Apollo Expeditions to the Moon



"The accomplishments of this last Apollo mission and the successes of the previous Apollo flights were the result of the dedicated efforts and the sacrifices of thousands of individuals." I have difficulty recollecting how many times I stood on the platform at Ellington Air Force Base welcoming the returning flight crews and heard those words repeated. But they are nevertheless quite true. The people in Houston were with their astronauts each step of the way. The interchange between Mike Collins, serving as the CapCom (capsule communicator), and Bill Anders as Apollo 8 orbited the Moon clearly demonstrated this feeling. Mike called Apollo 8, saying "Milt says we are in a period of relaxed vigilance". Bill came back with "Very good. We relax; you be vigilant." They came to rely on the controllers, as they well knew their very lives depended on their vigilance and judgment. Mike later put it well in his book, Carrying the Fire. He writes of the Gemini 10 reentry and their reliance on "Super Retro" John Llewellyn. Mike says that they knew if they made a mistake John would be so angry that he would stick up his strong Welsh arm and yank them out of the sky. John's dominant personality is illustrated by the time he was coming on duty for his shift in the Control Center and, finding his parking space taken, he simply parked on the walk next to the door rather than waste time looking. Like his compatriots, John was thoroughly dedicated. His type is at its best when fighting wars or flying missions.

Many individuals were involved in the building and testing of the spacecraft and its systems, but once given the spacecraft and the necessary facilities and equipment, the Apollo Operations Team was charged with the awesome responsibility for the accomplishment of the mission. This team was composed of hundreds of individuals - government and contractor personnel, as well as representatives of the Department of Defense and of foreign nations such as Australia and Spain. Each team member had been carefully selected and subjected to countless hours of training and simulations; each had also participated in Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo testing and flight operations. Time and time again, these young men had to rely on their technical knowledge to assess the unexpected and determine the right course of action. The "luck" the Operations Team had in overcoming adversity is exemplified by the words of University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets with opportunity". The luck of the Operations Team was the result of thorough and careful planning and training and the development of both people and procedures.

Mission Control candid photography by Andrew R. Patnesky

A photo of Flight Director Gene Kranz watching his console
Flight Director Gene Kranz watches his console display tensely as the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle slowly settles down with its descent engine fuel supply all but exhausted. Gerry Griffin, a Flight Director during other phases of the mission, looks on in complete absorption.

A photo of operation team members working in the Mission Operations Control Room As the Apollo 11 lunar module begins the descent toward its historic touchdown, off-duty Operations Team members watch unobtrusively from a few extra chairs in the Mission Operations Control Room.

A photo of a television monitor at the front of Mission Operations Control Room A television monitor at the front of the Mission Operations Control Room displays real-time images of Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin at work on the Moon.

Thinking back over the events of the past years, I realize the Operations Team was always prepared when the opportunity presented itself. I'll certainly always remember their performance on Apollo 11. It takes an awful lot of events all going right to get you to the Moon, let alone return. It was our first attempt at the landing and we had somehow, incredibly, reached the point where we were starting the descent for the landing. Thus far, all had gone astonishingly well. The first phase of the firing of the lunar module engine went well as the descent started; and then, approximately five minutes after ignition, the first of a series of computer alarms was received via telemetry in the Mission Control Center and was also displayed to the crew onboard the lunar module Eagle. I was responsible for the software in that computer, the logic that made it all work. You can imagine the thoughts racing through my mind: Had we come all this way for naught? What was wrong? The flight controller responsible for assessing the problem, 27-year-old Steve Bales, was faced with an immediate decision: Should we continue the descent or initiate an abort? An abort meant there would be no landing for Apollo 11: we would have to try again. When Flight Director Gene Kranz pressed him for his answer, young Mr. Bales' response was the loudest and most emphatic "go" I have ever heard.

But it wasn't over yet. The lunar module was under automatic control as it approached the surface. Neil realized that the automatic descent would terminate in a boulder field surrounding a large rim crater. He took over control of the spacecraft and steered the Eagle toward a smooth landing site. The low-level fuel light for the engine came on, indicating about enough fuel for only 116 seconds of firing time on the engine. With 45 seconds of fuel left, Eagle set down with a jolt and we were there.

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