Apollo: Reflections and Lessons

moderator: Jeffrey Hoffman, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Theodore Sorensen
author: Richard H. Battin, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Aaron Cohen, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Joseph Gavin, Jr.
author: Harrison H. Schmitt, College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison
author: Christopher C. Kraft Jr.
published: March 15, 2013,   recorded: June 2009,   views: 3347

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In this first of three AeroAstro symposium events to mark the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, an extraordinary cast of luminaries recount the parts they played in the Apollo program, and celebrate MIT’s unique role in getting humans to the moon.

Theodore Sorensen believes President Kennedy chose him to oversee the U.S. response to the Soviet’s first space flight because he was “a skeptic … a Unitarian raised asking questions.” The U.S. space program had been lagging, “a joke with late night TV comics,” so the Kennedy administration figured only the “the drama of a moon landing” would spur an improved space effort. When Kennedy announced the plan to Congress, the reaction was “stunned disbelief,” so he deviated from the official text, reminding congressmen that “all of us will be on that trip to the moon.” Today, Kennedy would be disturbed by the militarization of space, Sorensen believes. The next great scientific breakthrough Sorensen would like to see involves “the abolition of weapons of mass destruction.”

Richard Battin describes the work of MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, headed by Charles “Doc” Draper, to develop a Mars probe in 1957 following the Sputnik launch. The device had solar panels, a thruster, an attitude control system with gyros, and an onboard digital computer designed to survive a three-year roundtrip to Mars. NASA declined to support the entire project, but liked the computer. In 1961, NASA chief Jim Webb asked his good friend “Doc” Draper to develop guidance navigation and control for Apollo. Battin believes this relationship, and the need for a functioning onboard navigation system (in case the Soviets jammed communication links from Earth) landed MIT the contract.

Aaron Cohen remembers how rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun was puzzled by Cohen’s Apollo assignment, which was “to define and resolve interfaces between all elements of the Apollo program.” He also describes the tragic fire on the launch pad in January 1967, which killed three crew members. This episode triggered months of self-examination, leading to a safer command service module, and a series of reliable flights leading to the moon landing. “When I look back on Apollo 11, I go through each subsystem and marvel at how we managed to form the mission.”

Joseph Gavin, Jr. started as a graduate student in “Doc” Draper’s lab, but ended up leading the development of the lunar module, which “worked every time. I’ll say that again. It worked every time.” His long association with the program left him with some insights: there’s no such thing as random failure; one should take absolutely nothing for granted; and do not change anything that works. He recalls NASA bugging him about overtime, but the young men working for him were under great pressure, so Gavin pushed back, allowing “group leaders to take care of their people.”

Harrison “Jack” Schmitt takes the audience through the history of the Apollo program, including his own historic trip to the moon. “That’s not bad, leaving footprints in the sands of time for a million, might be two million years.” He believes the keys to the mission’s success included having a sufficient base of technology and a reservoir of young engineers and skilled workers; the “pervasive environment of national unease” due to the Cold War, Sputnik and the missile gap; a persuasive president who unleashed adequate funding; and “tough, competent and disciplined management to let people do their jobs.”

In flight control, says Christopher Kraft, Jr., “you have to fly what you’ve got. There’s not time to stop and fix something.” This legend of the early days of space flight recalls chimpanzee testing and concerns about human adaptation to zero gravity. When Kennedy announced the moon mission, “I thought he’d lost his mind.” As flight director, Kraft suddenly “had to come up with the orbital mechanics of going back and forth to the moon. That to me was a hell of a challenge.” Kraft witnessed the entire nation get behind the Apollo effort, which convinced him “we could do anything we set our mind to in this country, if we know what we want to do, where we want to go and have the commitment to get it done.”

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