The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings
By Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Jay Barbree
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2011 Jay Barbree, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton
All rights reserved.
DURING THE FIVE DECADES FOLLOWING Alan Shepard's first launch in 1961, NASA's enormous accomplishments were respected and admired the world over. Those responsible for the agency's successes followed a simple axiom: Good is the enemy of great. Yet they were now watching NASA leaders aim for good enough and settle for misions on the cheap. On this particular night many of the old guard had gathered to witness the countdown for the final night launch of a space shuttle. Among the gathering was a man known to few in today's NASA. Only veterans recognized him as a member of the astronauts' original trio of command—the space flyer that had replaced Alan Shepard in the astronauts' front office, had taken the helm when Shepard left to fly Apollo 14 to the moon's third landing. This day he still served at a meaningful post in NASA as the Chairman of the International Space Station Advisory Task Force.
He had not always been at a desk. Thomas P. Stafford had sat atop four rockets: Gemini 6, the first ever rendezvous of two manned spacecraft; Gemini 9, with Astronaut Gene Cernan; and Apollo 10, again with Cernan, a full dress rehearsal of the historic Apollo 11 mission. It was Tom Stafford's fourth and final spaceflight that would arguably be the planet's most important. He commanded the historic Apollo-Soyuz flight with Deke Slayton and Vance Brand. More than 80,000 nuclear warheads were pointed by and at the Soviet Union and America when Apollo and Soyuz launched. The rendezvous, docking, and handshake in space were credited with arresting the Cold War.
This day, in large part—
"May I have your attention please," the words boomed over speakers across the center. "This night launch is from Complex 39. Although an accident during the first 30 seconds of flight is unlikely, some safety cautions are necessary.
"A potential danger exists from toxic vapors ..."
Stafford had heard all the safety announcements before. He looked up as clattering helicopters filled the night. Rescue blades chopping the black sky. The final warning the big space plane was ready.
"T-minus 15 seconds and counting."
At T-minus 9 seconds, the first of the shuttle Discovery's three main engines ignited, followed swiftly by the second, then the third, and then it was almost possible to hear the hush seconds before the twin booster rockets ignited. There was an enormous burst of flame from the boosters that swept away the night, seemingly bringing day as they blasted their way downward, into the sloping cavity where they met a Niagara of cooling water in the pad's flame trench, tens of thousands of gallons turning the boosters' overwhelming fire into a mountain of steam. Tom Stafford identified with the astronauts. He too had been there in that instant of full alert when he had to perform with catlike precision.
Not one of the thousands of spectators surrounding the spaceport could take their eyes off the enormity of it all: The shuttle was alive and that wonderful space machine, that great, not just good enough, engineered and honed million assembled parts working in magnificent harmony lifted from earth shaking a shower of ice and snow from the skin of its gargantuan fuel tank. The—
That's when it hit ...
The space shuttle's voice was mighty, a thousand jetliners tearing across the Florida sand and scrub brush, pounding its way through hands cupped tightly over ears—hands that helped but did not stop the shaking. Bodies felt as if they were being shaken by King Kong himself, shaken without mercy. People were instantly startled to see their skin move—to see their flesh roll in small yet perfect patterns. It did not hurt. Only the sound brought the stunning and numbing. It pounded and leapt and trampled. Not thunder, not roar. It was too loud for that. Sound created by the shock waves from the shuttle's engines and boosters. It mixed and swirled and collided, banged and crashed and slammed, poured out in all directions as a series of staccato explosions—a terrible crackling pain to the ears, assaulting the body, yet sweet and exhilarating and worth the beating the thousands assembled were taking, and they reeled back from the sheer fury of it all.
And as the assemblage drank in the unbelievable assault on their senses, they stared into the blinding mass of golden fire, as if they were children enjoying a perfect Christmas. Tom Stafford watched the flames grow, watched them wash downward as the shuttle heaved itself farther into the—no, there was no night. It had been banished by Discovery's flames. The brightness of it all tore into Stafford's eyes and he managed a moment to catch his breath as he saw the flames form a ragged spear as the great space plane climbed higher and higher, and he could only stare deeply into the golden color, watch it turn into a rich orange, watch as red appeared along the edges and then the shuttle's flaming thrust was longer than three football fields hooked together and he knew if one could love a machine he loved that one and he shouted, "Go you beautiful son-of-a-bitch, GO!"
