I was 13 years old before I learned my father had worked on the Apollo moon missions.
Perhaps I could be forgiven for being initially skeptical. The moment he chose to impart this information to me, we were settling into our seats on the old Mission to Mars ride at Disneyland, awaiting our launch for a brief capsule ride to the Red Planet before an accident required a hasty but safe return to Earth.
But the story he was about to share was no fantasy or fairy tale, nor was it as dramatic or glamorous as those that Hollywood makes movies about.
With the release of First Man, a new drama chronicling the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, I’ve been reflecting on what it meant to be a child of the 1960s and ’70s caught up in the excitement of the moon missions. The launches, the increasingly ambitious missions, were events that punctuated the life of a young schoolboy who choked down Tang — a fruit-flavored powdered drink mix made popular by NASA missions — with hopes of being an astronaut but unaware of the contribution his own father had already made.
My dad spent decades working as an engineer for several aerospace and defense contractors in Southern California, including TRW, Litton Industries and Magnavox. He shared little, either due to the highly technical nature of his work or more likely because of restrictions related to his security clearance.
While his work may have been a mystery to me, his love of space travel wasn’t. He came of age as the space race was gearing up and had a keen interest in the space program. When my brothers and I were children, our dad would wake us up early on launch days so we could watch the event with him on TV (no DVRs then). He used the backyard telescope to show us the landing sites for the Apollo missions.
As with any massive undertaking, it’s important to understand there were thousands of people involved, and I don’t want to give the impression that my father was rubbing elbows with Gene Krantz or Chris Kraft at the Mission Control Center in Houston. (Although, like many of the era, he would’ve looked the part, complete with his close-cropped hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and white short-sleeve dress shirt with a prominent pocket protector.)
Like those other thousands of people who lent a hand, he made a small but vital contribution that helped lead to a successful mission. While many of the participants were largely focused on getting the astronauts to the moon and back safely, my dad’s focus was on keeping them safe on the ground while they awaited launch.
That was no easy task, considering the astronauts were strapped inside a capsule perched on top of a Saturn V rocket containing the more than a half million gallons of fuel and 400,000 gallons of liquid oxygen necessary to push the Apollo spacecraft out of the Earth’s atmosphere. That was also enough to feed an explosion equivalent to 2 kilotons of TNT.
The escape tower
In the event of a launch emergency, the job of quickly separating the crew from the Saturn V rocket would fall to the launch escape tower, essentially another, much smaller rocket mounted above the capsule that would pull it from the launch vehicle and deploy a parachute when it was a safe distance away.
A series of explosive bolts held the escape tower in place until either an emergency use during an aborted launch or its scheduled jettison three minutes after liftoff. Keeping those bolts in place until either of those events occurred could save lives and prevent damage to the launch vehicle.
But the bolts’ stability was threatened by the ocean of radio wave and electromagnetic interference swirling around the rocket before launch, which could inadvertently detonate the devices.
A team of engineers, including my father, was responsible for putting the bolts through a battery of tests to identify vulnerabilities that might arise from the various radio frequencies being used on the launch pad, as well as static electricity originating from the electrical systems.
While these tests were being conducted in the mountains outside of Los Angeles in early 1967, the importance of the team’s work was hammered home when the three astronauts in the Apollo 1 crew died in a capsule fire on the other side of the country. The fire that killed Roger Chaffee, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Ed White — during a launch dress rehearsal for the first manned trip around the moon — was caused by a combination of a cabin full of pure oxygen, combustible materials and vulnerable wiring, according to the NASA summary.
Manned Apollo flights were suspended for nearly two years while the program underwent review and redesign. The investigation determined that the Command Module — the capsule in which the astronauts would ride into space and back — was extremely hazardous but also found the test’s emergency preparedness to be inadequate.
The disaster led to several design, manufacturing and procedural changes. It also highlighted the risk astronauts faced even on the ground, certainly a concern for my father, who was so dedicated to the process that he was at the remote testing site a few days after the fire, when my mother went into labor with me. A military escort ensured that my father was in the delivery room in time.
Two and a half years later, all those NASA efforts paid off when, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the surface of the moon. My family had taken a quick drive that day down the coast to San Diego to visit the Palomar Observatory, with hopes of seeing the spacecraft orbiting the moon through the Hale Telescope. Unfortunately, my parents, my older brothers and I missed the actual moon landing when my dad’s Jeep had two flat tires on the way home, but we were back in Torrance in front of our 21-inch black-and-white TV in time to watch Armstrong deliver his famous speech.
NASA would go on to make five more moon landings between 1969 and 1972, and the escape tower never had to be used by astronauts during a launch. A NASA report compiled in 1973 found that no failure of the pyrotechnic devices was detected during any of the Apollo missions. The reliability of the bolts was attributed, “in large measure,” to the testing techniques, among other things (PDF).
It was one of the many small components of an enormous project, and though my dad was soft-spoken and not one to brag, he was proud of the contribution he made to the Apollo program and privately considered it one of highlights of his career.
And who wouldn’t be proud of helping achieve something that had previously been a fantasy for the ages?
As for First Man, even though my dad isn’t likely to be in the movie, I know he’s in the story.
NASA turns 60: The space agency has taken humanity farther than anyone else, and it has plans to go further.
Taking It to Extremes: Mix insane situations — erupting volcanoes, nuclear meltdowns, 30-foot waves — with everyday tech. Here’s what happens.