I got mine at the GPO Bookstore

When I was a kid and through my late teens, I regularly visited the Government Printing Office Bookstore in Boston. The Federal Building was just a short walk from North Station, so I’d take the train in – never once getting kidnapped or murdered that I recall. They had a whole corner devoted to NASA books, usually forty or fifty of the most recent volumes, so for me, it was like visiting the Kennedy Space Center in miniature. I didn’t have much money, but I’m pretty sure train fare for the twenty-five minute run into town was between US$2 and $3 each way, so ten bucks carefully saved up would cover the trip plus one or two books.

I got several of my NASA books right there, at their gloriously low original GPO prices. For example, the 681-page This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury was US$5.50. This collectSPACE article lists most of the better NASA history volumes that were at one time or another in the bookstore.

The P in GPO now stands for Publishing, not Printing, and the Boston GPO Bookstore closed in 2001, but I still have all the books I got there. Now the real reason for this article is not nostalgia or sidelong swipes at milk-carton-kid-based helicopter parenting, satisfying though those are, but this: I recently found something of a bonanza for people who are interested in these books in their original form but don’t want to spend US$50, $100, or more for them – or who, like me, own them but would love the convenience and frugality of free PDFs of the originals. The NASA Technical Reports Server has full page-by-page scans – and good quality scans, I’ll point out – of many of the original books, including:

There are other good volumes there as well, including Apollo Expeditions to the Moonmine was $2.25, but it’s now $40 or $50 for a good condition original – Where No Man Has Gone Before, and the like. The part 1-3 articles linked in the collectSPACE article above mention more of these – there’s also a final part 5 not linked there. The best way to search the NTRS site is with NASA SP-nnnn where nnnn is the publication number.

Click on any of these page scans from the PDFs for a larger version. They’re larger than these screenshots in the PDFs.

From Moonport

From Chariots for Apollo

From Stages to Saturn

From Apollo Expeditions to the Moon

My copy of that one

“The flight was extremely normal for 36 seconds…”

“…and after that it got very interesting.”

– Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad in the post-flight technical debriefing, referring to the first of two lightning strikes on the vehicle during launch.

I just found out I can upgrade my Galaxy S5 at no cost to an S8, so I ordered a new phone skin that will ship tomorrow – as it serendipitously turns out, the 48th anniversary of the date the photo was taken.

This is Apollo 12, taken from the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building as the stack began its 3½ mile journey to Launch Pad 39A on 8 September 1969. This assembly of Crawler-Transporter, Mobile Launcher (aka Launch Umbilical Tower), Saturn V, and Apollo weighed over 18 million pounds, the equivalent of twenty or so 747s, and moved at a stately 80 or so feet per minute.

From the remarkable 600-page Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations: “These novel mechanisms almost defy verbal description, and the reader should refer frequently to the illustrations in this chapter.”

Here’s a higher-resolution copy of the source photo – click for a larger version and note the people in white hardhats at the edges of the platform:

NASA photo AP12-S69-51309

Apollo-era photo of the 526-foot-high Vehicle Assembly Building and crawlerway leading to Launch Complex 39 with Pads 39B (upper left, 4.2 miles from VAB) and 39A (upper right, 3.5 miles from VAB). Apollo 12 launched from Pad 39A.

NASA photo AS12-68-7134: Pete Conrad wiggling Surveyor 3 by its camera on 20 November 1969 (Okay, Houston. I’m jiggling it. The Surveyor is firmly planted here; that’s no problem.”)

Five-point landing

Here’s one of several good reasons why the Lunar Module had both a descent stage and an ascent stage: Apollo 15’s five-point landing, which dented the descent engine bell quite a lot. The other bits strewn about are not landing damage but simply the detritus from unpacking and setting up equipment. Tidiness was not a concern.


Why did this damage occur? The rear leg of the LM landed in a five-foot deep crater, resulting in a fairly steep landing angle of 11°. To wit:

New digs

We moved our offices into a new building a couple towns away this week, and I ended up with a substantially larger office – “All the more to decorate” thought I, rubbing my hands. A gallery of my new digs is below. I haven’t decided yet how to fill out one wall, but the other walls are pretty much as I want them. I still see trees and greenery out my window (two windows, actually), thank goodness, and there are wild turkeys at the new place, too.

