Settling the Mode Issue

At the beginning of 1962, Holmes was not sure how he would vote on the lunar landing technique. Von Braun, among others, had made it clear that direct ascent, requiring the development of a huge Nova vehicle, was too much to ask for within the decade. However, both earth- and lunar-orbit rendezvous appeared equally feasible for accomplishing the moon mission within cost and schedule constraints. The decision, Holmes knew, would require weighing many technological factors. After directing Joseph Shea, his deputy for systems, to review the issue and recommend the best approach, Holmes laid down a second and broader objective. Shea was to use the task to draw Huntsville and Houston together, building a more unified organization with greater internal strength and cooperation.52

In mid-January 1962, Shea visited both the Manned Spacecraft and the Marshall Space Flight Centers. He found Houston officials enthusiastic about lunar-orbit rendezvous but believed they did not fully understand all the problems. He reported their low weight estimates as unduly optimistic. Marshall, on the other hand, still favored earth-orbit rendezvous. Shea did not think the Huntsville team had really studied lunar-orbit rendezvous thoroughly enough to make a decision either way.

From these brief sorties, Shea recognized the depth of the technical disagreement between the centers. He decided to bring the two factions together and make them listen to each other. During the next few months, Shea held a series of meetings at Headquarters, attended by representatives from all the centers working on manned space flight. At these briefings, the advocates presented details of their chosen modes to a captive audience. The first of these gatherings, featuring earth-orbit rendezvous, was held on 13 to 15 February 1962.53

Headquarters may not have realized it, but the sense of urgency surrounding the mode question was shared by the field. Recognizing that the need for choosing a mission approach was crucial, Gilruth's men hastened to strengthen their technical brief. The Houston center notified Headquarters in January that it was going to award study contracts on two methods of landing on the moon, with either the entire spacecraft or a separate module, hoping one of the contractors would do a good enough job to be chosen as a sole source for a development contract.54 But Washington moved before the center could act.

Holmes and Shea had decided that lunar rendezvous needed further investigation. A contract supervised by Headquarters would tend to be more objective than one monitored by the field. A request for proposals was drawn up and issued at the end of January, and a bidders' conference was held on 2 February in Washington. Although this contract was small, it was critical, and representatives from a dozen aerospace companies attended the conference. Those intending to bid were given only two weeks to respond. Shea and his staff, with the help of John Houbolt, evaluated the proposals and announced on 1 March that Chance Vought had been selected.55

Chance Vought's study ran for three months and was significant mainly because of its weight estimates. Houston calculated that the target weight of the lunar landing module would be 9,000 kilograms, but Chance Vought came up with a more realistic figure of 13,600 kilograms. Shea and his team, in the subsequent mode comparisons, used Chance Vought's higher weight projections.56

Holmes' Management Council was also studying the mission approach. On 6 February, with Associate Administrator Seamans present, the group heard another of Houbolt's briefings on lunar- versus earth-orbit rendezvous. Charles Mathews, Chief of the Spacecraft Research Division, then described Houston's studies of the lunar-rendezvous mode. Von Braun interjected that selection of any rendezvous method at that time was premature.57

On 27 March, the council discussed the Chance Vought study. Several of the members were concerned about the weight the contractor was estimating the Saturn C-5 would have to lift, compared with that projected by the Houston center 38,500 kilograms against 34,000. This disparity was very serious, since Chance Vought's work would be useless if Marshall decided that the C-5 could not manage the heavier load. The council also noted that the mode issue was beginning to affect other elements of the program adversely. North American was designing the service module to accommodate either form of rendezvous; but, as more detail was incorporated into the design, being able to go both ways would cost more in weight and complexity.58

On 2 and 3 April, Shea called field center officials to a meeting on lunar-orbit rendezvous. After some basic ground rules for operations and hardware designs had been laid down, it became obvious to Shea that there were still too many unresolved questions. He told the company to go back home and continue the studies.59

