The Mobile Launch Concept - Debate and Approval

Debus had little trouble with critics of the mobile concept within LOD. it was a different story outside the launch team. At NASA Headquarters, Milton Rosen questioned both cost and feasibility. In early January 1962, he commissioned a launch facility study by three engineers of the Office of Manned Space Flight. Drawing their information from NASA and aerospace corporation studies, the team concluded that fixed pads were preferable to the mobile concept. The judgment rested on three grounds: the automated checkout equipment and increased reliability of space vehicles would reduce the minimum interval between launches from a fixed pad to one month; the high launch rates, for which the mobile concept was designed, were increasingly unlikely; and the mobile launch concept involved too many risks and engineering uncertainties.44

The mobile concept came under more fire in March. On the 6th von Braun notified Debus that an adverse Air Force report had triggered further doubts at NASA Headquarters. Debus stuck to his guns and was supported by Seamans and Holmes. During congressional testimony in early April, Holmes responded to an inquiry regarding the VAB's importance:

This is an absolute necessity. It is a basic element in our lunar program. If we don't go to this type of vertical assembly, protected from weather, where assembly can take place with integrated checkout equipment for our lunar program, I really think we will end up with the same kind of rather crude facilities we now have for launching, where we assemble them on the pad for 2 or 3 months, where we do not have spares, and it would probably be impossible to use Earth orbital rendezvous.45
LOD's opportunity to defend LC-39 came on 23 March when Representative Olin Teague's Manned Space Flight Subcommittee visited the Cape. After describing the mobile concept's advantages in general terms of flexibility and high launch potential, Debus listed seven specific advantages: Petrone stressed the last two points. LC-37's $432-million price tag was a bargain compared with the $900-million cost of nine fixed pads for 36 annual launches. If LOD planned facilities for a maximum launch rate of 24 per year, LC-39 still represented a saving of $168 minion. One congressman considered Petrone's manpower savings estimates the best argument For LC-39. The complex would employ 2,200 men, 1,500 fewer than the requirement for nine fixed pads. The annual savings in salaries would amount to $18 million; comparing LC-39 to six fixed pads, Petrone estimated savings of $8 million per year.46

The committee questioned the VAB's availability for Nova. Petrone pointed out that Nova dimensions were not firm and postponing LC-39 plans would delay the Saturn C-5 program. The VAB design would allow modification at a later date. Col. Clarence Bidgood, Facilities Chief, stated that flexibility was desirable at three points in the complex: the assembly building, the transporter, and the launch pad. Although LOD was attempting to provide growth potential and a capability for handing solids or liquids, "you might build so much expense into it to get flexibility that it would be very, very uneconomical in the first place." The congressmen were silent on two important matters affecting LC-39: the likelihood of high launch rates and the technical problems of the mobile concept. Perhaps they were unaware of the engineering difficulties that bothered Harvey Pierce and Milton Rosen. They may have feared delay in a pacing item* of the Apollo program. As Teague said, the committee was well disposed toward LOD's project. Their main concern was defending LC-39 before the House Appropriations Committee.47

By late May planning on LC-39 was well along; preliminary schedules called for design criteria contracts within three months. Debus moved to secure approval of the mobile concept at the Office of Manned Space Flight Management Council meeting on 29 May 1962. He acknowledged that launch rates were at a break-even point and cost savings no longer a major factor. LC-39, however, offered distinct technical advantages. Milton Rosen accepted Debus's arguments, but thought there should be further study of the disadvantages. Robert Gilruth expressed MSC's concern that LC-39 would not provide servicing of the spacecraft at the pad. Von Braun then interjected a telling point. The fundamental question, the Huntsville director stated, was whether they believed "a space program is here to stay, and will continue to grow." The Council responded with approval of Debus's plan.48

Despite the vote of confidence, the issue reappeared at the 22 June Management Council meeting. Rosen warned that LC-39 would be three years in the making and any slippage would delay the launch program. He recommended modifying the complex to allow for on-pad assembly. As a compromise Debus suggested transporting the arming tower to the pad for assembly purposes or spacecraft checkout.** Although Holmes requested more information pending a final decision, the mobile concept was a virtual certainty. Rosen had told Debus on the 15th not to worry about further questioning; Headquarters was going along with LC-39.49

June 1962 brought other Apollo decisions, including selection of lunar-orbital rendezvous (LOR) for the mission mode. NASA had studied the issue since the late 1960s. At first, either direct flight with a Nova or earth-orbital rendezvous (EOR) with Saturns seemed likely choices; but by May 1962, debate had narrowed to EOR versus LOR. Lunar-orbital enthusiasts at Langley, Houston, and Headquarters stressed the advantage of landing on the moon with a light vehicle specially designed for the mission. MSFC engineers continued to support EOR for practical as well as technical reasons: much of their workload would disappear if EOR was dropped. An impasse seemed likely, until von Braun announced his support for the lunar-orbital mode on 7 June. The decision was brought on by the influence of LOR's technical advantages, assurances that Headquarters would compensate MSFC with new tasks, and concern for the Apollo program. In explaining the about-face to his Huntsville team, von Braun stated: "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 rapidly."50 With Houston and Huntsville in agreement, the matter was pretty well settled. The Management Council and Administrator Webb approved LOR within a month. At its 22 June meeting the Management Council also endorsed immediate development of a lunar excursion module and an intermediate rocket, the Saturn IB. The new member of the Saturn family would use an uprated S-I stage (first stage of the Saturn C-1) and the new S-IVB stage for testing the Apollo spacecraft in earth orbit.51

