SP-4308 SPACEFLIGHT REVOLUTION

 

11

In the Service of Apollo

 

 

[355] We were working beyond the state of the art. Nobody had done things like this before.

- E. Barton Geer, associate chief of Langley's Flight Vehicle an. Systems Division during the Apollo era and member of the Apollo 204 Review Board

 

And just as we got to the transonic field, then all of a sudden we opened up with the supersonic field and find out we're flying -militarily anyway -we're flying at speeds of [Mach] 2 and 3. And you just get that pretty well understood and, Holy Smoke, here we are going to the Moon and things like that.

- Floyd L. Thompson, Langley director and chairman of the Apollo 204 Review Board

 

The crowning moment, as well as the denouement, of the spaceflight revolution came at 4:18 p.m. on Sunday, 20 July 1969, when American astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr., made the first manned lunar landing. The realization of this spectacular moment required the most sudden burst of technological creativity and the largest commitment of resources ever made by any nation in peacetime: an estimated $24 billion. At its peak the Apollo program employed approximately 400,000 Americans and enlisted the support of over 20,000 industrial firms and universities. As President Kennedy had said in his May 1961 speech, "It will not be one man going to the moon -it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.''1

[356] "All of us" also meant all the NASA facilities, including the research centers. To be sure, Langley did not serve as the heart of the Apollo program, as it temporarily had for the man-in-space effort before the STG left for Texas. Apollo would not be managed by any of the field centers but by a well-staffed central program office within the Office of Manned Space Flight at NASA headquarters. Of course, the spaceflight centers (the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville) were deeply involved. A large, well-funded Apollo program office at Houston was responsible for the budget, schedule, technical design, and production of the three-module Apollo spacecraft; moreover, Houston was the home of Mission Control, the nerve center of NASA's manned flight operations and the place where all the news reporters went after the launch at Cape Kennedy. At Marshall the von Braun team handled the awesome task of developing the giant Saturn rocket.2 These were the two NASA centers where the staff "lived and breathed" Apollo. But neither Langley nor any of the other NASA facilities were left out. Nor could they be. There was too much work to do, too much to learn, and too little time. All NASA centers eventually became heavily involved in the program, and with the exception of Houston and Huntsville, none was more involved than Langley.

Yet, when it came to the Apollo flights themselves and their worldwide publicity, Langley and the other centers were not part of the big show. By the time the Apollo spacecraft sat atop the huge Saturn V at Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in July 1969, Langley's contributions to the Apollo program had already been made and mostly forgotten. That, after all, was the purpose and the predicament of a research center: to lay the groundwork for the technological achievements that others would pursue and for which others would receive the credit. Of course, John Houbolt's concept of LOR would not be forgotten in the dramatic days of Apollo 11, nor would the flights of the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. But many other elemental tasks that Langley had done in the service of Apollo would not be remembered: the basic rendezvous and docking studies, the wind-tunnel investigations of the aerodynamic integrity of the Saturn-Apollo launch combination, the work on reentry heating and its potentially fatal effects on the returning Apollo spacecraft, and the simulation training that helped prepare the astronauts not only for the rendezvous and docking in space but also for the actual landing of a manned spacecraft and for astronaut locomotion activities on the moon. From launch to splashdown, there was no aspect of the Apollo mission that scientists, engineers, and technicians at Langley had not helped to develop in one way or another. All this work, however, had been done long before the two Apollo astronauts skillfully maneuvered their lunar module Eagle down to the Sea of Tranquility on that historic day in July 1969. All that Langley employees could do on that hot Sunday afternoon in July was sit in front of televisions in their own living rooms, sip cool glasses of lemonade, and applaud with the rest of the country what everyone together had accomplished.

 

[357] Langley's "Undercover Operation" in Houston

 

Langley was in a novel situation during the heyday of Apollo. It was the original (and for over 20 years only) NACA center, not to mention the "mother" of many of the other centers (including the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston), but during the Apollo period, it was relegated to the periphery of NASA's most urgent task. Langley management was not accustomed to being in a marginal position and did not especially like being there.

Members of the local Hampton elite did not like it either. For them and other groups of Langley supporters, the unfortunate situation was the work of conniving politicians who had stolen their precious STG for Texas. The bitterness over this did not fade quickly. On occasion, concern for Langley's displacement led those who knew better to make imprudent remarks. For example, in December 1961 during James Webb's first visit to Langley after becoming NASA administrator, Floyd Thompson, as savvy a person as ever sat in the Langley director's chair, mentioned to Webb that the area's city fathers were wondering exactly what they might expect in terms of new jobs and government contracts as a result of the lunar landing program. Webb responded sharply with a statement that echoed the already famous line from President Kennedy's inaugural address: "The city fathers should be asking not what Apollo can do for them, but what they can do for Apollo."3 Thompson never forgot the sting of this retort and resolved never to give Webb or anyone else reason to question the effort that his own research center was putting into the nation's lunar landing program.

At a meeting of NASA center directors and program office directors held in the so-called control room on the top floor of the NASA headquarters building in early 1962, the question of Langley's contribution to Apollo did come up. For Jim Webb, Apollo was everything, and he wanted assurances from the center directors that they were doing all they could to support the program. Characteristically, Thompson bided his time, waiting while his counterparts at the other NASA centers answered. Then in his deliberate and rather high-pitched midwestern voice, he reported with confidence, 'Well, we have a senior man in Houston who keeps track of all that we're doing for it, and is on the spot ready to contact us whenever anyone down there wants us to do anything more."4 Such a remark was typical "Tommy" Thompson, and Webb let it pass. He had no idea that such a thing was going on down in Houston or that the Houston organization would even allow it, but he took Thompson at his word.

The Langley center director did have a "senior man" on duty in Houston and only in part so that he could give such smart answers to "Big Jim" Webb. In April 1962, which was a few months before the STG had completed its move to the Southwest, Thompson had dispatched Langley veteran Axel T. Mattson to Houston to serve as research assistant for Manned Spacecraft Projects. The experienced assistant chief of the Full-Scale Research Division,....

 


[
358]

Floyd L. Thompson and James E. Webb, 1961.

Under the wily direction of Floyd Thompson (left), Langley did everything it could to support Project Apollo and satisfy Administrator Jim Webb (right). L-61-8539

 

....Mattson was to report his findings to Langley Associate Director Charles Donlan, Thompson's right-hand man.5

This was an interesting and unusual development; no other NASA center had such an arrangement, and certainly no other center but Langley could have gotten away with it. Langley had an official explanation of the purpose of this liaison: "to create a mechanism for the timely exchange of information on manned space programs and projects of mutual interest to the Langley Center and the Manned Spacecraft Center and to provide a means for quickly initiating action at Langley as may be required in support of manned spacecraft projects."6 In truth, Mattson was acting as a sort of spy -a Langley agent.

"I was running an undercover operation, really, in the technical sense," Mattson remembers, his eyes glimmering. "Here we were a research outfit trying to get involved more directly not only with the Apollo work but with the big Apollo money. It had to do with the way the funding was set up; this was the big controlling factor. For everything Langley was doing in support of the Office of Manned Space Flight and Apollo, it was my assignment to try to get a transfer of funds from Houston, which was getting a lot of money, to Langley, which wasn't." The scheme seems a bit dishonest, but Mattson liked even that aspect of his work. "I was bootlegging material.

[359] I was transferring certain material [from Houston to Langley] without any Official authorization." At Langley, Donlan made it clear to Mattson that he should not initiate any work on Apollo for which Langley would have to go running to NASA headquarters for approval and funding. Donlan had told him, "Get it from Houston." That was the real reason Langley had quietly sent Axel Mattson to Houston in April 1962.7

At the same time that Americans were becoming enamored with the much exaggerated romance of spies through the first James Bond movies, the free-spirited Mattson fell in love with the intrigues of his espionage work. What made it "so beautiful" for him was the freewheeling nature of the assignment -the freedom to innovate and take some chances. "I didn't fool with protocol or with the big shots. I dealt almost exclusively with the troops in the field who would be honest and open with me." During the working day, he walked from office to office, starting conversations, finding out what was going on, what the problems were, and what Langley might be able to do about them. In the evening, he socialized at the many Houston area cocktail and dinner parties, where he made the important personal contacts that led to office meetings the next day. Besides enjoying convivial relations with his Houston buddies, many of whom he had known at Langley, Mattson also developed close professional and social relationships with many of the NASA contractor representatives. These relationships allowed him to tap a gushing pipeline of Apollo related technical data.8

