SpaceFest V! The Apollo Panel

This morning, live from Tucson, we are about to enjoy the Apollo panel, a highlight of the annual SpaceFest event.
On the panel, we have:
Walt Cunningham (Apollo 7) (WC)
Jim McDivitt (Gemini 4, Apollo 9) (JM)
Richard Gordon (Gemini 11, Apollo 12) (RG)
Fred Haise (Apollo 13) (FH)
Ed Mitchell (Apollo 14) (EM)
Prof Brian Cox (moderator) (BC)
Bruce McCandless (Capcom during Apollo, first untethered space walk) (BM)

WC: Want to thank you all for being here and giving us the
opportunity to meet up as old friends. Perhaps we can take you back to the
reality of space exploration this morning. When you look back at Apollo, Apollo
was truly man’s greatest adventure.

I like to tell the story of a Frenchman, who had an
announcement back in 1894 that he was going to swim the Atlantic. To be an adventure
you have to satify 3 conditions:

advance human knowledge
3 things – missed
LaFont swum the atlantic four years later.
Public in general pretty much think so.
We took a steady approach –5 large steps to land a man on
the moon
Today remains the longest most ambitious most successful
test flight ever of a flying vehicle.
Even when we went with next step apoollo 8 overcame
psychological barrier for people in mission control, especially the flight
controllers, to send a man outside of the Earth’s gravitational field.
We had to test the lunar module – all of this is to get
ready to land a man on the Moon.
You don’t hear much of Apollo 7 or Apollo 9 any more because
they didn’t go to the Moon.
On Apollo 10 we had a dry run of everything except the final
lunar landing – down to 40,000 feet. So Apollo 11 put all of these together,
went on and landed on the Moon. I reminded Neil once or twice, the only thing
he was doing for the first time was that last 40,000 feet. There is not a one of us that could have handled that as
well as he did.
Astronauts, we got the glory. But I can tell you, we were
not responsible for the success of the Apollo program. That falls back on
operations, mission control and management. Yes, I said management. In those
days we had management willing to make critical decisions and they were not
risk averse as we are in todays society.
So I think that was the major difference. 500 years from now
there is only going to be one thing that they remember about ther 20th
century – Man landed on the Moon!
JM: I spent a lot of time in Washington too during space
station days – one other thing, I was asked to be the shuttle program manager,
I went to Washington, talked to the administrator, and found out what they had
promised Congress. They had promised very frequent flights at very low cost. I
said theres no way that’s going to work and it didn’t. The price they gave
Congress overran by a factor of 2-3, the schedule was very late, 6-7 years.
When space station was trying to get funded in Congress it
wasn’t going to make it, until it was suggested it became an International
Space Station.  The guys in Congress who
liked space didn’t carry a big enough stick to get it funded until it became an
international effort. And that’s the world that we’re going to be in, the cost
of doing these things is going to make it very difficult to do big manned
progress. It’s a very different environment now to what it was back in the 60s.
Everyone knew what Gemini and Apollo were. 
It wasn’t until Apollo 14 I realised the bloom was coming off the rose,
trying to dock with the rocket, a golf game, a baseball game and a soap opera
and I realised we weren’t as popular as we used to be.
To get Congressman engaged and new money is going to be a
tough haul.
JM: After I left the program I had a great backup crew for
Apollo 9, who flew Apollo 12. Everything in spacecraft went off for Apollo 12
(lightning hitting. Had to decide whether we should go to the Moon or not. Best
information I had it looked like we had only lost a few insignificant things,
so I said go ahead.
When I flew on Gemini 4 we couldn’t get the launch umbilical
down, when finally done two mechanics pushed circuit breakers together –
probably burned every wire that we had but its an attitude I hope we can
BC: How did you feel when Jim launched you into a
RG: I just heard he didn’t know if the parachutes worked
either. We would’ve ben just as dead from Earth orbit as we would’ve been
coming back from the Moon.
He (Jim) didn’t say a darned word about Apollo 9 did he. They were several hundred miles – separated in two vehicles – didn’t have a heat
shield – they weren’t getting home unless they could rendez vous with the
command module. Was a privilege for me to serve with Jim on Apollo 9 though
Pete and I were always mad as hell with him. He was offered Apollo 8 and he
turned it down because he wanted to fly the LEM. Then we (Apollo 12) would’ve
been backup crew for Apollo 8 instead…you go and figure it out!
[This would have made the Apollo 12 crew instead the first
men on the Moon].
It was a requirement for our flight to prove that NASA
control and crew could perform a so-called pinpointed landing. To prove that we
were given a target of Surveyor 3 which had been on the Moon almost 2 years
prior to our flight, so that was our landing site, to prove we had done that we
should bring back some of the hardware, the TV camera was of interest as it has
a multitude of different materials, the camera itself, Pete grabbed a couple of
extraneous odds and ends off it.

