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To the Moon with Apollo astronauts: A high adventure

Posted: July 20, 2009

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The 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 provides an opportunity for me to describe how I covered Apollo and air some "back room" stories not only about the crew of Apollo 11, but also other lunar mission astronauts and top lunar program managers.

Along the way I have met or interviewed all 12 of the astronauts who set foot on the Moon and most who also made it into lunar orbit. Some have become lifelong friends others a tremendous help at critical times.

Credit: NASA/Apollo
Buzz Aldrin who was copilot of the lunar module Eagle piloted by Neil Armstrong was the first astronaut that I ever interviewed in this writing business.

Nearly 40 years have now passed since that interview, done shortly after Apollo 11. We have stayed in touch across the decades including a lengthy discussion more than 20 years ago about Buzz's "Mars Cycler" transportation concept for resupply of a manned Mars outpost.

Remarkably on July 18, my 21 year old daughter, Ellie, who is an intern at the Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts in Washington, was one of the Kennedy Center's formal hosts for Buzz as he participated in a National Symphony Orchestra concert commemorating Apollo 11.

Other Apollo astronauts over the years have gone the extra mile for me.

Mike Collins, command module pilot on Apollo 11 and Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17 and LM copilot on Apollo 10, both wrote detailed recommendations for me to be the first journalist to fly on the space shuttle.

Deke Slayton, one of the Original Seven who, as chief of the astronaut office made all the crew selection decisions for Apollo, wrote an equally strong recommendation as well.

None of these did any good, however, as the journalist program was canceled after the 1986 Challenger accident. Those formal recommendations to fly in space by Collins, Cernan and Slayton are now family treasures.

This year also marks my 40th year of covering space at Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. I missed Apollo 11, but not by much.

As a college student at the time, I had every intent in becoming a science and space writer. That interest was not spawned as much by television coverage as it was by family members who worked on military programs at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio.

One project was Dyna-Soar, a winged hypersonic space plane cancelled in 1963. It would have been launched on a Titan 3 booster for hypersonic "dynamic soaring" in the upper atmosphere. The Air Force intends to fly a replacement space plane concept next year. Another was the winged X-15 rocket plane that flew to the edge of space after drop from a B-52. I remember back in the early 1960s, when I was age 12-13, my relatives making shop talk about a fellow named Neil Armstrong, who had grown up near where I lived, who was flying the X-15 and had been also picked as a Dyna-Soar astronaut. This was before he was selected as a Gemini /Apollo astronaut by NASA.

The idea of flying to and from space using a winged vehicle that began a gliding reentry at 17,500 mph was more appealing to me as a story than riding in a ballistic capsule - except when going somewhere like the Moon then landing in a remarkable vehicle as large as the Apollo lunar modules (LMs).

My relatives subscribed to "Aviation Week", "Missiles and Rockets" and the other engineering publications of the time and I got hooked on them a well and was reading them starting in the late 1950s. They pointed out that journalists at these publications were always getting their own flights in jets and space simulators and that I could do that too.

It was a great idea and I took their advice. Apollo then provided the launch pad for such a journalism career.

With that as a goal, I majored in journalism at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The university had also teamed for a project with Reader's Digest magazine. The objective was to provide travel grants and use of the magazine's reputation to open doors for students on special reporting projects that would otherwise be out of reach.

All of my competitors for these grants had essentially the same goal, the coverage of political campaigns. But I submitted a plan for something entirely different - a project seeking two years worth of grants for coverage of the Apollo manned lunar program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

There was not enough grant money to fund all of the campaign coverage requests made by other students, so I won the lion's share of the funding by submitting a request to do something entirely different. I was aided by my aerospace savvy professor, Emil Dansker.

In December of 1969 I arrived at KSC with a long "to do" list. NASA gave me a badge, but no transportation. I was too young to rent a car, so I literally had to bum rides from employees in and out of the space center.

Doing such a project under the Reader's Digest banner then began to pay off far bigger than just the travel funding.

