Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations

Chapter 2

Launch Complex 34

The Director

The Missile Firing Laboratory's director, Dr. Kurt Debus, had wasted no time in getting a launch pad ready for the new rocket. Early on the morning of 26 September 1958, four days after the Medaris-Johnson Agreement to launch four Saturn boosters, a small group of MFL members left Huntsville Airport for Patrick Air Force Base. They joined the Cape Canaveral members of the MFL team in Debus's office for a discussion of ways and means of putting the proposed super-rocket into space.

After the Army had relocated its missile team from Fort Bliss to Huntsville in 1950, Wernher von Braun became Technical Director of the Ordnance Guided Missile Center. Debus, who had worked with von Braun at Peenemunde, was Assistant Technical Director. When von Braun established an Experimental Missile Firing Branch, Debus was placed in charge. The name was changed to Missile Firing Laboratory in January 1953, with Debus remaining at the helm. MFL maintained offices at Huntsville, although Debus spent much of his time at Cape Canaveral. During his early years at the Cape, Debus wrestled with a gamut of problems. One was a shortage of experienced people; a year after its formation, his team had only 19 members. The launch team for Redstone 1 in the summer of 1953 numbered 82, but only 37 were permanently assigned to the Missile Firing Laboratory. As the Redstone and Jupiter programs burgeoned, MFL grew also and by 1960, on the eve of its transfer from the Army to NASA, numbered 535 people. Thus, while the well-known "von Braun team" operated in Alabama, a less known and initially subsidiary "Debus team" was growing up at Cape Canaveral.1

Slowly the qualities of Dr. Debus became evident as he moved out of the shadow of the more charismatic von Braun. A doctor of philosophy in engineering from Darmstadt University, Debus had been headed for a professor's chair when he was recruited into the Peenemunde group. Debus was a systematic man; he kept a daily journal and believed a well-ordered desk was a sign of an orderly mind. On his monthly inspections, he might help a subordinate clear his desk of nonessentials; or he would do it himself if the man was away at the time. He purged his own files regularly.

Totally committed to his work, Debus expected total commitment from those with him. Thus he would have less respect for a happy-go-lucky individual, no matter how well that man might do his job, than for one who shared his own seriousness of deportment. He set his goals and brooked no opposition to them. But he allowed his subordinates a choice of methods in reaching those goals. He relied more on his personal experience of a man's capabilities than on records or written recommendations - a penchant he could not indulge in later years as the operation expanded. While not outgoing in manner, he had a deep concern for others. He showed the same reserved courtesy to the electrician who interrupted his busy day to replace a burned-out fluorescent tube as to the congressional leader who came to his office to discuss launch operations. While his team was small, he remembered birthdays with letters and cards. Straightforward in approach, he let his achievements speak for him - not always the most effective means of getting ahead. He was a man to get the job done. Now his job was to put a Saturn into space.

The proposed super-rocket dwarfed anything heretofore handled by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (see table 1). The problems caused by the clustered engines were particularly significant. To guarantee proper ignition of all engines, The booster would have to be held on the launch pad for a few seconds. A complex mechanism to do this had to be developed. There was also a psychological factor, related to the Saturn's great expense. With previous military missiles, launch equipment failures had been relatively inconsequential. Each program called for a number of tests; the MFL staff learned from mistakes. The millions of dollars tied up in each Saturn, however, meant that launch facility failures could not be tolerated. Finally there was the problem of time. With the first launch only two years away, there could be no serious delay in determination of criteria, in design, or in construction.2


BY MFL/LOD/LOC, 1953-1965

(Vehicle characteristics varied during rocket development;

figures represent an approximate average,)

Characteristics Redstone Jupiter Saturn I
(Block I)
Saturn I
(Block II)
Height (meters) 21 18 50 58
Diameter (Meters) 1.75 2.63 6.40 6.40
Propellant Weight (Kilograms) 18,000 38,500 290,000 450,000
Total Weight at Liftoff (Kilograms) 28,000 50,000 430,000 515,750
Total Thrust (Newtons) 333,600 667,200 430,000 1st Stage 6,690,00
2d Stage 400,300
RF Links 2 4 8 13
Telemetered Measurements 116 215 560 1,180
Pad Time 15 25 61 103

1. Chief, MFL, to Chief, Ops. Off., Guided Missile Development Div. (GMDD), "Manning Charts," 5 Jan. 1953; Chief, MFL, to Dep. Chief, GMDD, "Official List of Operations Personnel for Missile #1"; Launch Operations Directorate (hereafter cited as LOD), "Special Report on Support Operations at the AMR by LOD," 21 Dec. 1960, part 5.

2. ABMA, Juno V Development, p. 47; Georg von Tiesenhausen, "Saturn Ground Support and Operations," Astronautics 5 (Dec. 1960): 30.