Chapter 24

Five Years After

On the morning of 16 July 1974, a large crowd gathered at the LC-39 press site to dedicate the launch complex as a national historical site. At the front of the press stands, a countdown clock ticked off the minutes. At 9:32 a.m., exactly five years after the liftoff of Apollo 11, astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins unveiled a plaque commemorating their historic journey. The inscription read in part:

Men began the first journeys to the moon from this complex. The success of these explorations was made possible by the united efforts of Government, and Industry, and the support of the American people.
Without question, the teamwork that joined together thousands of men and machines was Kennedy Space Center's greatest contribution to the lunar landing. Other elements undergirding KSC's success included the confidence, diligence, and technological skills of the launch team and the generous support of Congress.

A spirit of optimism marked the launch team's efforts throughout the Apollo program. Wernher von Braun exemplified this attitude in 1962 when he defended the choice of a mobile launch complex for LC-39. As von Braun noted, the fundamental question was whether NASA leaders believed "a space program is here to stay, and will continue to grow." Grumman workers typified this same outlook ten years later with their Apollo 17 slogan, "This may be our last, but it will be our best." At times during the program, the optimism wavered, most notably in 1967 in the aftermath of the AS-204 fire and with the interminable checkout of AS-501. Despite these setbacks, the launch team continued to believe that it could meet President Kennedy's challenge.

Another vital ingredient in KSC's success was the old-fashioned virtue, perseverance. Problems were the norm during most Apollo launch operations. With so much new, exotic hardware, strenuous efforts at quality control did not eliminate defective parts; equipment failures were common. The situation was complicated further by frequent last-minute modifications to the spacecraft, particularly in the hectic years of 1967-1968. From the Debus-Davis Study to the Apollo 13 rescue, there were numerous occasions when time clocks, Sundays, and holidays were ignored. The launch team's diligence allowed KSC management to recover from many schedule slips and maintain NASA's timetable.

The launch team overcame significant technical problems on its way to the lunar launch. Although the design of the Merritt Island facilities was generally straight forward and within the state of the art, LC-39's size posed a great challenge. URSAM's assignment on the vehicle assembly building was to design one of the world's largest buildings on a marsh, in hurricane country, with openings along the sides that precluded a conventional framework. The extensible platforms, enclosing the space vehicles inside the assembly building, did not allow any appreciable sidesway. The 8,000-metric-ton load intended for Marion's crawler-transporter ruled out any pre-construction tests of its design. The many changes in space-vehicle requirements and the pressing construction schedule added to the problems of size. As Col. N. A. Lore of the Corps of Engineers wrote in 1966, nearly all of LC-39 "was designed prior to [firm] definition of Apollo systems and built to support concepts rather than detailed systems." Consequently, important parts of the launch facility required extensive design changes; the swing arms and mobile service structure were prominent examples.

While visitors marvel at the size of LC-39's major facilities, the automating of launch operations represented KSC's most important technological advance. The Saturn V ground computer complex and the spacecraft's automated checkout system were in the vanguard of industrial automation. Whereas computers had been employed previously in monitoring industrial operations, KSC's electrical engineers used their computers to command lengthy processes. The automation of launch operations took nearly a decade and caused many frustrations, at times threatening the entire operation. It is unlikely, however, that KSC could have launched an Apollo-Saturn V on time, without computers.

A major reason for the launch team's success was its ability to profit from mistakes. The AS-204 fire prompted necessary changes in test procedures and safety requirements. Just as importantly, it brought the Cape's spacecraft operations completely under KSC's direction for the first time. The lightning strike on Apollo 12 caused a thorough review of LC-39's electrical protection and a tightening of weather restrictions. After the blind flange incident on the SA-5 countdown, launch officials adopted the countdown demonstration test as the final test. The launch team failed to anticipate problems in a number of areas; when difficulties appeared, however, officials profited from the experience.