The Apollo 14 lunar module ascent stage undergoes processing by Grumman and NASA Kennedy Space Center engineers. Astronauts Alan B. Shepard and Edgar Mitchell flew it to the lunar surface in 1971. Credit: NASA/Apollo
On my first day at KSC, I flew three lunar module landing simulations with Cernan, watched a lunar orbit docking with astronaut Jack Swigert, then went into the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (now called the Operations and Checkout facility) where I watched Grumman technicians change the descent engine on the Apollo 14 LM Antares. I also watched a team preparing to do vacuum testing on Kitty Hawk, the flight's command/service module.

We then went off to Pad 39A to look at the Apollo 13 Saturn V that had just been rolled out. After which I went into the KSC Headquarters where I interviewed Dr. Kurt Debus, the center director and part of Wernher Von Braun's original team.

I was just 19 years old and junior in college, but that first day at KSC was also essentially my first day "at work" - and it was a dousie.

One of my top objectives had been to watch astronaut training in KSC's Flight Crew Training Facility. During Apollo there were big Singer Link spacecraft simulators at both JSC and KSC unlike today where all of the shuttle simulators are at Houston. There were Apollo two command module simulators and a single lunar module simulator at KSC.

The building is now part of the Space Station Processing Facility and it is used to hold the station module mock ups tourists see after visiting the windows that look down on the real hardware.

The lunar module cockpit for the LM simulator is the same cockpit on public display in the Saturn V Facility. In December, 1969 I stood in the back of that cockpit and watched Gene Cernan practice three landings on the Apollo 12 landing site dubbed "the Snowman". This is because the crater arrangement astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean were visually looking for at their Ocean of Storms landing zone resembled what a drawing of a snowman looked like. As his LM pitched over at 10,000 ft. to enable the crew to see the landing site, Conrad radioed excitedly that "I can't believe it - it looks just like in the simulator."

Lunar module simulator at Kennedy is flown by Neil Armstrong (left) and Buzz Aldrin prior to Apollo 11 mission. All Apollo lunar module crews spent hundreds of hours in this cockpit now preserved at the Kennedy Saturn V Center. Credit: NASA/Apollo
The terrain was modeled in plaster on a large movable board about 10 ft. x 15 ft. in size. Lights were set to simulate early morning lighting conditions with the sun in the east, behind the LM, creating shadows on lunar surface features.

Cernan hardly knew I was there and I did not bother him with questions. He was tentatively assigned to backup Alan Shepard on Apollo 14 then command Apollo 17. He flew these descents standing at the left LM position with no copilot except for me acting as a silent "mouse-in-the-corner."

Each descent was started at the "Low Gate" 10,000 ft. altitude point when the LM transitioned from lying on its back to flying upright to point thrust downward for a precise descent that also brings the target area into view. I watched the velocity and descent rate instrumentation and final descent out the window as Cernan took the data on his instruments and began to match it with grid marks on his window to see where the auto system was taking him. Outside the simulator cockpit a camera moved over the snowman landing site board to match Cernan's control inputs starting about 7 mi. from the touchdown point.

He switched to manual in the last 90 sec. or earlier on all the landings which he completed successfully.

Cernan had just returned from Apollo 10 where he and Tom Stafford had descended to about 50,000 ft. to demonstrate all but the last few minutes of the descent to prepare for a landing attempt on Apollo 11.

For me, flying LM descents with somebody who had actually done it over the Moon six months earlier was an unmatched adventure still 40 years later.

From the LM, I moved to one of the command module simulators where Jack Swigert, then an Apollo 13 backup crewman, was practicing docking in lunar orbit with the LM ascent stage. Compared with the fast action and dynamic flying in the LM, rendezvous and docking seemed like being in church.

Command Module simulator at Kennedy was called "the great train wreck" by Apollo 10/Apollo 16 astronaut John Young (left). Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford is at right. Credit: NASA/Apollo
These were done with a black space background using models about the size of a toy truck. Each model was mounted in a black box with special lighting to duplicate the sun. Each model was on a post that moved to the position the model to match the control input by Swigert.