Through this technological espionage, Mattson was able to obtain valuable information for Langley. Whenever an important new technical matter was being discussed by Houston engineers and industry representatives, Mattson would say, "Gee, I'm awfully interested in that," and those involved would give him all the information they had. "You wouldn't believe it. I went over to their offices the next day and they just gave it to me," all the data, all the technical reports. Conversely, "when they wanted some information, they called me and I'd get it. It would come in my suitcase [from Langley] and I'd go peddle it out." Much of it was raw data, "no formality, nothing to it," a transfer of basic and sometimes even unprocessed information that went unrecorded and was never revealed in any formal documentation. Mattson tried to feel out "when a guy was just having troubles even with calculations. He would be grunting them out and not too sure of the inputs, and I'd bring them back to Langley and have the guys look at it and say, 'How about critiquing it and see if you can change numbers by using the latest test information' and things like that." It was basically "a back-scratching operation." Mattson sometimes went even farther. He admits now that he occasionally would "take a man's calculations right off his desk, make a carbon copy," without the man's knowledge, and put it in his suitcase or in the mail for Langley.9

"Let me tell you, my suitcase was full whenever I came back to Langley," not only with papers but also with the slides and films that were being produced at Houston by the carton. Such goodies made Mattson something [360] of a star attraction at Langley department meetings and senior staff get-togethers where he provided some special entertainment. At some point in such proceedings, Mattson remembers, Floyd Thompson would typically pause and joke, "'Well, I guess we might just as well see if Mattson's got another film to show us.' And sure enough, I had another film to show them, or slides, or something.'' 10 This was the way Langley kept up with what was going on in Houston and minimized the loss of its STG to Texas.

The other NASA centers, with no direct ties to the STG, could not have placed a man inside the Manned Spacecraft Center; Bob Gilruth and his men would not have tolerated such interlopers. Other centers were left out in the cold. Sometimes those who knew about Langley's operation tried to tap Mattson for information. "Once in a while," Mattson remembers, "I would get a call from a guy at Lewis or Ames about something he wanted that was available down in Houston." For such casual requests, especially if he knew the guy, Mattson usually did his best, but he always kept Langley's interests foremost in his mind.11

It is rather amazing that the fledgling Houston organization put up with Mattson for as long as it did, which was to the time of the first Apollo flights in 1968. Certainly this would not have been possible without the good graces of Gilruth, who was Floyd Thompson's good friend. Not everyone at the Manned Spacecraft Center wanted Mattson nosing around. In one meeting not long after the opening of the Houston center, Gilruth was surprised to encounter Mattson and wanted to know what Mattson was doing there. Max Faget answered, "He's doing nothing as far as I know." In Mattson's opinion, Faget did not know. Mattson had stayed as far away from Faget as possible, knowing that the former member of PARD and the STG did not like him or the idea of his walking the halls of the new Houston space center. To the extent that he reported to anyone at Houston, Mattson dealt exclusively with Paul Purser, Gilruth's deputy director, a longtime friend and Langley veteran. Purser knew what Mattson was up to, generally speaking, but for a short period of time at the beginning had failed to tell his boss anything about it.12

Immediately after that first encounter with Mattson, Gilruth called both Purser and Mattson "on the carpet" and demanded the details of the latter's assignment. Mattson explained his operation and what Thompson and Donlan wanted out of it, and Gilruth grudgingly gave his okay. Whether Gilruth ever brought up the matter of Mattson's presence in Houston with his former Langley compatriots, Thompson and Donlan, is unknown, but he probably did. Whatever the details of that conversation were, the outcome was that Mattson stayed at Houston off and on for the next several years - despite Max Faget's objections. In key respects, the assignment was a thankless job, not only professionally but also personally; by Mattson's own admission, it forced him to neglect his family in Virginia. 13 But such sacrifices were consistent with the demands of the spaceflight revolution,.....

 


[
361]

Axel Mattson, Robert R. Gilruth, Charles Donlan, and Donald Hewes.

Axel Mattson (far left) flashes the winning smile that made it possible for him, an outsider, to walk the halls of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston for months at e time. Robert R. Gilruth (center), the Houston center director grudgingly indulged Mattson's presence. (This photo was actually taken at Langley in 1967 at the foot of the Lunar Landing Research Facility.) To the right of Gilruth is Charles Donlan, Langley's deputy director; to his right is Donald Hewes, the Langley engineer in charge of the Lunar Landing Research Facility. The identity of the man in the NASA overalls is unknown. L-67-1562.

 

.....and he could always take comfort in the romantic notion that he was an agent in Langley's secret service for Apollo.

 

The Dynamics of Having an Impact

 

Only in one or two isolated instances did Mattson's presence in Houston contribute in any dramatic way to Apollo's ultimate success. As discussed in chapter eight, in early 1962, not long after starting his assignment in Houston, Mattson helped win support for John Houbolt's LOR concept in the face of some stubborn opposition at the Texas center. Mattson took Houbolt to every person Mattson thought might be willing to listen, and at the end of the day, at least in Mattson's opinion, the majority of the [362] Houston center engineers supported the LOR concept as the best mission mode for Apollo. A few months later, thanks to some rather keen technical insight regarding the kind of test data NASA might need to assure the design integrity of the returning Apollo command module, Mattson made a less significant but still notable contribution one that does not appear in the formal NASA record.

The story of that contribution begins three months after Mattson's arrival in Houston -that was when Mattson first got wind of an important full-scale test being planned to measure the impact dynamics of the Apollo command module. The North American Aviation Corporation, which in November 1961 had won the contract to design and build the command and service modules of the Apollo spacecraft, had built a swimming-pool-like facility with a big gantry next to it at the site of its Space Information Systems Division in Downey, California; the purpose of this facility was to acquire data on the pressure and acceleration loads placed on the command module upon impact with the ocean. In late 1962 and early 1963, North American and NASA engineers had already put the command module through preliminary impact tests at the facility and were planning for a final verification test involving the highest and most severe impact drop angle and an Apollo capsule configuration systematically equipped with pressure transducers to measure the impact loads. Inside the capsule the engineers were even installing instrumented mannequins, as in automobile crash tests, to see how astronauts would come through the jolting splash into the water.14

Mattson became interested in the details of this important test. He made contacts with some of the informed NASA researchers and contractor representatives and started reading up on it. From his knowledge of similar capsule drop tests carried out in the Back River at Langley on the Mercury capsule, he understood that such a test would prove troublesome. First, a flexible bottom surface on a space capsule, such as the heat-shield system designed for the underneath side of the Apollo command module, would cave in or "oilcan" upon any hard impact. Second, when transducers were put on a boilerplate capsule for the purpose of measuring the loads of the impact pressure, the Langley engineers had found that the pressure would just "wash out" or dissipate, thus making it impossible for them to obtain the needed data. "There would be so much resonance and what-not in the structure," Mattson explains, "that the damn pressure transducers wouldn't give you that instantaneous spike [i.e., the unusually high and sharply defined maximum or pointed element in the graph]. And that was what busted things up [when one dropped a space capsule from a great height into the water]. It wasn't all that other trash. It was that instant spike." In the Mercury program the only way that the Langley engineers could get that spike in the recorded data was to work not with boilerplates but with solid models. This solution had worked perfectly.15

[363] Immediately upon hearing about the proposed Apollo tests, Mattson called Sandy M. Stubbs, a bright young engineer in the Impacting Structures Section of Langley's Structures Research Division. Stubbs was then conducting a test program on the water landing characteristics of various spacecraft models. Mattson asked Stubbs if he was getting any data on a solid model that duplicated the Apollo command module. Stubbs answered that he had no such data; he was not using the Apollo configuration because North American's capsule design was already fixed and was not going to be changed. That was not the answer Mattson wanted to hear, so he tried coaxing Stubbs into adding an Apollo model to his test. Stubbs replied that he was "running a little short" on funds and was in charge of a "low-key kind of operation." He would like to do it, of course, as he was trying to do a systematic study and was planning to write a formal technical report. If Mattson could obtain the funding, Stubbs told Langley's agent in Houston, then he would be glad to go ahead with the test.16

Mattson made an appointment with the Manned Spacecraft Center's Joseph N. Kotanchik, NASA's main technical monitor for spacecraft structures work on the North American contract. Kotanchik, like many of the other Houston officials, was a Langley old-timer; he had been a key member of the design team that had built Langley's Structures Research Laboratory in 1939-1940. Unfortunately, he and Mattson did not get along well. Perhaps it was because Kotanchik was quite formal, a northerner, and an MIT graduate, whereas Mattson was usually informal, a loquacious southerner by disposition if not by birth (he was born in New Jersey), who was educated at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Perhaps the friction also stemmed from the professional difficulties Kotanchik had experienced while at Langley. If Mattson had not had previous dealings with Kotanchik, he would not have even bothered to make an appointment. Mattson usually just walked into someone's office, gave a warm greeting, sat down, and started talking. No one just walked in on Kotanchik except his bosses.

