Meeting the Apollo Legends

PHOTO DATE: 04-06-10
SUBJECT: Apollo Mission Control open house

I got to thinking about this photograph (taken in Mission Control during STS-131) while reading one of my Christmas books – “How NASA Learned to Fly in Space”, by David Harland. The picture features a few legends of Apollo, including astronaut Jim Lovell and Flight Director Gerry Griffin. (My Capcom, Megan Macarthur is looking over my shoulder, and FD Mike Sarafin is in there as well). They’d stopped in to chat during some sort of Apollo 13 event, and we took the opportunity to compare notes on rendezvous procedures, then and now. The amazing thing – most everything that we did in the Shuttle era was familiar to the guys who developed the techniques back in Gemini.

The book I mentioned was all about Gemini, and I don’t know how I had missed it before. If you want a detailed, yet readable, account of all the Gemini missions, you must find a copy – just outstanding stuff. I was taught the fundamentals of space navigation and rendezvous by the guys that developed it all during the two-seat Gemini program, and so many of their lessons and rules of thumb came back to me as I found my way through the book. Lovell was one of those guys that flew those missions and Griffin was one of the early Flight Directors that oversaw the development of the procedures and trajectories. I think that you can tell from the smiles that we were all having a good time, bringing past and present together.

As we flipped through the pages of the STS-131 Rendezvous checklist, it was fun to see that the names of the various maneuvers were familiar to Lovell, since they hadn’t really changed very much. When I read the book, it was fun for me to see just how quickly rendezvous procedures matured back then – and how once we had good solutions to bring spacecraft together in orbit, we stuck with what worked. Rendezvous is both simple in concept and incredibly complex in execution – space is really, really big, and spacecraft are really, really small. But with good tracking, good mathematics, and solid technique flight control teams and astronauts have always worked together to make it work.

“All flight controllers, I need a Go/NoGo for Ti!”

Iron Flight

Paul F. Dye