SETBACK AND RECOVERY: 1967

1967: A Critical Year

The six months after the Apollo fire were probably the busiest of the entire moon-landing program. At the Manned Spacecraft Center and its spacecraft contractor, North American Aviation, procedures were tightened up to give managers a better grip on details of the program. Both MSC and NAA brought in new managers for the spacecraft project. George Low, picked by James Webb to run Houston's spacecraft program, appointed a tough configuration control board at MSC which met every week to review proposed design changes. Every system and subsystem in the command module was examined for hazards. New materials and test procedures assured that the risk of fire was reduced to the absolute minimum.70

The fire bought time for the Saturn project as well. While the first and third stages had few major problems, the second (S-II) stage - also a North American project - had been having serious problems since 1965. S-II was the largest rocket stage ever built to use liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, and its builders ran into unique technological problems and needed all the help they could get to meet launch schedules. At one point, in fact, S-II was the single most troublesome part of the Saturn program.71

The toil, tears, and sweat expended by NASA and contractors during the post-fire months produced striking results before the year ended. On November 9, 1967, the first complete Saturn V to be flight-tested, AS-501, lifted off from the brand new launch complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center, carrying a boilerplate command and service module and a mock-up of the lunar module into earth orbit. Apollo 4, as the flight was designated, was certainly the most complex mission launched up to that time. Its long list of "firsts" included checking out all systems of the Saturn V, including the first in-orbit restarting of the S-IVB third stage. As far as the spacecraft was concerned, Apollo 4 proved the soundness of the command module's heat shield and redesigned hatch during simulated reentry from a lunar mission. George Mueller's 1963 decision to test the Saturn V "all-up" was apparently vindicated when AS-501 was officially evaluated as a success in all respects.72

With that success it was easy to feel that Apollo was "on its way to the moon," as Program Director Sam Phillips put it in a postlaunch press conference. Apollo 4 was the first of six steps that MSC mission planners had set down as essential precursors to the lunar landing. These flights, lettered "A" through "F," would progressively test the systems of the command and service module and the lunar module and verify flight operations procedures, first in earth orbit and then in deep space (lunar orbit), before mission "G" landed on the moon. Four Saturn Vs and two Saturn IBs (or three and three, depending on how the Saturn V and the spacecraft systems performed) would be used for the prelanding missions. This classification of missions, though unofficial, was the framework on which subsequent planning was built.73

The year also saw a considerable evolution of scientific activity at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Much of the cause of scientists' complaints about the Houston center was removed by the creation of the Science and Applications Directorate and the appointment of a research scientist of recognized stature as its head. When that directorate became operational, Headquarters's Office of Space Science and Applications delegated to MSC most of the responsibility for management of the lunar samples, including direct contacts with the participating scientists. The lunar receiving laboratory, although it was not accorded the bureaucratic stature at MSC that the lunar scientists had insisted on, was placed sufficiently high to assure adequate autonomy, and its first manager was a research scientist who had been a major contributor to the design of the LRL's sample-handling equipment.

NASA Administrator James Webb spent considerable time in 1967 exploring a more prominent role in planetary science for the lunar receiving laboratory. In view of the historic significance of the lunar samples and the possibility that probes might eventually return samples from the planets, Webb wanted the LRL to become the world's premier site for scientific research on the moon and the planets. In discussions with the National Academy of Sciences during 1967, Webb worked for an arrangement to bring this prospective "Lunar Science Institute" under academic management, which would be essential if the institute was to achieve the stature Webb wanted for it. By the end of the year NASA and the Academy had defined the role of the institute and were working to form a consortium of universities to manage it, but ideas had not yet crystallized and quite a bit of negotiating was still to be done.74

As 1968 began, Apollo program officials could look back on a year of accomplishment and ahead to more hard work. It would be a busy year at the Cape: the official manned space flight schedule projected six developmental missions for 1968. Three were Saturn IB missions, two of them unmanned tests of the lunar module, and the third a manned test of the much-reworked command and service module in earth orbit. Three Saturn V flights - two unmanned, verifying spacecraft development, and one manned - would precede five manned Saturn V missions in 1969. "The first lunar landing," the schedule stated for public consumption, "is possible in [the] last half of 1969."75 Manned space flight operations were about to go into high gear.

When mission G was ready to fly, lunar scientists could expect the facilities for handling its history-making cargo to be ready. During 1967 the lunar receiving laboratory had been completed and much of its specialized equipment installed. Perhaps more important, MSC and the community of lunar investigators had set up the administrative mechanism by which the lunar material would be parceled out for scientific examination. Within the constraints of quarantine and of MSC's responsibility to safeguard and account for the samples, the scientists, through their chosen representatives, would allot the lunar rocks and soil to the approved investigators. As far as the official records reveal it, MSC and the academic science community were developing a cooperative relationship along lines that the scientists found acceptable, if not ideal.


70. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 228-35.

71. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn, pp. 211-33.

72. Ibid., pp. 355-60; Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 232-34; Benson and Faherty, Moonport, pp. 403-29; MSC, "Apollo 4 Mission Report," MSC-PA-R-68-1, Jan., 1968, pp. 1-1 through 1-4; MSFC, "Saturn V AS-501 Flight Evaluation," MPR-SAT-FE-68-1, Jan. 15, 1968, pp. xxxviii-xlii.

73. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 234-35.

74. James E. Webb to Frank B. Smith, Jan. 7, 1967; Webb to Frederick Seitz, NAS, Feb. 2, 1967 ; Philip H. Whitbeck to Deputy Dir., Administration, MSC, "Operation of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory," Feb. 14, 1967, with encl., "Report on meeting with Mr. Webb on organizational location and operation of the lunar receiving laboratory"; Newell, draft memo to Seamans, "Manned Spacecraft Center Science and Applications Directorate and the National Lunar Research Laboratory," Mar. 2, 1967; Smith, "Comments Made at MSC at 3/16/67 Meeting with Dr. Seitz, George Low, et al., Relative to Management of the LRL," Mar. 27, 1967; anon., viewgraph for presentations on functions of Center for Lunar and Earth Sciences, Dec. 20, 1967, JSC History Office files, box 076-41.

75. OMSF, "Manned Space Flight Schedules, vol. I, Level 1 Schedules and Resources Summary," Jan. 9, 1968, pp. ii, 27-29.


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