Little did anyone know , Swigert was about to be taped to do it for real and he would fly on that gleaming Saturn V then on Pad 39A.

Swigert was moved in to the Apollo 13 prime crew only 72 hr. before launch replacing Thomas K. Mattingly who had been exposed to the measles. Apollo 13 would be crippled by an oxygen tank explosion enroute to the Moon forcing the greatest survival drama of the space program. Mattingly would later fly a totally successful Apollo 16 mission.

Watching Swigert flying docking simulations proved valuable later in covering Congress in Washington as I talked to him often when he became staff director of the House Science and Technology Committee. In a tragedy of bad luck he died of bone cancer in December, 1982 after having just won election to the House as a representative from Colorado and survived Apollo 13

The most interesting hardware related activity that first day at KSC was watching technicians begin the descent engine change out for Apollo 14.

The ascent stage of Antares had not yet been mated to the descent stage, allowing a detailed view of these two stages and their engines.

In the bright lighting of the clean room Anteres covered in glistening gold Mylar looked like brilliant gems destined for an unworldly mission.

In the mid 1990s when I moved from Paris where I was bureau chief for Aviation Week to Satellite Beach, a neighbor turned out to be George Skurla Grumman's lead manager for LM operations at KSC.

Some 35 years after the event, Skurla remembered that engine change out well. That is especially because the LM team found, to its horror, that they could not find the replacement engine for the Apollo 14 spacecraft. The new engine had somehow been misplaced in its large shipping box. After some anxious searching, it was found, mistakenly placed in a little used hallway.

I was also able to view the Apollo 14 command/service module Kitty Hawk in detail. Its command module cover in blue foil, Kitty Hawk was mounted in one of the two large altitude chambers in the facility to test the entire spacecraft in a vacuum with the crew on board.

While Aldrin was the first astronaut I ever interviewed, Kurt Debus was the first PERSON of any kind I ever interviewed. He was the first of several thousand I have logged over the last four decades.

The view out of the center director's office was a sea of green trees with the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Apollo 13 Saturn V rising high above in the near distance. Debus motioning to the spectacular scene, said that all of KSC's major facilities would be used for far more than Apollo.

The Saturn V carrying the flawed Apollo 13 command/service module that failed and the Grumman lunar module that saved the lives of the Apollo 13 crew awaits launch on Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA/Apollo
He stressed that the VAB, crawler transporters and Launch Complex 39 were designed not as a space system but rather an industrial system to move, assemble and fire large rockets. He also noted that the KSC rocket base infrastructure had been built with substantial margin, so it could be modified relatively easily for what ever programs followed Apollo.

He predicted that would initially involve first the Skylab space station using Apollo hardware but then a much more advanced station that would be built and serviced by the coming space shuttle. All of that came true.

He did not believe that the Saturn V should be abandoned, in fact he specifically said, at that snapshot in time in late 1969, that he hoped Saturn V's could be used to build an initial infrastructure on the Moon and become part of initial missions to Mars. He noted that room for a third large facility north of Pad 39B had already been surveyed for a booster larger than a Saturn V. Unfortunately none of that has come true yet.

Debus proved correct about how well KSC has been modified for shuttle and space station support. Like most Apollo era managers his predictions about new manned missions to the Moon and Mars have faltered.

Debus had also helped develop German V-2s used to attack Western Europe in World War II. He did not shy away from that discussion. But he noted that he had initially refused to join Wernher von Braun at Peenemunde, wishing instead to stay with a low profile academic career.

When the German high command ordered him to either go to Peenemunde or an infantry unit where he would likely be killed, he felt he had no choice. At Peenemunde he developed a test stand infrastructure and ways to use the V-2 to obtain rocket performance data for future missile development.

He also said he played a key role in enabling the core rocket hardware and personnel to transfer to U. S. hands as the German defeat loomed. He said he helped put together a large truck convoy that would sneak to a safer location where capture by the U. S. would be easier. He helped obtain documents to allow the convoy to pass numerous Nazi checkpoints.

