Proposal for a Lunar Orbit Mission

Almost as soon as NASA adopted an alphabetical stairway for reaching the moon in progressive flights (see Chapter 9), with the seventh, or G, step representing the ultimate goal, mission planners had begun looking for ways to omit a letter. In late 1967, when the ABC-scheme evolved, Low and Flight Operations Director Christopher Kraft had pushed for a lunar-orbital mission as soon as possible to learn more about communications, navigation, and thermal control in the deep space environment.

In the spring of 1968, Apollo officials in Houston were trying to upgrade the E mission (operating the command module and the lander in high-earth orbit) into something called E-prime, which would move the mission to the vicinity of the moon. But by August Gilruth and others had concluded that LM-3 would not be ready for flight that year. This finding left NASA with two excellent command modules, 101 and 103, but no lunar module companions. Low had already recognized this likelihood in July, after Kennedy found the many deficiencies in LM-3. If a lunar module could not be manned in 1968, he reasoned that Saturn V 503 and CSM-103 might be used for a circumlunar or lunar-orbit flight. Low kept his own counsel for a while, waiting for the Saturn V pogo problem to be resolved.

On 7 August, Low asked Kraft to work out a flight plan for such a mission during 1968. Then the Houston manager, accompanied by Carroll Bolender, Scott Simpkinson, and Owen Morris, went to the Cape on 8 August to talk with Phillips, Kennedy Director Kurt Debus, Petrone, and Roderick Middleton about the status of Saturn V 503. The Cape contingent believed it could launch the big Saturn in January 1969.5

Back in Houston the next day, 9 August, MSC Director Gilruth had hardly entered his office before Low began telling him his ideas for a lunar-orbit mission. Gilruth, too, was enthusiastic, and he and Low started calling Washington, Huntsville, and the Cape to set up a meeting that same afternoon at Marshall. Low next talked to Kraft, who said the mission was feasible from a ground control and spacecraft computer standpoint. Gilruth, Low, Kraft, and Flight Crew Operations Director Donald Slayton then boarded a plane for Huntsville. At 2:30, they were joined by Debus and Petrone from Kennedy and Phillips and George Hage from Headquarters. Making an even dozen were the Marshall hosts, Wernher von Braun, Eberhard Rees, Ludie G. Richard, and Lee James.

Low said that a lunar-orbit mission, if it could be flown in December, might be the only way to meet the fast-approaching lunar landing deadline. This remark sparked a lively discussion. The talk was mostly about what each of the NASA elements would have to do to make the mission possible in the time remaining. Debus and Petrone considered Kennedy's workload and concluded that they could be ready by 1 December; von Braun, Rees, James, and Richard reported that they had nearly solved the pogo problem; and Low and Gilruth talked about the differences between command modules 103 and 106 (the first spacecraft originally scheduled to go to the moon) and what to use as a substitute for the lander.

Even as he joined in the discussion, Apollo Program Director Phillips had been taking notes. He said they should keep their plans secret until a decision was made by NASA's top officials. In the meantime, while gathering whatever information was needed, they would use the code name "Sam's Budget Exercise" as a cover. The conferees would meet in Washington on 14 August - "Decision Day." Administrator James Webb and Mueller would be in Vienna attending the United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space at that time. If the Washington meeting decided in favor of the lunar-orbit mission, Phillips would fly to Austria to sell the idea to Webb and Mueller.6

In Houston at 8:30 that evening, Low met with spacecraft chiefs Kenneth Kleinknecht and Bolender, technical assistant George Abbey, and North American Apollo manager Dale Myers. Kleinknecht began studying the differences between spacecraft 103 and 106, Bolender left for Bethpage to find a substitute for LM-3, and Myers went back to Downey to make sure that command module 103 was moving along and to oversee any changes Kleinknecht recommended. Joseph Kotanchik, structures expert in Houston, could not see any reason for Bolender's trip to Bethpage; a simple cross-beam could be used for weight and balance, he said. But Kotanchik found himself alone in this position. The others believed that a true facsimile should be carried, and Low decided on a lunar test article.