About this time, a small group in Houston took up the campaign for lunar-orbit rendezvous waged earlier by Houbolt. Charles W. Frick, who headed the newly formed Apollo Spacecraft Project Office at Manned Spacecraft Center, had aerospace management experience in both research and manufacturing - first at Ames Research Center for NASA and then with General Dynamics Convair for industry. Frick saw Marshall, rather than Headquarters, as the strategic target for an offensive. Frick said, "It became apparent that the thing to do was to talk to Dr. von Braun, in a technical sense, . . . perhaps with a bit of showmanship, and try to convince him."60

During February 1962, Frick and his project office staff briefed Holmes on why they favored lunar rendezvous. Frick ruefully admitted later that they did a rather poor job. "So when we got back [to Houston] we got our heads together and decided that we just weren't putting down [enough] technical detail." He formed a small task force, drawn from his own project people and Max Faget's engineering directorate, to pull the information together.61

William Rector of Frick's office got busy on this more persuasive presentation. The result, a carefully staged affair that became known as "Charlie Frick's Road Show," consisted of briefings by half a dozen speakers. The opening performance was staged in Huntsville before von Braun and his subordinates on 16 April 1962. To emphasize the importance of the message, the Houston group included all of the leading lights of the center - Gilruth, his top technical staff, and several astronauts - as well as senior Apollo officials from North American the command module contractor .

In a day-long presentation, Frick's troupe explained three technical reasons for his center's conversion to lunar-orbit rendezvous: (1) highest payload efficiency, (2) smallest size for the landing module, and (3) least compromise on the design of the spacecraft. The advantages of a separate lander all listed in Houbolt's minority report to Seamans, which would neither take off from nor land on the earth, loomed large, since Gilruth and his men believed that landing on the moon would be the most difficult phase of Apollo and they wanted the simplest landing possible.62

Frick and his road company next headed for Washington, where they gave two performances - for Holmes on 3 May and for Seamans on 31 May.63 The Houston center's drive to sell lunar rendezvous thus followed the path traveled by Houbolt a year earlier. Although it doubtless reinforced his arguments, it appeared to have no other effect.

In budgetary hearings before Congress in the spring of 1962, NASA officials named earth-orbit rendezvous as the best mode for Apollo, with direct flight as the backup. NASA Deputy Administrator Dryden said, on 16 April, "As we see it at the moment, we are putting our bets on a rendezvous [in earth orbit] with two advanced Saturn's." However, Dryden continued, "if we find that we are not able to do this mission by rendezvous, we would be in a bad way."64

When asked by members of the House Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight about approaches other than earth-orbit rendezvous and direct flight, Holmes admitted that lunar rendezvous was also interesting. The mission could theoretically be performed with a single Saturn C-5, Holmes went on, but it was considered too hazardous, since failure to rendezvous around the moon would doom the crew.65

Early in May, yet another scheme for landing men on the moon appeared. A study for a direct flight, using a C-5 and a two-man crew, had been quietly considered at the Ames and Lewis Research Centers and at North American. Although there were objections from Houston, Shea hired the Space Technology Laboratories to investigate this C-5 direct mode.66

Other researchers at Ames spent a great deal of time on plans that revealed their dislike of lunar rendezvous. Alfred Eggers and Harold Hornby, in particular, traded information and mulled over rendezvous modes with North American engineers. Hornby favored a method that resembled von Braun's December 1958 idea, arguing the advantages of some sort of salvo rendezvous in earth orbit. When he realized that NASA Headquarters was on the brink of making the mode decision, Eggers kept urging Seamans to reopen the whole question of the safest, most economical way to reach the moon.67