But we did that, we flew 240,000 miles and landed on
the rim of a 600m diameter crater.
Provided techniques that mission control and flight crews needed for all the
other Apollo missions, to land in more exotic places on the lunar surface. 

FH: Apollo 13 had the least anomalies of all missions,
except Apollo 17 overall. Of course I was very disappointed, after I knew we
had lost one tank I knew we had lost the mission effectively and I was just
sick to my stomach because here I had lost the chance. But carrying on from
what Jim said, I went back into training on Apollo 16 and envisaged somewhere I
knew I would need a second career at some stage, so went to Harvard Business
School and volunteered to work in the project office. First 3 years of the
program on shuttle we had to deal with half the monies
Balancing money versus program content and trying to make
schedule as you faced changing administrations. Started under Nixon and then
President Carter came in. We took great risk, Challenger which had the problem
was suppose to be a test vehicle. We knew we weren’t going to fly enough
flights and we only took it to 80% loads to turn it into a flight vehicle.Full scale vehicles in Apollo. Vibracoustic scared me. Vibraacouistic stress was much higher on Shuttle than on Apollo, as engines so
much closer.
I left NASA and went to Grumman corporation. I had a
service company, and volunteered to leave it so led the engineering contract on
Space Station. We did two paper redesigns from the old Space Station Freedom.
If the House of Representatives had sihfted one vote you would have no space
station today.

So its been that way and I don’t have any answers on
how to change that, how to get the support levels guaranteed that we had in
Apollo, but we’ve really had nothing since then, and I feel sorry if I were in
Charlie Bolden’s shoes today, trying t balance what he’s having to balance and
being pulled in different directions without enough money. Its hard to get a
major program established and to be funded to go and execute it properly,
certainly in the near future. 