In the process, I finally got around to having my William Phillips “Clipper at the Gate” limited print framed at this little shop, and it came out pretty spiffy, with the frame and matting matched to the bluish silver of the aircraft, the deep blue of the water, and the red of the Golden Gate Bridge (actually called International orange) and the wing stripes. The aircraft is the Boeing B-314 flying boat, in this case the Pan American Airways California Clipper, NC-18602, which made regular runs between San Francisco and Hawaii – a nineteen-hour leg – before continuing to farther destinations.

Only twelve B-314s were produced by Boeing, all for Pan Am, but it was – and still is – considered the acme of flying boat technology. The initial six had a range of 3,500 miles with fuel capacity of 4,200 gallons and the second group of six could travel 5,200 miles with 5,400 gallons, both variants far exceeding the range of other aircraft of the day. Travel on the clippers was strictly deluxe, with ticket prices comparable to Concorde’s and meals catered by top-notch hotels.

The B-314 model on my desk, in the same 1:200 scale as the B-17 and B-747, is also of NC-18602. The “Fly to South Sea Isles” poster is a high quality limited edition reproduction of a 1930s Pan Am poster that was made about twenty years ago [some weeks after writing this, I found my Hansa Editions print was actually produced thirty years ago]. An original copy of the 1938 George Lawler poster – not the original painting, just a poster – recently sold for US$20,000 at auction, where the listing read:

One of the most iconic and desirable of all the early Pan Am flying boat posters, this image of the Boeing 314 Flying Clipper landing in a tropical lagoon captured, and continues to capture, the imagination of travelers. The location shown on the poster is an imaginary composite of several renowned bays throughout the South Pacific. It has been speculated that the view is Tahiti, Pago Pago and/or Diamond Head, however, the physical characteristics depicted do not coincide with the actual geography of any of these islands. Lawler most likely worked from photographs to derive a fantasy collage of a location infused with realistic details from various islands. It is rare to find this poster with text. We have found only two other examples at auction.

The tail end of the gallery shows in detail some of the photos and items on display. I had 16×20 prints made of the three high resolution Apollo photographs – done beautifully by Shutterfly and Snapfish, I’ll add. Of the three drawings of mine on the wall, just one, the woman holding a newborn Bengal kitten, is my original pencil drawing – the other two are from high resolution scans I made before presenting the original drawings to their subjects.

Click on any image to enter the gallery, and from there you can view a 1920-wide version of any photo by clicking this at the lower right (you may need to scroll down to see it):


“If we can send a man to the Moon…”

The best history of Apollo from the perspective of the astronauts is Andrew Chaikin’s 1994 masterpiece, A Man on the Moon. The best one from the point of view of the people on the ground is Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox, which I’m rereading at the moment. On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the book’s 1989 release, Murray said this:

“One of the lessons that people tried to take away from the Apollo story was wrong – ‘If we can send a man to the Moon, we can end poverty.’ Or do whatever else is your favorite cause. Engineering challenges are different from social challenges, and a lot of money has been wasted on programs that were rationalized by the ‘If we can send a man to the Moon…’ analogy. Maybe that suggests the real lesson: Apollo, like the Manhattan Project, proved that humans are capable of extraordinary feats in unbelievably short periods of time, but only if five conditions are met: The people doing the work have to have a concrete goal. They must have a sense of urgency – because of a specific calendar deadline in the case of Apollo, or beating the Germans in the case of the Manhattan Project. The concrete goal has to be technological, not social; we just don’t know how to change human behavior on a large scale. The people paying for the work must be willing to spend lavishly. And, most importantly, the people paying for the work must get the hell out of the way of the people doing the work.”

I’ll take this opportunity to point out that for the duration of the Apollo programme, the amount of money American women spent on cosmetics each year easily exceeded NASA’s budget. As Einstein once said about something else, that’s relativity.

An hour-long interview with the authors in 1989 is on C-SPAN here.