Kotanchik did not want to be bothered with Mattson and told him to be quick. Mattson promptly asked for a transfer of $40,000 to cover the costs of Sandy Stubbs's impact loads test on a solid model of the Apollo command module at Langley. Kotanchik flatly refused, and essentially told Mattson to get out of his office. According to Mattson, Kotanchik said, "Don't you know that we're going to have a full-scale test that we've spent a million dollars on? Don't you know that it will get us all the information we need?" Mattson tried to explain about Langley's experience with the problem of flexible bottom structures oilcanning and the resonance of impacting boilerplate capsules, about the character of the data spike, and about the need for solid-model testing, but Kotanchik would not listen. "Well, I got kind of hot about that," Mattson remembers. "But the business I was in, you couldn't stay hot too long. You just momentarily got shook up, but then forgot about it real quick. But I put it on the back burner and I made my contacts with North American." In addition, he told Charles Donlan....

 


[
364]

Impact tests of the Apollo capsule.

L-65-3649

Impact tests of the Apollo capsule.

L-61-8040

One of Langley's notable behind-the-scenes contributions to the success of Project Apollo was its testing to assure the landing integrity of the returning command module whether the capsule splashed down into water (top) or maneuvered to a soft landing on earth (below).

 

[365] .....about Kotanchik's refusal. Donlan, understanding the good sense of what Mattson was trying to do, told him to tell Sandy Stubbs to go ahead and include a solid model of the Apollo command module in his tests, because Stubbs wanted to do the systematic testing anyway. Langley management would just have to find another way to pay for it.17

By the day of the big drop test in California in late September 1964, Mattson had developed such good rapport with one of the North American representatives that Mattson's office had been hooked up by telephone to the North American office in Houston, which was linked to the test site in California, so he could hear a blow-by-blow, "real-time" narration of the entire command module drop test. The test did not go well. As Mattson remembers, the gist of the telephone narration originating in Downey was as follows: "All right, the capsule drops. It lands in the water. My God, it's sinking. It has gone in and split wide open. All the mannequins are drowning. The whole spacecraft is in ruins." At that moment, it was clear to everyone that a minor catastrophe was at hand; at that moment, also, Mattson's telephone hookup was cut off.18

Mattson knew he had "a hot one." Raw technical data existed at Langley, or soon would, that might be the key to solving the problem; but what exactly was he to do with this knowledge, and when? He decided it was best to bide his time and see what developed, because before long something would surely "hit the fan." In a few days, NASA and North American put together an Impact Test Program Review to look into the splashdown of the wrecked command module. "You wouldn't believe the collection of structural experts and spacecraft experts that all convened at Houston." Into these meetings sneaked Axel Mattson. He sat in the back trying to be inconspicuous but listening carefully to all that was said. By the third day of these meetings, chaired by Kotanchik, the engineers involved had come up with a plan of attack for solving the Apollo spacecraft's splashdown structures problem; the plan was basically to retest after strengthening the overall structure of the command module with special attention to increasing the thickness and stiffness of the heat-shield structure. The only way to strengthen the structure was to add material and move toward a solid-model capsule test program similar to the one that had been conducted at Langley for Mercury. At this point, very late in the course of the meetings, Mattson began to "lick his chops," because the questions then became: "Who has got the impact loads? Who knows what they are?" These data were apparently not available, but Mattson -and Mattson alone -knew how to get them.19

Joe Kotanchik knew Mattson knew. From his seat in the front of the auditorium' the chairman of the meeting nervously looked around the room until he spotted the one man in the back with a wry smile on his face; then, Kotanchik called for a coffee break. He immediately got up and pointed his finger at Mattson and motioned the Langley interloper to follow him into his office. Inside he asked Mattson if he had heard what it was that was needed to move on with the spacecraft verification program. Mattson, with [366] more than a little personal satisfaction, answered that he had indeed heard and that it was "exactly what I was talking about in here when I came in two months ago, Joe. I was trying to get that damn spike. They don't know what that spike is. They don't know the magnitude of the impact loads that busts things up." Kotanchik, however, close to panic, was in no mood for such a speech and told Mattson to shut up. Mattson did, his victory sweet enough without rubbing it in. He told Kotanchik that he would have Sandy Stubbs on an airplane and in Houston by tomorrow morning which he did. "And that's how NASA got the information it needed." Stubbs did a terrific job presenting his research findings to Kotanchik's assembled experts: he discussed the pertinent parameters of his 1/4-scale model of the Apollo command module, presented the acceleration and pressure data for the capsule's landings on water, and explained a slide with a cross section of the solid model showing its construction details. In the ensuing years, Stubbs went on to make a major contribution to understanding the impact dynamics that would affect the Apollo command module upon splashdown.20

Mattson never wrote a report on the affair, but he, too, had made a contribution. It was the sort of undercover technical work that did not make its way into the history books, but nothing in his service for Apollo, or for Langley, ever gave Mattson greater pride or satisfaction.

 

Inside the Numbers

 

Mattson did write other reports. At least once a year, he put together a detailed inventory, "Langley Research Center Tests of Interest to Project Apollo," for Bob Gilruth at the Manned Spacecraft Center and Floyd Thompson at Langley. The document described briefly the tests being done by Langley researchers in support of Apollo, identified the research divisions and facilities in which the work was being done and the project engineers conducting it, gave the scheduled test dates, and offered some associated remarks. The purpose of the report was dual: to demonstrate how much Langley was doing to support the lunar landing program and to show the Manned Spacecraft Center the wide range of Langley research that could perhaps be useful to Apollo. Mattson distributed copies of this unpublished typescript to four or five of the most important Apollo program managers in Houston, including the manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office (in 1963, Joseph F. Shea).21

Although it was self-serving, Mattson's regular inventory nevertheless provided a rather accurate survey of everything being done at Langley that was in any way related to Apollo. Every item listed was legitimate Nothing was invented, although the breadth or depth of certain studies was sometimes stretched a bit to make them seem more applicable to Apollo than they really were. Still, these informal reports provide an unusually complete record of how much Langley did in the service of Apollo, at least as reported by Mattson between December 1962 and February 1968.

 


[
367]

Project Fire wind-tunnel test.

Project Fire explored the effects of reentry heating on Apollo spacecraft materials. Although the ultimate tests involved Atlas rockets carrying recoverable reentry packages, the flight tests from Cape Canaveral were preceded by a series of important wind-tunnel tests at Langley, as shown in this photo from 1962. L-62-9222.

 

Langley's work on Apollo grew steadily from 1962 to 1968, with an apparent peak in the period covered by Mattson's March 1966 report. Of the three major research groups in Langley's organization after the laboratory's formal reorganization in late 1964, Group 1, under the direction of Francis B. Smith, did the most work for Apollo -133 projects (85 of them discrete) compared with 92 (46 discrete) for Group 2, headed by John E. Duberg, and 98 (51 discrete) for Group 3, headed by Laurence K. Loftin, Jr.

Besides the three research directorates, two other major organizations at the center contributed to Apollo. One of them, the Office for Flight Projects, led by Eugene C. Draley, actively supported Apollo; within the office, the Applied Materials and Physics Division reported 43 Apollo-related projects This organization, formerly PARD, was particularly busy with work for Project Fire, an important NASA effort to study the effects of reentry heating on a spacecraft returning to earth at a high speed. Fire, for which Langley created a special program office in May 1961 (under the direction of Herbert A. "Hack" Wilson), not only consisted of flight tests from Cape Canaveral involving Atlas rockets carrying recoverable reentry packages but also involved a considerable amount of Langley wind-tunnel testing. Two Fire missions eventually took place. The first, launched on 14 April 1964 from Wallops Island, fired a payload into the atmosphere.....

 


[368] Number of Langley Research Projects Directly Related to Apollo Program, 1962-1968.

Directorate

Dec. 1962

Dec.1963

Nov.1964

Nov.1965

Mar.1966

Feb.1968

.

Group 1

ACD

0

0

0

1

1

0

FID

x

x

x

x

x

8

IRD

1

6

4

9

9

1

SMD

4

9

19

19

19

23

Total

5

15

23

29

29

32

.

Group 2

DLD

7

7

9

12

13

8

SRD

2

5

9

7

8

5

Total

9

12

18

19

21

13

.

Group 3

APD

6

5

9

5

5

4

FMTD

10

5

2

2

3

1

FSRD

9

10

6

6

6

4

Total

25

20

17

13

14

9

.