Shea, having promised Holmes a preliminary recommendation on the mode by mid-June, increased the pressure on the field centers to continue their research for the coordination meetings. On 25 May Holmes asked the Directors of the three manned space flight centers to submit cost and schedule estimates for each of the approaches under consideration.68 Shea began collecting his material for final review, although there was still no agreement between Huntsville and Houston. Despite Frick's road show, the Marshall center persisted in its preference for earth-orbit rendezvous. The mode comparison meetings had obviously been less than successful in bringing the two opponents together. "I was pretty convinced now that you could do either EOR or LOR," Shea later said, "so the choice . . . was really . . . what's the best way."69

Holmes and Shea, in addition to deciding on the best approach, were still determined to settle for nothing short of unanimity. They scheduled yet another series of meetings at each center, "in which we asked them to summarize their studies and draw conclusions" so everyone would feel like a real part of the technical decision process.70

Shortly before these summary meetings in May and June of 1962, the mounting tide of evidence favoring lunar-orbit rendezvous reached its flood. Shea and Holmes became convinced that this was indeed the best approach. But, if they were to have harmony within their organization, Marshall must be won over. Holmes asked Shea to discuss lunar-orbit rendezvous in depth with von Braun and to explore his reaction to the crimp this mode would put in Marshall's share of Apollo. Since lunar rendezvous would require fewer boosters than the earth-orbital mode and since Marshall would have no part in developing docking hardware and rendezvous techniques, the Huntsville role would diminish considerably. Also, with the Nova's prospects definitely on the wane, Marshall's long-term future seemed uncertain.

For some time von Braun and his colleagues had wanted to broaden the scope of their space activities, and Holmes knew it. He and Shea decided that this was the time to offer von Braun a share of future projects, including payloads, to balance the workload between Houston and Huntsville.

About the middle of May, von Braun visited Washington, and Shea told him that lunar rendezvous appeared to be shaping up as the best method. Conceding that it might well be a wise choice, the Marshall Director again expressed concern for the future of his people. Shea acknowledged that Marshall would lose a good deal of work if NASA adopted lunar rendezvous, but he reminded von Braun that

Houston would be very loaded with both the CSM [command and service modules] and the LEM [lunar excursion module]. It just seems natural to Brainerd and me that you guys ought to start getting involved in the lunar base and the roving vehicle and some of the other spacecraft stuff. . . . Wernher kind of tucked that in the back of his mind and went back to Huntsville.71

Huntsville was not the only center that faced a loss of business if lunar-orbit rendezvous were chosen. Lewis would also be left standing at the gate, since that mode would eliminate the need for the lunar crasher. The Cleveland group did hope to capitalize on liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen technology for other pieces of the Saturn propulsion requirements, although this, of course, would mean a contest with Marshall.72

The Management Council met in Huntsville on 29 May, two weeks after the confidential talk between Shea and von Braun. Perhaps in compliance with his implied promise to the Marshall Director, Shea opened the subject of an unmanned logistics vehicle to deposit supplies on the moon, increasing the time that a manned spacecraft could remain on the lunar surface. George Low warned that developing a logistics vehicle should not be a prerequisite to a manned lunar landing.73 Houston questioned the usefulness of unmanned supply craft "because of the reliability problems of unmanned vehicles, and . . . whether supplies [previously deposited] on the moon could be effectively used." Gilruth's men argued that any such vehicle should not simply be an Apollo lunar excursion vehicle modified for unmanned operation. The best approach would be a "semisoft" lander, similar to unmanned spacecraft like Surveyor. And Gilruth's engineers were quick to point out that logistic support could be obtained by attaching a "mission module" to a manned lunar module, since the Saturn C-5 should eventually be able to handle an additional 1,600 kilograms of supplies and equipment.74

Shea's special meetings on the centers' mode studies resumed in early June. By far the most significant was an all-day affair at Marshall on 7 June, where von Braun's lieutenants catalogued the latest results of their research. "The tone of everything [throughout the day] in the presentations by his people was all very pro-EOR," Shea recalled. At the end, after six hours of discussion on earth-orbit rendezvous, von Braun dropped a bomb that, as far as internal arguments in NASA were concerned, effectively laid the Apollo mode issue to rest. To the dismay of his staff, said Shea, von Braun "got up and in about a 15-minute talk that he'd handwritten during the meeting stated that it was the position of [his] Center to support LOR."75