Early on Monday morning, 12 August, Kraft told Low that the target date would have to be 20 December if they wanted to launch in daylight. If the flight had to be terminated for any reason shortly after launch, good visibility was necessary for recovering the spacecraft. In the meantime, Slayton had been thinking about which crew to pick for the flight. Frank Borman's team had been training for a high-altitude mission. Slayton talked with Borman over the weekend and decided to propose that crew at the meeting in Washington.7

The 12 men who had gathered in Huntsville were joined by William Schneider and Julian H. Bowman when they met with Deputy Administrator Thomas O. Paine* at Headquarters on Wednesday,14 August. Low reviewed spacecraft status, Kraft discussed flight operations, and Slayton talked about flight crew preparations. Von Braun reported that the Saturn would be ready for the launch, and he and Rees agreed that Low had made a good selection of a stand-in for the lunar module. Debus and Petrone said the Cape could launch the Saturn V by 6 December.8

After listening to the plotters, Paine decided to play devil's advocate. Not too long ago, he said, you people were trying to decide whether it was safe to man the third Saturn V (503), and now you want to put men on top of it and send them to the moon. The Deputy Administrator then asked for comments. This is what he heard:

Von Braun: Once you decided to man 503, it did not matter how far you went.

Hage: There are a number of places in the mission where decisions can be made and risks minimized.

Slayton: It is the only chance to get to the moon before the end of 1969.

Debus: I have no technical reservations.

Petrone: I have no reservations.

Bowman: It will be a shot in the arm for manned space flight.

James: Manned safety in this and following flights will be enhanced.

Richard: Our lunar capability will be advanced by flying this mission.

Schneider: The plan has my wholehearted endorsement.

Gilruth: Although this may not be the only way to meet our goal, it does increase the possibility. There is always risk, but this is a path of less risk. In fact, the minimum risk of all Apollo plans.

Kraft: Flight Operations will have a difficult job here. We need all kinds of priorities - it will not be easy to do, but I have confidence. But it should be a lunar orbit and not a circumlunar flight.

Low: Assuming Apollo 7 is a success, there is no other choice.9

So ended the round table vote, by the men who managed the day-to-day details of the Apollo program, to commit the first crew to fly to the moon. Paine was impressed, but he was only the first of the three top men who had to be convinced. Webb and Mueller would not be so easy to sell. In fact, when Mueller called Phillips from Vienna during the meeting and learned of the plan, he was not receptive. He urged Phillips not to come to Vienna. By the next day, 15 August, he had warmed to the idea, but he wanted Phillips to keep it quiet until after Apollo 7. Webb was shocked by the audacity of the proposal and was inclined to say no immediately. After talking with Phillips and Paine, however, he asked for more information.

Paine called Willis H. Shapley, Julian Scheer, and Phillips in to draft a text for Webb. Paine's cable to Vienna on 15 August underlined his complete support and included an item-by-item schedule of necessary actions. The cable also contained a draft of a statement for Webb to make in Vienna and a draft of a press release to be issued in Washington. Altogether, the cablegram covered seven typewritten pages.10

After discussing the proposal with Mueller, Webb cabled Paine on 16 August that he believed it unwise for any announcement to originate from Vienna. Webb told his deputy to plan for the lunar-orbit flight but to make no public statement about it. In other words, NASA could not talk about anything but an earth-orbital mission. Webb also asked Paine to notify the White House and the President's scientific advisers about any drastic changes in mission planning. This was not what the planners had asked for, but it was certainly more than Webb had given them the previous day. Now they had to figure out how to stay within the constraints set by the Administrator and still get everything ready for a lunar-orbit mission if approval came later. Phillips called Low, saying he would be in Houston the next day to decide how to handle the situation.11