Flight Projects

LOPO

x

0

0

1

1

4

MORL

x

0

0

2

2

0

AMPD

0

2

5

10

11

15

Total

0

2

5

13

14

19

.

Engineering and Technical Services

FVSD

x

x

x

x

x

1

ESD

0

0

0

0

0

0

MSD

0

0

0

0

0

0

PMD

0

0

0

0

0

0

RMFD

0

0

0

0

0

0

Total

0

0

0

0

0

1

x

division did not exist

.

FSRD

Full-Scale Research Div

ACD

Analysis and Computation Div.

.

LOPO

Lunar Orbiter Project Office

FID

Flight instrumentation Div.

.

MORL

Manned Orbiting Research Laboratory

IRD

Instrument Research Div

.

AMPD

Applied Materials and Physics Div.

SMD

Space Mechanics Div.

.

FVSD

Flight Vehicles and Systems Div.

DLD

Dynamic Loads Div.

.

ESD

Electrical Systems Div.

SRD

Structures Research Div.

.

MSD

Mechanical Services Div

APD

Aero-Physics Div.

.

PMD

Plant Maintenimce Div

FMTD

Flight Mechanics and Technology Div.

.

RMFD

Research Models and Facilities Div.


 

[369] ....at a speed in excess of 40,000 kilometers an hour, the velocity that the Apollo spacecraft returning from the moon was expected to reach. The second, on 22 May 1965, basically confirmed the findings of the first mission, which indicated that "the radiation and the temperatures that would be experienced by an Apollo spacecraft reentry were less severe than expected."22 Spacecraft engineers at Houston and North American made use of this important data from Project Fire in designing and qualifying Apollo's heat shield.

Even Langley's Office of Engineering and Technical Services, Langley's fifth directorate, which normally was not involved in much research, took on a special Apollo project by conducting a study of an electrolytic chlorinator for water sterilization.

 

The Simulators

 

The most active of all Langley divisions in Apollo work was the Space Mechanics Division (SMD) of Group 1. This division conducted more studies related to the lunar landing mission than did any other division at Langley, perhaps because it was in this division, previously known as the Theoretical Mechanics Division, that LOR had germinated.

The essence of SMD's contributions to Apollo rested in its simulation research. This was a field of work that dated, at the center, to the early 1940s when manned simulation for aeronautical R&D began because of the need for World War II pilot trainers. In the following 15 years, with significant advances in servomechanism and control theory and, more importantly, in analog and digital computers, simulation technology made a quantum leap forward. A new generation of intricate and capable machines was developed just when such simulators were needed for spaceflight. As Langley's foremost simulation expert, Arthur W. Vogeley, head of SMD's Guidance and Control Branch, said in a speech to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1966, "Simulation is now big business. In total investment of professional manpower and facilities it is larger now than the whole aviation industry was not many years ago. Simulation is growing rapidly exponentially, it seems. Where it will go in the next 15 years is anybody's guess."23

The Sputnik crisis had made simulation research and astronaut training absolutely vital -in large part because human ambitions began to outstrip human understanding; simulators were needed to fill in the gaps in the basic knowledge about spaceflight. Building simulators to investigate the interface between the airplane and the pilot had been a difficult challenge for aeronautical researchers prior to the spaceflight revolution; building machines that simulated the interface between astronaut and spacecraft in the weightless environment of outer space was an even tougher job but one that had to be done. In Projects Gemini and Apollo, astronauts and Spacecraft were to be committed to major, complex, and untried maneuvers [370] which, of necessity, had to be carried through to a successful completion, and usually on the first attempt. Simulation was vital to success.

Very little simulation was necessary for Project Mercury, but Project Gemini entailed orbital rendezvous and docking, which was a more dangerous and complex maneuver than sending a capsule into orbit. Learning how to link two spacecraft or spacecraft modules in orbit -an operation required by Apollo's LOR mode ultimately became the primary purpose of Project Gemini, NASA's second man-in-space program. Many people fail to appreciate the basic purpose of Project Gemini, which was to serve as a bridge between Mercury and Apollo and to develop the techniques of rendezvous and docking, spacewalking, and long-duration flights required by the Apollo lunar landing mission. 24

Docking itself was a straightforward operation, very much like the midair refueling of a jet airplane, which was a maneuver that experienced pilots routinely managed just by flying "all eyeballs" and by the seat-of-the pants. Rendezvous, however, seemed to be an altogether different matter. Michael Collins had more than his share of experience with the "dark mysteries" of rendezvous during his Gemini X and Apollo 11 flights: "Sir Isaac Newton when formulating the laws of gravity and motion, had no idea how difficult he was making it for those of us who would fly his circles and ellipses. It was simple enough to explain, with a chalkboard or, better yet, a powerful digital computer, but in flight one had to be extraordinarily careful not to make a false move, not to trust the eyes alone, not to fire the engines unless each maneuver had been checked and double-checked." Collins, one of the most thoughtful astronauts (and best writers) to comment on his experiences in space, captures what it was like for a Gemini pilot to try to catch and rendezvous with his Agena target/docking vehicle some 2 miles ahead of him:

 

The pilot sees the Agena's twinkling light out the window, points the nose of the Gemini at it, and fires a thruster to move toward the Agena. For a short time all seems well, and the Agena grows in size. Then a strange thing happens: the Agena begins to sink and disappears under the Gemini's nose. Then minutes later it reappears from below, hut now it is going faster than the Gemini and vanishes out front somewhere. What has happened? When the Gemini fired its thruster it increased its velocity but also its centrifugal force, causing its orbit to become larger. As it climbed toward its new apogee, it slowed down, so that it began to lose ground compared to the Agena. The Gemini pilot should have fired a thruster to move away from the Agena, causing him to drop down below it into a faster orbit, and begin to overtake it. Then, when the Agena reached a precisely calculated angle above him, he could thrust toward it and his resulting orbit would intercept that of the Agena. Sir Isaac demands that you play his game his way.

 

Rendezvous in space could turn sour with paralyzing swiftness. An on-board computer might fail, a gyroscope might tilt the wrong way, or some other glitch might occur to complicate the performance of a necessary maneuver.

[371] Pilots of both the LEM and the CM had to be ready to make crucial decisions instantaneously. They could not simply say to one another "Meet Me Over St. Louis" and expect their two spacecraft to rendezvous successfully in space. The usual way of piloting in atmospheric flight just would not work. Because of these stark new realities about flight in space, Collins notes, "a great amount of care and pre- planning had to go into the planning of, and hardware for, the rendezvous missions."25

Engineers in Langley's Theoretical Mechanics Division (which was actually renamed the Aero Space Mechanics Division before becoming SMD) had become heavily involved in certain aspects of spaceflight simulation even before Sputnik. Their work for the X-15 program (when they were still NACA employees) had led them to construct and "fly" an X-15 attitude and control simulator. But Sputnik set them loose; over the course of the next 10 years they conceived, built, and operated nine new simulators. These included a Rendezvous and Docking Simulator, a Rotating Vehicle Simulator to study the effects on astronauts of long stays in a rotating space station, and a Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator that was used to evaluate the effects of lunar gravity on man's walking and running capabilities (with and without pressure suits). A Lunar Orbit and Letdown Approach Simulator (LOLA), a $1.9-million facility, was designed so that pilots could experience the same sort of visual cues that they would encounter while navigating and controlling a spacecraft in the vicinity of the moon. The Lunar Landing Research Facility, a mammoth $3.5-million facility, simulated manned lunar landings, and a Projection Planetarium was built that could either project stars on a plastic dome while test pilots sat on a rotating gun turret "spacecraft" to get the feel of heavenly movement or generate a horizon-to-horizon view of Florida as seen from about 100,000 feet for "out-the window" studies of Apollo launch-abort problems. The Virtual Image Rendezvous Simulator used a closed-circuit television system and analog computers to represent a moving target vehicle for rendezvous and docking studies; a Water Immersion Simulator used a water tank for investigating problems associated with manned extra- and intravehicular activities in reduced-G environments; and a One-Man Propulsion Research Apparatus suspended a person equipped with vertical thrusters and translation and attitude controllers from a lightweight gimbal unit for maneuverability studies in reduced-gravity fields.26 Two of the spaceflight simulators in particular -the Rendezvous and Docking Simulator and the Lunar Landing Research Facility -made significant contributions to the successes of projects Gemini and Apollo.

In the months following NASA's adoption of the LOR concept, a team of Langley engineers led by Arthur W. Vogeley and Max C. Kurbjun of the Space Mechanics Division, and including Roy R. Brissendon, Alfred J. Meintel, Jr., Jack E. Pennington, and Marvin C. Waller, designed an unusual research facility explicitly for the purpose of studying the special problems of rendezvous and docking. In its essentials, the design belonged....

