The Fire and the Science Program

In March 1966, when NASA contracted with the Bendix Corporation to build the Apollo lunar surface experiments package (ALSEP), delivery of the first flight-qualified set of instruments was scheduled for July 1967, seven months before AS-504, the first Saturn V mission to which an experiment package was assigned.14 It was an optimistic schedule, even though preliminary design work for several of the experiments had already been funded by NASA grants.15 By late fall the package was in schedule trouble. Two instruments were experiencing minor difficulties, the central data- collecting station was in a critical state, and the magnetometer was having serious development problems.16 In late December 1966 Headquarters was considering shifting certain instruments from the second mission to the first on account of the lagging magnetometer. Scientists were particularly anxious about this, because the data from the magnetometer were essential to interpreting the results of two other experiments. Experimenters urged that a search be started for a simpler magnetometer in case Ames's sophisticated instrument could not be made ready in time.17

Besides the experiments themselves, the radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) required work. The RTG consisted of a large "fuel cask," packed with plutonium-238, supplying heat to an array of thermocouples that produced electricity for the instruments. Project engineers were having difficulty assuring that the radioactive fuel would not be dispersed into the atmosphere in case of an abort during launch.18 At the critical design review the astronauts discovered several hazards to the crew member who had to remove the hot (500 degrees C, 932 degrees F) fuel capsule from its storage space in the LM and insert it into the thermocouple assembly while setting up the instruments. Redesign of the package or revision of procedures was necessary.19

As the status of Apollo cleared in the months following the fire, a degree of optimism returned to the experiments schedule. In July 1967 the first lunar mission was AS-506, set for late November 1968, and the experiments for the first four lunar missions were no longer lagging.20 Even so, problems remained. In late June 1967 Leonard Reiffel of Apollo Program Director Sam Phillips's scientific staff wrote Phillips suggesting that "we do not schedule the ALSEP for the first lunar landing." Reiffel cited the problems of the magnetometer, the many unknowns that could affect the deployment and function of the experiments, and the weight problems that were hindering production of the lunar module. He offered his personal opinion that, except for the seismometer, the scientific experiments would not yield fundamental information about the moon that would be of immediate importance. All in all, Reiffel thought, the program might be better served in the long run by waiting until the second mission to fly the full complement of surface instruments: "An uncrowded time line on the lunar surface for the first mission would seem to me to be more contributory to the advance of science than trying to do so much on the first mission that we do nothing well [emphasis in the original]."21

Reiffel's misgivings about the astronauts' work load and the time available for surface activities were not off target. Early in development, Jack Schmitt, one of the astronauts providing crew advice to the lunar surface experiments designers, discovered an undesirable legacy from earlier conceptual work on the instruments:

. . . In the early days, the crews. . . were worried about having enough to do on the moon. . . . In the early design stages they [the ALSEP designers] took to heart the crew input to "give us something to do," and it was a monster. . . . The way they had that thing put together it was going to take forever to deploy.
This design philosophy was intended to give substance to the argument that men were essential in lunar exploration, but to Schmitt it was the wrong approach. Precious time on the moon should not be wasted in the purely mechanical activity of deploying the instrument package. He and other astronauts worked hard to improve the design of the package so that deploying it did not take so much time, but it was slow going.22

Even before Reiffel's pessimistic evaluation of the science prospects for early flight, Phillips had been worried about the progress of the first instrument package. In early June he appointed a review team to look into the development of the magnetometer and another to examine the safety problems with the RTG.23 The magnetometer investigation team found that the technically sophisticated project had encountered severe schedule delays and cost overruns, but concluded that Ames and its contractor had arrested the project's negative trends. Still, the magnetometer clearly could not be ready for the first scheduled lunar landing. A simpler instrument proposed by investigators at Goddard Space Flight Center was briefly considered, but it could not meet the schedule either and was dropped. At the end of August 1967, Phillips recommended to Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans that the magnetometer be taken off the first ALSEP and replaced by a laser reflector, a completely passive experiment which was under development. The prospects seemed good that a complete ALSEP package as originally planned could be flown On the second lunar landing mission.24 Ames's magnetometer remained in the schedule for the first landing throughout 1968, however.25

Without doubt the delay in the first lunar landing caused by the Apollo fire relieved some of the pressure on the ALSEP experimenters and developers. For all its human and economic cost, the 204 accident forced a pause that was put to good use by those segments of the program (such as the science projects) that were less vitally affected by the fire than the spacecraft. The command module was suffering from many problems in early 1967, and it can be argued that sooner or later something as serious as the fire would have halted progress. The tragedy was that the price of straightening out the program was three lives.

14. Ibid., February 1966.

15. John T. Holloway to Dir., MSC, "Development of Experiments for the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP)," Apr. 14, 1966.

16. OMSF, "Manned Space Flight Schedules, vol. I, Level 1 Schedules and Resources Summary," Nov. 1966.

17. William T. O'Bryant to MSC, attn. Robert O. Piland, "Guidelines for Possible Substitution of Other Instruments for the Lunar Surface Magnetometer in ALSEP," Dec. 23, 1966.; D.,K. Slayton to Mgr., Experiments Program Off., "Possible Replacement of the Lunar Surface Magnetometer on ALSEP," Dec. 22, 1966.

18. Anon., "ALSEP OSSA Review, October 3, 1966."

19. Slayton to Director, Engineering and Development, "Comments on the ALSEP Delta Preliminary Design Review," Dec. 15, 1966.

20. OMSF, "Manned Space Flight Schedules, vol. I, Level 1 Schedules and Resources Summary," July 1967, pp. 49, 33.

21. Leonard Reiffel to Gen. S. C. Phillips, "Flight Schedule for ALSEP and Related Matters," June 20, 1967.

22. Harrison H. Schmitt interview, May 30, 1984.

23. Phillips to Administrator, "Lunar Surface Magnetometer," June 6, 1967; Piland to Mgr., Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, "ALSEP Program Review with General Phillips, June 1, 1967," June 7, 1967.

24. Phillips to Dep. Adm., "Lunar Surface Magnetometer," July 5, 1967, with end., preliminary report of review team; Phillips to Dep. Adm., same subj., Aug. 30, 1967; John F. Parsons (Ames Res. Ctr.) to NASA Hqs., attn. Dr. James H. Turnock, "Lunar Surface Magnetometer Program," Aug. 31, 1967.

25. OMSF, "Manned Space Flight Schedules, vol. I, Level 1 Schedules and Resources Summary," monthly issues, Jan. 9 through Oct. 8, 1968.

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