Congressional support paved the way to the moon. When the launch facilities were planned in 1961-1962, Congress was willing to fund whatever was necessary to overtake the Russians. NASA's ambitious requests were largely met. With a decline of congressional support after 1962, KSC had to lower its sights - the assembly building shrank from six to four high bays and there were similar reductions in other facilities. Although congressional generosity declined, the launch operation fared well through 1969. There were ample funds for overtime, cost overruns, and special efforts such as the Boeing-TIE contract. The cutback after Apollo 11 brought a sizable reduction in KSC's workforce, but in other areas (e.g., civil service grade level and contractor overtime) there were no significant changes until the program's end.

In retrospect NASA and Congress appear to have overbuilt the launch complex. NASA engineers developed the plans for the launch facilities in 1961-1962 when other aspects of Apollo were still undecided. (The decision to employ a mobile launch preceded the selection of lunar orbital rendezvous.) The plans for LC-39 were based on predictions of high launch rates. For two decades the von Braun team had employed a building-block approach to rocket testing. It was assumed that a new launch vehicle would undergo many test flights before qualification; 16 were scheduled initially for the Saturn I. The Huntsville center also believed that lunar landing could best be achieved via earth-orbital rendezvous, which required several launches per mission. Together, the building block philosophy and earthorbital rendezvous might require 50 launches per year, a rate justifying a mobile launch complex. However, the high launch rate never materialized, partly because of NASA's "all-up" decision (made after congressional cutbacks in 1963). After Apollo 11, a significant portion of LC-39 was not needed.

Changes during the Apollo program had a similar impact on spacecraft facilities. Several activities planned for the launch site, such as parachute packing and static test-firing, were eventually conducted elsewhere. The size of the facilities also anticipated a higher launch rate. In some cases the vacant space was used for other purposes; thus the parachute-packing facility became a news center in 1968. KSC had few white elephants at the peak of Apollo operations, but much of the spacecraft facilities went unused during the program's last three years. Viewed from the perspective of the mid-1970s, midway between the eras of Apollo and the Space Shuttle, the manned launch complex appears grossly overbuilt. It can be argued, however, that the Apollo-Saturn launch facilities provided a margin for error in the hectic months of 1968-1969 when KSC had three vehicles in the operational flow. It can also be argued that those facilities may be used in the future.

Apollo placed a severe strain on the larger Cape community. Brevard County had grown with amazing rapidity during the l950s. The increase brought about by the Apollo program further taxed the social and economic resources of the area and took a heavy toll of family life, as the divorce rates of the time indicate. Race relations at Kennedy Space Center seemed harmonious, but the limited numbers of black engineers and trained technicians kept most blacks in service or maintenance areas.

Labor disputes were among the most distressing aspects of the launch facility construction. Unions quarreled with NASA over tasks performed by civil servants; union members refused to work alongside nonunion labor; and most frequently they fought each other over jurisdictional rights to jobs. While not noticeably greater than in most industrial areas, work stoppages seemed as totally out of place in the space race as they had during World War II. The contrast between the total dedication of some workers intent on getting men to the moon, and others arguing about jurisdiction in areas of employment, tended to shock the nation.

The conflict at the Cape was not limited to the labor unions. Some members of the Air Force viewed the civilian agency's program as an infringement on their preserve. The manned spaceflight centers questioned each other's performance and objectives. Houston's and Huntsville's mistakes were magnified at Merritt Island, where the launch team corrected space-vehicle errors. It was easy to forget the thousands of parts that worked when the failure of one piece delayed a launch. The subordination of Houston and Goddard launch teams to KSC also caused hard feelings. Finally there were differing opinions as to the relative contributions of contractor and civil servant at KSC.

While many disagreements sprang up during the launch operations, the Apollo team subordinated its differences to the goal of a lunar landing. At the fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, James Webb noted:

The successes achieved here resulted not only from teamwork between individuals, not only from effective interfaces between men and machines, but also because Dr. Kurt Debus and his associates in NASA, in the Air Force and other government agencies, in industry and in universities have created a team of organizations which is a much more difficult undertaking than to create a team of individuals.
The leadership was the more remarkable, coming in large part from engineers with little previous schooling in management. The demonstration of this teamwork of organizations - from the planning for LC-39 through the successful launch of Apollo 17 - is the most impressive legacy of the Apollo launch program.

Previous Page Next Page Table of Contents