An excerpt from Apollo: The Race to the Moon, whose most recent reprint is titled simply Apollo:

In 1946, the N.A.C.A. had sent a young Langley engineer named Walt Williams out to the Mojave Desert to open a facility for testing the X-1, the plane in which Chuck Yeager would break the sound barrier. It was called the High-Speed Flight Station, using the Air Force facilities that would later become known as Edwards Air Force Base. On July 30, 1959, Williams’s fortieth birthday, Abe Silverstein called Williams to Washington and persuaded him to return to Langley to work for the Space Task Group. On September 15, Williams reported to Langley as Gilruth’s associate director for Operations.

Williams was indeed the “very tough kind of guy” that the gentlemanly engineers of Langley needed to deal with the Air Force’s brand of bureaucratic infighting. By 1959, Williams was already known in the flight-test business as a man who could work, carouse, cuss, or fight as prodigiously as any test pilot at Edwards. He was also tough in the other ways that Operations needed. “He had the ability to walk up to the problem of putting a man on top of one of these Atlas vehicles, which are really just big metal balloons, and not be cowed by it,” said Lunney of Williams. (“Big metal balloons”: The walls of the Atlas were so thin that they would collapse unless the vehicle was pressurized.) “Williams just walked up and said ‘Goddammit this’ and ‘Goddammit that,’ and got everybody saluting and doing what they should do.” He was a genius of sorts, Lunney reflected, “though if you had to go up against him, he didn’t seem like a genius. He seemed like a bull.”

In those days, he even looked like a bull—over 200 pounds, a powerful man with a square head, dark, close-cropped hair, and heavy brows. Gene Kranz, who himself would scare a few people in his time, never forgot his first encounter with Williams. It happened in 1960, just a few weeks after Kranz had arrived at the Space Task Group. Kranz had been sent over to brief Williams on some work he’d been doing. Kranz, who knew Williams only by reputation, got there early and slipped into a seat in Williams’s office while another briefing concluded. Williams, who was slouched behind his desk chain-smoking Winstons, looked a little like Broderick Crawford in “Highway Patrol”—big, rumpled, and knowing.

The men briefing Williams were not having a good day. Williams sat behind his desk, scowling at the hapless briefers, and “whipsawed them,” Kranz remembered. “Just cut them up. Sliced them off at the ankles, mid-calf, knees, mid-thigh. They went down the tubes and the thing was over.” The objects of these attentions put away their papers and filed out of the office, leaving Kranz and Williams alone. Kranz began his report.

Walt Williams had a curious habit of appearing to fall asleep in the middle of meetings. Williams himself said that it was a device: “I listen to the guy’s voice,” he explained. “If the guy’s trying to bullshit you, or is uncertain, you can hear it in his voice. I don’t want to see his bright blue eyes or anything else.” Did he ever really fall asleep? There were, after all, reports of the occasional snore. Well, Williams said ambiguously, when people had given him a briefing paper in advance, he didn’t “bother even listening to the buildup,” but waited until the guy got to the good part.

Kranz knew nothing of this. After a few minutes, he was getting into his material when he realized that Williams was starting to nod off. His head was slumped on his chest, his eyes were closed. Unbelievable as it seemed, Kranz decided, Williams had gone to sleep.

“In a one-on-one session with a legend, who you have just seen completely assassinate somebody, what the hell do you do?” Kranz would ask later. He decided that the safest course was to pretend nothing had happened and keep on talking. So he did, feeling more confident now that it seemed no one was listening to him. In fact, he was feeling confident enough to sidestep a small issue that he wasn’t absolutely sure about. But what the hell, the man was asleep.

Williams always kept a roll of Necco mints nearby to soothe his smoker’s throat. As Kranz breezed on, Williams’s hand reached out, groping slowly for the roll of Neccos. Williams shook out two of them—eyes still closed—and chomped on them for a while. “And then he proceeded to ask exactly that question that I thought I had skated through very cleanly,” Kranz recalled. “It was just absolutely intimidating.”


“P.S. If I was on this mission, I’d let the damned thing run, too.”