Stafford had been part of the small group of visionaries who counseled President Nixon to build the space shuttle fleet. He had been there at the beginning and on this night he was there at the end as he watched Discovery 's contrail thin and grow wide, twisting in the high winds. The shuttle's twin boosters burned out and tumbled away, falling into a parachute recovery on the sea.
The engines would now spend the next six minutes pushing their spaceship faster and faster up the eastern seaboard as the raucousness of it all suddenly faded. As night returned so did the protesting cries of fowl that had been shaken from their roosts. It was the kind of night pilots call severe clear and Stafford settled his nerves and pounded muscles and watched and watched as the bright pinpoints of the three core engines faded.
The magic was suddenly gone. Time was moving again. Stafford could see no more and he filled his lungs with ocean air, felt his body finally relax. His muscles were all used up but his mind was clear and he spoke quietly only to himself. "Life was good when magnificent machines flew."
THERE ARE SOME SOUTHERN TOWNS that are cocooned in time, content to let the industrial and technological age pass by. In the 1950s one such community was Huntsville, Alabama. It was like many other towns of its vintage and size, moving with a courtly glide, its major contribution to its citizens a courthouse centered in the town square.
The future loomed barely ten miles west of Huntsville. The future was Redstone Arsenal, an unlovely complex along Alabama Highway 72 in the thick of the north Alabama clay hills and tall pines that stretched on to the Tennessee River. Here the U.S. Army loaded explosive materials into artillery shells, bombs, and other weapons that helped America secure a hands-down triumph in World War II. With the war over, however, activity at the Redstone Arsenal ceased. The Army closed the facility, and Huntsville returned to its tranquil times.
Five years later, in 1950, the arsenal came back to life as hundreds of engineers, technicians, specialists, scientists, and their support personnel descended. Their number included 118 men who had come with their families from the center of Europe. The most prized rocket team of the infamous Third Reich.
They came to a run-down Redstone Arsenal to work, to Huntsville to live, and their purpose was to construct a rocket laboratory that would propel the Western world into the second half of the twentieth century. They represented Hitler's finest, recruited by the U.S. government from a nation where only a few short years earlier Alabama's young men had fought and died. They were German citizens by birth that had been offered American citizenship and a new home amid the quiet cotton fields of rural Alabama. Having designed, constructed, tested, and launched deadly missiles for the Reich, including the V-l and V-2 rockets whose explosive force had terrorized London during the Blitz, these scientists and engineers were now commissioned to design, construct, test, and launch long-range missiles for the United States. Arriving in Huntsville, they were confident they could exceed their past performance.
Nobody questioned his or her expertise. The American military was without any missile skills and considered these Germans to be the most valuable booty from the defeated Third Reich. They had been recruited through Operation Paperclip, a secret U.S. Army program created to scour Germany for rocket, atomic, and aircraft specialists who could be brought to America and kept together as a team.
The lead German scientist was Dr. Wernher von Braun, a brilliant propulsion engineer with a dynamic, commanding presence. He was a visionary who from his youth had dreamed of developing rockets to explore outer space. Many of his fellow scientists and engineers shared his vision and had established rocket clubs in pre-war Berlin. With the advent of war, these engineers had been forced to build weapons of destruction for Adolf Hitler. When von Braun's V-2 rocket first hit London, he remarked to some of his colleagues, "The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet."
With Germany crumbling, with the Americans and their European allies advancing from the west and the Russians from the east, von Braun called his top men to a secret meeting.
"Germany has lost the war," von Braun announced. "But let U.S. not forget that it was our team that first succeeded in reaching outer space. We have never stopped believing in satellites, voyages to the moon, and interplanetary travel. We have suffered many hardships because of our faith in the great peacetime future of the rocket. Now we have an obligation. Each of the conquering powers wants our knowledge. The question we must answer is: To what country shall we entrust our heritage?" The answer was unanimous. They all wanted to surrender to America. In America they might still realize their dreams—explore space and reach the moon.
The Armament Ministry in Berlin directed von Braun to destroy all classified material relating to his missile research. He disobeyed. He hid his documents and von Braun and several of his top scientists and technicians were moved by SS troops to an area south of Munich where they suspected they would be murdered to silence their missile know-how.
But in the confusion of Germany's collapse, the rocket men were able to surrender to the American Army near the Bavarian ski resort of Oberjoch in May 1945. The Americans were delighted to have found the German scientists, and von Braun and 117 of his key team members were sent to the United States under contract to the Army to build rockets. Once the Germans arrived in the United States, however, the country hardly knew what to do with them. The world was at peace, and Congress was not of a mind to appropriate much money for rocket research, much less space exploration. So von Braun and his team, lonely and discouraged, were deposited at Fort Bliss, Texas, and left to tinker with captured V-2s and instructed to teach rocketry to those in the Army who were interested.
