August 11, 2002
Saturn's Bluff

My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. Here's one of them:

It was no exaggeration to say the moonshots of the Apollo space program were some of the most complex undertakings in history. Tens of thousands of workers were split into hundreds of contractor teams all working together toward a single goal: getting a man on the moon in a great big hurry.

Of course things went wrong. Things went wrong constantly. But everyone was in "hurry up" mode and any failure that caused a delay would at the very least take your team down a peg or two in the hypercompetitive culture surrounding the space center. At the very worst it could lead to fines, government investigations, even dismissals.

One of the unexpected outcomes of this Riverdance-like mayhem was each of the launch teams became riddled with spies. Not for the Soviets, but for all the other teams. During a test or launch everyone's spies would be reporting to everyone else's teams, looking for a weakness to exploit.

Because if you had a problem that would cause a "hold" (a stop in the countdown of that test or launch), it meant you would catch six kinds of hell and have to buy beers for everyone else. Especially if it led to a "scrub", which is what a cancellation of the test or launch was called.

But you weren't the only one in line, and if you knew a guy further up the ladder was having a critical problem, you knew you could safely call "go" even with your "hold" problem, because the next guy would have to call "hold".

Dad's team was in charge of the Mobile Launcher, the construct that formed the interface between the Saturn rocket and the rest of the launch complex. His was the last "go" call before control passed to the rocket teams. And so dad's spies infested the Boeing team, which was in control of the first stage of the Saturn V.

The Boeing people hated this, because their spies would always know ahead of time that the Mobile Launcher crew was having a "hold" problem, and they'd think they were off the hook with their own "hold" problem. I can only imagine the look on their faces when "go" was called from the Mobile Launch crew, forcing them to call hold. Unless, of course, the North American guys (in charge of the second stage) were having a "hold" problem.

And so it went, a high-stakes game of chicken played with billion-dollar rocket parts. It's not as dangerous as it sounds. Most "hold"-quality problems NASA had were bureaucratic butt-covers for higher-ups who seemed to have little else to do than cook up more and more extreme failure scenarios for other people to solve. Everyone in the program was very competent, extremely talented, and well aware of which failures were critical and which were just rabbit holes for their bosses to hide in.

As with any poker-like game such as this, sometimes bluffs get called. While it looks solid enough, the platform of the Mobile Launcher was actually a sophisticated multi-level building complete with equipment spaces and offices. Built by a ship manufacturer, it was arranged almost exactly like a battleship, complete with bulkheads and oval dogged-down doors. This only made sense, considering the raging forces that passed through, under, and around the structure. But to make absolutely, 100%, never-ever-ever-gonna-happen sure that nothing got inside; they also pressurized it, at about 6 psi.

That was the problem. It was the final "go/no-go" call for Apollo 15, a full-up for-real moon shot with for-real astronauts sitting on top of millions of pounds of rocket fuel ready for a rendezvous with the moon. Everyone else's boards were full green. Everyone was ready to go.

Except for my dad's crew. The pressure gauge on the launch platform was reading zero. For whatever reason, the gauge was saying the platform wasn't pressurized. This was a full-hold condition, one that would require the mission to be scrubbed because you had to go out there to fix it and nobody wanted to go anywhere near a fully fueled Saturn V if they didn't have to. No pressure? Book says "hold".

Dad called "go".

Everyone kind of stopped at this point. All the spies that infested dad's own team had already reported the Mobile Launch crew had a hold problem. CapCom could see the same problem on their screens. So they asked again.

Dad called "go". Gauge is busted, he said.

At this point everyone took a big breath, all over both control centers. Gauges are designed to do only two things: measure something, and be reliable. Broken gauges were almost unheard of. Capcom called one more time, and now the entire cape was listening.

Gauge is busted. We're go.

Everyone shook their head. One of the lead cowboys of the contractor teams, someone who took on unions and won, someone who took on the entire Lunar Module team and won, had finally lost it. Screwed the pooch. Nobody was sure, but a "go" call on a hold condition with astronauts on the pad was probably something he could get arrested for, even if it was a dumb hold condition that wouldn't affect a damned thing. Certainly his butt was out the door as soon as the rocket was gone.

It was only after the Saturn V had cleared the tower that they all realized their mistake.

Dad's crew was the very first crew on the pad after the rocket was gone. The pad was still dripping water from the acoustic protection when they got there. And of that crew, my dad was the first one there. And his first job, the first job of the first person who was able to get to the pad?

Opening the flaps that depressurized the launch platform.

So, to this day probably, NASA considers the problem to have been a broken gauge, not something worthy of a hold.

Who knows? maybe they're right.

Posted by scott at August 11, 2002 03:00 PM

eMail this entry!

Well Alright!!! I love your Nasa Follies series. I hope your dad reads them.

Posted by: PAT on August 12, 2002 04:26 AM

Hi all!
You are The Best!!!

Posted by: Terabanitoss on May 3, 2007 05:09 PM
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