan and the simulating people go
deliberately throw in glitches and anomalies. Then we'd tell them what
to do in general, because, of course, their main objective is fundamental
flight control rules. You can't write rules for each situation really,
so we had to be in the background to advise and run off line.
In fact, all through Gemini we ran the rendezvous out of the other side
of Building 30. We had the launch-starting equations then for the Titan,
but we never had the rendezvous equations in Gemini. In the big computers
in the MCC [Mission Control Center], or what did they call it in those
days, MOCR [Mission Operations Control Room], missions ops computer.
Not the MOCR, it's the front room. Can't think of the term now.
RTCC [Real Time Computer Complex]?
RTCC. So we ran all of Gemini out of the other side and our 1094 and
then we upgraded that 30-something, I can't remember the IBM numbers.
Then the first few Apollo missions, I think up through 12, Apollo 12,
we at least flight followed. We did the same stuff over there that was
done in the RTCC as a backup or a check to make sure. RTCC had a great
propensity for going down at the most inopportune time, because it was
a huge complex of all kinds of data coming through, and electronics.
It was subject to frequent failure and frustration. But that's what
you do to plan a mission.
Then, of course, by the time we got to Shuttle, we had it pretty much
down to so-called cookbook, but still there's a whole lot of preplanning.
I think the cycle now is something like nine months or something, from
first mission definition to launch. We did some Shuttle missions in
way less than that because of some big changes.
We did a dual rendezvous from scratch on—I can't remember the
numbers, but in about the second or third year of Shuttle, maybe the
fourth or fifth year, we had two comm sats [communications satellites]
that we put out, Intelsat and another foreign satellite, that the perigee
motors didn't work or they worked partially and put them in these weird
I remember that mission, because I was out on the golf course playing
my best, and I got a call from Glynn [S.] Lunney. I mean he sent a guy
out to the golf course. I think I was one under par at about five holes.
I was playing really good. He sends this guy in a golf cart, says Commander
[James A.] Abrahamson wanted to talk to me and them about trying to
recover these two satellites, which I had worked that mission, but it
was just a deploy mission and our branch did the plans for it, but I
wasn't personally involved.
So I get over to the secret room in Building 1. This was the [NASA]
Administrator for Manned Space, former MOL [Air Force Manned Orbiting
Laboratory] astronaut named Abrahamson, not the sharpest guy I ever
worked with, but I guess he was a leader. Anyway, he wanted to know,
they had had these problems and they put these two PAMs [Payload Assist
Module] in the satellites in these weird 500-mile apogee, half a plane
change orbits down toward the equator, whether we could pick them up
on that flight. [Laughter] Of course, Glynn Lunney knew better than
that, he's an old dynamics guy himself. But I guess they wanted to hear
it from the expert, so we explained to them, well, first of all, there's
no way this Shuttle has the energy left in the maneuvering system to
get anywhere close to those orbits, and even if it did, the cradles
they deployed them in, you couldn't bring them back in. Even if they
could do a space walk and physically bring them back into the bay. It
just was totally infeasible.
But didn't take long to even convince him of that. He said, "Well,
how long will it take you to figure out a plan on a future Shuttle to
do it?" We sat around and figured it out, and said we could do
it in about four or five months, and we did. I think that was in the
spring, and we did a flight in the fall of that year. Of course, we
had to get those satellites maneuvered into rendezvous orbit so the
Shuttle could get to, which, as I recall, working with the guys at Hughes,
who had built both of them, they did 1,300 maneuvers over a period of
about five months, which we told them how to get in there, but they
actually performed the maneuvers.
That was something, because you had to set up, because of this differential
nodal regression, you had two targets, you had to figure out how to
get to one, and then get on over to the other one. Pulled the whole
thing off in six months or less. That was totally successful, we recovered
them both. The insurance company was really happy. [Laughter] And I
think they refurbished one of them and launched it a few years later.
I don't think they did both of them.
It was one of our more "fly by the seat of the pants" kind
of missions. So you can do it, it's just you try not to make a habit
of that, because, one thing, it works everybody to death, and, two,
things have to go perfect on that plan, because you haven't had time
to look at all the alternatives. If they come off good, then you look
great, and if they don't, if there's some little glitch that you hadn't
analyzed or planned for, then you look kind of bad. So consequently,
they still take six, nine, twelve months to do a mission plan from cradle
With that kind of lead time is one team working each mission, or are
you going to be working missions simultaneously?
