Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations

Chapter 7

The Launch Directorate Becomes an Operating Center

Growing Responsibilities at the Cape

By the time Apollo 11 put Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the moon, Apollo field operations were divided among three NASA installations. Marshall Space Flight Center supervised the development of the launch vehicle, the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston the spacecraft, and Kennedy Space Center assembled, tested, and launched the combination. The actual construction was done by contractors from all over the United States; but generally speaking, management responsibility was divided as described above, with fairly well defined boundaries and a minimum duplication of effort.

This neat packaging was not achieved in a single bound, but was the result of an evolutionary process accompanied by much discussion, some backing and filling, and a few attempts at empire building. A main step in the process was the elevation of the Launch Operations Directorate (LOD), previously part of Marshall, into the Launch Operations Center (LOC) on a par with Marshall. This was a good two years in the doing, during which time Debus had to meet increased responsibilities with limited manpower and authority. Mindful of his difficulties, his superiors at Marshall proposed in the spring of 1961 to expand LOD's organization to include new offices for program control, financial management, purchasing and contracting, construction coordination, and management services. With President Kennedy's message of 25 May 1961, it became obvious that the manned lunar landing program was going to be a very big project and that NASA's launch team at Cape Canaveral would need corresponding status.

General Ostrander requested Debus to develop organizational proposals; he responded on 12 June 1961 with three plans. The first called essentially for the maintenance of the status quo, the second for a launch organization providing administrative support to launch teams from the NASA centers, and the third for an independent Launch Operations Center to serve all of NASA.* All three called for a single point of contact at the Atlantic Missile Range, an in-house capability for monitoring launch operations, and an independent status in master planning, purchasing and contracting, and financial and personnel management. Debus talked over these proposals with von Braun who in turn discussed them with Ostrander.1

The three proposals show Debus leaning over backward to avoid any suggestion of officiousness. He was equally convinced, however, that a successful launch program required an experienced team with full powers at the launch site. He set out this thought some six weeks later in a letter to Eberhard Rees, the Marshall Space Flight Center Deputy Director for Research and Development. The letter was occasioned, not by the reorganization proposals, but by a delay in the assembly of the SA-1 booster at Huntsville. Debus agreed to let the work be finished at the Cape, but made it plain that this set no precedent. Writing to Rees, Debus noted that any MSFC division might prefer to send engineers to conduct the related part of the launch operations. Von Braun had tried this at White Sands and found it wanting. With the Redstone, a permanent launch team had been set up as an integral part of the Huntsville organization, and this had worked well the past nine years. Now, given the complexity of the Saturn, it was the only satisfactory approach.

Placing the responsibility for launch checkout with the Huntsville offices that had designed and built the Saturn could only lead to difficulty. If similar arrangements were made with all booster, stage, and payload contractors, the situation would become impossible.2 Agreeing to the exception for SA-1, Debus insisted that henceforth Huntsville hardware be shipped in as complete form as possible, and after Huntsville's final inspection. At the Cape, "all participants, including contractor personnel, must be supervised and coordinated by one launch agency." Debus stated that LOD would perform any function "that has been or will become a standard requirement at the launch site."3

In the meantime, the Deputy Director of Administration at Marshall Space Flight Center, D. M. Morris, recommended to NASA Headquarters that the Launch Operations Directorate have greater authority and stronger support services under its control. Following on this, Harry H. Gorman, Associate Deputy Director for Administration at Huntsville, wrote Seamans at NASA Headquarters on 26 September 1961 recommending greater financial and administrative independence for LOD. Gorman noted that the distance between Huntsville and Cape Canaveral was producing a communications gap, that LOD's dependence on Marshall impaired efficiency, and that the increased work load falling on LOD and other NASA elements at the Atlantic Missile Range dictated a larger role for LOD. Gorman suggested that LOD assume responsibility for services still performed for it by Marshall offices in programming, scheduling, procurement, and contracting; that it increase its personnel in some existing support elements; and that it lease off-base facilities near Cocoa Beach to house such activities as financial management, procurement and contracts, and construction coordination. He urged the immediate hiring of 75 more employees.4

The day following Gorman's letter, Debus completed a second position paper on "Launch and Spaceflight Operations." He noted "the current expansion of NASA activities, the magnitude and complexity of future space programs, the requirement for rapid overall growth potential and the resulting need for clear lines of responsibility and authority"; and he called for a "competent organization of NASA elements."5 Debus evaluated two plans in a third proposal on 10 October 1961. The first would put administration and management, general technical and scientific fields, facility planning and construction, checkout and launch, and operational flight control under a single launch organization reporting to NASA Headquarters. The second would leave operational flight control and some aspects of checkout and launch under the individual launching divisions of their parent centers.6

Von Braun supported the first alternative: "This study brings the NASA-wide launch operations problem very well in focus," he wrote. "I consider Plan I the superior plan for the accomplishment of NASA's objectives [manned lunar landing in this decade] but its implementation will require a ringing appeal to all centers for NASA-wide team spirit in lieu of parochial interest."7 Seamans insisted that personnel at Headquarters give major attention to the matter in the next two weeks. Debus was later of the opinion that Seamans initiated the entire discussion.8

Von Braun was correct in assuming that raising LOD to the status of a separate center would meet serious objections from vested interests in NASA. Harry Gorman's arguments from the administrative standpoint were not seconded in the engineering divisions. Eberhard Rees, for one, leaned against separation; if it should prove necessary, he preferred the alternate plan, wherein a Launch Operations Center would control administration and management, general technical and scientific fields, and facility planning and construction, with the launching divisions of the various centers still controlling their flight operations and some aspects of checkout and launching. Most of von Braun's staff opposed the separation of the launch team from Huntsville. There was some feeling that they would be working in the factory, while the Debus launch team in Florida would enjoy the action and the spotlight. Heated debates continued through a cold winter.9

* While the public has always tended to identify NASA with manned spaceflight, NASA had from its beginning several unmanned projects. These were managed by such centers as Lewis, Langley, and Ames; in some cases, the vehicles were launched from Canaveral. Completely independent of Marshall, such launches complicated matters for LOD.