Apollo 8 Saturn V stack on its way to Pad 39A

Apollo 8’s original mission was to test the Lunar Module in combination with the Command and Service Module in low Earth orbit for the first time. However, production delays meant there would be no LM spacecraft ready in time for the December 1968 flight. In August 1968, George Low, manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, proposed that they instead send the Apollo 8 Command and Service Module all the way to the moon and in the process juggle the D, E, and F mission objectives slightly. Those mission types are defined in the 20 September entry in the Q3 1967 Apollo Spacecraft Chronology.

This was just four months before Apollo 8 was due to launch, and NASA did not yet have a plan for the actual mechanics of the first circumlunar mission. In 1998, Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman gave a talk at the National Air & Space Museum on the 30th anniversary of the mission. In it, he said:

So we had a lot to do, because while everyone knew that people were going to go to the moon, all of a sudden, they were confronted with the deal: How do you get there? And this is another sign of NASA at that time. I sat in [Director of Flight Operations] Chris Kraft’s office with Bill Tindall and two or three other people, and in one afternoon, we outlined the basic parameters of that mission. I don’t know how long it would take them today, but I suspect it wouldn’t take more than six months to do that.

Borman is a refreshingly no-nonsense, funny guy, a USAF pilot who you can tell still gets a kick out of referring to his Apollo 8 crewmates as ‘sailors’. You can see his whole talk here on C-SPAN. I actually ordered a VHS videotape of it from C-SPAN after I watched its first broadcast on Christmas Day 1998, mainly because of the segment I’ve excerpted below.

Yesterday, after watching the Apollo 8 episode of “From the Earth to the Moon” once more, I recalled his fascinating and unexpectedly entertaining talk at NASM and further remembered that C-SPAN now has its entire video library online. I thought I’d see if I could find it, grab it, and therefore be able to toss the 570 feet of magnetic dinosaur that I still have on a shelf in my spare room. It’s difficult to grab videos from their site on your own, but the Video DownloadHelper Firefox add-on¹ makes short work of it and videos on other sites.


Christmas Eve 1968

Regarding the intertial guidance system that Borman talks about in that clip: On Apollo, the Flight Director had a three-axis gyroscope system and was therefore subject to gimbal lock, a condition which meant loss of attitude reference and a subsequent need to reorient the system through star sightings, which was a pain in the arse. This would occur if you managed to screw up and get your attitude into the red circle visible below. Borman and every other astronaut wished that Apollo had the Gemini program’s four-axis system, which was not subject to this quirk of physics.


Apollo Flight Director Attitude Indicator

One of the early mission rules for Apollo 8 was that the Flight Director was to be shut off when it wasn’t needed – which was most of the mission – but Borman objected to this. He knew that, on power-up, the thing sometimes accidentally got itself into a gimbal lock condition, plus he didn’t want to take the chance of it not coming back on at all, so he wanted to keep the gyros spun up for the entire mission. He got his wish, and the rule was changed for all the Apollo missions.

¹Yes, you can turn off its distracting yet annoying ‘Hey, over here, I found videos! Look! Look! Loooooook!‘ icon animation.

T plus 45

Today marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 12. Despite the fact that the launch vehicle was struck not once, but twice, by lightning, at thirty-six and fifty-two seconds after launch, it was possibly the most fun manned spaceflight ever undertaken. Watch:

Al Bean, the focus of the above episode of From the Earth to the Moon (my favourite along with episode 5, Spider), has been painting ever since.

Mission Commander Pete Conrad flew a precision approach to their landing site, something absolutely required in the trickier later missions that landed near or in mountains, rilles, and valleys. His target was the Surveyor 3 lander, which had arrived in the Ocean of Storms two-and-a-half years earlier as part of NASA’s programme to reconnoiter Apollo landing sites. He touched down within 300 metres of the spacecraft, proving it could be done and paving the way for the next eight moonwalkers. The Surveyor 3 TV camera Bean and Conrad retrieved with the aid of a bolt cutter now resides in the National Air & Space Museum’s Exploring the Planets gallery.

Surveyor 3 TV camera

You can see interviews with the three crew members in this documentary. However, be aware that the video footage it shows of astronauts on the moon is from later missions. While setting up the color TV camera early in their first EVA, Al Bean inadvertently pointed the camera lens at the sun, killing its vidicon tube, so there’s no such footage from Apollo 12.