EM: By Apollo 14 most of the kinks had been worked out of
the hardware, so it was a case of what were we going to do. We landed in the
Highlands successfully, we had a couple of small problems but the machinery
worked as it was suppose to.  Apollo 9 got to test it, we got on the crew cycle and so
Alan Shepherd and I got to work together, he and I got along very well.
2nd EVA getting samples along the way, we brought
back 95lbs of materials for geologists to take a look at when we got back. We
just had to go land on the Moon and collect data, that was by all measures that
was a piece of cake. By our time Apollo 14, 15, 16 and 17 that machinery worked
pretty good so we were able to do the science on the Moon that we set out to do
in the first place.
BC: Along with Fred, you got experience of both programs,
you might like to comment on the differences between those.
BM: First observation I’d like to make is Apollo 7 and
Walt’s activities. This was the first manned spacecraft to carry a television
camera. They got it to work, beamed down some imagery, and more importantly
blazed the path enabling us to use the same path on Apollo 8 to record the now
iconic images of Earth rise from lunar orbit on , and the imagery of Armstrong
coming down the ladder on Apollo 11 and things like that. Apollo 7 was the
first to use it and they did a super job.
WC: “I got an Emmy!”
BM: I got a couple of flights in the shuttle program. I was
standing on the ground when Apollo 12 lifted off, it was an overcast day.
Picture perfect lift off, the Saturn 5 disappeared into the clouds, and a
voluminous glow could be seen from the exhaust and engines in the clouds, but
then you had this lightning strike. It really wasn’t a thunderstorm, may have
been an electrodynamic effect from the charged particles of plasma of engine
exhaust, literally discharging into the clouds, perhaps a self-induced
lightning strike. The effect was, the command module lost all power and Pete
Conrad could legitimately have aborted the mission and came back.
RG: “I would’ve killed him”.
BM: Pete said “Well, it felt alright to me”. And they went
on, very successfully, and Dick after getting into orbit saw Orion, we can line
up the platform and go. One of the things to bear in mind was the Saturn 5 was
the first vehicle with significant redundancy. In the instrument unit there
were 2 computer control units, so when the lightning struck, the A side went
offline and switched automatically to the B side and kept right on flight which
is really amazing testimony to the redundant system.
For one of the missions, it turned out they were 1500 feet
long, downrange, we had no idea what this was. Turned out the cause of this
discrepancy was that the interior of the Moon was not uniform, “lumpy pudding”
model of the mass, so there was a big scramble between Apollo 10 and Apollo 12
to enable the pinpointed landing.
Quite honestly, the folks in mission control and otherwise
supporting were getting worn down. We slipped Apollo 10 by two months and told
everyone to take a break.
NASA was a young organisation.
The difference between Apollo and shuttle: Shuttle was a
significant machine but also more fragile. Had to worry about landing weather,
visibility, wind, runway availability at locations, whereas in the Apollo
situation you could come down on parachutes through some pretty bad weather if
necessary and there was a carrier deployed wherever you might have come down.
But there was also a different philosophy and crew division – in the Shuttle it
was deemed that the commander was indispensable for landing, so spacewalks etc
were carried out by dispensible astronauts, ie mission specialists. Whereas in
Apollo days anyone and everyone could do a spacewalk.

BC: How similar was Apollo program to flight testing of
other vehicles?
EM: We told companies of problems, they fixed it. We tried
to make sure things worked, they fixed it.
WC: The actual operation of the spacecraft was something you
could pretty well simulate on the ground, even with old fashioned computers we
had in those days. The real job was creating the vehicle, getting it there. I
always felt the two week flight we had was almost a relief/vacation from the
training we had done for five years. Different when you are flying a vehicle
that has already been developed. One year I was on the road I think 275 days
back in the 60s, that was all to get the vehicle down there and we were
dedicated. Every single engineer we ran into was dedicated too. They knew and
believe and felt that if that thing was going to fail, it wouldn’t be because
of them. Several hundred thousand people all had that same attitude.
I loved getting a break after a day at the plant, hop in my
T38 and go back home. The real job was getting ready for the launch.
BC: Fred, you mentioned to me yesterday one of the
challenges on Apollo 13 for you was to re-learn to fly the LEM with a slightly
different centre of mass due to the fact there was a command module attached to
FH: We re-utilised the LEM and had practiced several abort
modes for if a command module failed, we practiced those in training. There was
a hurry up activation check list to do that quickly to power up the LEM enough
to do a quick burn and controlling it the same way. Jim exaggerates sometimes
it was so hard to control. Our big problem on our flight was we didn’t have an
8-ball horizon to use and that made it quite difficult. But we had trained to
fly it that way, the movie exaggerated greatly the corrections with Earth
flying up and down through the window. If we had not touched anything and done
the burn I think it would’ve only moved 5 degrees. Biggest error on any axis
was 0.9 degrees, and that was Lovell’s by the way.

