Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations

Chapter 6

LC-39 Plans Take Shape

Rapidly Evolving Hardware

In the year following the Debus-Davis study, Huntsville planners kept coming up with a larger Saturn, only to discard it for a still bigger one. Their bigger-rocket designs, coupled with lunar-orbital rendezvous, could drop the Apollo launch rate from 13 Saturns a year to 6, well below what Debus had warned was an economic use for the mobile concept. Critics in and out of NASA began to question the wisdom of the mobile concept, but it rolled on. For one thing, the plan was under way and time and money had been invested in its development. For another, Debus and Petrone were proving effective advocates, stressing the concept's flexibility when declining launch rates undercut its major premise. Finally Congress and the country wanted NASA "to travel first class" if it meant beating Russia to the moon. The Launch Operations Directorate (LOD) men believed their proposals promised first class travel to the moon and beyond.

Although acceptance of the Debus-Davis Report was a more-or-less green light for the mobile concept, several major questions remained about moving a gigantic rocket over Merritt Island's marshes from assembly building to launch pad. Cost remained a primary consideration. But during the last six months of 1961, LOD's great concern lay in the plethora of rocket designs and rendezvous studies that kept pouring out of Huntsville and Washington. An orderly account of events belies the tentative manner in which the Debus team had to plan launch facilities for problematical rockets flying on undetermined flight paths to the moon.

The Lundin Committee had taken a "quick look" (one week) at the rendezvous mode of accomplishing the manned lunar landing [see chapter 4-7]. In late June 1961 Associate Administrator Seamans directed Air Force Col, Donald H. Heaton of NASA Headquarters to conduct a more detailed study. Heaton's committee supported the Lundin finding that an earth-orbital rendezvous promised the earliest lunar landing and at less cost than a direct ascent. Its August report recommended the use of a Saturn C-4 with four F-1 engines. The C-4's bigger payload would reduce thenumber of rendezvous vehicles, with "a higher probability of an earlier successful manned lunar landing than the C-3."1

Despite the Heaton Committee's recommendation, General Ostrander's Office of Launch Vehicle Programs urged an early start for the Saturn C-3 program. Seamans was not ready to commit himself, having agreed in July to a NASA-DoD Launch vehicle study. Nicholas Golovin, a mathematician who had previously worked on the Mercury project, directed the joint study. Although the group failed to establish a national launch vehicle program, it outlined alternative programs (including developmental flights) for a manned lunar landing:

Lunar-orbit rendezvous.
28 Saturn C-1 flights and 38 C-4 flights. First landing possible in October 1967. Cost of program, $7.33 billion.
Earth-orbit rendezvous.
32 Saturn C-1 flights and 53 C-4 flights. First landing possible in July 1968. Cost of program, $8.16 billion.
Direct ascent.
22 Saturn C-1 flights and 38 flights of a Nova configuration with eight F-1 engines in the first stage, eight J-2 engines in the second stage, and two J-2 engines in the third stage. First Ending possible in October 1968. Cost of program, $6.39 billion.2
Contemporary with the changing studies in Washington, the Saturn launch vehicle evolved rapidly in Huntsville, going from a C-3 version in June to a C-5 in December. Plans for the C-3 were barely under way when Marshall Space Flight Center initiated studies of a larger C-4. The C-4, incorporating Four F-1 engines in the booster and five J-2 engines in the second stage, at first seemed large enough to power a lunar landing mission via either lunar-orbital or earth-orbital rendezvous. As spacecraft weight estimates continued upward, Marshall officials began to question this assumption. Von Braun's proposal to add a fifth F-1 engine, making the C-4 a C-5, was approved in November when Milton Rosen, NASA Director of Launch Vehicles and Propulsion, made another launch vehicle study. Rosen's team spent two weeks in Huntsville matching potential launch vehicles with lunar landing missions. The group's findings reinforced von Braun's argument for a C-5; the C-4's capability for a rendezvous mission was marginal. Since the clustering of the four F-1 engines left a large open space in the C-4's first stage, a fifth engine would strengthen the Saturn design. Rosen pointed out that a fifth engine could be mounted at the junction of two very strong crossbeams that supported the other four engines. This eliminated a potential trouble spot since the junction would have been exposed to excessive exhaust backwash and a serious overheating problem. Marshall engineers estimated that the C-5 would place 108,900 kilograms in earth orbit or lift 40,200 kilograms to escape velocity. Still short of a direct ascent capability (68,000 kilograms to escape velocity), the C-5 provided ample power for a rendezvous mission.3