I think Cathy would have to explain now how they do it, because USA—
Or even back in Gemini and Apollo.
In our day we did we did, we staggered them, but typically we'd be working
on three or four missions in parallel, but they were spread apart by
months, if not years. I mean, like I say, I worked on Shuttle in '69,
and of course, we were getting ready for Apollo 10 and 11 in that same
time frame. Typically, at least in MPAD, you did it three or four missions
and spread over X years, even.
Let's go ahead and move into Apollo a little bit. One of the questions
that came to mind, from earlier you had mentioned John [C.] Houbolt
working on rendezvous, and he was one of these proponents of the lunar
orbit rendezvous concept versus Earth orbit rendezvous or direct descent.
Did you have any involvement or knowledge of this mode decision, they
Yes, I think the decision was made in '62, but maybe '63. I think it
was '62. I had just gotten there. I never was, or I never considered
myself a lunar rendezvous expert. That was people like Dave [James D.]
Alexander and Jerry [Jerome A.] Bell, Al [Allen L.] DuPont, who pretty
much their first X years were totally devoted to lunar rendezvous, which
is not that different, but there were some differences.
As I recall, it was in the summer of '62 that JSC went to Marshall,
had a big meeting with [Robert R.] Gilruth and von Braun, and JSC was
arguing, along with Houbolt from Langley, the lunar rendezvous approach
as being the only thing that was feasible in the Sixties, within ten
years. Then, of course, Marshall wanted to do either direct, which,
as it turns out, just really wasn't feasible, or Earth orbit rendezvous.
Both of those cases, of course, took a much bigger booster, bigger than
Saturn V, to get there. So they went through all that tradeoff, argument,
at one big meeting, I think it was June of '62 or sometime in there
when I had just arrived.
The way I heard it was that von Braun listened to his guys for four
hours in the morning and then JSC in the afternoon, or vice versa, and
at the end of the day he conferred with a couple of his guys and maybe
Gilruth, and then he comes out with, "We're going lunar orbit rendezvous."
He was convinced, at least himself, that that was the only valid way
to do it in the Sixties.
Then Dave Alexander, the guy that I worked with for many years, he's
living up in Longview now, he came in the fall of '62, and I remember
him working that same problem with all those arguments, because Kennedy
had a science advisor. I forget the guy's name, Jerry Weisner or something
like that. That guy was a giant pain in the ass, I mean, for years,
because somebody was putting thoughts into his head that lunar rendezvous
wasn't right and we'd made a big mistake.
So I remember Dave spending at least two more years going through pitches
about why this still is the best way to go and all the energy tradeoffs
and the size of the launch vehicles and so forth and the contingency
problems and all of that stuff, mainly to convince Weisner that von
Braun and Gilruth had made the right decision a year before. I think
he stayed on with [President Lyndon B.] Johnson after the assassination,
which, of course, those of us who were then remember that one vividly,
because Kennedy had been to NASA down here the same trip the day before.
We'd gone out to HPC [Houston Petroleum Center] and watched him go by
on a motorcade on the Gulf Freeway.
But I think Weisner stayed on as science advisor to Johnson and he still
gave NASA hell for that for years, until they finally, either he got
fired. I don't think they ever convinced him that it was the right way
to go. This was, of course, '63, '64.
Then, of course, Gemini had pretty much in our mind proved, and especially
with working with Buzz on the lunar version of the co-elliptic rendezvous
that we developed pretty much verified that we knew we were doing the
right thing for the lunar program.
But fundamentally, as I always understood it, it really came down to
pretty much pure energy, in other words, how big Saturn V was a great
vehicle, but it had to be that big, it would have had to been twice
that big to do it the other way. The direct was probably still not even
feasible, but, you know, all the subtleties about the LM as a lifeboat
and the other things that ended up showing that, hey, that's really
for other reasons pretty neat that we had another vehicle.
Of course, in the worst case you lost two guys, but not the third one,
if they couldn't get off the Moon. But it's better than going direct.
