From the Apollo Flight Journal and the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, this is the best annotated Apollo 11 descent footage I’ve seen yet. The 16mm/6fps film, shot from the top of Buzz Aldrin’s Lunar Module window 50 years ago later today at about 4pm Eastern, starts after a 3-minute explanatory intro. You’ll want to watch this full-screen.
That descent is the subject of the 12-part “13 Minutes to the Moon” podcast*, which you can find here. What they did to prevent those 1200-series program alarms on future missions is discussed in the comments on the Tindallgrams post.
Twenty-five hours later on 21 July:
Bigger and bigger the LM gets in my window, until finally it nearly fills it completely. I haven’t touched the controls. Neil is flying in formation with me, and doing it beautifully, with no relative motion between us. I guess he is about fifty feet away, which means the rendezvous is over. “I got the earth coming up…it’s fantastic!” I shout at Neil and Buzz, and grab for my camera, to get all three actors (earth, moon, and Eagle) in the same picture. Too bad Columbia will show up only as a window frame, if at all.
– Mike Collins in Carrying the Fire
And it sure is fantastic. A large version of this one is in my upstairs hallway.
The best of the 23-photo sequence taken by Mike Collins during approach and stationkeeping; click for a 4163×4125 version
Collins, one the most personable of the Apollo astronauts, narrated this week’s Google Doodle, where the animation was nicely done – and, I’ll add, more accurate than the animations in some recently-produced documentaries.
When I saw the animation below in the 3rd episode of Smithsonian Channel’s new “Apollo’s Moon Shot” series, I made a rather unpleasant just-ate-a-lemon face and said “Ack!” to no one in particular. The series is otherwise very good, with Andrew Chaikin, author of the iconic A Man on the Moon, one of the talking heads, and National Air & Space Museum curators showing historic objects, but see here: During Transposition and Docking, Collins used the sixteen tiny Reaction Control System thrusters on the sides of the Service Module – each producing just 50 pounds of thrust – to move gingerly with short puffs. Using the Service Propulsion System engine’s 20,000 pounds of non-throttleable thrust as their animation showed would have been overkill in quite a literal sense, with the result two destroyed spacecraft, three dead crew, and probably one dead Project Apollo. This is just the sort of nit I’m not hesitant to pick.
I’m certain Chaikin will have had his head in his hands when he saw this in the completed episode. Gee, you’d think they’d run stuff like this past someone with even passing knowledge of Apollo before sending it out into the world, wouldn’t you? I dunno…maybe someone who was already under contract to the production…say, how about Chaikin? How embarrassing for them.
One of the four Service Module Reaction Control System quads. The assembly, whose housing includes heaters, is about 33″/83.8cm x 25″/73.7cm and the engine nozzles have a 5 and 5/8″/14.3cm diameter.
*Over the nine hours of “13 Minutes to the Moon,” I noted only one minor error – in episode 10, when presenter Kevin Fong says CAPCOM Charlie Duke instructs the crew to “rotate Eagle and redirect their antenna.” Duke was actually giving them the pitch and yaw values (-9, +18) for the steerable S-band antenna, which Aldrin entered on the guidance computer using Noun 51 – Desired S-Band Pitch, Yaw Angles. Rotating the entire LM for better radio reception during descent would have been kind of a big deal, and inadvisable, which is exactly why that antenna was steerable. In any case, I’d say a single small mistake in nine hours is not a bad error rate.
The round black antenna pointed at Earth is the steerable S-band
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.
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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.”
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.
Here’s a YouTube link to an MIT “Engineering Apollo” class with the sharp and funny Collins in 2015. The interviewer/presenter is Professor David Mindell, the author of Digital Apollo.
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.
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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.
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.
Bill Tindall; click for a larger version
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.
The security people have roped off a walkway for us, and we give jerky little waves to the photographers as we walk stiff-legged toward the van. Charlie Buckley, the head security man at the Cape, is there to greet us—another little pre-flight ritual. There are certain amenities to be observed, such as presenting Guenter Wendt, the czar of the launch pad, with a going-away present. Guenter has spent the past couple of weeks telling me what a great fisherman he is, and how he regularly plucks giant trout from the ocean. In return, I have located the smallest trout to be found in these parts, a minnow really, and have had it, uncured, nailed to a plaque and inscribed GUENTER’S TROPHY TROUT. I carry it now inside a brown paper shopping bag, which Charlie Buckley eyes suspiciously. I am a bit nervous about it myself. What if my awkward gloved hands drop it and the trout tumbles out in front of all those photographers? They are here to see us leave the earth, with dignity and perhaps a little pomp, but what if their cameras instead record an ungainly scramble after a tiny dead fish? What would Walter Cronkite say?
