“Apollo: The Race to the Moon” by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox


Great book that focuses primarily on the engineering problems and people of the Apollo program.  Not so much on the actual missions or astronauts, except when something went wrong and the guys on the ground had to figure it out.  As everyone knows, during every mission there was a roomful of engineers and flight controllers (the MOCR, “Mission Control”) who knew the systems like the back of their hand, continuously scanning their screens full of numbers for any inkling of a problem.  What I didn’t know, is that every operator in the room was connected to their own “back room” full of other engineers looking at the same info and available for consultation at anytime via the “loops.”  Furthermore, for really bad problems (like Apollo 13), they were able to reach out to even more people and sites, such as the contractors, basically in real time.  During the 13 crisis, probably over a thousand engineers around the country went to work in the middle of the night to support.

There was some intense flight ops sim training.  Only 10-20% of the procedures and software dealt with the nominal case.  Lots of things that could go wrong.  Some said that the real missions were piece of cake compared to the sims.  The flight controllers were there in the MOCR, but they were hooked up to a nearly equal number of sim operators controlling the flight and injected any problems they could think of.

As far as planning for going to the moon, engineering-wise it was a decent next step after Mercury, which got us into orbit.  Politics really pushed it forward by a decade or so, however.  Really seemed to be kind of a publicity stunt: the Russians had beat us to space with Sputnik and likely were going to beat us to having a man in space (they did).  So we had to pick a far enough out event that we had a chance on: the moon landing.  It was acknowledged that it was not really for science from the get-go.  All the science that Apollo produced could have done much more cheaply and safely without men in the loop.

Deciding on L.O.R (Lunar Orbit Rendezvous) was not easy.  For a while, it was either a choice between Direct Ascent (one big rocket to take off from Earth, land backwards on Moon, then takeoff back for home) or E.O.R (Earth Orbit Rendezvous – launch pieces separately into Earth orbit, final assembly there, then proceed as with Direct Ascent).  Joe Shea was one of the early managers who applied the principles of systems engineering, matured in the recent ICBM programs, to the problem and got everyone to agree to LOR.

“Only three things matter – man, moon, decade.”  These were the high-level requirements which drove everything else.  George Mueller decided to go with all-up testing because there was no time to incrementally test stages.  Seems very risky, and it was!  Some other systems engineering successes:

  • Discarded plans for a complex nuclear gas gauge in favor of secondary backup fuel tank with enough to get back to earth from moon.
  • Heat shield was predicted to degrade after 13 hours of interstellar cold (when facing away from sun)– engineers wanted to develop a brand new material for heat shield; but Shea’s solution was to apply a slow spin to the CSM so that it would be warmed by the sun.

The Apollo 1 fire happened during mock launch test event.  The combination of pure oxygen in capsule, plus faulty wiring yielded the fire; a complicated series of hatches that effectively locked the astronauts in made the accident fatal.  It seemed like the program was going too fast and putting safety in the background.  Although, the problem DID manifest itself during a ground test, as it should have.  The real failure was in the hatch – it was too complicated to open in time.  It was lucky that they didn’t encounter the same problem in space, which may have shut down program likely.  (Although it was a risky business no matter what; all engineering can do is reduce the probability of failure.  Even if something is 99% ok and you are unlucky enough to draw the 1% failure, you are still the goat … there is no way with something like Apollo, with such a limited number of trials, to operationally prove a 99% success rate.)  Grueling disassembly of the ruined CSM followed the fire.  Procedures were written for the removal of each and every part (down to the screws) and NASA and North American reps witnessed removal of each.

The overwhelming success of 501 (aka Apollo 4), the first all-up test of Saturn V, only 1.5 years after fire, was likely achieved only due to the renewed sense of urgency and attention to detail that came out of the fire.

Finally, while Apollo 11 gets all the glory, to the engineers the actual most significant mission was Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon.  It was only the second manned Apollo mission, period.  But it showed that the era of spaceflight beyond the Earth had begun.


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