I received interesting information from Frank Buzzard, a former chief systems engineer at NASA, who I met while cruising a couple of years ago. He attached an email from John Neely, a NASA cohort who had attended a preview of a movie on Mission Control. We have lots of information about the MERCURY, GEMINI, APOLLO, and SPACE SHUTTLE programs. However, it focuses on flights and astronauts without emphasizing the importance of the people on the ground end of the data links from the space craft. I have John Neely’s edited email below with the comments of Frank Buzzard following.
“Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo”
Last Tuesday, April 11th, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the invitation only screening of the new movie “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo” in Space Center Houston. The movie will be released soon. The whole affair started about 4:00 pm with about an hour long question and answer session involving the four Apollo Flight Directors: Gene Kranz, Glynn Lunney, Jerry Griffin, and Milton Windler. Also present for questions was astronaut Walter Cunningham. Several news and scientific publications people asked questions. I was the guest of Milton Windler, a close long-time friend. At about 6:30, we all headed over to the SCH IMAX Theater for film screening. The theater was full, and I recognized many faces from my 34 years at Johnson Space Center (JSC) including my old boss, John Aaron. Chris Kraft gave John a very nice compliment during the post screening question and answer session, which included Chris, the flight directors, and the film’s director. Chris said he thought John was the brains of the whole thing – WOW! Of course John had made serious contributions to the success of both Apollo 12 (lighting strike) and Apollo 13 (electrical system).
Everyone I talked to thought the film (about an hour and a half in duration) was very well done. The film’s primary theme was the story of Apollo and personnel in the Mission Operation Control Room (MOCR), although references to personnel in the various SSR’s (back rooms) were also made. Many first hand interviews with key players and a good summary of events leading up to the Apollo era were also included in the film. In the near future, a condensed version of the film will be shown regularly at Space Center Houston.
The film does not whitewash pitfalls and problems that NASA encountered and had to overcome such as the Apollo 1 fire and Apollo 13. I believe the film is a great documentary of many events that led to the many JSC mission success stories.
The film brought back many fond memories, and I’ve always remembered my early days at JSC as like being on one of Columbus’ ships!!
Frank Buzzard’s Comments
Thanks for the inside story, John. I do plan to watch the movie when it is released. It was my great honor to have served in Mission Planning and Analysis Division (MPAD) with you on Space Shuttle guidance and trajectory design in the middle 70s. I, of course, missed the Apollo NASA team participation and came to NASA in 1976 for post-Apollo and early Shuttle mission planning. I was busy flying Chinook helicopters for the US Army 101st in Vietnam and later in Germany during Apollo. But NASA’s great achievements inspired me and convinced me to be a part of America’s Space Exploration team. I am glad and forever grateful that I did exactly that.
John Aaron was and is one of my all-time Space Exploration heroes. A “steely-eyed rocket scientist” indeed! What a gifted system engineer and leader of engineers. And a humble man to this day. A great American who I salute. What a gifted system engineer and leader of engineers. I worked for John Aaron several times during my NASA career. He taught me by example to be the system engineer and leader that I believe I am today.
John Aaron, Mission Control Center(MCC) EECOM (Electrical, Environment, and Communications Manager), was absolutely critical to the Apollo 12 mission success and lunar landing after the Saturn 5 liftoff lightning strike that took out the data stream and dropped all three electrical fuel cells off line from the Command Module. The Command Module switched to batteries which were inadequate to handle the ascent flight power load. He recognized and corrected the issue to first MCC Flight Director, Gerry Griffin, bringing the Apollo 12 command module back to data life with the life-saving call, "Try SCE (Signal Conditioning Equipment) to aux." John had seen a similar and confusing data issue in an earlier Flight crew and MCC simulation with a related electrical and data system failure. Astronaut onboard Apollo 13, Alan Bean, also remembered that training simulation and was the only person to know where the switch was to try and correct the problem and flipped it to auxiliary position. The command module data came back to life and Alan Bean, Lunar Module pilot and system engineer for the crew, got the fuel cells back on line saving the mission to earth orbit. The crew and ground team checked out all systems after safely reaching earth orbit because the ascent guidance and Saturn V control was continued by the booster systems rather than the Command Module systems. A very important lesson learned is separation of critical functions. If the command module had been controlling ascent flight, the mission and likely the crew would have been lost. I hope the new NASA Space Launch System engineers remember this very important lesson learned from Apollo 12. Another lesson learned for me was the great value of mission simulation of many different failure scenarios that brought the flight crews, engineering teams, and MCC team to the pinnacle of excellence in the ability to deal with inevitable failures in exploration. These lessons are still valid and relevant for American to return to the Moon and on to Mars.
John Aaron and his important back room EECOM team also provided the rationale to continue the lunar landing mission after safely reaching low earth orbit and checking out all electrical systems. Legendary Flight Director Christopher Columbus Kraft told John and the Flight Control Team, “Young man, we don’t have to go to the Moon today.” (FTB note: I wasn’t there, but John shared this with me when I worked for him). John and Flight Director Gerry Griffin and the team felt the Command and Service Module were fully functional and convinced the MCC team to continue the mission. The great success of Apollo 12 lunar landing and crew exploration proved them to be correct.
John also led the electrical budget team incredibly painful power down decision team that made the lunar lifeboat option a success to safely return the Apollo 13 crew to Earth. The NASA Mission Control, Flight Crew, Engineering, and Operations Teams had no finer moment than saving the crew of Apollo 13. And I say that knowing and acknowledging the world changing NASA moment that brought the entire world the first human landing on the moon and the safe return of the Apollo 11 crew.
There are many of you I worked with at NASA. Well done my friends. I leave for a lecture cruise this Wednesday on Viking Ocean Star from Barcelona to Stockholm. I will be telling this story as part of my “Race to the Moon” lecture and Man in Space series. I will tell it with great pride my friends and encourage our passengers to see “Mission Control: The unsung Heroes of Apollo.” You are not unsung to me having been part of the great Space Shuttle and International Space Station MCC and Engineering team.
God Bless this Easter. He is Risen. We have much to be thankful for.
Frank Thomas Buzzard
Red Tolbert Posted: 15 April 2017