Friday, October 9, 2009

Taking a new direction: A restoration project

I've decided to take my blog in a different direction. It's still going to be dedicated to my space collection, but I'm going to concentrate most of the posts on a few items of particular interest to me at the moment: my control panels from the Apollo-era firing rooms at Kennedy Space Center.

I highlighted these panels in a previous post early this summer. I have started working to restore two of the panels, with the goal of "lighting them up" again and having operate similarly to how they might have looked during the launch of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.

I'm going to use this blog to document the process that I'm going through to bring these relics back online.

Let's start with general clean-up.

I purchased these panels from Steve Hankow at Farthest Reaches in June. Steve's consignor acquired them from the estate of Charles Bell. Bell was a NASA inventor and engineer who was involved in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. He amassed a huge junkyard full of rockets, spare parts, control panels, test equipment, and just about anything that could be salvaged when NASA junked the items. Bell's materials were not catalogued or kept in environmentally-controlled conditions, so they were not in pristine condition (to say the least) when his estate was auctioned off.

The S-IB Operations Panel displayed the critical events in the countdown and flight of the Saturn IB, the first stage of the Saturn rockets that flew Apollo 7, as well as the crews of the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project missions, into Earth orbit. Although I don't know for sure, I assume that this was used by a person in a supervisory function, who was monitoring the overall progress of the countdown.

The panel is a 19" x 5-1/2" bank of 40 indicator lamps in "Roto-Tellite" enclosures. Each enclosure has one or two 28V indicator lamps, a colored gel (usually green, blue, or red), a translucent white plastic piece, and a clear plastic insert with lettering stenciled on. In many cases, a lot of dust had accumulated in these enclosures when I opened up the panel. Also, the ink from the stenciled lettering had bled, and some of the gels may have melted slightly in the Florida heat of Bell's junkyard, causing the gel to wick between the indicator's plastic inserts. You can see that some of these labels were almost illegible from the accumulated grime.

My first task, after photographing the panel to document its original condition, was to clean up these plastic inserts. To do this, one first has to remove the inserts from the Roto-Tellite enclosures. You have to push on one side of the enclosure to rotate the cell. In some cases it was easier than others. These cells hadn't been moved in 35 years, so they were very reluctant to turn. Once the cell is rotated 45 degrees, you then have to pop open the clip on the end of the enclosure. This was particularly hard on my fingernails and fingers, and I was lucky not to get a lot of blood on the panel!! After opening the clip, the plastic insert can be slid out. In some cases, it was stuck to the enclosure and had to be gently loosened with an X-acto knife.

The plastic inserts were generally stuck together. I was able to separate most of them into their component pieces using my thumbnail at the corner of the insert, gently pulling the stuck pieces apart. I tried a variety of methods, starting with mildly soapy water, to clean up the plastic inserts. Soaking in water didn't get rid of the gunk. I found that the colored gels and the translucent white pieces could be rubbed clean with a paper towel with a little rubbing alcohol on it.

With the lettered inserts, I wasn't sure if rubbing alcohol was a good idea. Gentle rubbing with a paper towel accidentally rubbed off the ink on one letter, much to my horror. I switched to rubbing alcohol, applied gently with a Q-tip. That worked much better and didn't seem to damage the lettering. In 90% of the cases, the Q-tip removed the dirt and left the letters intact. In a few cases, though, the ink seemed to start to dissolve in the alcohol, so I quickly dipped the label into water and blotted it dry.

After drying each piece of the insert, I reassembled them and put them back into their original cell. You can see here the side-by-side comparison of this one bank of indicator lights, before and after cleaning off the "LOX TANK PRESSURIZED" indicator.

Repeat forty times, for this panel...and forty-nine times for the S-IB Networks panel. But the end result was well worth it. All of the indicators survived the cleaning process, with the loss of only one letter on one label. Below are comparisons of the two control panels, before and after cleaning up the inserts.

Next time: Testing the lights and connectors!

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