Decisions came rapidly during the next four weeks. On 4 December 1961, Seamans agreed to the Rosen Committee's recommendations. NASA selected the Boeing Company as a possible prime contractor for the first stage on the 15th. The frame (10-meter diameter, 42.7 meters in length) would be manufactured at NASA's Michoud plant just east of New Orleans. At its first meeting on the 21st, the Manned Space Flight Management Council* approved the C-5 configuration of five F-1 engines in the first S-IC stage, five J-2 engines in the second S-II stage, and one J-2 in the third S-IVB stage. The same day NASA Headquarters began negotiations with Douglas Aircraft Company to modify the C-1's S-IV stage for use as the S-IVB. As NASA had indicated in September that North American Aviation would build the S-II stage, the Douglas selection rounded out the team of contractors for the Saturn C-5. Formal announcement that Marshall Space Flight Center would direct C-5 development came in January 1962.4

The Space Task Group, NASA's spacecraft organization, went through an equally hectic six months after the lunar-landing decision. STG and McDonnell Aircraft Corporation had been considering advanced Mercury projects since September 1959; proposals included a maneuverable Mercury capsule, extended missions of 14 days, a two-man vehicle, and a rendezvous attempt. In May 1961, Martin Company spokesmen approached NASA officials about the use of the Titan II missile in a post-Mercury program. Further presentations convinced Robert Gilruth, Space Task Group chief, of the Titan II's merits. Engineers prepared a project development plan calling for the two-man Mercury spacecraft and a modified Titan II booster. As a rendezvous capability seemed very important for Apollo, the project included an Agena rendezvous target, boosted into earth orbit by an Atlas launch vehicle. The project wan approval in December and was formally christened the Gemini program** the following month.5

Work on the Apollo spacecraft also moved forward. NASA Headquarters announced on 9 September 1961 the establishment of a Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston. The center would design, develop, evaluate, and test Apollo spacecraft and train astronauts for space missions. Robert Gilruth would head the new organization with his Space Task Group as its nucleus.6

The home and organization were new, but not the mission. The Gilruth team had prepared the preliminary guidelines for an advanced manned spacecraft in March 1960. In subsequent months the group had enlisted research assistance from other NASA centers, briefed American industry, and awarded contracts for spacecraft feasibility studies. By mid-1961 Gilruth was ready to invite bids on the prime Apollo spacecraft. The 28 July work statement described three phases of the Apollo program. Manned earth-orbital flights and unmanned reentry flights comprised phase one missions. NASA would qualify spacecraft systems and the heat shield, study human reactions to extended periods in space, conduct experiments related to the lunar mission, and work on flight and ground operational techniques. The second phase involved circumlunar flights to develop the Apollo spacecraft and conduct lunar reconnaissance. Manned lunar landings would come in phase three.7

The work statement called for the design and manufacture of a command module and associated ground support equipment. The contractor would also provide test spacecraft For Saturn C-1 developmental vehicles and mockups. A second major assignment involved the integration of the spacecraft modules with each other, with the launch vehicle, and with ground support equipment. During operations the contractor would prepare the spacecraft for flight and monitor its systems. Description of the command and service modules ran more than 20 pages. Major systems of the two modules included guidance and control, vernier propulsion for longitudinal velocity and thrust-vector control, mission propulsion, reaction control, provisions for escape during launch, environmental control, electrical power, communications and instrumentation, and a number of crew-related systems. Although NASA had not decided on the mission mode, the Space Task Group nevertheless included some general plans of a lunar landing module for direct ascent or an earth-orbital rendezvous mission. Twelve companies bid on the contract that would eventually cost NASA over 2.2 billion dollars. in November, NASA announced the selection of North American Aviation for the task.8 Mission, rocket, and spacecraft were taking form.

* NASA Headquarters underwent a major reorganization during the fall ot 1961. An Office of Manned Space Flight was set up to supervise the Apollo program. Field center directors no longer reported to Headquarters program offices but directly to the Associate Administrator, giving the directors additional power. D. Brainerd Holmes came from RCA to head the Office of Manned Space Flight. One of his first actions was to establish a Management Council to provide overall direction for the Apollo Program. MSFC, MSC and LOD (Debus) were represented as well as key members of the Manned Space Flight Office. The Council played an important decision making role in 1962-63. Robert L. Rosholt, An Administrative History of NASA, 1938-1963, NASA SP-4101 (Washington, 1966), pp. 274-75.

** See Barton C. Hacker and James M. Grimwood, On the Shoulders of Titans. A History of Project Gemini, NASA SP-4203 (Washington: 1977).