Earth orbit rendezvous was also, I mean, it was easy to do Earth orbit
rendezvous or pretty feasible, and we proved that that was also a big
performance thing. We hadn't really perfected orbital assembly that
you'd have to do, not like Space Station, but, you know, docked together
two or three vehicles and make sure that the fluids were all okay, because
you do worry a lot about slosh and stuff in orbit. Transferring fluids
from one vehicle to another still to this day isn't a proven technology.
You'd have had to do that for Earth orbit rendezvous to the Moon.
So Dave is the guy to talk to. I'm sure he'd be happy to come down and
talk to you. He's written AIAA [American Institute of Aeronautics and
Astronautics] papers on all that and so forth. He just had a hip replacement
about two months ago, but I hear he's doing good. He's one of the great
athletes that I ever played with at NASA. We had some pretty good athletes
So Apollo, like I say, I was mainly a rendezvous expert. We'd do our
portion, namely the rendezvous plan of each mission. Of course, we did
the Earth orbit missions, by the way, Apollo 7. Ed Lineberry and I pretty
much replanned Apollo 1 into Apollo 7 after the fire. The fire was really
traumatic for everybody. I don't know that the Shuttle was any worse
or better, but it was pretty traumatic.
But I spent like probably two years after the fire reworking the Apollo
7 mission and we did a rendezvous in it, by the way. We did more than
a turnaround stationkeeping with S-IVB spent stage. We actually moved
deliberately off hundreds of miles and then came back to test the CSM
VHF [very high frequency] for rendezvous. Because we, of course, proved
the Gemini transponder radar, which was essentially what was flown in
the LM, but we had never really—well, on Apollo 9 we did some
rendezvous with the CSM.
But on the 7 was the first time we had used the VHF for a ranging device
and we did that with a spent S-IVB, or its spent S-IVB. We had a venting
problem on that. We thought we had it down right. Of course, you never
know how much is left in there because of the launch trajectory. But
we thought we had that bounded as to how much was still in there, but
what we didn't figure out very precisely was how the thermal fluctuations
of day-night, the diurnal effects would have on when it vented.
We separated from it by fifty miles or something and were going to come
back the next day with a couple of small maneuvers, and found that every
time it came into daylight out of darkness, it did a little burp. It
kept getting further away from us. By the time we figured that out,
it was several hundred miles away, so we had to revise our plan. But
we pulled that one off, or Schirra and the gang did. That was a successful
long-range stationkeeping rendezvous.
This might be a good time for us to take a break to change out the tape,
if we can.
Sure. [Tape change]
We're up to Apollo.
That's right, just talking a little bit about Apollo 7. Apollo 8 you
mentioned a little bit earlier, this is sending the command module around
the Moon the first time we were going to do a manned orbit of the Moon.
What kind of challenges did this present, or did you have to do any
new kind of work for this type of mission?
Well, that was probably the gutsiest decision NASA ever made, or we
ever made. It had been talked inside of MPAD for at least six or nine
months, but, of course, we knew better to ever talk about it outside,
because it was so controversial. But after we flew 7 and saw the CSM
was really a good vehicle, it's reminiscent now of the Shuttle. Once
we got STS-1 under our belt, we saw what a great machine the Shuttle
basically is. There was talk mainly by John Mayer and Bill Tindall about
flying circumlunar, not necessarily going into lunar orbit.
I was, of course, working mainly rendezvous Earth orbit, Apollo rendezvous
plans then, so I wasn't directly involved with that concept. I knew
about it, but it was mainly Carl Huss and John Mayer and Bill Tindall
that had obviously talked to Chris Kraft and some others through the
months after Apollo 7, and says, "Hey, it's a pretty good machine
and we can probably do it."
But I guess actually, I mean, I'm a little off there. Seven and 8 were
two months apart, but it was the planning, I guess, for 7 that said,
"If everything goes really well with 7, we ought to at least, or
the agency ought to at least consider flying a circumlunar flight."
As far as I ever knew, it was because we thought surely the Russians
were going to beat us, even at that stage, I guess a little paranoia,
but they had pulled off some pretty neat stunts, and, of course, they
were so secret, we didn't know much about what their real progress was.
I think most of us were skeptical that they could land a man on the
Moon, but we thought flying around the Moon wouldn't be that tough.
