Saturday, July 18, 2009

Monitoring Apollo 11

Perhaps the only people on Earth watching Apollo 11 more intently than me were the NASA folks in Launch Control and Mission Control. (Okay, I'll admit that perhaps that this is a slight exaggeration.) As glued as I was to my TV set, I was just an amateur. These folks were paid to stare at their screens, bite their nails, and chain smoke their way through the mission..

The Firing Room at Launch Complex 39, in a building adjacent to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, was responsible for all operations from prior to launch until the vehicle rose completely above the launch tower, about 7 seconds after liftoff. The Firing Room staff controlled the preparation and execution of the launch sequence. The Firing Room staff also monitored all of the status readouts for the immense Saturn V rocket and the systems aboard the Apollo spacecraft, which was at the time the most complex machine ever built.

At the back of the Firing Room was a small glass-in enclosure known as the Operations Management Room. The team that worked in this area supervised the Firing Room and made the executive decisions. This is also where the VIPs (NASA brass like Werner von Braun) observed the launch. The red stripe on this badge indicates a security clearance for its bearer.

When the vehicle cleared the launch tower, control transferred to the famed Mission Operation Control Room (MOCR) was located, on the third floor of Bldg 30 (Mission Control Center, or MCC) at the Manned Spaceflight Center, now the Johnson Spaceflight Center, in Houston. The remainder of the mission, through splashdown, was run from this room. The badge shown at left was issued to Edward Pavelka, who supervised the Flight Dynamics Officer (FIDO) team for Apollo 11.

Other NASA Centers played a vital role in the Apollo 11 mission. For example, Goddard Spaceflight Center (GSFC), in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, provided computer support and radar tracking of the flight through a network of ground-based sites. The colorful badge at left was issued to a GSFC employee for Apollo 11.

And, of course, contractors got their own badges, too. The example at the bottom of this blog was issued to George Faenza, a McDonnell Douglas employee who oversaw Apollo/Saturn testing during the Apollo era.

As a 12 year old boy during the mission, my role was to have my models of the Saturn V and the LM constantly at the ready in front of the TV, in case there was an urgent need to act out some portion of the mission as a critical event occurred. No one issued me a badge, but I belonged to that program!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

July 1969: Moon Fever!!

In July 1969, the eyes of the world turned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as we waited for the launch of Apollo 11.

NASA invited dignitaries and media representatives from around the world, and they gathered by the thousands. Even the most jaded person knew that this was not "just another launch" - this was a key landmark of human history, and everyone wanted to be there.

Those fortunate enough to be attending as invited guests received badges that would eventually become collector's items (for people like yours truly). In addition to the "Official Guest" badge, there was a more colorful VIP launch badge which is more commonly seen. A sample of this badge, which displays the mission patch, is shown at left.

The tens of thousands of people who gathered along the highways lining the Cape had to content themselves with unofficial, but nonetheless cherished, mementos of the occasion, such as the "Launch Witness Certificate" shown below. Everyone wanted to be able to prove "I was there!"

Thanks to worldwide, live TV (which wasn't even technologically possible a mere 7 years earlier in the decade!), people around the world were able to share in the event. We all watched as the countdown clock click inexorably downward. The final two minutes seemed interminable to me, yet the steps of launch sequence began happening so quickly that Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Jack King, the "Voice of NASA Launch Control," could barely keep up. I held my breath...

PAO: T minus 60 seconds and counting. We have passed T minus 60. 55 seconds and counting. Neil Armstrong just reported back: "It's been a real smooth countdown". We've passed the 50-second mark. Power transfer is complete - we're on internal power with the launch vehicle at this time. 40 seconds away from the Apollo 11 lift-off. All the second stage tanks now pressurized. 35 seconds and counting. We are still Go with Apollo 11. 30 seconds and counting. Astronauts report, "It feels good". T minus 25 seconds.

PAO: Twenty seconds and counting. T minus 15 seconds, guidance is internal. 12, 11, 10, 9, ignition sequence starts...6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, zero, all engine running, LIFT-OFF! We have a lift-off, 32 minutes past the hour. Lift-off on Apollo 11!