I knew about the trout, but after reading of it again the other day and then watching the new Apollo 11 film Blu-ray, my eyebrows shot up when I saw he had good reason to be nervous: The bag was safely upright as they left the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building, but when Collins turned left to follow Armstrong into the Astrovan (a converted Clark Cortez Motorhome), it caught on his Portable Oxygen Ventilator and tilted dangerously downward; another five or ten degrees and he would have let the trout out of the bag.
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In the White Room, Guenter’s estimate of his fishing prowess:
Wendt, who died in 2010, still had the trout when he was interviewed in 1992 below – after having it gutted and properly mounted, of course. The video is cued up to the trout bit.
Armstrong gave Wendt a voucher for a free ride in a space taxi and Aldrin presented a booklet called “Good News for Modern Man”, a condensed modern version of the New Testament. In 2015, the trout plaque, taxi voucher, and booklet sold at auction for US$10,625, $8,125, and $5,000, respectively.
“No ‘General’, just Mike. Old Mike if you want to be formal. And if you really want to get into it, Lucky Old Mike.”
– Collins during this interview at the National Press Club, April 2019
16 July 1969: Collins suiting up in a frame from this year’s “Apollo 11” documentary film
Mike Collins, Command Module Pilot of Apollo 11, wrote what is considered one of if not the best of the astronaut memoirs, Carrying the Fire, originally published in 1974. It’s finally been released as an ebook, so I’m rereading it in its weightless form now. If you read it after watching his recent hour-plus Aero-Astro classes at MIT here, it’s quickly obvious that he had no ghostwriter for this book – a rarity in such memoirs. It’s fully and delightfully in his own voice.
Gemini and Apollo astronauts underwent both tropical and desert survival training in case they reentered – or aborted during launch phase – away from recovery forces and ended up in entirely the wrong place; cold weather training wasn’t needed because the orbital mechanics of Gemini and Apollo flights dictated paths near the equator. Wrapping up the narrative of his Air Force tropical survival school training in Panama, he has this to say in the book:
“Somewhere along the way I picked up a couple of hundred companions, chiggers, evenly distributed from the waist down. I cannot adequately explain to the unchiggered what they are missing. My dictionary says simply that chiggers are ‘the parasitic larva of certain mites.’ It doesn’t say they are also abominable little red creatures who burrow into your skin, where they ultimately die. Uneasy in their terminal tunnels, they either jump about or dig deeper, or secrete some irritant, or something; at any rate they itch like crazy. Friends are always pleased to offer remedies. ‘Rub them with Scotch and sand. They’ll get drunk and stone each other to death.’ They merely itch worse when they (or you) have a hangover. ‘Have you tried an ice pick?’ The most popular notion (false) is that they can be suffocated, and I have heard doctors recommend covering each spot with clear nail polish. Why clear rather than blush pink (my natural color) I cannot say, but I can say with authority that it doesn’t work either, nor does the iodine-like chigger medicine sold in pharmacies. The only thing to do is wait ten days for the truculent little bastards to die or depart, leaving behind a cratered field of battle not easily forgotten by the landowner.”
The quotation is from Mike Collins, Command Module Pilot of Apollo 11, as their spacecraft entered lunar orbit. He was commenting on how well the computer had controlled their Lunar Orbit Insertion burn, adjusting their course to velocities accurate within a tenth of a foot per second in all three axes – essentially perfect. In full, from the onboard audio recording:
Minus 1, minus 1, plus 1. Jesus! I take back any bad things I ever said about MIT – which I never have.
Collins wrote the best of the astronaut biographies, Carrying the Fire, and he turned 88 today. He’s behind the moon in this crew photo, when all three of them, born in 1930, were 39:
MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics curriculum includes a graduate semester devoted to “Engineering Apollo” – where twenty-six class sessions barely scratch the surface, according to the professor in the first video below – itself one of those twenty-six classes. Collins was a guest there in 2015 and last year.