Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations|
On 28 July 1960, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced a new manned spaceflight program. Called Apollo, its aim was to put three astronauts into sustained earth orbit, or into a flight around the moon. The timing of the announcement was not auspicious. The next day, NASA's first Mercury-Atlas (MA-1) disintegrated and fell into the ocean 58 seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral. This disaster ushered in a bleak four months during which the test rocket Little Joe 5 joined the MA-1 in the ocean, and the first Mercury-Redstone lifted a fraction of an inch and settled back on its launch pad. The last failure, on 21 November, marked the absolute nadir of morale for the engineers working on Mercury. The people at the new NASA headquarters in Washington, coping with financial and administrative problems and facing a change of administration after the national election, were only a little less dispirited than the workers in the field. But the fledgling space agency had an asset that made its announcement of an ambitious Apollo program more than an exercise in wishful thinking - it had the support of the American people.
If there is an American psyche, it had been shaken 4 October 1957 by the news that Russia had launched the first man-made earth satellite Sputnik 1. To those apprehensive of anything Soviet, the news was a red flag. The military and the President played down Sputnik's significance, but a layman could not but wonder if Sputnik was one of those scientific breakthroughs that could alter the balance of power. The average American was perhaps most concerned because someone else was excelling in technology - an area in which the U.S. was accustomed to leading.
There was an almost unanimous determination to get into the space race and win it. Three Presidents, with firm support from Congress, channeled the public will into an answer to the Russian challenge. Lyndon B. Johnson, the Senate majority leader, pushed the Aeronautics and Space Act through Congress in 1958. Under its authority, President Eisenhower set up NASA and transferred the armed services' non-military space activities to the new civilian agency. The following year NASA received a vital asset - the Army team of former German V-2 experts who were working up plans for Saturn, a large rocket. Assigned the task of manned spaceflight, NASA's immediate goal was the successful orbiting of a man aboard a Mercury spacecraft. NASA's Ten Year Plan of Space Exploration, revealed to Congress in early 1960, called for nearly 260 varied launches during the next decade, with a manned flight to the moon after 1970. The House Committee on Science and Astronautics considered it a good program except that it did not move ahead fast enough.
Meanwhile, the Russians were not idle. On 12 April 1961, they put Major Yuri A. Gagarin into orbit around earth. The Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a confrontation of prestige in Cuba, in Berlin - and in space. Convinced it was necessary to show the world what America could do, President Kennedy told Congress on 25 May 1961:
Now it is time to take longer strides - time for a great new American enterprise - time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth . . . . I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more exciting or more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish . . . . In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon - it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work together to put him there.If President and people were agreed on the end, what about the means? Kennedy's proposal was not made lightly. Before coming to a decision, he had taken counsel with advisors who believed that the moon project was feasible, largely because it could be accomplished without any new scientific or engineering discoveries. It could be done "within the existing state-of-the-art" by expanding and extending the technology that existed at that time
What was the "existing state-of-the-art" as of 25 May 1961? Since December 1957, when the first Vanguard orbital launch attempt had collapsed in flame before a television audience, the United States had tried to put 25 other scientific satellites into earth orbit; 10 had been successful. Two meteorological satellites had been placed into orbit, and both had operated properly. Two passive communications satellites had been launched, but only one had achieved orbit. Nine probes had been launched toward the moon; none had hit their target, although three achieved a limited success by returning scientific data during flight. After its 1960 failures, NASA had put a Mercury with Alan B. Shepard aboard into suborbital flight on 5 May 1961.
Just 18 months before the Kennedy recommendation, the Atlas military missile, at that time America's most powerful space booster, had made its first flight of intercontinental range - some 10,000 kilometers. Not three years had gone by since the smaller intermediate range ballistic missiles, Jupiter and Thor, had made their first full-range flights. Yet by May of 1961 none of these military rockets had reached a high degree of reliability as space carriers,
When the President laid his proposed goal before the Congress, the spacecraft that would carry man to the moon existed only as a theoretical concept tentatively named Apollo.