 


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The Langley Rendezvous and Docking Simulator.

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Time-lapse sequence of a docking on the Rendezvous Simulator.

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A pilot eyeballing a rendezvous on the simulator.

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The Langley Rendezvous and Docking Simulator suspended from the roof of the West Area airplane hangar (top). Bottom left, a time-lapse look at a successful docking. Bottom right, an unidentified pilot "eyeballs" his way to a docking by peering through the portal in his capsule.

 

[373] ....to Vogeley, the head of SMD's Guidance and Control Branch, and entailed full-scale mock-ups of the Gemini and Apollo cockpits that could be hung from an overhead carriage and cable-suspended gimbal system. This entire assembly could then be attached to an overhead moving crane that moved along a 210-foot track running along the rafters of Langley's cavernous West Area hangar. Pilot astronauts could then "fly" the cockpits both in nighttime and daylight conditions to rehearse and perfect rendezvous and docking skills.

Upon its completion in early 1963, SMD began using this ingenious simulator to study the finer points of various rendezvous missions. (The simulator included a general-purpose analog computer, which made it possible for the pilot inside the gimbal to experience all six degrees of motion freedom.) Experience with the facility confirmed something that Vogeley and other experienced guidance and control experts at Langley had believed for some time: rendezvous, if practiced, was not as mysterious or as difficult as many people imagined. In fact, it could be accomplished quite easily.27

Nonetheless, without their experience in the Rendezvous and Docking Simulator, the Gemini and Apollo astronauts would not have been as well prepared for handling the pressures of rendezvous. "We trained an awful lot of astronauts," Vogeley remembers with pride, "who all appreciated the realism of the simulator's visual scene. It gave us a lot of satisfaction just to show that NASA could do that sort of thing in a unique piece of ground equipment that only cost about $300,000. I think we got our money's worth."28 In his branch office Vogeley kept a picture of the simulator that was signed by all the pilots who ever used the facility -with one exception. Apollo astronaut Ed White, who visited Langley twice to fly on the simulator, died in the tragic launchpad fire at Cape Kennedy on 27 January 1967 before he could add his autograph to the list.

The other simulator to contribute in a significant way to the success of Apollo was the Lunar Landing Research Facility, an imposing 250-foot-high, 400-foot-long gantry structure that became operational in 1965 at a cost of nearly $4 million. Conceived in 1962 by engineer Donald Hewes and built under the careful direction of his quiet but ingenious division chief, W. Hewitt Phillips, this gigantic facility was designed to develop techniques for landing the rocket-powered LEM on the moon's surface. Because the moon had no atmosphere and its gravitational pull was only one sixth that of the earth's, piloting the LEM would be completely unlike atmospheric flying. The thrust of the LEM's rockets in a vacuum would produce unusual and abrupt up-and-down, side-to side, or rolling motions. In addition, the lack of an atmosphere would create a harsh light. As the astronauts landed, they would face this bright glare, as well as deep, dark shadows, which would skew depth perception. Some unique problems had to be overcome to make a pinpoint lunar landing. Some means of simulation seemed called for; the question was how to do it.

 


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Donald Hewes

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William Hewitt Phillips.

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The two men responsible for the design and early operation of the Lunar Landing Research Facility were Donald Hewes (left) and his division chief, William Hewitt Phillips (right).


 

Hewitt Phillips, a soft-spoken, MIT-educated engineer born in Port Sunlight, England, remembers how the idea for the Lunar Landing Research Facility originated between 1962 and 1963: "Since we knew that the moon's gravity is one-sixth that of the Earth's, we needed to support five-sixths of the vehicle's weight to simulate the actual conditions on the moon."29 Perhaps, some practical method could be devised to lower the apparent weight of a mock-up LEM to its lunar equivalent by a method of suspension using vertical cables attached to a traveling bridge crane.

From this basic notion, the design evolved. A huge gantry structure was built that would dominate Langley's landscape for years to come. Phillips and Hewes wanted the supporting gantry to be even taller, but because of the heavy military air traffic from adjacent Langley AFB, the structure was limited to 200 feet. The completed facility, however, stood 240 feet 6 inches, excluding the top warning lights and antennae. Two long cables provided the desired vertical lifting force equal to five-sixths of the vehicle's weight, thereby opposing the pull of the earth's gravity and simulating the low gravitational force of the moon's surface. The cables were attached to a servo-controlled hoist system in a dolly unit mounted under a traveling bridge; the hoist system was controlled automatically by load cells in each support strut. As the test vehicle moved up and down and back and forth in response to the controlling pilot, the bridge and dolly responded to signals from the vehicle and from cable angle sensors at the top of the cables to....

 


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Langley Lunar Landing Research Facility.

L-69 6324 Langley's Lunar Landing Research Facility, completed in 1965, helped to prepare the Apollo astronauts for the final 150 feet of their lunar landing mission by simulating both the lunar gravity environment and the full-scale LEM vehicle dynamics.

 

....stay directly over the vehicle at all times and to keep the cables vertical. Because the bridge and dolly system were driven hydraulically, they provided a responsive servo-control system. Moreover, safety features were built into the system to prevent the lunar landing vehicle from crashing or the bridge and the dolly from overrunning their tracks in the event of an equipment malfunction or the pilot exceeding the safety limits of the system.

The lunar landing test vehicle itself could be flown up to about 17 miles per hour within the confines of the overhead structure, which provided a travel range 400 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 180 feet high. The vehicle could also be hoisted to the overhead platform, where two cables connected to the trolley units on the lower horizontal truss structure could catapult the vehicle downward at 35 miles per hour. To make the simulated landings more authentic, Hewes and his men filled the base of the huge eight-legged, red-and white structure with dirt and modeled it to resemble the moon's surface. They erected floodlights at the proper angles to simulate lunar light and installed a black screen at the far end of the gantry to mimic the airless lunar "sky." Hewes personally climbed into the fake craters with cans of everyday black enamel to spray them so that the astronauts could experience the shadows that they would see during the actual moon landing.

 


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Early LEM used with the Lunar Landing Research Facility.

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LEM control cab, the Lunar Landing Research Facility.

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LEM

 

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Langley engineers designed the control cab of the Lunar Landing Research Facility's original landing module (top left) from the cockpit of a Bell helicopter. To make it similar to the actual LEM, they eventually redesigned it with a stand-up cab (top right and bottom).

 


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Time-lapse sequence of an LEM landing using the simulator.

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Modeled floor of the Lunar Landing Research Facility.

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With floodlights shining down to simulate lunar light and the base modeled to resemble the lunar surface, 24 astronauts practiced landings at the Lunar Landing Research Facility between 1965 and 1969.

 

As a final touch to the facility, Hewes attached to an overhead, lightweight trolley track a simple contrivance, which came to be known as the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator. Made of canvas slings, steel cables, a small trolley, and a wooden walking surface, this rig tilted a walker some 80 degrees from vertical by holding him up with two cables. Astronauts, thus suspended, could practice moonwalking down the plywood surface. They made 12-foot jumps with ease, rapidly climbed a "vertical" pole with one hand, and generally got a feel for what it would be like to traverse the lunar surface.30 The Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator became quite a hit with all press members who visited Langley during the Apollo era. In 1968, for example, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite suited up in an orange astronaut outfit for what turned out to be a rather comical televised walk on the moon.

Of course, the landing facility was a complicated system and had kinks that had to be ironed out. The electrohydraulic system that kept the crane platform directly over the flight vehicle and the cables vertical was extremely involved. The facility had a wonderful assortment of structural, cable-stretch, and pendulous frequencies that were unpredictable and required innovative compensation systems. The LEM model was attached to the cables through gimbal rings allowing pitch, roll, and yaw motions produced by a hydrogen peroxide rocket attitude control system. The one-sixth weight not lifted by the cable system had to be lifted by throttleable hydrogen....

 


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Walter Cronkite using the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator.

The spaceflight revolution captivated many in the news media, including then-CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite. During a 1968 visit to Langley, the adventurous Cronkite tried out the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator -a series of cable-supported slings hanging down from the Lunar Landing Research Facility designed to approximate lunar locomotion. L-68-8308.

 

....peroxide thrusters fixed to the vehicle structure. With such marvelous complexities, it is no wonder that it took some time for the Langley engineers to perfect their gargantuan but sensitive and responsive mechanism.