JM: On Apollo 9 I did a lot of the tests that Fred referred
to, so I had a lot of confidence the guys could do what they needed to do. The
flight was not on a free return trajectory.
People ask me what was the most important flight ever? I say
Apollo 13 hands down. When people ask about the movie they show a Grumman guy
being interviewed by a flight director. The Grumman guys didn’t report to
flight director, they reported to me and they were extremely helpful throughout
the flight.
FH: I tell you, when I joined Grumman I heard that a lot.

WC: I can tell you that our attitude was both good and
bad over the history of the Apollo program. When the Apollo 1 fire happened,
there were so many things wrong with that spacecraft, and we were aware of a
lot of them, but we were over-confident, thought we could compensate for
things. But the vehicle was not as good as it should’ve been. They always assessed
changes assessed on costs, weight and schedule impacts. After they had the fire
and they started fixing everything, there were more than 1000 changes made after
Apollo 1, and the vehicle that we flew was near perfect. I think our attitude
that contributed to having that fire. When it came to Apollo 13 I was across
the street, Jack Swigert was pilot there, we had worked for months on
malfunction procedures. When the calls came into Mission control I listened for
15 mins, MC were doing all they could to prepare. I listened for 15 minutes and
went home and went to sleep because I went home knowing they had done
everything they could possibly do at that stage.

Q: Would you have been sacked if you said you would not fly
the spacecraft as it wasn’t safe.
WC: It wasn’t a bad spacecraft, it just wasn’t at the level
that we wanted it to be. Gus and Wally Schirra were aware of it but we didn’t
consider it so bad that we couldn’t handle the problems. They were already
implementing some of those things on the block 2 spacecraft. We had been
working on a better hatch for months and months and problems with costs etc.
But we basically felt that we could have handled it, I don’t think anyone
thought they couldn’t handle the block 1 spacecraft.

JM: I was backup crew until just before the fire. The
problem was we had a fire problem. We had had this problem right through
Mercury and Gemini into Apollo and we didn’t really appreciate that the
spacecraft had such pressurised oxygen that if you lit a cigarette that it
would light up on fire. We really didn’t face up to the fire problem until
after Apollo 1. Then we flew with nothing flammable in the spacecraft – even personal
effects were encased in an unflammable material.

FH: They did a better job with sealing which I think saved
some of us. Spacecraft got very damp, we had to wipe off everything as it got
covered in water. The fact they had medically sealed that stuff kept us from
probably having some sort of a short – and a problem at that point when we were
getting ready to power back up. We did 6 circuit breakers, then tried to see if
we could smell anything, then another 6.

JM: When we flew Gemini 4 they wanted us to keep the
helmets on with faceplates closed for 4 days so we wouldn’t breathe moisture
into the cabin as they were worried about whether things were sealed

Q: What is your advice for young people for the future?
JM: I think manned spaceflight has peaked. I think its
difficult to sent people to Mars when you can send robots to do the job. If I
was going to be a program manager again I would stick with robotics. When we
were on the Moon we could only go so far from the lunar module and had to go
back. We could put a rover in a straight line and go 100 miles not just a short
One time we were trying to increase the payload on the
shuttle, the obvious thing to do is take the crew out. I think we’re going to
see more and more unmanned. If you look at the military today more and more
vehicles are unmanned.
I think that’s the way the world’s going. I think we were
just born at the right time to participate in manned spaceflight.
WC: Especially for young people going to school today, we
live in a different society, different kind of culture, I’d like to see those
people willing to separate themselves for example we live in a risk-averse
culture. My advice is you don’t have to believe everything you are told – go find
out yourself.  People will tell you what
they think they know but many times its politically driven – get away from
risk-averse society. You need to take risk and different chances at different levels.
I really am dead against the non-sceptical risk-averse society we’re developing
RG: Let your children take risks, be good parents and teach
your children how to pray.

