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Review: Countdown to a Moon Launch

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Countdown to a Moon Launch: Preparing Apollo for Its Historic Journey
by Jonathan H. Ward
Springer, 2015
paperback, 435 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-3-319-17791-5

When NASA starts launching human missions beyond Earth orbit, it will do so at what some critics might consider to be a glacial pace. The first Space Launch System mission to carry a crewed Orion spacecraft is now planned for as late as April 2023, the result of a recent cost and schedule analysis by NASA known, in the agency’s program management parlance, as Key Decision Point C. That could be just the second SLS launch, as the only other SLS mission on the books now is the first SLS/Orion mission, without a crew, planned for late 2018. NASA hopes to eventually get to a point of flying SLS and Orion once or twice a year as it builds up experience in what it calls the “proving ground” of cislunar space prior to sending humans to Mars.

Compare that to the halcyon year of 1969, the apex of the Apollo program, when NASA launched four Saturn V rockets (five in less than 12 months, if one counts from Apollo 8 in December 1968 to Apollo 12 in November 1969.) NASA, of course, had greater resources then, plus the motivation to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon and fulfill Kennedy’s goal of a landing by the end of the decade. But they were also dealing with new vehicles, new facilities, and limited experience. How were they able to successfully launch all those missions?

Schedules were worked out on a blackboard, and at the end of the day “a photographer came in to photograph the blackboard. The photo was converted into the next day’s schedule.”

Jonathan Ward’s book Countdown to a Moon Launch offers an answer to that question. A companion to Rocket Ranch, his book about the facilities at the Kennedy Space Center (see “Review: Rocket Ranch”, The Space Review, September 21, 2015), this book examines the intricate processes involved with launching a Saturn V. Ward examines the preparations for one particular mission—Apollo 11—on a week-by-week, then day-by-day and hour-by-hour, as the managers, engineers, and other workers got the launch vehicle and spacecraft ready for launch.

It might, at first glance, seem a bit of a stretch to turn launch processing for a mission into an entire book. However, as he did in Rocket Ranch, Ward mixes detailed technical information about launch preparations with anecdotes and other insights from the people who worked there. And, while the book primarily follows the preparations for Apollo 11, Ward includes events from other missions as well, particularly in cases where things did not go according to plan, as Apollo 11 had few major issues leading up to launch.

One area of interest in the book is how planning and scheduling for each mission was carried out. “The magnitude of the challenge is almost impossible to conceive,” Ward writes, particularly given the communications technologies of the day. While we take for granted project management software, email, and intranets to develop and disseminate plans, those earlier efforts were quite different: schedules were worked out on a blackboard, and at the end of the day “a photographer came in to photograph the blackboard. The photo was converted into the next day’s schedule.” Later, planned advanced to magnetic tags on metal boards.

The book also includes some interesting stories about the work preparing the Apollo 11 and other missions for launch not widely known. In one case, shortly after the third stage of the Saturn V that would launch Apollo 11 arrived at KSC, workers found a note in a restroom: “I have fixed the vehicle, and you won’t find it in time.” Fearing sabotage, the FBI was called in to investigate. The note, it turned out, was left by someone who wanted to have “a little fun” after a three-martini lunch. In another case, the Apollo 11 launch was nearly postponed after finding a suspected bad solder joint in a Saturn V electronics box. The delay was avoided after engineers checked the joint and decided—correctly—that it was good.

So are there lessons from Countdown to a Moon Launch for NASA as it plans to resume human missions beyond Earth orbit in the next decade? Not, to be certain, in some of the management approaches: it seems unlikely, in the second decade of the 21st century, NASA will revert to blackboards to schedule the workflow of launch preparations. But the planning, teamwork, and flexibility to cope with problems are all attributes as useful in the 2010s as they were in the 1960s.