As Neil Armstrong testified, once the kinks were ironed out, the Lunar Landing Research Facility was "an engineer's delight." The flying volume was "limiting, but adequate to give pilots a substantive introduction to Lunar flight characteristics." Moreover, thanks to the built-in safety features, whereby the cable system could be locked if the vehicle was out of control, the astronauts were able to "investigate unorthodox attitude, trajectory and control combinations which would be impractical in a free-flying simulator." 31

Armstrong knew the limitations of other simulators from personal experience. On 6 May 1968, during a test flight of a free-flying Lunar Landing Training Vehicle at NASA's Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB in California, he was almost killed. Historian Richard Hallion, author of the [379] definitive book on the history of NASA's Flight Research Center, relates the accident:

 

While hovering 10 meters above the ground, the vehicle suffered a loss of helium pressure in its propellant tanks, causing shutdown of its attitude control rockets it started nosing up and rolling over, and Armstrong immediately ejected His zero-zero seat kicked him away from the stricken craft, which tumbled into the ground and exploded as the astronaut safely descended by parachute.

 

It was a sad fate for a pioneering flight craft," writes Hallion, a great lover of flying machines. Indeed, but it almost sealed a far worse fate for America's first man on the moon.32 From that day on, Neil Armstrong made no flights in the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle or any other free- flying test vehicle simulating lunar landings. He did, however, continue to we Langley's facility to practice landings.

Ironically, in the early days of the facility's development, many people associated with the Apollo program did not see the need for such a facility and questioned whether it would ever work. How could a vehicle hanging from cables, like a child's top jumping at the end of a string, adequately simulate moon landings? Axel Mattson recalls that Gilruth's engineers in Houston never expressed much enthusiasm for the device. They felt that the best simulations would be provided by helicopters approximating final descent trajectories (all Apollo crew members did in fact become qualified helicopter pilots) by a test program involving a modified Bell X-14A VTOL aircraft, or by the special free flight lunar landing research vehicles being developed by NASA for the test flights at Edwards. All these research vehicles made significant contributions to developing techniques for the lunar landing. But Langley's controversial Lunar Landing Facility provided astronauts with a unique experience. So realistic was its imitation moonscape, for example, that Neil Armstrong remarked that when he saw his shadow fall upon the lunar dust, it was exactly as he had seen it at the landing facility at Langley.33

Some of Langley's other simulators did not make significant contributions to Apollo -or to any other program. The clearest case in point was the intricate LOLA, which started operating in 1965 at an imposing cost of nearly $2 million. This simulator was designed to provide a pilot with a detailed visual encounter with the lunar surface; the machine consisted primarily of a cockpit, a closed-circuit TV system, and four large murals or scale models representing portions of the lunar surface as seen from various altitudes The pilot in the cockpit moved along a track past these murals, which would accustom him to the visual cues for controlling a spacecraft in the vicinity of the moon. Unfortunately, such a simulation -although great fun and quite aesthetic -was not helpful because flight in lunar orbit posed no special problems other than the rendezvous with the LEM, which the device did not simulate. Not long after the end of Apollo, the expensive machine was dismantled. 34

 


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Lunar Orbit and Letdown Approach Simulator.

Although as much fun as riding through the fun house at the county fair, the $2 million LOLA proved unnecessary. In this photo from 1965, a Langley technician takes great care to make sure that the surface features of the moon are being represented exactly. L-65-5579

 

Rogallo's Flexible Wing

 

More than any other division at Langley, the Full-Scale Research Division acted as a "service effort" for Apollo. Testing in the high-speed wind tunnels of this division provided essential data in the transonic regime for the moon shot. Not all Apollo work carried out in the Full-Scale Research Division, however, involved high-speed aerodynamics. Perhaps the most interesting and potentially significant technologies developed in this division involved low-speed aerodynamics -specifically, a proposed Apollo capsule recovery system that used a controllable paraglider. This concept, which was eventually turned down both for Gemini and Apollo, was the brainchild of Francis M. Rogallo, an ingenious thinker and kite-flying enthusiast who worked in the 7 x 10-Foot Tunnel Branch.

Although Bob Gilruth and many other engineers responsible for Project Mercury considered the ballistic capsule approach "an elegant solution" to the problem of quickly putting a person in orbit, no aeronautical engineer was especially happy with the plan.35 Their dream was for the spacecraft [381] to return to earth using "wings and wheels" -that is, to really fly down through the atmosphere to a landing on a conventional runway.

NASA placed its hopes for such an airplane-like landing on an unusual inflated-fabric flexible wing, or parawing. Such a wing was being developed at Langley in the early 1960s under the intellectual direction of Francis M Rogallo. Rogallo's idea for Gemini, as well as for Apollo, was to pack away a carefully designed parawing like a parachute until the spacecraft fell to about 60,000 feet, at which time an elaborate unstowing and unfurling process began. By 20,000 feet, if a I went well, the descending spacecraft would turn into the world's heaviest hang glider, suspended under a dart-shaped parawing. The astronauts themselves would then bring the soaring craft down to a landing either on water or on soil.36

Rogallo had started at NACA Langley in 1936 after graduation from Stanford University, and since 1945 the flexible wing had been a pet project. A survey of the history of the parawing provides not only an understanding of the genesis of one of Langley's most intriguing -if never used - developments for Apollo but also insight into the sudden and dramatic impact of Sputnik and the spaceflight revolution on the course of independent research at Langley.

Rogallo and his wife, Gertrude, spent their spare time flying home-built kites at their beach house at Nags Head, North Carolina, which is near Kitty Hawk. By the end of World War II, this hobby had begun to give the couple ideas for unconventional vehicles, such as hydrofoil boats, ground-effect machines, V/STOL aircraft, and flexible wings. Because they could not find any organization, including their own NACA, to support R&D for their ideas, they "decided to do what we could privately as time permitted." Initially their efforts focused on configurations resembling boat sails; later, their designs were similar to parachutes. Finally, they concentrated on shapes somewhere between boat sails and parachutes -flexible wings. By the end of 1948, the couple had developed a flexible kite, which the Rogallos called "Flexi-Kite," and a type of gliding parachute, which they later named a "paraglider." 37

In 1948, Rogallo and his wife filed a patent for a V-shaped flexible wing, which was awarded (U.S. Patent No. 2,546,078) in March 1951. From the outset, the inventors had thought of their parawing as a wing not only for sport gliders but also for military and civil powered aircraft. No one, however, took their proposals seriously. As Rogallo remembers, when meeting friends and acquaintances, they were generally greeted with, "How's the kite business?" The Rogallos had resorted to selling their Flexi-Kite as a toy in order to illustrate the parawing principle and help finance their work Francis Rogallo would often say in later years that toys should copy the real thing and not the other way around.38

For the first seven years of its development, the motivation behind the flexible wing had been "purely aeronautical," but that changed in 1952 when the Rogallos saw the Colliers magazine that ran the exciting series....

 


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Francis and Gertrude Rogallo (right), inventors of the V-shaped flexible "parawing." In December 1961, Langley flight-tested a 5O-foot parawing's ability to bring down safely a model of a manned space capsule from a few thousand feet above Plum Tree Island (below), an old army bombing range near Langley Field.

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Francis and Gertrude Rogallo, 1963.

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Test flight of the Parasev.


 

[383] ....of stories about spaceflight. Francis Rogallo was struck by the issue's beautiful illustrations of rigid-winged gliders mounted on top of huge rockets. As he recalled later in a 1963 speech to the American Astronautical Society, "I thought that the rigid-winged gliders might better be replaced by vehicles with flexible wings that could be folded into small packages during the launching." In August 1952 he met Dr. Willy Ley, one of Colliers consultants, and told Ley his thoughts about flexible wings for astronautics in the conversation Rogallo mentioned that the technology of flexible wings might someday prove very useful when spacecraft commute regularly between planets: a rocket ship returning from Mars could pop out flexible wings as it entered the earth's atmosphere and glide the last 100 or 200 miles home, saving "the stockholders" that much fuel. "But the time was not yet ripe."39 (Note that Rogallo imagined, perhaps in jest, that private corporations would be sponsoring the interplanetary travel, not governments.)