Phillips and Hage arrived in Houston on 17 August and met with Gilruth, Low, Kraft, and Slayton. The Apollo program leader from Washington said that Webb had given him clear authority to prepare for a 6 December launch, to designate it as a C-prime mission, and to call it Apollo 8. He then ticked off what else had been authorized: they could assign Borman's crew to the flight, equip and train it to meet the 6 December launch, and speak of the flight as earth-orbital while continuing to plan for a lunar orbit. The plotters were well aware, and Phillips reemphasized it, that a successful command module qualification flight in earth orbit by Apollo 7 was the key to the first lunar flight's being approved for 1968.12 Now Houston had to train crews to fly that mission, as well as the others that would follow.

* After being first Associate and then Deputy Administrator of NASA for more than seven years, Robert Seamans (who originally intended to stay only two years) resigned on 2 October 1967 and left the agency on 5 January 1968. On 31 January, President Lyndon Johnson announced the nomination of Paine, a General Electric official, to replace Seamans. Paine was confirmed by the Senate on 5 February and sworn into office on 25 March.

5. Low to Owen E. Maynard, "Apollo Flight Test Program," 21 May 1968, with enc.; Harold E. Granger to Tech. Asst., ASPO, "E' Mission," 7 June 1968; Jones W. Roach to Actg. Chief, Flight Control Div. (FCD), "Manpower Impact of Simultaneous E and E' Mission Planning," 21 June 1968; Milton E. Windler to Actg. Chief, FCD, "Impact on FCD of adding an E lunar orbital mission planning effort," n.d., with encs.; Rodney G. Rose memo, "Mission E Prime Task Force Report," 12 July 1968, with enc.; Low to Dir., NASA Hist. Off., "Comments on History of NACA and NASA - Continued," 29 Sept. 1975, with encs., "Special Notes for August 9, 1968, and Subsequent," pp. 1-2, and "Special Notes for November 10 and 11, 1968"; Jay Holmes, telephone interview, 10 Jan. 1969; Gilruth to Mueller, 1 May 1968, with enc.; LM-3 Delta DCR, 7 Aug. 1968; Low memo for record, "Report of meeting at KSC," 10 Aug. 1968.

6. Low, "Special Notes for August 9," pp. 2-4; MSFC meeting for Gilruth, 9 Aug. 1968, with enc.; Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1968: Chronology On Science, Technology, and Policy, NASA SP-4010 Washington, 1969 , pp. 189-90.

7. Low, "Special Notes for August 9," pp. 4-6; Joseph N. Kotanchik to Dir., Engineering and Development, and Mgr., ASPO, "Use of a LM, LTA-B or other unit in SLA of AS-503," 26 Aug. 1968; Low to Kotanchik, "Use of LTA-B fr AS-503," 27 Aug. 1968.

8. Low, "Special Notes for August 9," pp. 6-7; minutes of Meeting to Review Technical Feasibility of AS-503 CSM Only Mission, Washington D.C., 14th Aug 1968; Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1967: Chronology on Science, Technology, and Policy, NASA SP-4008 (Washington, 1968), p. 288; Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1968, pp. 26, 32, 68.

9. Low, "Special Notes for August 9," pp. 7-9.

10. Ibid., pp. 7, 9-10; Thomas O. Paine, NASA Deputy Admin., cablegram to James E. Webb, Admin., 15 Aug. 1968.

11. Webb telegram to Paine, 16 Aug. 1968; Low, "Special Notes for August 9," p. 10.

12. MSC, minutes of meeting on C Prime Mission Guidelines, 17 Aug. 1968; "Gen. Phillips Notes on C Prime Mission Guidelines, 17 August 1968"; "Mr. [George H.] Hage's Notes from C Prime Mission Mt'g @ MSC, 17 August 1968: Actions Required to Go to Moon"; Low, "Special Notes for August 9," pp. 10-12.

Previous Page Next Page Table of Contents