On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, I thought readers might get a kick out of seeing this funny 1968 memo regarding a problem that needed to be fixed in the Lunar Module (it was), and learning about its extraordinary author, NASA engineer Howard W. “Bill” Tindall, Jr. I wrote about this memo five years ago with just a little information on Tindall, but I wanted to expand on that a fair amount this week because without his efforts, I’m pretty certain we would not have reached the moon before that decade was out.
Tindall’s parchment-dry title was “Chief, Apollo Data Priority Coordination,” a position created by Apollo Program chief George Low that quite unusually cut across several divisions of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Tindall worked with design engineers, contractors, mathematicians, programmers, mission controllers, and astronauts – everyone, really – to develop and hone the dozens of mission techniques that were used in each one of the twelve distinct phases of lunar missions. Guidance flight controller Steve Bales said of Tindall, “He had a thousand-ring circus going all the time.”
Flight Director Gene Kranz: “Tindall was pretty much the architect for all of the techniques that we used to go down to the surface of the moon. Tindall was the guy who put all the pieces together, and all we did is execute them. If there should have been a plaque left on the moon for somebody in Mission Control or Flight Control, it should have been for Bill Tindall. I respected Bill so much that when the time came for the lunar landing, the day of the lunar landing, I saw him up in the viewing room, and I told him to come on down and sit in the console with me for the landing. He didn’t want to come down, but I cleared everybody away and we had Bill Tindall there for landing, and I think that was probably the happiest day of his life. A spectacular guy.”
Late last month, the Johnson Space Center re-opened the painstakingly and beautifully restored Apollo-era Mission Operations Control Room, MOCR 2: https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/06/behind-the-scenes-at-nasas-newly-restored-historic-apollo-mission-control/
Tindall’s frequent memos – usually two to four a week – were all dictated because Patsy Saur, his secretary, said he’d better learn how because she was not going to lose her shorthand proficiency. They were called Tindallgrams by those who eagerly awaited their common sense, humor, and perfect condensations of discussions and decisions made during the meetings he conducted. Some of those meetings went on for two or three twelve-hour days, with anywhere from half a dozen to a hundred people in the conference room discussing – or, sometimes, shouting and arguing vehemently – and coming to a consensus on every item on the agenda – or, sometimes, accepting Tindall’s final decisions via Tindallgram. Tindall, Buzz Aldrin’s equal in orbital mechanics (Aldrin’s MIT doctoral thesis was “Line-of-Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous”), once estimated that he spent just 10 to 20% of his time on standard mission techniques and the rest developing finely-detailed “what if” contingency plans, many of which were never needed but some of which came in very handy indeed.
Just how complicated could Tindall’s mission techniques get? Consider that Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Mike Collins kept this CMP Solo Book chained around his neck from the moment Armstrong and Aldrin departed for the lunar surface; starting on page 60 are summarized procedures – cheat sheets, if you will – for eighteen different Lunar Module rescue scenarios that Collins might have to execute if his crewmates “never made it to the lunar surface, or if they got there early or late, or departed crooked or straight” (Collins in Carrying the Fire). Some involved Collins diving the 32-ton Command-Service Module from its 60-nautical-mile lunar orbit to as low as they dared – possibly down to 35,000 feet, but I think they would have been a tad more conservative – in order to catch up to the LM if its orbit was higher and slower than the CSM’s – an example of how counter-intuitive orbital mechanics can be.
Another of the 1,000+ Apollo memos Tindall wrote from 1966 to 1970 was on the topic of why Apollo 11’s Eagle overshot its intended landing site by four miles. It described how incomplete venting (that is, depressurization) of the docking tunnel prior to undocking caused the Lunar Module to pop like a cork off the Command Module with just a little extra velocity, which in turn caused significant changes in its descent profile. A new rule for subsequent missions required that Mission Control confirm complete depressurization of the tunnel. A related Tindallgram on other venting sources adversely affecting the descent trajectory was titled Vent bent descent, lament!, and he wasn’t shy about making his strong feelings on those vexing vents known to all the top brass at NASA, including chief spacecraft designer – also a culprit – Max Faget, in an unusually all-caps-titled VENTS (“This will either amuse you, waste your time, or just possibly accomplish something great.”)
After a three-day-long “Mission Techniques free-for-all” not even two weeks after Apollo 11, he wrote How to land next to a Surveyor – a short novel for do-it-yourselfers. That and a follow-up memo, in which he revised his previously pessimistic targeting prognosis, detailed new mission techniques that were key to Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad being able to set Intrepid down just 535 feet from the Surveyor 3 spacecraft that had, two-and-a-half years earlier, soft-landed on the Ocean of Storms after bouncing twice due to a slightly-too-early engine shutdown.
Such pinpoint accuracy was life-critical for later landings, in particular Apollo 17, which landed in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, a box canyon surrounded by mountains on three sides.
Oh, yeah…for a period of about a year in 1966-67, Tindall, who grew up in Scituate, Massachusetts, flew up to Cambridge from Houston for two or three days every week to help organize, focus, and speed up – effectively manage, sometimes in a blunt manner – the MIT Instrumentation Lab’s previously somewhat free-form development of the COLOSSUS and LUMINARY software for the Apollo Guidance Computers (AGC) in the Command and Lunar Modules, respectively. (He visited often enough that he sent out a TripAdvisor style memo every now and then.)
Early on, Lab engineers reported, to Tindall’s great alarm, that their code was about 30,000 bytes in excess of the 72,000 available in the AGC. 13 October 1966, the day Tindall directed them, in person, to eliminate much duplicated code that he had found, and to cut several elegant but non-essential and hence memory-wasting routines, became known to those in the Instrumentation Lab as “Black Friday.” But they did what he asked, and over time came to realize just how beneficial his involvement was to their work.
Here’s a profile of Margaret Hamilton, who, two years after the Lab’s early difficulties, became leader of the Apollo spacecraft software development effort: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/margaret-hamilton-led-nasa-software-team-landed-astronauts-moon-180971575/
Charles Fishman, who contacted me while researching his new book, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon, says that when Tindall died in 1995, not one newspaper in the country ran an obituary. It’s even difficult to find any photographs of him bigger than a postage stamp, but here are a couple: below, one in his office (from episode 3 of the also excellent “Moon Machines” series, playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTu8nanTJo7GvulBxz9JT9JcXeXimM1Vr) and he’s in the center of this photo taken during Apollo 13, chin in hand, looking at papers – some probably written by him.
I’ve always thought that more people ought to know about this remarkable man. To paraphrase him, if you are still with me, hardy reader, now you do.
I think it’s safe to say he thoroughly disliked inaccuracy and inexactitude, which may be reflected in the “H. Timdell” [sic] name I noticed taped to the wall behind him in that photo, the misspelling likely from some conference he attended. I’ve no evidence for it, but I like to think he kept it up there to point out to visitors at appropriate moments, perhaps with a raised eyebrow and a little flourish of sarcasm.
We’d all get in there and defend our [computer] requirements, and then Tindall would cut them. And then we’d cuss him. And Tindall would grin, and cuss back, and laugh his loud, infectious laugh, and keep right on going.
– Apollo flight director Cliff Charlesworth