The powerful rocket that would be necessary to launch the spacecraft with sufficient velocity to escape earth's gravity was only a few lines on an engineer's scratch pad. Conceivably, it would be one of a family named Saturn: specially designed space carrier vehicles, each generation larger and of greater power than the preceding one. The first Saturn would not make its maiden flight for another six months.
The vast support, checkout, and launch facilities of the earthbound base whence men would launch other men on their journey did not exist. The moonport had yet to be located, designed, built, and activated - and this book tells that story. Other books now being prepared for NASA deal with the other aspects of the program - the Saturn launch vehicles, the Apollo spacecraft, astronaut training and the missions. Another volume, a history of NASA administration, 1963-69, will include the headquarters story of Apollo.
The central feature of this book is launch complex 39 (LC-39), where American astronauts were launched toward the moon. Its story begins in early 1961 with the earliest plans for a mobile launch complex and proceeds through design and construction to the launching of Apollo 11 and subsequent lunar missions. The construction story is a big one - the building of the Apollo Launch facilities was the largest project of its lime. In many ways, however, the operations at LC-39 were an even greater challenge. As an Apollo program manager has noted, the Kennedy Space Center was at the "tail end of the whip." There all the parts of the Apollo program came together for the first time. The launch team ensured that the space vehicle would work.
White LC-39 is the principal focal point, it is not the only one. Two other Apollo-Saturn complexes on Cape Canaveral, LC-34 and LC-37, launched the program's early flights; at LC-34 the program's great tragedy occurred. The Apollo spacecraft were tested in the operations and checkout building in the Merritt Island industrial area. Vital telemetry equipment was located nearby in the central instrumentation facility. Moreover, the size and shape of the launch facilities were largely determined by the Saturn family of launch vehicles, which were produced under the direction of Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, and by the Apollo spacecraft, under the Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston. An understanding of launch facilities and operations requires, to some degree, an appreciation of program-wide activities.
The history is complicated because planning, construction, and launch operations were conducted concurrently during much of the program. Three topics take up most of the first ten chapters: the construction of launch complexes 34 and 37 and the subsequent Saturn I tests; the planning of a moonport on Merritt island and the purchase of that area; and the buildup of the launch team. Chapters 11-15 relate the design, construction, and activation of launch complex 39, Chapters 16-23 describe the Apollo launch operations from early 1966 through the launch of Apollo 17 in December 1972. Chapter 24 is a tentative summing-up.
The work comprehends three kinds of history: official, contemporary, and technological. The technology of the moonport crossed many scientific and engineering disciplines from microelectronics to civil engineering; expertise was needed in telemetry, fluid mechanics, cryogenics, computers - even lightning strikes. Although NASA engineers gave us a great deal of help, it was our task to make the technical terms comprehensible. Another problem stems from NASA's requirement that its authors use the new international system of units. One obvious way to comply, without losing most of our readers, would have been to give ail measurements in both international and old-fashioned units. Unfortunately, with that solution the prose immediately bogs down. We have therefore proceeded as follows. First, where physical units were not essential, we have eliminated them. Second, the more familiar of the international units, such as meters and kilograms, we have used alone. Third, only the more esoteric terms, such as newtons, have we translated in the text.
The contemporary historian's task is to walk into a virgin forest of unsifted materials, with no clearings made by destruction of the unimportant and no trails blazed by prior researchers. Yet the journey can be propitious: we were able to interview hundreds of eyewitnesses who told it as they saw it, They recalled personality conflicts that sometimes affected major decisions. They narrated events never put down in writing and reached into personal files for documents not available in the archives. The use of eyewitnesses naturally required the resolution of some conflicting evidence, and their additional material increased the problems of selection. The insights gained, however, more than compensated for the trouble.
