Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft

The Apollo 8 Decision

Perhaps the most significant point about the lunar-orbit flight proposed for Apollo 8 was that the command and service modules would fly the same route to the moon as for the actual lunar landing. NASA officials realized that this was risky, since Apollo 7 had not yet qualified the spacecraft when their tentative decision was made. And data from that launch, using the Saturn IB, would not help them decide whether the Saturn V could make the lunar mission.42

Phillips formally set the plan into motion in a directive issued on 19 August. Because of Webb's restrictions about waiting until the performance of Apollo 7 was known, earth-orbital objectives were still listed, but crew assignments were shifted and the mission was moved forward one flight. That same day, NASA publicly announced the flight as an expansion of Apollo 7, although agency spokesmen said that the exact content of the mission had not been decided.43

CSM-103 arrived at the Cape in mid-August, and testing began. Some modifications were necessary but, in most cases, no hardware changes that might cause delays were acceptable. Mueller kept Paine informed of the status, noting in detail how many days the work schedule lagged and why. These holdups were usually minor, although Hurricane Gladys did cause an additional two-day delay.44

Paine was still concerned about manning the Saturn V, because of the pogo problem. Phillips told him that the Apollo leaders had decided, about two weeks after Apollo 6, to plan for a manned flight but to revert to unmanned, if necessary. Paine also questioned the reliability of the service propulsion module. Mueller reviewed its test history and reported that a complete flight system of the "present configuration" had never failed to fire. Of all configurations, only 4 firings had failed in 3,200 attempts, and Mueller assured Paine that none of the problems encountered were characteristic of the present engine.45

During a session of Mueller's Certification Board in Huntsville on 19 September, the Saturn V was given a clean bill of health, and the members agreed that the launch vehicle was no longer a constraint to manned flight. In the meantime, Huntsville and Houston had worked out an agreement on payload weight. The load for Saturn 503 was set at 39,800 kilograms, including 9,000 kilograms for the lunar module test article. (A fully fueled production lander, scheduled for subsequent missions, would weigh 14,500 kilograms.)46

On 7 November, the Certification Board looked at all parts of Apollo 8 - spacecraft, launch vehicle, launch complex, mission control network, and spacesuits. A C-Prime Crew Safety Review Board had already studied these items for Phillips and had "concluded that the Apollo 8 Space Vehicle is safe for manned flight." Mueller's board concurred.47 Now it was up to Paine and the Apollo executives to decide whether Apollo 8 would fly to the moon.

At the Apollo executives meeting on 10 November, Phillips summarized the lunar-orbit proposal, James discussed launch vehicle status, Low gave spacecraft status, Kraft talked about flight operations, Slayton outlined the flight plan, and Petrone reported that the Cape could be ready by 10 December, although there would not be a lunar launch window until the 21st. Phillips said he recommended that NASA go for lunar-orbit. Mueller then asked Low and Phillips to list the things that were absolutely essential for a safe round trip. The program leaders replied that the service propulsion system had to work, to get the spacecraft out of lunar orbit, and there had to be at least 60 hours of oxygen remaining to get the crew back to earth. Redundancies could support the environmental system, barring a major break of the main structure; and the fuel cells could handle the power demands with only one of the three working - unless, of course, there was a complete electrical short. There were risks, yes, but these risks would be there on all missions; there was no way to ensure perfect safety. Next, Mueller asked for the views of the attending Apollo executives.

Walter F. Burke (McDonnell Douglas): The S-IVB can do any of the missions described, but I favor circumlunar rather than lunar orbit since there has been only one manned CSM.

Hilliard Paige (General Electric): The checkout equipment is doing the same thing it has done before; there are no reservations from a reliability standpoint; and NASA should go, and is ready to go, into lunar orbit.

B. P. Blasingame (AC Electronics): We have carefully examined the guidance equipment and consider it ready for a lunar orbit mission. It is the right size step.

Stark Draper (MIT): No reservations.

B. O. Evans (IBM): Go.

R. W. Hubner (IBM): The instrument unit is ready.

George M. Bunker (Martin Marietta): The presentation here today makes a persuasive case. Go for lunar orbit.

T. A. Wilson (Boeing): We have confidence in the hardware. It is right to go for lunar orbit.

Leland Atwood (North American): This is what we came to the party for.

Robert E. Hunter (Philco-Ford): We have no reservations about being able to support the complete mission.

Thomas F. Morrow (Chrysler): We have no hardware on this mission and perhaps can be even more objective. I believe we should go for lunar orbit, but the public should be aware that there are risks.