The summer's weekly staff reports to Debus reveal the breadth of LC-39 activities. On 5 July Karl Sendler reported on the telemetry studies of the Manned Lunar Landing Program (MLLP) Instrumentation Planning Group. Two weeks later the group organized an eight-man task force to determine LC-39's requirements for weather data. The continuing dispute over LC-39 siting was a frequent topic of Colonel Bidgood's Facilities Office reports. On 5 July Bidgood notified Debus that a site proposal was ready for the MLLP Joint Facilities Planning Group; it called for placing the complex near the ocean. Although the Air Force no longer insisted that NASA place LC-39 north along the Mosquito Lagoon, it wanted the complex 4.5 kilometers inland. Air Force officials believed that location would provide space for additional launch complexes at a later date. The matter dragged on for six more weeks before the Air Force Missile Test Center yielded. Bidgood reported two major achievements on 23 August: Air Force concurrence on siting and initiation of criteria work for LC-39.52

The Launch Support Equipment Office began a study of the mobile arming tower in June, following Debus's offer to investigate the matter for the Management Council. Poppet announced the study's completion in his 16 August report: "it is not only feasible but highly recommended since this added flexibility to the C-5 complex can be achieved with little increase in cost." The flexibility concerned the use of the mobile arming tower to erect upper stages at the pad if necessary. The study rejected using the 116-meter tower to erect the booster, since the addition of a huge crane would impose severe structural problems.53

LC-39 was the sole topic at a meeting of the Launch Operations Working Group on 18-19 July that brought together 113 representatives from LOD, MSFC, and the launch vehicle contractors: Boeing, North American, Douglas, and General Electric. In Petrone's absence, Phillip Claybourne and William Clearman chaired the sessions. Claybourne's welcoming remarks described the role of the working group panels, teams that were to be organized later in the day to exchange information and accomplish specific tasks. Clearman followed with a general description of LC-39.

Following Donald Buchanan's report on the crawler and launcher-umbilical tower, Chester Wasileski briefed the meeting on propellant systems. Although LC-39 would involve no new propellants, loading requirements would dwarf LC-34 operations. Each pad would need storage for approximately 3,407,000 liters of LOX, 946,000 liters of RP-1, 2,460,000 liters of LH2, and 946,000 liters of LN2. Propellant loading rates would be:

S-IC 38,000 liters per minute of  LOX
      7,600                       RP-1
S-II 19,000                       LOX
     38,000                       LH2
S-IVB 3,800                       LOX
     15,200                       LH2
LOD planned to automate propellant loading on all Saturn launch sites; controls in the Launch control center would operate through the data link on the launcher. A compression-converter facility near the VAB would provide gases to charge high-pressure spheres on the launch vehicle and to keep certain ground support equipment free of moisture and dust. Wasileski proposed redundant sensors in the loading system and asked the panels for further comment.

Robert Moore and Bradley Downs of the Firing-Equipment Design Group (Launch Support Equipment Office) described the seven arms of the launcher-umbilical tower that would provide personnel access and support electrical cables, propellant lines, and pneumatic lines to the launch vehicle. Prior to the rocket's first motion, five arms would disconnect and begin withdrawal. Arms 4 and 6, providing hydrogen vent ducting and services to the S-II stage and the instrumentation unit, would retract at liftoff. Moore asked the groups responsible for individual stage operations to reexamine their service needs. Lengthy but inconclusive debate followed on a remote reconnect capability for aborted missions.54

With this meeting, LC-39 was just about ready to go. After it won final approval, Marvin Redfield, co-author of the NASA Headquarters report that had criticized the mobile concept, congratulated his friend, Rocco Petrone, but insisted the price would far exceed the launch team's estimates. Petrone accepted the challenge, wagering a case of Scotch that costs would not run over $500 million. The bill eventually came to about $500 million despite a significant reduction in LC-39 components, e.g., four high bays instead of six in the VAB. When Petrone insisted he had won the bet, Redfield grudgingly agreed to pay, but only one bottle at a time. On the occasion of the first payment, Petrone, either doubting the fairness of his victory or influenced by the good cheer, absolved Redfield of further payments.55

The General Accounting Office was less jovial about the $500 million price tag. A report in 1967 would imply that LC-39 had been a costly mistake, a conclusion that NASA would strenuously oppose.

* The term pacing item refers to a facility or equipment that is essential to a program, with little or no margin for delay. During the Apollo program different items earned this distinction. In the spring of 1962, the Mississippi Test Facility (where the C-5's First stage would be test-fired) and LC-39 were pacing items.

** Most members of LOD wanted a stationary arming tower midway between the assembly building and the pad. Ernest Briel's 31 July notes from a Petrone meeting include the statement, "an AT arming tower NOT to be used as service structure." Because of weight constraints, the service arms on the launcher transporter could not provide 360 degrees of access to the spacecraft. MSC's insistence on this capability eventually forced LOD to accept a mobile service structure [see chapter 8-5].

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