Mission Commander Pete Conrad, pictured below in one of his finest moments, sadly died in a motorcycle accident in 1999.



The explosive guillotine in the Lunar Module

You: “Did you say ‘guillotine’?”
Me [approximating John Cleese]: “Explosive guillotine, yes.”

LM guillotine

In missions past and present, explosive devices feature in pretty much every spacecraft because they’re a safe, reliable way to ensure that processes start, items such as antennas are deployed, and connected assemblies that need to come apart are quickly and cleanly separated.

On the Apollo missions, over 210 pyrotechnic devices were in the Saturn V stack and the Command, Service, and Lunar Modules, used for everything from extending the LM landing gear to deploying drogue and main parachutes to ensuring fuel was at the correct side of a tank – for which the word ullage (in French, ouillage) was borrowed from vintners, to whom it means the headspace between the top of the wine and the container it’s in, whether a cask or a bottle.

The Lunar Module had several devices on board:

ED Locations

Control over them was through the Explosive Devices Control Panel:

ED Control Panel

All of these devices were essential, but particularly key were the devices set off to initiate separation of the ascent and descent stages of the LM when the astronauts departed the lunar surface. This was a three-stage process that took place in the tenths of seconds before the ascent engine was lit:

  • First, fire circuit interrupters to cut off electrical signals between the stages
  • Second, fire and shear the four explosive nut and bolt assemblies that affix the ascent stage to the descent stage
  • Third, using the explosive guillotine, slice through a thick bundle of umbilical cables and wires and a water supply line that run between the two stages

Though these devices were known to be generally reliable, a certain level of trepidation about them is understandable. Blowing up some high explosives to drive a big blade through wires doesn’t exactly sound like the most controlled process even though it actually was.

“Did you know when that unit was up on the moon, and the ascent stage was going to take off, they had all those wires – fourteen miles of them – running from the ascent stage into the descent stage, and it all had to be disconnected before you took off, or you didn’t take off? That’s all there was to it. You couldn’t use wire couplings that just pulled out when you gave it a good, hard yank. Do you want to trust a wire coupling to hold through a Saturn V liftoff and all that g-force and vibration? Uh-uh. Try flying a ship with a few loose wires. So, it was all solid connections, which is why we put a guillotine inside the descent stage: to cut all the wires. Everything had to be timed just right. The explosives had to trigger the guillotine and the blade had to cut through some pretty thick cables, and at the same time, the ascent rocket engine, which was never run before, had to start.”
– Bob Ekenstierna, LM descent stage construction supervisor at Grumman

In Chariots for Apollo by Pellegrino and Stoff, a somewhat sensationalist telling of the building of the Lunar Module at Grumman*, they speak of Joe Kingfield, the director of quality control. I won’t quote them directly since they went over the top with their narrative, but Kingfield had frequent nightmares about the liftoff from the moon that involved the guillotine and one or more of the explosive bolts failing. In his dreams, the ascent stage lifted off, but, still connected by miles of wire, dragged the descent stage along the ground and eventually crashed back into the surface. In later years, Kingfield still could not bring himself to watch the footage of the lunar liftoffs taken by the Mission Control-directed TV cameras on the Lunar Roving Vehicles of Apollo 15, 16, and 17.

*Not to be confused with the unimpeachable NASA volume of the same name by Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson; web and epub links at the link.

Charlie Duke, Lunar Module Pilot of the Apollo 16 Orion (the LM pictured in the Finley Quality Network banner above), said that the pyrotechnics for the ascent stage separation gave him brief pause just before he and Commander John Young lifted off from the moon. When the circuit interrupters fired, then the four interstage bolts at the corners were sheared, and finally the guillotine sliced through the umbilical and water lines, the entire ascent stage suddenly dropped an inch or so. Duke thought, “Oh, sh…” but did not have time to finish that thought as the ascent engine fired and abruptly took them away from the surface back toward Ken Mattingly awaiting their return aboard the Casper Command and Service Module in lunar orbit.