At one point when discovery by the German Army seemed imminent, he said he dispersed the convoy into mountains where it laid low until it could makes it way to the original coordinates where it eventually was captured by the Americans.

After a development career based in Huntsville Debus led development of the Cape Canaveral infrastructure for all of the medium range ballistic missiles developed in the 1950s. He then became the first KSC director.

Throughout mid December, 1969, I saw many other key KSC and Cape Canaveral facilities. But one unique Apollo 12 event stands out.

I had arrived just after the Apollo 12 missionhad returned to Earth.

When the Apollo 11 crew returned, President Nixon immediately sent them on a world tour. This meant the KSC team that had made Apollo 11 possible was deprived of seeing them again after they departed - on their Saturn V.

The Apollo 12 crew, however, did return to KSC immediately after they were released from quarantine in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston.

Picture the Vehicle Assembly Building floor packed with several thousand workers cheering at the top of their lungs, as the crew was introduced by Dr. Debus. Conrad Been and Gordon profusely thanked the KSC workforce.

That image of thousands of workers cheering an astronaut crew that they sent to the Moon is a scene I replay in my mind whenever I go into the VAB.

Dr. Debus presented each astronaut with an Earth rock mounted on a plaque - calling those rocks "the first 3 mi. to the Moon". That is because they were originally on the crawlerway between the VAB and the Pad 39 when the several hundred ton crawler carrying the Apollo 12 Saturn V had crushed them.

As planned from the start, the news stories written from the trip were printed, not in Reader's Digest, but rather as a large special layout in the university newspaper, The BG News.

The success of the first trip led to approval of the second to JSC in late 1970. In the meantime Apollo 13 had been saved and Apollo 14 was set to launch in early 1971.

In Houston I was able to do something no other journalist had done - participate sitting on a console in Mission Control with a lead flight control team as it practiced with a crew in one of the big Singer Link mission simulators.

The reason no other journalists had been allowed to do it was competition between news organizations. JSC managers believed if they did it for one outfit they would get requests from all of them.

Mission Control Room at the Johnson Space Center, Houston was the focal point for both simulation training of flight controller as well as flight control of lunar missions. Credit: NASA/Apollo
They figured I was harmless, a student journalist, even thought I was operating under a Reader's digest grant. So I was parked at a Mission Control room console for a day of lunar mission simulations. The Mission Control team was led by flight director Jerry Griffin.

Astronauts Gene Cernan and Joe Engle, the Apollo 14 backup crew were in the lunar module simulator at Kennedy, the same one in which I had practiced Moon landings with Cernan the year before.

This crew was also to be the Apollo 17 prime crew, but Engle, who would eventually fly two space shuttle missions, was bumped when NASA decided they had to send scientist astronaut, Jack Schmitt, a geologist instead. For Apollo 14 backup duty, however, Engle stayed put.

The simulation began with the crew working on the lunar surface when suddenly telemetry indicated their LM had started leaking helium needed to pressurize their ascent propellant tanks.

That was a potentially dire emergency and spacecraft communicator astronaut Bruce McCandless radioed for them to get back in the LM.

Once inside they began a countdown to fire off the Moon for rendezvous with Ron Evans in the command module as it approached overhead.

At 15 sec. to liftoff however, "Data Dropout" shouted one controller as all vital guidance telemetry from the LM had ceased. Griffin asked the controller at the Communications Console for a report "I've lost him. I've lost him. I do not have communications with the spacecraft," he replied. The team was faced with a critical decision that must be made in scant seconds, radio a "No Go" to Cernan and Engle or let them fire off the Moon in the remaining moments.

The astronauts were told to halt their count and stay on the Moon. The leak was not so fast that could not wait another hour for the command module to come around again. It was more of a risk to lift off with no Mission Control support on how to find the command module once they fired off the Moon.

This was just one of several integrated lunar surface emergencies I practiced with Griffin's Mission Control team.Integrated meaning the Mission Control Center was linked to an astronaut crew in a simulator--the most complex of all simulation operations.