"Our general conclusion," von Braun told his startled audience, "is that all four modes are technically feasible and could be implemented with enough time and money." He then listed Marshall's preferences: (1) lunar-orbit rendezvous, with a recommendation to make up for its limited growth potential to begin simultaneous development of an unmanned, fully automatic, one-way C-5 logistics vehicle; (2) earth-orbit rendezvous, using the refueling technique; (3) direct flight with a C-5, employing a lightweight spacecraft and high-energy return propellants; and (4) direct flight with a Nova or Saturn C-8. Von Braun continued:

I would like to reiterate once more that it is absolutely mandatory that we arrive at a definite mode decision within the next few weeks. . . . If we do not make a clear-cut decision on the mode very soon, our chances of accomplishing the first lunar expedition in this decade will fade away rapidly.

The Marshall chief then explained his about-face. Lunar rendezvous, he had come to realize, "offers the highest confidence factor of successful accomplishment within this decade." He supported Houston's contention that designing the Apollo reentry vehicle and the lunar landing craft were the most critical tasks in achieving the lunar landing. "A drastic separation of these two functions into two separate elements is bound to greatly simplify the development of the spacecraft system [and] result in a very substantial saving of time."

Moreover, lunar-orbit rendezvous would offer the "cleanest managerial interfaces" - meaning that it would reduce the amount of technical coordination required between the centers and their respective contractors, a major concern in any complex program. Apollo already had a "frightening number" of these interfaces, since it took the combined efforts of many companies to form a single vehicle. And, finally, this mode would least disrupt other elements of the program, especially booster development, existing contract structures, and the facilities already under construction.

We . . . readily admit that when first exposed to the proposal of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous mode we were a bit skeptical. . . .

We understand that the Manned Spacecraft Center was also quite skeptical at first, when John Houbolt of Langley advanced the proposal, . . . and it took quite a while to substantiate the feasibility of the method and finally endorse it.

Against this background it can, therefore, be concluded that the issue of "invented here" versus "not invented here" does not apply to either the Manned Spacecraft Center or the Marshall Space Flight Center; that both Centers have actually embraced a scheme suggested by a third source. Undoubtedly, personnel of MSC and MSFC have by now conducted more detailed studies on all aspects of the four modes than any other group. Moreover, it is these two Centers to which the Office of Manned Space Flight will ultimately have to look to "deliver the goods." I consider it fortunate indeed . . . that both Centers, after much soul searching, have come to identical conclusions. This should give the Office of Manned Space Flight some additional assurance that our recommendations should not be too far from the truth.76


52. Joseph F. Shea, interview, Washington, 6 May 1970.

53. Ibid.; Shea, "Trip Report on Visit to MSC at Langley and MSFC at Huntsville," 18 Jan. 1962.

54. Paul F. Weyers to Mgr., ASPO, "Impact of lack of a decision on operational techniques on the Apollo Project," 19 April 1962; A. B. Kehlet et al., "Notes on Project Apollo January 1960-January 1962," 8 Jan. 1962, pp. 1, 7.

55. Shea memo for record, no subj., 26 Jan. 1962; Shea interview; "Apollo Chronology," MSC Fact Sheet 96, p. 12; Purser to Gilruth, "Log for week of January 22, 1962," 30 Jan. 1962, and "Log for week of February 12, 1962," 26 Feb. 1962; Shea memo for file, no. subj., 2 Feb. 1962, with enc., "List of Attendees for Bidder's Conference, Apollo Rendezvous Study," [2 Feb. 1962]; House Com., Astronautical and Aeronautical Events of 1962, p. 27; D. Brainerd Holmes TWX to all NASA Centers, Attn.: Dirs., 2 March 1962.

