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Frank O'Brien

Frank O'Brien

Journal Contributor Frank O'Brien, seen at the left with a LM Simulator currently at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, NY, is our resident LM expert and, also, a licensed pilot. His excellent, in-depth book The Apollo Guidance Computer was published by Springer-Praxis in 2010.

He writes:

In November 1971, as a teenager, I toured the simulator facilities at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston with my godfather, John O'Neill. A picture taken at the time shows me sitting on a stool in Commander's position in the LM Mission Simulator. Even 35 years ago, I knew where I wanted to be! Actually, the simulator wasn't active at that moment, although you can't tell that easily. The computer was running P00 (idle), so nothing was running. The next picture shows me standing in the "golden slippers" in the SIM Bay trainer. The slippers were footholds that kept the CMP reasonably stationary while he extracted film canisters. And the final picture shows me (left) in the Command Module Simulator with O'Neil's son. And yes, we *all* looked that geeky in the early 1970's!

For as long as I can remember, I've been passionate about three things: Space exploration, aviation, and computing. What has been more remarkable is that I've been able to involve myself significantly in all of them.

As the son of a career fighter pilot, I was never far from a runway while growing up. In 1986, I earned my private pilot wings, and ten years later fulfilled my dreams by becoming the owner of a classic Cessna 150. My wife Stacey and I often use the plane for weekend trips or sightseeing along the northeast coast.

I have been involved with computers for over 30 years, and have worked on the entire gamut of computing from punch card mainframes in the mid-1970Õs, to personal computers, networking, to state-of-the art Unix systems running the latest enterprise software.

My "formal" involvement with space began with joining the Journal community around 1995 or so. Most of my contributions have been with the computer and guidance system, and LM systems in general. A few years later, I met David Woods, who was in Washington DC to receive an award from NASA. We discussed his idea of creating the Apollo Flight Journal. I'll admit I was a bit skeptical (I remember asking, "How many P52's can our readers endure?"), but in the end, David's vision was the correct one.

All of this led me to be invited to the Cradle of Aviation museum (www.cradleofaviation.org) on Long Island, New York, to assist in preparing exhibits for their May, 2002 reopening. I configured the only remaining Lunar Module Mission Simulator for exhibition, and wrote software for a Lunar Module cockpit trainer. The simulator is significant as every astronaut to fly in the LM trained with it, and it played an important role in the successful return of Apollo 13. And yes, it's the same one I "flew" 30 years prior! Additionally, I prepared an Apollo space suit for use in the museumÕs centerpiece Apollo 11 diorama.

I'm now working to build a new museum, the Infoage Science/History Learning Center (www.infoage.org) at the New Jersey shore. One of the greatest artifacts we have is an Apollo Guidance Computer (Block I , model 100). I do several lectures a year about the computer and other space topics for the museum. The biggest thrill I have is to speak at the NASA MAPLD conference in Washington, where computer engineers can attend sessions on "how it was done in the good 'ol days".

Finally, I graduated from Rutgers University in 1979 (Computer Science), and several years later returned to Rutgers to earn my MBA. Most importantly, I'm madly in love with my wife, Stacey, and live in West Windsor, New Jersey.

An important bit of thanks to John O'Neill.

John O'Neill was an Air Force flying buddy of my father. After John left the Air Force, he joined NASA where he was in charge of EVA's for Gemini, and became the Director of Flight Planning during Apollo/Skylab. Remember the end of the Apollo 13 movie, where Tom Hanks gives an update of what happened to everyone after the mission? At the end was the comment, "Gene Kranz retired not to long ago....". Well, John O'Neill got Gene's job, and became the Director of Mission Operations. Later, he was tapped to become an advisor to the President Clinton and worked with Russia to get the space station off the ground. And just to top it off, he was on the board of directors that created "Space Center Houston", the visitors center at JSC.

For the Christmas of 1969, he sent me the most incredible present a "space cadet" kid could ever receive: The complete set of manuals for the Apollo spacecraft! Plus flight plans! No, I didn't understand them completely when I was 14, but over the years, I developed a rather comprehensive understanding of the spacecraft and computer. I owe all of my passions for Apollo to him, and through the Journals, I've been able to "give back" what I've learned.

May 2006