"The United States had no ballistic missile program worth mentioning between 1945 and 1951," von Braun complained years later. "Those six years during which the Russians obviously laid the groundwork for their large rocket program were irretrievably lost."
Although the United States recruited the cream of the German rocket scientists, the Soviets captured many of those left behind and began their own missile program.
In 1950 the fortunes of the Germans at Fort Bliss changed when the Army received confirmation of Soviet rocket activity and immediately decided to establish a rocket research and development center.
Huntsville, Alabama, became the new home for the German team. The Army brass promised a warm reception from the local community, but there were still too many empty beds, broken hearts, and still-fresh World War II gravesites of Alabama soldiers for the people of Huntsville to welcome the Germans with any hospitality. Many were suspicious and unable to accept that the scientists had transferred their loyalties from Nazi Germany to the United States as quickly and easily as they seemed to.
Tensions eased when the Alabamans learned these men were not Nazis. And gradually this energetic, dedicated band of Germans—who had learned to speak English at Fort Bliss—won the respect and support of their stubborn hosts. Much of the credit for this turnaround went to von Braun, the charismatic leader who worked tirelessly to create goodwill within the community.
Just weeks after the arsenal reopened on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded a startled and unprepared South Korea. Two days later President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. troops to Korea. The Korean War energized the arsenal. The Army, under orders from Washington, directed the von Braun team to develop the country's first ballistic missile. It was required to propel a conventional or nuclear warhead two hundred miles and be mobile enough to be ferried around the battlefront by combat troops. The missile was named Redstone, after the arsenal.
Once more the German engineers and scientists were called on to build a weapon of war, their hopes for space rocket research and development derailed again. Little did they know that this slender sixty-nine-foot rocket would one day be their ticket to space.
The Germans and the American engineers working with them designed the Redstone from scratch, fired its engine in test stands, shaped its dynamics in wind tunnels, and verified its structure in vibrating machines. By 1956, the Redstone had become more than a battlefield missile. Coming on line were more powerful fifteen-hundred-mile-range missiles—the Air Force Thor and Army Jupiter—and the Air Force's Atlas and Titan, the true intercontinental range brutes designed to loft nuclear warheads five thousand miles or more. Missiles this large all shared the same problem: when their warheads were hurled into space, they had to reenter the earth's atmosphere to reach their targets. Their sixteen-thousand-mile-per-hour speed would create such friction when they hit the dense air on reentry that the heat would melt the warhead. Existing materials were adequate for the warhead of the Redstone, which flew lower and slower. New protective materials had to be developed for the larger rockets and the Pentagon asked von Braun to build a rocket that could fly at sixteen thousand miles per hour, allowing it to carry out warhead reentry tests.
The Huntsville team adapted the one-stage Redstone for the job. It lengthened the rocket, modified the engine, and added two upper stages, consisting of a total of fourteen small rockets, and called the modified booster a Jupiter-C. Atop this stack they added the unarmed warhead, stuffed with recording instruments, its nose cone coated with the new protective material. It worked perfectly on the first test launch, and the dummy warhead survived.
"Do you realize what we've done?" von Braun asked his team. "We went higher than six hundred miles, we sent the warhead more than three thousand miles, and we reached a speed of sixteen thousand miles an hour—higher, farther, and faster than any rocket has flown. If we had just one more small rocket on top, we could have placed a satellite in orbit around the earth!"
The Huntsville gang, as von Braun's scientists had become known, was exuberant. Excitement swept their ranks. Von Braun and the Army asked the Pentagon for permission to add that single stage to the backup Jupiter-C, dubbed Missile 29. Despite the resounding success of the Jupiter-C, the response to von Braun's request was anything but certain.
Two years earlier, in 1954, von Braun and other space enthusiasts from industry and academia had met in Washington to discuss the U.S. contribution to International Geophysical Year, a cooperative scientific effort through which scientists around the world would study the earth and which would be observed between July 1957 and December 1958. Von Braun said he could orbit a five-pound satellite to study the upper atmosphere by adding upper stages to the Redstone rocket. The Office of Naval Research put up eighty-eight thousand dollars, and Project Orbiter was born. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Moon Shot by Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Jay Barbree. Copyright © 2011 Jay Barbree, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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