56. Shea interview.

57. William E. Lilly, minutes of 2nd meeting of Manned Space Flight Management Council (MSFMC), 6 Feb. 1962, agenda items 2 and 3; Houbolt interview; Shea memo for record, no subj., [ca. 6 Feb. 1962].

58. Charles W. Frick to Robert O. Piland, "Comments on Agenda Items for the Management Council Meeting," 23 March 1962; MSC Director's briefing notes for MSFMC meeting, 27 March 1962, agenda item 8; Rector to Johnson, "Meeting with Chance Vought on March 20, 1962, regarding their LEM study," 21 March 1962; Lilly, minutes of 4th meeting of MSFMC, 27 March 1962.

59. Shea to Rosen, "Minutes of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous Meeting, April 2 and 3, 1962," 13 April 1962, with enc., Richard J. Hayes, subj. as above, n.d.

60. Frick, interview, Palo Alto, Calif., 26 June 1968.

61. Ibid.; Kehlet, interview, Downey, 26 Jan. 1970; Owen E. Maynard, interview, Houston, 9 Jan. 1970.

62. Frick interview; Rector, interview, Redondo Beach, Calif., 27 Jan. 1970; MSC, "Lunar Orbital Technique for Performing the Lunar Mission," also known as "Charlie Frick's Road Show," April 1962.

63. Low to Shea, "Lunar Landing Briefing for Associate Administrator," 16 May 1962; Holmes to Shea, NASA Hq. routing slip, 16 May 1962.

64. House Committee on Appropriations' Subcommittee, Independent Offices Appropriations for 1963: Hearings, pt. 3, 87th Cong., 2nd sess., 1962, p. 571.

65. House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight, 1963 NASA Authorization: Hearings on H.R. 10100 (Superseded by H.R. 11737), 87th Cong., 2nd sess., 1962, pp. 528-29, 810.

66. Shea memo for record, no subj., 1 May 1962; Clyde B. Bothmer, minutes of OMSF Staff Meeting, 1 May 1962; Shea memo [for file], no subj., 7 May 1962, with enc., "Direct Flight Schedule Study for Project Apollo: Statement of Work," 26 April 1962.

67. Harold Hornby, interview, Ames, 28 June 1971; Alfred J. Eggers, Jr., interview, Washington, 22 May 1970; Hornby, "Least Fuel, Least Energy and Salvo Rendezvous," paper presented at the ARS/IRE 15th Annual Spring Technical Conference, Cincinnati, Ohio, 12-13 April 1961; Hornby, "Return Launch and Re-Entry Vehicle," in C. T. Leondes and R. W. Vance, eds., Lunar Mission and Exploration (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964), pp. 588-622.

68. [Bothmer], minutes of NASA OMSF Staff Meeting, 11 May 1962; Holmes to Dirs., LOC, MSC, and MSFC, "The Manned Lunar Landing Program," 25 May 1962.

69. Shea interview.

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid.; Holmes, interview, Waltham, Mass., 18 Feb. 1969.

72. Remarks on internal rivalries among NASA field centers are based largely on Apollo oral history interviews and on the minutes of the OMSF weekly staff meetings, 1961-1963, with Bothmer as secretary.

73. Bothmer, minutes of MSFMC meeting, 29 May 1962, p. 6.

74. Charles W. Mathews to Dir., MSC, "Background Material for Use in May 29 Meeting of Management Council," 25 May 1962.

75. Agenda, Presentation to Shea, Office of Systems, OMSF, NASA Hq., on MSFC Mode Studies for Lunar Missions, 7 June 1962; Shea interview.

76. Von Braun, "Concluding Remarks by Dr. Wernher von Braun about Mode Selection for the Lunar Landing Program, Given to Dr. Joseph F. Shea, Deputy Director (Systems), Office of Manned Space Flight, June 7, 1962" (emphasis in original).


Previous Page Next Page Table of Contents