William P. Gwinn (United Aircraft): I am impressed by the pros and cons of risk, but I believe General Phillips' recommendation is the right one.

Joseph Gavin (Grumman): We also have no hardware on this mission (except a test article), but the design of the mission makes a lot of sense - it is one we should do.

William Bergen (North American): I agree with Morrow that lunar orbit has more risk. It is questionable if we will get, and can expect, the same high degree of performance from systems as we got on Apollo 7, but a repeat flight is a risk with no gain.

G. H. Stoner (Boeing): I endorse the recommendation without reservation.

Gerald T. Smiley (General Electric): Morale is now high; less than lunar orbit would impact this morale.48

Thus on 10 November a second group voted yes on the proposition to send man on his first flight to the vicinity of the moon.

The next day, Mueller told Paine he had discussed the proposal with the Science and Technology Advisory Committee and the President's Science Advisory Committee and both of these prestigious groups favored the mission. The manned space flight chief said he also agreed "that NASA should undertake a lunar orbit mission as its next step toward manned lunar landing."

Paine listened to presentations by Phillips, James, Low, Kraft, and Petrone on 11 November. The same day, Paine asked Gerald Truszynski if the tracking network would be ready and Lieutenant General Vincent G. Huston if the Department of Defense could support the mission. He called in key members of his staff and the directors of the three manned space flight centers for their statements. The acting administrator also telephoned Frank Borman and learned that the astronauts supported the mission wholeheartedly. Paine then approved Phillips' recommendation. Phillips wired the field centers to be ready for a lunar-orbit flight on 21 December.#source49``49 NASA had crossed another Rubicon in its decision-making - a historic one.

42. Low to Haney, "Comments on proposed Apollo 8 Press Kit," 26 Nov. 1968; Low, "Special Notes for November 10 and 11," p. 1.

43. Low memo, "C Prime Mission," 3 Sept. 1968, with enc., Phillips to Dirs., KSC, MSFC, and MSC, "Apollo Mission Preparation Directive," 19 Aug. 1968; OMSF Weekly Rept., 23 Aug. 1968; "Apollo VIII Revamped to Omit Lunar Module Operations," MSC Roundup, 30 ;Aug. 1968; NASA, Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1968, p. 18.

44. Quarterly Status Rept. no. 25, pp. 28, 33; Low to Kleinknecht, "Mod period activities on CSM 103," 21 Sept. 1968; Kleinknecht memo, "Review of S/C 103 on October 29, 1968, with Dr. Mueller," 18 Oct. 1968, with enc.; minutes of Spacecraft 103 Systems Review, 29 Oct. 1968; OMSF Weekly Reports, 30 Sept., 21 Oct. 1968.

45. Robert E. Pace, Jr., actg. exec. sec., meeting with Actg. Admin., NASA, to discuss process for selection of Apollo 8 mission, 23 Oct. 1968; Mueller to Actg. Admin., NASA, "Response to Question on Apollo Service Propulsion System Engine," 20 Nov. 1968.

46. Minutes of AS-503 Launch Vehicle Delta DCR, 19 Sept. 1968; Low to Kotanchik,"AS-503 loads," 26 Aug. 1968.

47. MSC, Apollo 8 Mission DCR, 7 Nov. 1968; Phillips letter, "Apollo 8 Design Certification Review," 11 Dec. 1968; Phillips to Assoc. Admin., OMSF, "Comparison of S/C 101, 103 and 106," 29 Oct. 1968; Schneider to Dir., Apollo Prog., "C-Prime Crew Safety Review Board," 7 Nov.1968.

48. MSC, "Apollo Executives Meeting, November 10, 1968: Apollo 8 Spacecraft," slides for Low briefing; "Contractors' Views and Discussion," transcript of Apollo Executives meeting, 10 Nov. 1968; Low, "Special Notes for November 10 and 11," pp. 1-5; J. Leland Atwood to James M. Grimwood, 27 Oct. 1976.

49. Mueller to Paine, no subj., 11 Nov. 1968, with encs., Mueller to Actg. Admin., NASA, "Request for Approval to Man the Apollo Saturn V Launch Vehicle," 5 Nov. 1968, and Phillips to Assoc. Admin., OMSF, "Apollo 8 Mission Selection," 11 Nov. 1968; Phillips TWX to MSC, KSC, and MSFC, "Apollo 8 Mission and Launch Schedule," n.d. [probably 12 Nov, 1968].