In April 1954, hoping to gain acceptance of his concept for aerospace applications, Rogallo gave a presentation, complete with glider model demonstrations, to the local Tidewater reserve unit of the Air Force Research and Development Command. Two months later, he submitted a proposal to include parawing research in the NACA budget, but the proposal was rejected. Indefatigable, he submitted a proposal to discuss his flexible wing concepts at the annual meeting of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences (IAS). This was "the first [proposal] that actually reached the program committee after several tries," but it too was turned down. The IAS rejection letter read: "Although the paper is out of the ordinary and looks like it might be fine to hear, it just does not fit into our program."40

As it did for so many research projects, the launch of Russia's Sputnik 1 in October 1957 changed the course of history for the parawing. Even before the formation of NASA in 1958, Rogallo had received NACA approval to make a few crude wind-tunnel and model flight investigations of parawings in the 7 x 10-Foot Tunnel Branch. In December 1958, he made a presentation to the Langley Committee on Aerodynamics, and as he remembers, "gradually people in other divisions became interested and volunteered to investigate parawings in their facilities." During 1959 cloth parawings were tested in the 4-Foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel at Mach 2, and still other parawing models were deployed at high altitudes (150,000 to 200,000 feet) at nearly Mach 3 from rocket launchings at Wallops Island. In August 1959, von Braun invited Rogallo to Huntsville for a presentation, so "business was picking Up "41

For the next year and a half, into early 1961, Rogallo gave talk after talk on his parawing concept to various technical groups. He spoke at the national aeronautics meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers (April 1960); at Ryan Aeronautical Company and North American Aviation (May 1960); at the annual IAS meeting in New York City (Jan. 1961); and at local IAS chapter meetings in Lancaster, California, and San Diego [384] (March 1961). By the end of 1960, the Ryan company, the same company that built Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, began building a powered man-carrying "Ryan Flex-Wing" at its own expense; Rogallo was on hand in San Diego to witness its first flight. Also, in early 1961, NASA Marshall gave Ryan and North American contracts to study the feasibility of recovering Saturn boosters by means of parawings. NASA in-house studies of the technological capabilities of the wing were made at Marshall and Langley and demonstrated that recovery of the (later canceled) C-2 rocket stage was feasible. By the end of 1961, the DOD let its first parawing contract, to Ryan, for flight tests of the Flex-Wing. The aircraft was later sent to NASA Langley for investigation in the Full-Scale Tunnel. Thereafter, the number of projects and contracts related to parawings increased too rapidly to mention in this brief history.42

"It looked like parawings were here to stay," Rogallo rejoiced at the time, and Sputnik was the reason.43 By the summer of 1963, it appeared that the concept had achieved worldwide acceptance and that the time had come for his parawing study group to give the U.S. government royalty-free license to use its patents, which it did in a ceremony in Washington on 18 July 1963. In a short speech, Rogallo expressed his hopes for the invention: "We feel confident that the civil and military agencies of the government will carry on this work, and we hope private industry will promote use of the concept for business and pleasure as effectively as they have for astronautics and military aeronautics." In a separate ceremony a day earlier, Dr. Hugh Dryden, deputy administrator of NASA, presented Francis Rogallo and his wife with a check for $35,000 for their development of the flexible wing concept; at that time, it was the largest cash award ever made by the space agency to an inventor.44

Unfortunately, the spaceflight revolution, which had so quickly turned circumstances in the wing's favor, just as quickly turned circumstances against it. That is often the nature of revolutions -to take things full circle. From the beginning, NASA's interest in Rogallo's paraglider grew primarily from the possibility of using it as a controllable space capsule recovery system. When that interest waned, so too did NASA's support for the innovative flight technology.

Given NASA's formal go ahead for research, Rogallo and his colleagues in the Full-Scale Research Division invested much time, energy, and emotion in the paraglider concept. Several Langley employees shared Rogallo's enthusiasm for the innovative flight technology and even conducted manned flexible wing flight research during weekends on the Outer Banks with privately owned equipment. Although qualitative in nature, these investigations proved "valuable in providing quick answers and indicating promising directions for the much more costly and time-consuming instrumented but unmanned NASA flight research."45 In wind-tunnel studies at Langley, this research covered a broad spectrum of parawing design parameters - everything from the original concept of a flexible lifting surface (indicated [385] in the engineering data as a "limp paraglider") to rigid frame gliders with conical and cylindrical canopies

As this research on the basic technology of the parawing gained momentum at Langley, NASA's STG, still at Langley at this time, grew interested in the possible application of the foldable, deployable, inflatable-frame paraglider to its Gemini EOR program. Specifically, the STG believed it might be used as part of Mercury Mark II, the follow-on to Project Mercury, which ultimately (in January 1962) became Project Gemini. The STG felt that such a wing could be deployed either before or after reentry to provide controlled glide and horizontal landing. Even on a lifting reentry body - NASA was giving "lifting body" technology considerable attention in relation to space station studies during this period (see the epilogue) -tests at Langley and other NASA facilities were showing that a parawing could improve the post-entry flight or landing characteristics.46

In early July 1961, a few weeks before the second manned Mercury flight by Gus Grissom, Gilruth's organization initiated three well-funded design study contracts on the paraglider concept with Ryan, North American, and Goodyear. Of these three companies, North American would eventually produce the most acceptable plan -a study to explore the parawing as an earth-landing system for Project Apollo.47 A few weeks later, the STG began requesting that studies of the Rogallo-type paraglider be conducted at NASA centers. At Langley this led, on 31 August, to a research authorization for "Free-Flight and Wind-Tunnel Tests of Guided Parachutes as Recovery Devices for the Apollo Type Reentry Vehicle." By late fall, all of this work came together as a formalized NASA paraglider development program, with Langley and Ames responsible for the wind-tunnel tests and the Flight Research Center for scheduling manned flight tests. Starting in mid-1963, 12 manned flight tests were actually made at Edwards with a so called Parasev.48

If the United States had not been in a hurry to go to the moon, the Rogallo paraglider might have been used as the capsule recovery system for Gemini and Apollo; of course, if the country had not been in such a hurry, it would not have gone to the moon at all in the 1960s -and perhaps would not have gone there ever. As it turned out, the paraglider became "hopelessly snarled in a financial, technical, and managerial morass."49 Richard Hallion recollects the specific problems encountered during the flight tests at Edwards:

 

Paraglider development involved solving major design difficulties in deploying the wing, ensuring that crew would have adequate control over the parawing-equipped craft, and providing stability, control, and handling qualities. The Flight Research Center's technical staff was never convinced that the scheme was workable. Eventually, because of poor test results and rising costs and time delays, the idea was dropped from Gemini in mid-1964 FRC engineers and pilots had believed that any vehicle so equipped might present a pilot with a greater flying challenge than contemporary advanced airplanes.
 
 


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Parasev in Langley's Full-Scale Tunnel.

An early version of the single-seat Paraglider Research Vehicle ("Parasev") is test "flown" in Langley's Full-Scale Tunnel in January 1962. L-62-631.

 

These conclusions were based on experience. Flights with the small, singleseat experimental Parasev had proved extremely tricky even in the hands of experienced test pilots. The first machine, Parasev 1, flew as if "controlled by a wet noodle." As Hallion records, during one ground tow, a veteran NASA test pilot "got out of phase with the lagging control system and developed a rocking motion that got worse and worse; just as the tow truck started to slow, the Parasev did a wing-over into the lakebed, virtually demolishing the Parasev and injuring [the pilot], though not seriously." This was not the only time that a paraglider test vehicle would slam into the ground.50

The Parasev, built and rebuilt several times, eventually made over 100 flights at Edwards and showed enough progress that it might have proved feasible for capsule reentry if further developed. However, NASA could not wait for its maturation. Besides, the paraglider was "not absolutely necessary, being more technological frosting than cake.''51 NASA did not need an elegant reentry plan, just a workable one. By early 1964, NASA was committed to a water landing for Apollo. In mid-1964, Gemini's program [387] manager, Charles W. Mathews, a former Langley STG engineer, canceled the paraglider. Rogallo's idea would not fly anyone or anything back from space.

Rogallo never gave up on his pet concept and continued to develop it even after he retired and moved with Gertrude to Nags Head. There they spent all their time working on their paragliders for sport aviation and other applications. Before leaving NASA Langley, Rogallo and his colleagues in the Low-Speed Vehicle Branch had continued to explore a very broad spectrum of wing shapes and structures for his flexible wings. Never again, however, would his concept receive the same high level of NASA support and funding that it had received when linked to the manned space programs of the early 1960s. Nevertheless, a Parawing Project Office (under engineer Dewey L. Clemmons, Jr.) continued at Langley until 1967 and kept the research alive.