Gutsy, but you could envision that the Russians would be gutsy enough
to pull that off, not land, but just fly around it. In fact, to this
day it's still surprising to me that apparently they didn't ever think
of that, or think that would be a great stunt. So our Apollo 8 really
surprised them. I don't think that was the intent; it was just beat
them to the punch, as I recall.
And like I say, it was primarily based on being convinced that the new
CSM was going to be a really trustworthy vehicle. Of course, Saturn
V had already been pretty well proved that it was going to be a pretty
reliable vehicle. I recall hearing talk about it in like May of that
year, '67, '68.
It launched in '68.
May of '68, I guess. I remember hearing talk about that somebody ought
to look into it, but Ron [Ronald L.] Berry and Hal [Harold D.] Beck
and the lunar guys, as we called them, "the lunatics," were
working those, the basic Apollo lunar missions. My branch was working
primarily the rendezvous parts of each lunar mission and the Earth orbit
plans. We had an A, B, C and C, D and F and G, all these lettered alternative
missions. I guess G was the lunar landing.
So I wasn't directly involved with those plans, but I do remember hearing
them in April or May of '68, and then in the summer of '68 I remember
some of the guys in MPAD going to meetings, or talking about it. But
I was so absorbed in 7, myself, and this rendezvous with S-IVB that
I didn't really pay much attention. Again, all I remember about it is
that we kept thinking the Russians were going to do something pretty
spectacular pretty soon if we don't really keep going. Of course, the
fire had set everybody back just tremendously.
So we flew 7, and then I guess it was John Mayer or some of those, George
[M.] Low and Kraft decided, along with Gilruth, to see what the Administrator
would think of a gutsy plan like that, and for whatever reasons, they
went ahead and did it. That was gutsy, because Apollo 13 could have
happened, and that would have been disaster.
But I guess really a sub level of what was really gutsy in terms of
MPAD was that John Mayer and Huss and company convinced NASA management
that not only should we fly around it, like on a free return, but we
got the confidence to go into lunar orbit for a day or so and then come
back, and get out of lunar orbit because we were sure the SPS would
work, which was the main engine on the CSM.
The technical argument for that was to get a better fix on the gravitational
anomalies, what later became to be called the mascons. But that was,
as I recall, Emil [R.] Scheisser and John Mayer's argument is, look,
if you go around the Moon into 60 or a 100-mile lunar orbit, then you
really get a feel for these perturbations that weren't very well defined.
I guess they had had a couple of lunar landers, not rovers, but they
had a couple of lunar orbiters, at least, that had shown signs of these
perturbations that the nav guys had not known about or anticipated,
so they really wanted to get as much data as they could before the landing
mission. So it was a double gutsy call, really, to go into orbit and
so forth. Turns out it worked great. I didn't work it directly, because
I was a rendezvous guy. Can't take any credit for that, really.
Then after that we flew Apollo 9, which our branch planned and pulled
off, which was all the LM rendezvous and the fire in the hole and the
LM ascent stage firing with the descent stage still attached, and testing
out some CSM rescue scenarios and techniques. All that worked wonderfully,
too, really a good mission. That was a good mission.
Of course, you've got all that going on in Earth orbit, rather than
out at the Moon.
Yes. Then, of course, that was followed by 10. Ten was the first lunar
rendezvous. They say [Commander Thomas P.] Stafford wanted to land,
but I don't think he ever really seriously considered trying that. He
would have loved to, but it wasn't like he was going to suddenly go,
"While we're down here, let's go ahead."
We worked that one pretty hard, because the rescue worries about, you
know, we tried to simulate the LM coming off the surface, and if the
CSM had to do the rendezvous, because the LM couldn't get into the CSM
orbit. Did a whole bunch of contingency planning for it. Then when they
went down to the 10,000 feet or whatever it was, can't remember the
perilune on those, but they really did pick up a lot of the data on
the mascons. That was really helpful for the final targeting stuff on
11. I don't know that it was make or break, but it sure didn't hurt
to have a case that was pretty close to the orbit of the final landing.
That was a good mission, too. That was John [W.] Young and Stafford
Gene [Eugene A.] Cernan.
Gene was on that, yes, then he came back on 17, yes.
