Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations

The Launch of Apollo 9

Apollo 9 took seven hours to travel to pad A on 3 January 1969. The next three days were devoted to moving the mobile service structure to the pad. This included mating the mobile launcher to the pad, hookup and checkout of the data link and RCA 110A computer, final validation of swing arm 9, an integration test for the environmental control system, and moving the mobile service structure. On 6 January vehicle power was applied, two days later the Q-ball* was installed.13

The Manned Space Flight Management Council, which consisted of the major figures in the NASA manned spaceflight program from all the centers, met at KSC early in February. The meeting was followed by the flight readiness review for Apollo 9. At the time, the space vehicle was going through hypergolic loading, RP-1 loading (for the S-IC stage), and the main fuel valve leak test. During the electromechanical test of the service arms, oxidizer fumes were detected externally at the S-IVB aft interstage area. Examination revealed a vapor leak in the LOX system. The problem was solved by a decision to plug the leak detection port and to launch in that configuration.14

The countdown demonstration test began early on the morning of 12 February at T-130 hours. As a practical matter, this test was the start of the countdown for the lunar module. System and subsystem checks as well as full servicing and close-out of much of that spacecraft left little to be done beyond loading the crew equipment. Crew participation during the "dry" demonstration test required only activation of systems needed to support the spacecraft-crew interface. Swing arm 9 retracted to its park position at the proper time, but instead of remaining retracted, the arm moved back to the command module. Activation of the fuel cells was simulated, since they were not required for crew support. The test was completed successfully on the morning of 19 February. Tests of the RF telemetry systems of the space vehicle and the return of the mobile service structure to the pad marked the beginning of the precount preparations for the launch itself.15

The countdown for Apollo 9 began the following week, aiming toward a launch on 28 February. While matters went smoothly for the launch team, the flight crew developed colds. The day before launch, at T-16 hours, NASA officials postponed the mission until 3 March. KSC recycled the countdown to T-45 hours so that the spacecraft team could replace the supercritical helium in the lunar module. The liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks required only a topping-off. For the launch vehicle team the delay meant charging a new set of flight batteries to install on 1 March. The principal effect of the flight crew's "malfunction" was to give the KSC team its first lengthy respite in a Saturn V countdown. The machine had proven more reliable than the men.16

At 11:00 a.m. on 3 March 1969, Apollo 9 lifted off on its flight into earth orbit. With an almost flawless performance, the Saturn V emerged as a proven piece of space hardware. Launch damage to the ground support equipment was slight compared to prior launches. During the countdown there had been no significant failures or anomalies in the ground system. As the first Apollo-Saturn V space vehicle in full lunar mission configuration, Apollo 9 demonstrated not only its own capabilities, but those of the ground facilities as well. The first comprehensive test of the vehicle, the complex, and the philosophy was a very satisfying success.17

* A 16-kilogram, cone-shaped instrument 36 centimeters high, the Q-ball was located above the Launch Escape System on top of the Saturn rocket. Unequal pressures on the four holes of the Q-ball indicated a change in trajectory.