>EM: I’d like to add to the remarks in a slightly
different vein. The future is going to be quite different to what it is right
now. We are overpopulating the planet, running out of resources, we are going
to have to look to space and other planets and other ways to keep this going.
The space effort and going to Mars and perhaps eventually beyond our solar
system that’s what its got to be about. I think the best testament for it now
is that we’re going to have trouble in this century keeping things going well.
Lets be bold, we’re in a very small solar system, that has right now endangered
since beginning of 20th century, consumption is totally out of hand,
we have some serious problems. Perhaps continuing to go into space and develop
tools is one of the ways out of this. I suggest we look at this.

BM: You don’t need to repeat, re-invent the wheel. You need
to stand on our shoulders and go and do something bigger and better. The
programs are changing but spaceflight is transitioning into a two pronged
phase, a commercial effort, which must have been like aviation in the 1920s as
entrepreneurial and private endeavours were progressing.

We will be continuing exploration beyond Earth orbit
depending on numerous factors, it may be all US or it may be international
collaboration or maybe a mixture of the two. My advice would be to try to think
what things will be like by the time you individually are in your late 20s or
early 30s and pursue early job assignments to make you the best qualified for
whatever interests you. Then find something that interests you and go for it.

JM: Theres a lot of opportunities for people to deal with
the space business but I think the number of human beings flying is going to be
significantly less.
BC: Going back to Jim’s comments,  its cheaper and easier to explore the Solar system with robotic
program, but what advantages do you think the manned program has beyond the
scientific, the idea you have a well managed and well focussed program. I don’t
think many people would argue that Apollo had value beyond the scientific?
WC: I’d rather explore Mars with people. In order to get to
Mars there are all kinds of problems we have to solve which we would need
hundreds of thousands of people working on it. The technology that rolled out
of Apollo and into industry helped for 30 years after Apollo. Same thing is
true when you tackle something that is considered impossible.  Not even knowing the value that 20, 30, 50
years afterwards is the real return – that’s why I want to go to Mars, even if
we don’t find a thing there, I don’t care about mining etc. I just think the
technology you would need to do it will benefit all of us.
BC: Going to Mars looks very difficult for many reasons. How
difficult did it look to go to the Moon back in the early 60s – did it look
similarly impossible?
EM: Going to the Moon was difficult, we needed new
technologies, same thing as going to Mars. We’re already thinking about it with
technology with unmanned vehicles. So its just a progressive development, one
more step.

WC: If someone had told me in the 1950s that it was
possible to go to the Moon it would have been laughed as ridiculous. But if I
were to tell anyone in the audience they could go to Mars it’s a lot more
sensible than it was in the 50s talking about going to the Moon. 

Q: Makes me sick we’re paying Russians to take us to ISS –
$70m to get a guy up there.
WC: Believe me it is going to cost us more than $70mn, even
if we were still flying Shuttle. Don’t get me wrong, I think the biggest
mistake NASA ever made was cancelling the Shuttle, especially without some kind
of replacement. It cost us more per person. But the Russians are so far removed
from having technology to build something like Shuttle is unbelievable.
FH: I worked 4 years at the Cape turning around the Space
Shuttle. So I got more into back rooms of operations than most people did. Take
the F-86, one of my favourite airplanes. The A-model flew in Korean war against
MIGS, by the time we finished making them we were up to the H-model, I guess
the best of the group.

One of the things you have to do, we were not allowed ot
modernise Kennedy, so we did not have the automated capabilities we have today.
We had to use people in suits turning valves out at the launch pad to fill up
systems which is hazardous duty, whereas normally apart from maintenance you
would not use people, you would automate all of that. We had to replace a
filter, the guy who built it was no longer around, so we had to re-engineer to
re-invent the filter to go and replace it out at the launch pad.

