Monday, September 07, 2009


Space, MOL, and Apollo

Brief Recollections of Two Space Programs--- MOL and Apollo

This is a set of reminders to me of my involvements in MOL and Apollo in a sort of outline form for later expansion.

A fellow IBM’er, Phil Jackson’s story of being called by Von Braun: the beginning of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of computers, software and engineering contracted to IBM.

Eddie White walking in space, and his death on the pad—1969.Eddie was a high school friend and fellow Air Force brat. We both lived on Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio, and went to Oakwood Jr High. The summer of 1944 was a glorious time for us, with all of the Officer’s Club facilities at our disposal—swimming pool, golf course, and the always fascinating show of aircraft at both bases. The war was always up front, and the loss of our parent’s friends was a constant reminder that it was deeply serious. But, we were 13, and just feeling our way into life. Late in 1944, my father was reassigned to Brookley AFB in Mobile, Alabama, and that was the end of my association with Eddie.

Technological Marvels of the period with which I found myself deeply associated:
The massive Mission Control Center in Houston
The architecture of the mission control computer complex
The Manned Spacecraft network
Fred Matthews—number 2 to Chris Craft, the voice of NASA.
The Mercury Triple-redundant computer--- had three failures upon recovery!
The Apollo flight computer architecture
Standing next to an Apollo at the Cape
Dr. Pete Castruccio
Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California.
Aerospace Corporation, and many other shops

39 PhDs in IBM and 40 others---all working for me! If I needed a monk with a PhD and an MD that spoke Russian, and was expert in gravity effects on the human body, I would have him inside of a few days. Not quite an exaggeration! We took over the entire Sands Motel on the beach!

Critical Mission issues: What can be observed from space and in which portions of the spectrum? Weapons in space; Space-to-ground weapons; Defending space vehicles; An 8 shot program to define the AF role—6 experimental and the last 2 operational; eventually changed to 7 total as the mission set was refined and costs became a huge constraint.

The first mission was to be experiments with very high resolution reconnaissance from space, with presumably very rapid turnaround for indicators or tels of impending war, such as the simultaneous opening of multiple Russian missile silo covers.

Critical Space issues: Working in zero gravity; Design of the Laboratory and its life support; Command Module from Gemini; Design of the various experiments; Weight Control; Configuration of the 6 experiment packages; Reliability and Maintainability---Man-rated systems—Escape systems; Radiation; Booster design---Saturn V, Titan IIIM; What orbits? Maintaining orbits and maneuverability; Weapons development; Target acquisition and tracking; and a few hundred other details…

Critical Support issues: Vandenberg SLC-6 Launch Complex for operational missions; Cape Canaveral for the experimental shots.

It was a tour de force in physics, mathematics, large scale, complex systems engineering, management of highly diverse technical teams, with a worldwide perspective.

A huge, multi-tiered set of flowcharts and PERT Time and PERT Cost schedule charts to create and maintain. The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) ran to many tiers and sub-tiers, to accommodate every subcontractor’ role.

Winning the Contract Definition phase for MOL! It is hard for me to express the joy, pride, and thankfulness that came over me, and everyone else, when we, the DAC Team were announced as the winner.

I was appointed manager of On-Board Laboratory Systems for the Recon Mission of the Lab, reporting to the IBM MOL contract manager—Pete Castruccio—who in turn reported to the Douglas Aircraft Company MOL Manager, whose name I have totally forgotten. We were given many constraints up front, derived from Aerospace Company design phase work: weight of add-on equipment; volume, allowance for life support systems; mission timeline; materials we couldn’t use; standard practices for man-rated systems, and a big pile of studies from all over the industry, NASA and AF labs to draw upon covering just about all questions one could ask. It was a 10-foot shelf of technical volumes we had to master. We then had to build MOL Contract-specific volumes for all areas.

The resolution of the optics from altitude was key to the recon mission, and it was up to our subcontractor to produce a telescopic system and stabilized platform inside the Lab stabilization system that would give us literally inches of ground resolution under good seeing conditions.

Gearing up for the contract; 20 new hires, with another bunch to follow.

And Then, the Axe Falls

Hearing the announcement of the cancellation of MOL, in favor of unmanned Key Hole systems and Apollo was devastating--June 1969. It was the end of the road for MOL and me in the space program. By good luck, another program role was waiting for me and the team I had built.

IBM’s Mission Simulation for Apollo—Tom Armstrong—GPSS. This was the first time I had seen such an elaborate simulation. It covered every phase of a mission from launch through recovery, and all main alternatives in the event of failure at each stage, with timelines. Geoffery Gordon, the GPSS inventor, was Tom’s main advisor. This simulation approach I used much later to create a complex system design tool of great power.
IBM’s Instrument Ring for Apollo. Yes, IBM built a 5-foot high portion of the Saturn V in Huntsville, called the Instrument Ring.

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My father was Tom Armstrong (Weldon Thomas Armstrong), research test pilot for Apollo 11 along with Leo Crupp and Al Moyles. I have very little information on his days with North American Rockwell and NASA and would love to find more history.

Tom Armstrong and a team of IBMers briefed me and my team over several days on the Apollo mission simulation package. This was at the IBM facility in Houston in about 1967 as best I can remember.

Tom gave the overall presentation, and stayed with us to answer the flood of questions we all had about it. I was greatly impressed with his knowledge of Apollo, the mission details, and the simulator. His enthusiasm was infectious, and I was so caught up in the idea that I used the same principles in my own work.

I do know that the mission simulator was used during the fated Apollo 13 flight as one tool to help figure out what could be done to bring the astronauts safely home. For this, I give Tom great credit, and his contribution must be honored by all of us, and the nation.

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