The great weakness of contemporary history, a want of perspective, Is irremediable. Until the Russian story is on the record, our view of the space race is limited. Future judgments of the Apollo program will reflect further developments in space exploration. Thus, with respect to the launch facilities, the wisdom of building the moonport in the way it was done depends in part on the programs to be launched henceforth. The moonport was funded, designed, and built on the assumption that the lunar landing was only a beginning. With these considerations in mind, we defer to 21st century historians a definitive evaluation of the effort.
Under the contract with the University of Florida, NASA enjoyed the rights to final review and publication of this book. We worked largely from NASA documents and with NASA officials. This may have tempered some of our conclusions, consciously or not, but we are satisfied that this is not a court history. Criticisms directed at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) team and mistakes in the launch operations are treated in detail. Contrary to the wishes of some participants, conflicts within the program are aired. A greater fault may lie in our dependence on NASA documents. Although we tried to balance the account with corporation documents and interviews, the history inevitably focuses on NASA's direction of Apollo launch operations. The Apollo contractors and other support agencies, such as the Air Force, may receive less than their due.
Understandably, our treatment of certain events will not satisfy everyone. For example, too much controversy still surrounds the Apollo-Saturn 204 fire. We have largely avoided two other controversial questions. Was the KSC operation more or less efficient than other governmental projects of the 1960s? There was undoubtedly waste in the construction of the Apollo launch facilities and in the launch operations, but we are not in a position to judge the cost efficiency of the KSC team against similar projects, such as a large defense contract. The second question - the worth of the Apollo program - will be, as previously stated, left to future historians. In our personal view it was a noble goal, nobly achieved.
A word is in order with regard to Kennedy Space Center speech usages, especially acronyms. The scientists and engineers at KSC do not use a peculiar tongue to mystify the layman - but as a matter of fact, that is one result. When an LCC man says "the crawler is bringing the bird back from pad 39 to the VAB," he is understood by anyone at the space port, Every discipline has its technical language, which sometimes goes too far. We believe we reached the nadir in space jargon when we uncovered the record of a "Saturn V Human Engineering Interstage Interaction Splinter Meeting of the Vehicle Mechanical Design Integration Working Group."
Apollo scientists and engineers were establishing a terminology for new things; no one had defined them in the past because such things did not exist. Module is an example. As late as 1967, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language gave as the fifth definition of module under computer technology: "A readily interchangeable unit containing electronic components, especially one that may be readily plugged in or detached from a computer system." The space world was well ahead of the dictionary because, as every American television viewer knew, a module - command, service, or lunar - was a unit of the spacecraft that went to the moon. Interface is another word that was recast at the space center. Defined in the dictionary as "a surface that lies between two parts of matter or space and forms their common boundary," it grew to encompass any kind of interaction at KSC. Perhaps this was subliminal recognition that Kennedy Space Center was the Great Interface where the many parts and plans that went into the moon launch had to be fitted together.
Like all government agencies since 1950, NASA made extensive use of acronyms. In February 1971, the Documents Department of the Kennedy Space Center Library compiled a selective list of acronyms and abbreviations. It contained more than 9,500 entries. We have tried to avoid acronyms as much as possible; when used, the acronym is coupled with its full and formal terminology on its first use.
The astronauts were quick to acknowledge that Apollo was a team effort. Appropriately enough, the same can be said for this history of the Apollo launch operations. We drew extensively upon the work of previous researchers. Dr. James Covington and Mr. James J. Frangie prepared material on the design and construction of the launch facilities. Dr. George Bittle and Mr. John Marshall performed helpful research on launch operations. Mr. William A. Lockyer and Mr. Frank E. Jarrett of the KSC historical office provided much reliable criticism. Dr. David Bushnell, the University of Florida's project director for the history, rendered administrative and editorial assistance. Finally, thanks are due to scores of KSC personnel who provided recollections, documents, and patient explanations on the workings of Apollo.