So meanwhile, some of us were working on Shuttle, also, defining. Carl
Huss and I were two that went up there to spend three weeks in a workshop
to define the logistics vehicle parameters and we were assuming for
the purpose of sizing in the energy trades and all that, a space station
in 55-degree inclination, 270-mile orbit, I think. I think that's a
one-day repeating orbit, by the way. There are certain orbits that repeat
their ground tracks. That has certain advantages to Earth observations
and other rendezvous aspects, too, because your launch window every
day is the same predictable azimuth and so forth.
So some of us were already working those kind of concepts, in addition
to working the lunar rendezvous stuff. One story I sometimes tell—Buzz
probably won't even admit that I suggested this to him—but right
before the Apollo 11, we ran a detailed rendezvous meeting of some sort,
and afterwards I said, "You know, Buzz, if you want to guarantee
the long-term success of Apollo and that we'll continue to go back to
the Moon just forever, all you need to do when you get up there, just
take a little pouch filled with gold dust and just spread it out on
some of those rocks when you collect them." [Laughter] I said,
"We'll be going back there for 100 years trying to find that gold."
He said, "Oh, I couldn't do that. I couldn't do that."
I saw him not too long ago and I reminded him of that, and he said,
"Yes, I couldn't have done that."
I said, "But if you had, just think, we'd been back to the Moon
by now." [Laughter]
Well, let's see. On 11, I mean, you know, talk about your nominal missions,
that was about as amazingly close to the plan as I can recall us ever
flying. It was pretty amazing in itself that it was the historic flight.
And except for Armstrong's problems with the rocks, and the alarm, the
famous Steve [Stephen G.] Bales hero-making, which [John R. “Jack”]
Garman probably talked about. That's another case of the back-room guys
knew what was happening and even had simulated it, the same stuff.
But it went as close to perfect as you could imagine. I guess the rocks
were pretty scary and he was running pretty low on fuel when he finally
sat down. But other than that, everything went great. Pretty amazing
feat still. I don't think you could have faked it. I just don't know
how you'd have done it.
Where were you when they did the landing and the first EVA [extravehicular
We were in the back room, in the rendezvous room, because, of course,
we had to be constantly be ready for emergency liftoff of the LM if
something went wrong or the Moon bogeyman came after the crew and they
had to jump back in. So we had shifts. Dave Alexander and I and Ed Lineberry
were the prime shift, and then Bob Becker and Jerry Bell, I think.
We had one guy on each shift that was an expert in CSM, what we call
the mirror-image rendezvous techniques for the CSM to come get the LM,
which is tougher than you might imagine because of the orbital mechanics
and the constraints on the vehicles. Pretty tricky stuff, but we were
all set to pull that off if we had to. Never did have to do that. So,
yes, I was in the back room when we it landed and did the EVA.
Dave reminded me a while back of something I'd forgotten about, but
when they landed, the pods kind of sat down uneven and the thing was
tilted I forget how many degrees. But we had even considered that as
a potential problem of when you came off at a tilt, what it would do
to your LM trajectory and so forth. He reminded me the other day that
we had to make a call in the back room as to whether we thought the
tilt was within limits. I don't even remember what they were. I think
Dave must have made that call. I remembered after he reminded me of
it, of him asking me. It was pretty exciting at landing, you know, "Houston,
this is Eagle." [referring to Apollo 11 shirt Young his wearing]
(I got this at the twenty-fifth or thirtieth reunion thing).
He reminded me that he had asked me, since I was the shift leader or
whatever, if they read him an angle and he looked on our chart, and
we converted it into what that meant for a rendezvous trajectory. He
reminded me that he had asked, he said, "Well, the value is this."
I forget what it was, not very many degrees, and that I had said, "Yes,
it's okay. Go ahead and tell them to land." So it was along with
Bales' "Go flight." That's the part I remember most is because
we're all back in the back, listening to him, and he always had a high
voice, and he was so nervous when they asked him if it was still go
for landing, "Go flight." So we kidded him unmercifully from
then on. “Hero” Bales and his, "Go flight." [in
It's funny, because Bob [Robert L.] Carlton was in here a little bit
ago and he brought in his tapes from the LM console and you can hear
everybody make their calls along there, and, sure enough, there's Steve
I haven't seen Bob in a couple of years. I've got a funny story about
Bob that I thought of, I remembered the other day because I was working
on orbital debris assessment for Space Station. We used to have one
of the bureaucratic things you have over at NASA now to the nth degree,
is all this safety stuff. But back in those days, actually, this was
in the Shuttle days, pre-Shuttle days, we had a fire marshal for each
building. They still do, of course, two or three of them. Bob Carlton
was Building 30 fire marshal for several months or a year or something,
he got stuck with that. So he'd come around. Guys would have literally
mountains of printout and computer paper just unbelievably stacked.
