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Apollo Expeditions to the Moon



Now time was running out. The race against time began, with only 33 months remaining from April 1967 and the end of the decade. The work to be done appeared to be overwhelming and dictated 18-hour days, seven days a week. My briefcase was my office, my suitcase my home, as I moved from Houston to Downey, to Bethpage, to Cape Kennedy, and back to Houston again. At Tranquility Base, the Sun would only rise 33 more times before 1970.

Rebuilding meant changes and changes meant trouble if they were not kept under perfect control. Our solution was the CCB, the Configuration Control Board. On it were some of the best engineers in the world: my two deputies, Ken Kleinknecht and Rip Bolender; Apollo's Assistant for Flight Safety, Scott Simpkinson; Max Faget, Houston's Chief Engineer, Chris Kraft, the Chief of Flight Operations; Deke Slayton, the head of the astronauts; Dale Myers for North American Rockwell, and Joe Gavin for Grumman. The Board was rounded out with Chuck Berry for medical inputs and Bill Hess for science. It was organized by my technical assistant, George Abbey, who knew everything about everybody on Apollo, and who was always able to get things done. I was its chairman and made all decisions. Arguments sometimes got pretty hot as technical alternatives were explored. In the end I would decide, usually on the spot, always explaining my decision openly and in front of those who liked it the least. To me, this was the true test of a decision - to look straight into the eyes of the person most affected by it, knowing full well that months later on the morning of a flight, I would look into the eyes of the men whose lives would depend on that decision. One could not make any mistakes.

When I wasn't sure of myself or when I didn't trust my judgement, I knew where to go to get help - Bob Gilruth, my boss, who himself had been through every problem in Mercury. An extremely able engineer, Bob had acquired great wisdom over the years dealing with men and their flying machines. Bob was always there when I needed him.

The CCB met every Friday, promptly at noon, and often well into the night. From June 1967 to July 1969 the Board met 90 times, considered 1697 changes and approved 1341. We dealt with changes large and small, discussed them in every technical detail, and reviewed their cost and schedule impact. Was the change really necessary? What were its effects on other parts of the machine, on computer programs, on the astronauts, and on the ground tracking systems? Was it worth the cost, how long would it take, and how much would it weigh?

We redesigned the command module hatch to open out instead of in, because the old hatch had been a factor in trapping Grissom, White, and Chaffee inside their burning craft. This may sound simple, but it wasn't. An inward-opening hatch was much easier to build, because when it was closed it tended to be self-sealing since the pressure inside the spacecraft forced it shut. The opposite was true for an outward-opening hatch, which had to be much sturdier, and hence heavier, with complicated latches.

Escape from disaster was the objective of this spectacular test. The peril occurs in the early moments of launch, when the Saturn V contains thousands of tons of propellant. If things go wrong, the manned command module must be pulled away to a safe distance by the launch-escape rocket. Above, the launch-escape rocket is fitted to a test CM atop a Little Joe II booster. This booster, far cheaper than a Saturn, can duplicate its initial flight phases.

Up and away goes the command module, when the solid-fuel escape rocket - a single rocket firing through three nozzles - lights off. The sequence is begun only when the booster has accelerated the command module to "worst-case" speeds and heights. As it happened, the escape system was never needed during any of the Apollo launches.

We rewired the spacecraft rerouted wire bundles, and used better insulation on the wires. We looked at every ounce of nonmetallic material, removed much of it, and concocted new materials for insulation and for pressure suits. We invented an insulating coating that would not burn, only to find that it would absorb moisture and become a conductor so we had to invent another one. Pressure suits had to shed their nylon outer layer, to be replaced with a glass cloth; but the glass would wear away quickly, and shed fine particles which contaminated the spacecraft and caused the astronauts to itch. The solution was a coating for the alass cloth. We solved the problem of fire in the space atmosphere of 5 psi oxygen, but try as we might, we could not make the ship fireproof in the launch-pad atmosphere of 16 psi oxygen. Then Max Faget came up with an idea: Launch with an atmosphcre that was 60 percent oxygen and 40 percent nitrogen, and then slowly convert to pure oxygen after orbit had been reached and the pressure was 5 psi. The 60-40 mixture was a delicate balance between medical requirements on the one hand (too much nitrogen would have caused the bends as the pressure decreased) and flammability problems on the other. It worked.

Weight is a problem in the design of any flying machine. Apollo, with its many chances, was anything but an exception. Problems are always easier to solve if one can afford a little leeway for making a change, but difficult and expensive if there is no weight margin. In the command module, we found a way to gain an extra 1000 pound margin by redesigning the parachute to handle a heavier CM. This margin made other CM changes relatively simple, and certainly less costly and time consuming.

For LM there was no such solution. We had to shave an ounce here, another there, to make room for the changes that had to be made. It was difficult, lengthy, and expensive.