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Apollo at the End of 1966

By the time 1966 drew to a close the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn launch vehicle projects had been through some rough times. The lunar landing craft, under contract to Grumman Aircraft Engineering Company of Bethpage, New York, was slow to reach design maturity and Grumman had considerable difficulty with the main propulsion engines, landing gear, and radar systems. Across the country in southern California, North American Aviation's Space & Information Division had its own set of problems with the command and service module.59

North American had other problems as well, notably with the S-II second stage of the mammoth Saturn V launch vehicle. The S-II was similar to Saturn V's third stage (the S-IVB) in that it used cryogenic propellants (liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at extremely low temperatures), but it was much larger and presented more difficult manufacturing problems.60 Besides, North American lacked the experience that the S-IVB stage contractor, Douglas Aircraft Company, could draw on from its prior development of the smaller S-IV stage of Saturn I. In 1965 North American's troubles in managing its two programs - especially the S-II - were the most serious obstacle to achieving the end-of-the-decade goal for Apollo. During 1965 the company's handling of its Apollo and Saturn contracts drew extraordinary attention from Headquarters and from Marshall Space Flight Center, culminating in a top-to-bottom evaluation of NAA's program by teams of NASA experts. In December Maj. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, Apollo program manager at Headquarters, sent a devastating critique of NAA's program management to his bosses and to the company's executives.61

The overall picture for manned space flight was not bleak, however. During 1965-66 the Gemini program had built a solid foundation for operations, sending missions into earth orbit at an average of one every two months. Important questions about the human ability to function in zero gravity were settled. Rendezvous was demonstrated in so many ways it seemed strange that anyone had ever doubted it was feasible. Saturn and Apollo enjoyed some successes as well. Marshall Space Flight Center proved out the Saturn I and IB launch vehicles - important junior partners to Saturn V - and put up earth-orbiting satellites to dispel worries about the hazard from micrometeoroids in space. By the end of 1965 all three stages of the Saturn V had been successfully (but separately) test-fired, and the Manned Spacecraft Center had proved that the Apollo launch escape system worked, easing some concerns about aborts on the launch pad.62

Since the status of science in the Apollo program had been nebulous in 1963, the next three years saw substantial progress. Widespread debate over the goals of manned space flight and the validity of the Apollo commitment during the summer of 1963 had given the Office of Manned Space Flight the incentive to accommodate science to some degree in its programs. The Office of Space Science and Applications took the lead in creating an office to coordinate the efforts of the two program offices. The major decisions concerning mission mode and spacecraft had been made when OMSF's new director, George Mueller, took over in late 1963; he could therefore direct a good deal of his attention to other matters. Mueller, unlike his predecessor, was not perceived as hostile to scientific investigations in manned space flight, although it took some time for the scientists to decide that he was basically supportive of their efforts.63

Advice from the scientific community was brought to a clearer focus between 1962, when the Iowa summer study said little about manned lunar exploration, and 1965, when the Woods Hole and Falmouth conferences defined the objectives of lunar science in more specific terms. After the Woods Hole study posed 15 scientific questions about the moon that bounded Apollo science, study teams defined the essential experimental measurements and the instruments with which they would be made. Additional refinements to these preliminary definitions led to specific studies for the lunar surface experiments package, which was put under contract in 1966.

Houston's Manned Spacecraft Center was finally brought around to at least an acceptance of science by the end of 1966. In the Gemini program it demonstrated a willingness to incorporate scientific exercises into its operational missions and worked out a system for assessing the compatibility of experiments with manned programs. Whether or not these exercises were scientifically important, they brought the scientists and the flight planners together so that they might better understand each other's problems. On its own initiative the Houston center proposed and undertook to develop a laboratory in which to receive, catalog, and conduct preliminary scientific examination of the returned lunar samples. After getting its two spacecraft projects more or less in hand, MSC assumed the responsibility for directing development of the lunar surface experiments and then created a directorate in which (it might be hoped) the center could ultimately develop its own science program. And finally it yielded to the clamor of the scientific community in picking its first class of astronauts from the ranks of promising young scientists. By the end of 1966, in fact, MSC was preparing to select a second group.

On another front, MSC was cooperating with Headquarters in selecting the sites where the lunar missions would land. MSC worked with the Apollo Site Selection Board and Langley's Lunar Orbiter project, supplying its criteria for landing sites and evaluating the information gleaned from Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter. As 1966 ended, the list of candidate sites for the last Lunar Orbiter missions had been considerably narrowed.

At the beginning of 1967 those who wanted to see science become an integral part of manned space flight could feel that some progress had been made in three years. Spacecraft engineers and mission planners could feel that many of their big problems were behind them. In spite of many problems with the command module, the first manned earth-orbital mission was only weeks away from launch. On August 26, 1966, spacecraft 012 arrived at Kennedy Space Center to begin a first-article checkout that would last through the end of the year.64

59. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 131-201.

60. Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles, NASA SP-4206, (Washington, 1980), pp. 209-32.

61. Ibid., pp. 225-32; Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 194-96; Maj. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips to J. Leland Atwood, NAA, Dec. 19, 1965, with encls.

62. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 183-85, 208.

63. Eugene M. Shoemaker interview, Mar. 17, 1984.

64. Charles D. Benson and William Barnaby Faherty, Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations, NASA SP-4204 (Washington, 1978), pp. 384-87.

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