Even the ground systems, the things you have to reduce
significantly for costs on any system is payroll, way too many people. We have
to do a lot more automated in any launch system. We should have made Shuttle
more efficient. Lockheed saved their bacon when we chopped 25% out of the wings
for weight. A lot of people involved on replacing and checking tiles. We were
frought with multi-requirements from Air Force, science community, from the
original idea it would just be a simple vehicle. They drove us in weight,
things in systems, 600lbs to satisfy security for AirForce. If you allow the
vehicle to be a so called ‘simple truck’ to reduce costs, we could have got to
a more viable less expensive system if we had been able to evolve through several
different systems.
WC: Remove high cost items on Shuttle. In the end we are
going to continue to fly outside of Earth orbit, those vehicles will be put
together in orbit in pieces, and be ferried up and back by re-usable launch

BC: 10 minutes left. Any questions from the younger members
of the audience?
Q: In your opinion, what was the hardest part of the Apollo
Q: (To EM) Your book quotes that the most profound part of
the mission for you was coming home.
EM: Fundamental principles of whats taking place in nature.
What you’re talking about goes back into ancient literature in the 18th
century, an “aha” experience which changes the way you think about things.
Q: What convinced you to be astronauts?
WC: When I was growing up there was no such thing, but I can
tell you as a child the only boyhood hero I can ever remember was Charles
Lindberg, the only thing I wanted to be was a pilot, and when I was a pilot I
just wanted to be the best in my squadron, training, and I finally proved I was
better than all these guys.
JM: You need to study maths and science, as in space its all
maths and science. Then take advantage of opportunities when they call.
RG: I think normal progression of a profession convinced me.
I just finished test pilot school in 1957, shortly thereafter Sputnik was
launched on 4th Oct that year, there you go, a new arena has been
opened up for humans to occupy. Going from test pilot school and peer group
you’re associated with tends to bring along with that group.
Punchline that I would present if you had 6 children where
the hell would you like to go?!
WC: There was a point in my life when I decided I was going
to try to be an astronaut. May 5th 1961. Was at UCLA then working in
California. Tried to get to work early, and spent afternoon at UCLA. Was
driving across the mountains, listening to radio a little before 7am, a little
before 10am in Florida. And they were having a countdown for Al Shepherds
flight in a redstone rocket. As it got closer I just couldn’t drive any more. I
pulled over.
JM: Well you can’t drive anyway!
WC: It got down to 3, 2, 1 liftoff, before it cleared the
tower. Then I heard ‘you lucky son of a bitch’. Then I looked round and it was
me, and decided that’s what I had to aim for.
FH: NASA’s new deal, that’s where the money was going, it
was another test program so that’s how I followed the path and got into the
EM: Oct 4th 1957 when Sputnik went up I realised
a new path of development had opened up and when that happened I was ready to
go for it – I pursued it from that point on.
BM: At the time the family wisdom was although human beings
might eventually fly in space it wouldn’t be before the year 2000 so why don’t
you settle down and do something useful? I wound up in naval academy, commited
to new submarines, when one fall in my senior year the Russians were so
impolite as to launch Sputnik 1. I had a shortwave radio in my room, dangled a
wire out the 4th floor window and we were available to directly
receive Sputnik coming by. At that point I realised the Space Age was upon us
so I went down a few weeks later and bluffed my way through the physical exam
for flight training. Was eating my heart out when I saw the DYNOSAUR program
and realised I was too late for that, but the first opportunity to apply I put
in my application and lo and behold I got selected.
BC: I realise I wish you guys were still running NASA! Thank you for this morning, one of the most worthwhile 90 minutes of my life.

2 thoughts on “SpaceFest V! The Apollo Panel

  1. Wow! Thanks for the awesome transcription. What a nice record it makes of SpaceFest V, especially for me as I very much wanted to be there but couldn't make it this year. Thanks again Jane.

  2. Jane, wanted to say thank you for allowing me to be in the audience for this panel virtually though your writing. This piece brought me right into the auditorium with these historic individuals and hearing their insights on the future of space flight is indeed a reality check for those planing the future of human spaceflight and for those of us who support it. Once more my thanks. –
    Gene Mikulka , Talking Space

Comments are closed.