You can see a fair amount of the thermal protection fly off the ascent stage as it lifts off, which happened to all of the ascent stages to some extent. In addition, panels on the rear that provided thermal protection for the Aft Equipment Bay were damaged during the liftoff, but they had done their job already. Mattingly took this photograph of the Orion before docking:


Apollo deniers like to point to this and other photographs of the Orion damage as ineluctable proof of chicanery, but what it really means is that they prefer extending and enhancing their apparently quite enjoyable fantasies to, say, reading the post-mission report (9th link in the background material):

At lunar lift-off, four vertical thermal shields (fig. 14-26) on the aft equipment rack were torn loose from the lower standoffs and remained attached only at the upper standoffs. This occurrence was observed from the lunar-based television.

The most probable cause of the failure was ascent engine exhaust entering the cavity behind these thermal shields. A cross section of the lower edge of the shields is shown in figure 14-27. Analysis shows that the thermal shield which extends below the support tube allows a pressure buildup on the closure shield which exceeds its capability. Once the closure shield failed, the exhaust entered the cavity behind the shield, resulting in a pressure buildup exceeding the capability of the vertical thermal shields.

In the lunar surface photographs taken prior to lift-off, some of the shields appear to have come loose from the center standoff (fig. 14-28). Excessive gaps between some of the panels are evident. Both conditions could be caused by excessive pressure in the thermal blanket due to insufficient venting during boost.

The corrective action will include a redesign of the thermal shield to eliminate the projection below the support tube, as shown in figure 14-27, and to provide additional venting to the blankets as well as additional standoffs.

This anomaly is closed.

Not one problem was detected in any of the pyrotechnics during any Apollo mission. The device designs used in Apollo were later adopted by the Shuttle program, with, for instance, the Single-Bridgewire Apollo Standard Initiator (SBASI) becoming the NASA Standard Initiator (NSI).


An introduction to Tindallgrams from one of the documents linked below:

The enclosed collection of memoranda were written by Howard W. “Bill” Tindall, Jr., the former Director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. They document key technical decisions made between 1966 and early 1970 for all unmanned and manned flights through Apollo 13, and became widely know as “Tindallgrams.” Astronauts, flight controllers, and engineers took part in this planning, and many have lamented that they had lost track of their copies, so we have bound this set together for them. As Buzz Aldrin remembered, “Bill had a brilliant way of analyzing things and the leadership that gathered diverse points of view with the utmost fairness.”

In 1966, Apollo Spacecraft Program Manager George Low made Tindall responsible for all guidance and navigation computer software development by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bill quickly grasped the key issues and clearly characterized the associated pros and cons, sometimes painfully for us, but his humor, friendliness, and ever-constructive manner endeared him to all of us.

In 1967, Low put Tindall in charge of a group called Mission Techniques, which was designed to bring together hardware development, flight crew procedures, mission roles, and spacecraft and control center computer programming. According to former MSC Director Christopher Kraft, “Those meetings were the hardened core of Apollo as far as operations planning was concerned. That’s where the famous Tindallgrams came from.” He continued, “It would be difficult for me to find anyone who contributed more individually to the success of Apollo than Bill Tindall.”

Those of us who took part in those meetings and other interactions with Bill will always appreciate another aspect of his contribution…he made it a lot of fun!

I’ve read hundreds of Tindallgrams. The one below is my all-time favourite, so I’ve cleaned it up considerably from the microfiche photocopy I got from the Kennedy Space Center years ago. These days, you don’t have to write to NASA and then wait eight or ten weeks before being pleasantly surprised by a ten-pound box in the mail. You can find PDFs with scans of many Tindallgrams here on CollectSpace, all completely weightless through the marvel of modern technology – much of which is the indirect result of Apollo, come to think of it.

LM2 cockpit

In this photo of the LM2 cockpit at the National Air & Space Museum, I’ve placed an arrow pointing to the panel and highlighted in the inset the DES QTY light being discussed:

LM2 Controls

By the way, they made the fix as Tindall had hoped – the DES QTY light did come on during landings, but did not trigger the master alarm.

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

Ed Mitchell, Lunar Module Antares pilot, Apollo 14