Another cutting edge visit at Houston was being allowed unprecedented access to all of the lunar rock samples and Moon dirt that had been stored to that point in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) facility.

Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott examines rock samples from his mission in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center. All lunar rocks and soil are kept in inert nitrogen environments to they retain their original character. Credit: NASA/Apollo
That included donning clean room garb, sometime with multiple coverings for rooms requiring extreme cleanliness to protect the samples.

Two missions had been to the Moon prior to my visit. I was able to see all 75 lb. of lunar material including 45 rocks returned by Apollo 12 and 48 lb. including 50 rocks returned by Apollo 11.

A big clock in the lab was running backwards, an LRL message that they were "turning back time" in studying the samples there.

Bags and bags of lunar soil were stacked on shelves in nitrogen filled cabinets. It was a stunning sight, one of the greatest treasures in the history of the Earth - material from an other planetary body - probably torn from Earth nearly 4 billion years ago by the impact of a Mars sized object.

Material gathered from thetop surface has a blackish gray shade, while material from just under the surface was completely black. Most of the Apollo 12 rock samples were dark gray primarily basalts formed by volcanic activity, while Apollo 11 had a number of lighter sparkling breccias formed by heat and pressure during meteor impacts.

One white/gray sample for Apollo 12 stood out, however. It was a "Kreep" sample, high in potassium and rare Earth elements. Other missions like Apollo 14 found several Kreeps, more of a highland rock probably blasted from hundreds of miles away - maybe the young crater Tyco near the South Pole.

The LRL was also well into studying the affect on lunar materials on plants and laboratory animals.

The animals injected with lunar materials suffered no ill effects, providing confidence the Moon harbored no harmful organisms.

Chief botanist Dr. Charles Walkinshaw walked me through a large room filled with plants of all types that were brilliantly green - thriving on the lunar soil they had been fed. "This is the result of the especially good source of minerals contained in lunar rock," he said.

My session with Aldrin lasted two hours and covered numerous topics, including political activism. Aldrin said that after Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed in 1968, that he had secretly walked in the front of the memorial parade in Houston for Dr. King.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin floats in the Lunar Module Eagle 40 years ago before Neil Armstrong and Aldrin piloted the LM to the surface of the Moon for the first manned lunar landing on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA/Apollo
Aldrin stressed throughout the discussion that the views of younger Americans should be better taken into account by the nation's political system.

As if on cue, I looked out the window of his office in Building 4 at JSC to see a teacher with a class of 10 year olds stopped as she pointed up to the window, no doubt telling her students that is where astronauts work who have been to the Moon.

Ironically with that interview conducted nearly 40 years ago, all of those "kids" would now be well into their 50s.

"When we start flying the shuttle we expect about 450 flights over a 10 year period," said Aldrin reflecting NASA plans then a full 10 years before the shuttle would fly.

In reality the shuttle has managed only about 125 flights over nearly 25 years.

Aldrin said he was part of a study team involving astronauts Jim Lovell and Jack Swigert of Apollo 13 who had just been assigned to study NASA planning for the next 15-20 years. Something a team headed by Norm Augustine is doing all over again.

Aldrin said by then (1985-1990 given the interview was 40 years ago) "we are thinking of setting up a space station with six crew members in lunar orbit so landing craft from the station could descend to different places on the Moon, then fly back up to lunar station after a few days on the surface."

Aldrin though this might be in place by 1985-1990, but none of that ever came to pass.

But Aldrin ended with one comment still often cited about the need for the U. S to continue exploration. "With the wealth we have we just can't be number 2," he said.

"As you look over history you find that nations which start cutting back on looking toward the future, and looking inward rather than outward, start to crumble," Aldrin said.

"Civilizations have always done that," he said. "If our nation says to hell with the rest of the world, to hell with advancement that is what we will do too. We will crumble," said Aldrin in my 1970 discussion with the Apollo 11 crewman, who with Armstrong became the first men on the Moon 40 years ago July 20.