Some guys, you couldn't even get in their office, you couldn't even
see their desk or table for the paper. He'd write a note, you know,
"Fire violation." [Laughter] He was obligated, I guess, to
do that. As branch chief, I had to go in at night and dump a bunch of
guys' stuff, because they would refuse to ever get rid of it.
But anyway, we had a guy that is an orbital debris expert, although
he's retired now, Don [Donald J.] Kessler. This was the late seventies.
He had a stack of Shuttle tiles in a cardboard box that he had taken
to Tullahoma, Tennessee, one of the high-velocity impact gun facilities.
You'd put these tiles in these wind tunnels and fire these meteorite
or orbital debris particles, BBs and stuff at them, to see how well
they stood up. Of course, they're just that foam stuff. He had a whole
stack of them in a box in his office, and he was gone off to a meeting.
Bob Carlton goes by and sees this cardboard box with all this stuff,
he didn't even know what they were, just little squares, looked like
foam. So he writes up Kessler for fire violation and leaves it on his
desk. Kessler came back and saw that and broke out laughing and called
some of us over and we read that. He says, "You know, those tiles
are fire resistant to 2900 degrees Fahrenheit. This whole building could
burn down and they would be the only thing still sitting there. The
box would be gone." [Laughter] Bob never—I don't know if
he ever outlived that one. "I didn't know what they were. They
looked like they were flammable to me." [Laughter] That was funny.
We'll have to ask him about that next time when we run into him.
Yes. So let's see, you know, what can you say? It was the greatest fake
mission we ever pulled off. The flag, the wind was blowing that flag.
I gave a talk to some Pearland high school students, oh, about three
months ago now, as part of Engineering Week. This, coincidentally, happened
the day before that Fox first presentation of the conspiracy thing.
I'm glad it wasn't the day after. But I had one kid ask me—I did
it on orbital debris, actually, because that's what I was working, about
Space Station and the threat of orbital debris and how we take care
of it, or how NASA takes care of now, and does avoidance maneuvers,
and what the protection shielding is and a lot of that. So they had
some good questions, and I had a bunch of little Space Station emblems
that I said I'd give to the students that asked good questions, you
know, incentive to them. So I had some good questions.
Then right at the end, this guy, this kid in the back asked if there
was wind or air on the Moon. This was now the day before that program.
Of course, people have asked that a lot, and I said, "No. There's
no atmosphere as you know it. There's certainly no oxygen, no air. There's
some particles and radiation. You could call some of it atmosphere of
He said, "Well, how come the flag looks like it's waving?"
He said, "How comes it stands out, like the wind's blowing?"
I said, "Did you ever hear of a stick, a wire just holding it out
He says, "Yeah, but it looks like it's waving."
I said, "Well, when you put it down in the lunar dust and you twist
it or try to orient it, it puts in dynamics, and in a vacuum, particularly,
it doesn't damp out, so it just sits there until physically mechanical
damping damps out." That's because they were sticking it down in
He says, "Well, it sure looks like the wind's blowing it."
I said, "No, that's a common fallacy."
This other kid on the other aisle, he had already asked about three
questions and I'd given him one of these things, he was just trying
to collect these, he goes, "Hey, I got a question."
I said, "What's your question now?"
He says, "Do they send monkeys into space?"
I couldn't resist. I said, "Why, you want to sign up?" He
took it pretty good. I went up and high-fived with him. Of course, his
peers just hoo-hawed. "Yeah, send him out of here!" I don't
know why he asked that question. I mean, we did way back. They were
a pretty knowledgeable bunch, the ones that weren't asleep, two or three,
which you have in every group.
It's a little bit after 5:00 now, so I don't know if we want to wrap
it up for the day.
Probably should, I guess. Eleven is a good milestone.
Okay. Let's go ahead and stop the tape.
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