 

The Apollo Fire Investigation Board

 

Langley played one other significant, if very sad, role in the Apollo program. The program seemed to be moving along extremely well, so well in fact that by New Year's Day 1967 many observers believed that President Kennedy's "by the end of the decade" deadline for landing a man on the moon might be achieved a couple of years ahead of schedule. Then tragedy struck -making it abundantly clear to NASA and the nation just how high a price would have to be paid to pursue such bold ventures into the unknown. Early in the evening of 27 January 1967, a fire broke out inside the Block I Command Module sitting on top of the uprated Saturn I 204 rocket on the launchpad of Complex 34 at Cape Kennedy. The fire killed three Apollo astronauts -Gus Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee who were in the capsule for a prelaunch test. 52

The next day, Deputy Administrator Robert C. Seamans, Jr., speaking for Administrator Webb, named Floyd L. Thompson chairman of the Apollo 204 Review Board.53 Serving with Thompson were five other NASA officials, one air force official, and one official from the U.S. Bureau of Mines. No one institution was better represented on the board than Langley Besides Thompson (and probably because of him), the board also included E. Barton Geer, associate chief of Langley's Flight Vehicles and Systems Division, and George Malley, Langley's chief counsel. Furthermore, Max Faget, then of the Manned Spacecraft Center, but formerly a Langley engineer, also served on the board.*

 

 


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Floyd L. Thompson and Thomas O. Paine, 1968.

Floyd Thompson (left), chairman of the Apollo Fire investigation board, talks with Thomas O. Paine (right), who took over from James Webb as NASA administrator in September 1968. L-68-9680.

 

NASA was handing a terribly difficult job to Langley's 69-year-old director, who was only a year and some months away from retirement. Ironically, someone like Floyd Thompson, with no national public reputation and a surface personality that even some close friends described as a bit "hayseed," would have been out of the question for the investigation committee that was appointed after the Challenger accident even as a commission member let alone as its chairman.54 But, as the results of the Apollo fire investigation and the subsequently successful Apollo program demonstrated, Thompson would be the perfect man for the Apollo job. As Robert Seamans once said about Thompson, "I think he acted to fool people a little bit so he could get their measure -and then watch out, you know. Very adaptable. At Langley, through all this chaotic period, he kept it out front doing the right kind of things. And then of course the real crunch came when we had the Apollo fire. The question was, 'Who do we have who [389] has the ability and the credibility to be responsible for that review?' That's when we put Tommy into that very, very difficult job."55 Interestingly, after the mishap of Apollo 13, when exploding oxygen tanks in the service module forced the highly dramatic return of the three astronauts even before they had reached the moon, NASA appointed another Langley center director Edgar M. Cortright, Thompson's successor, to chair the accident review board. Perhaps this was in part a testimony to how well Floyd Thompson had conducted the Apollo fire investigation.

Within 24 hours of the command module inferno, Thompson and the rest of his committee were on hand at Pad 34, beginning the long and arduous process of finding out why the tragedy had happened. Under Thompson's disciplined direction, the investigation marched along quickly and quietly. This low-profile progress was possible because the inquiry was an internal NASA investigation without the national media exposure that those on the Challenger investigation committee would face. By 5 April, after spending about 10 weeks on the job, most of it on site at the Kennedy Space Center, the Apollo 204 Review Board was ready to submit its formal report, which was several thousand pages long including appendixes. According to its terse prose, arcs from faulty electrical wiring in an equipment bay inside the command module had started the fire. In the 100-percent oxygen atmosphere, the crew had died of asphyxia caused by inhalation of toxic gases. The board report concluded with a list of 11 major recommendations for hardware and operational changes.56

NASA would need two more years to fix all the problems with Apollo. A special Apollo Configuration Control Board, chaired by George Low, eventually oversaw the completion of over 1300 design changes for the spacecraft. The mending process had really begun, however, with the Apollo 204 Review Board's fast action to a first draft of an investigation report. As chairman and as a person well aware of the inherent dangers of flight research, Floyd Thompson wanted everyone to know that his board's written description of "the defects in the Apollo Program that led to the condition existing at the time of the Apollo 204 accident" should not be interpreted as "an indictment of the entire manned space flight program" or as a "castigation of the many people associated with that program." 'Nothing is further from the Board's intent," Thompson emphatically declared. The function of his board had been "to search for error in the largest and most complex research and development program ever undertaken," and that was why the report on the fire commented only on the deficiencies uncovered and did not present a total picture of the Apollo program, including the good points with the bad, or look for scapegoats. However, the report tried to make clear to the nation that such tragedies....

 


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All three astronauts who died in the Apollo fire had spent a considerable amount of time in simulators at Langley. Gus Grissom (right) at the controls of the Rendezvous and Docking Simulator in 1963; below, Roger Chaffee strapped into the Lunar Landing Research Facility's Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator in 1965. Unfortunately, a picture of Edward White while in training at Langley was not found.

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Gus Grissom in the Rendezvous and Docking Simulator, 1963.

L-63-1515

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Roger Chaffee using the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator, 1965 .

L-65-8545

 

[391] ....would occasionally occur if the bold venture into space was to continue and progress.** 57

It is unfortunate that tragic accidents such as the Apollo fire and the Challenger explosion have to happen for errors to be discovered and corrected Both events made NASA and its contractors more cautious, and in the case of the Apollo fire, they actually slowed the pace of work so that tasks could be performed more carefully. "It gave everyone not working on fire-related matters a breather, a period to catch up on their work." "In the race for the moon," as Apollo astronaut/historian Michael Collins has written, "no one wanted his piece of the machine to be the laggard, the one to hold up the whole procession. Consequently, no one wanted to admit being 'the long pole in the tent' as it was called, and managers were apt to fudge their schedules a bit, hoping someone else would admit to being even farther behind. Many long poles got whittled down to manageable size during the time North American was struggling to get the Command Module back on track."58

This scenario really did not apply to NASA Langley; its work to achieve the lunar landing objective was for the most part over by the time the Apollo command module was fixed and ready for its first manned flight (Apollo 7, 11-22 Oct. 1968). Langley's contributions to Apollo had little to do with final preparations but rather rested largely in the groundwork for such an ambitious program. By the time of Apollo 11's historic first lunar landing on 20 July 1969, Langley's multifarious R&D efforts for Apollo had been largely forgotten; except for the Hampton area press, the media gave the center little attention. But without Langley, an American lunar landing that summer day may not have been possible.

"We had a target and a goal," says John Houbolt, one of the few from Langley privileged with an invitation to watch the historic lunar landing event from the viewing room at Mission Control in Houston. "Congress....

 


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Neil Armstrong and the staff of the Lunar Landing Research Facility,1967.

The Lunar landing Research Facility staff crowds around Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong (center) in March 1967, 28 months before he was to become the first human to set foot on the moon. L-67-1697.

 

...was behind it. Funding was available. The entire nation mobilized for a common goal." In his opinion, to this day, "the landing on the Moon was undoubtedly mankind's greatest technological achievement and engineering accomplishment. We started essentially from scratch in 1962 and seven years later we were on the Moon. It was a remarkable achievement and remains unsurpassed." 59

Indeed, Apollo was the crowning achievement of the spaceflight revolution, but it had also served as NASA's only guiding star through nearly all of the 1960s. Apollo shone so spectacularly, few aboard NASA suspected that it would ever dim. Unfortunately, near the end of the program, interest in spaceflight waned, and Apollo's brightness proved to be that of a supernova -dazzling yet brief. Once Apollo had faded, NASA found itself traveling without direction.

 


* The other members of the Apollo 204 Review Board were Col. Charles F. Strang, chief of the Missiles and Space Safety Division, air force inspector general, Norton AFB, Calif.; Lt. Col. Frank Borman, astronaut, Manned Spacecraft Center; George C. White, Jr., director of reliability and quality, Apollo Program Office, NASA headquarters; Dr. Robert W. Van Dolah, research director, Explosive Research Center, Bureau of Mines, U.S. Department of Interior, Pittsburgh, Pa.; and John J. Williams, director of Spacecraft Operations, NASA Kennedy Space Center.

** By the authority granted to the center in a letter from Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans on 27 February 1967, NASA Langley became "the custodian of all pertinent physical evidence, reports, files, and working materials dealing with the investigations and review of the Apollo 204 accident. (Copy in Apollo 204 Review Board files, Langley Central Files.) In 1978, Langley shipped all the documentary records of the review board to the National Archives; however, it kept all the related hardware, including the Apollo capsule itself. In 1990 preparations were made to send the "Apollo storage container," which included the capsule, to the Kennedy space center for an appropriate burial with remnants of the space shuttle Challenger. However, those preparations halted after a controversy ensued over the historical significance of the Apollo capsule and its possible use in a museum exhibition. Thus, in the summer of 1990, NASA made the decision to keep the Apollo hardware right where it was, in a warehouse at Langley. (The press was allowed to view the remains briefly, in part to confirm that Langley still possessed them.) On 7 November 1990, Langley Director Richard H. Petersen ordered his director of operations "to seal the entrance to the Apollo 204 storage container " and not to break it "without my written approval." For the relevant documentation, see the Apollo 204 Review Board files, Langley Central Files.


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