Friday, November 13, 2015

Steely-Eyed Missile Men

Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean, the crew of Apollo 12

Tomorrow, November 14, is "SCE to AUX Day," one of the obscurer high holidays on the Space Age geek calendar. It's a reminder of how close the nation once came to disaster, and how one quick-witted person saved the day.

On November 14, 1969, Apollo 12 blasted off for the Moon in cloudy, crummy weather. Half a minute after liftoff it was struck by a bolt of lightning that fried every control in the command module and followed the ship's exhaust trail all the way to ground. This four-minute video tells the story. Short version: if not for the deep knowledge and calm decision-making of flight controller John Aaron, who remembered seeing a similar situation during a training simulation and told the astronauts to flip one switch--"Try SCE (Signal Conditioning Electronics) to AUX (Auxiliary)"--the mission would have been aborted, the rocket destroyed, and the astronauts possibly killed. No one else, including the astronauts, had the faintest idea what "SCE to AUX" meant, but they flipped the switch and their instruments came back on. Apollo 12 was saved.

Aaron's cool action under extreme pressure earned him the supreme NASA compliment of "steely-eyed missile man," a phrase I was delighted to hear used in "The Martian" movie.

The more dramatic perils of Apollo 13 are better-known, and rightly so, but Apollo 12's situation was just as dire. "SCE to AUX" is a reminder of just how dangerous those missions were, how thin the margins for error, and what a huge difference it made having the right smart people in the right place at the right time--and then trusting them when they told you to try something that wasn't in the manual.

Both Apollos 12 and 13 could have easily ended tragically. Apollo astronauts have since admitted they figured their chances of completing a successful mission and returning in one piece were 50-50. The fact that six missions landed on the Moon and returned their crews home is an astonishing triumph against great odds and a testament to tremendous courage (you'll recall that the astronauts of Apollo 13 didn't land on the Moon but successfully limped back to Earth, which has to count as a triumph, too).

A couple of years ago I had a chance to meet Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon. Before the event, I asked the biggest space geek I know, my pal Jim O'Kane (whose Bureau of Astonishing Explanations has a library of wonderful short videos on a wealth of space topics and trivia, check it out), what he'd ask Gordon if he had the chance.

Ever since Apollo 12's liftoff, there's been a question/controversy about the presence of President Richard Nixon at the launch. Some think that the liftoff went ahead despite bad weather because Nixon had come to watch it, and nobody had the guts to scrub the launch and send the president home empty-handed. That was my question: did Gordon think Nixon's presence put any pressure on NASA to launch when maybe they shouldn't have?

Gordon shut me down before I had the question half out of my mouth.

"No," he said sharply. "Nobody at NASA would have done that. That wasn't the way we operated in those days."

Gordon seemed a little insulted. Nice job, Jim, you made me piss off an Apollo astronaut. I was also pretty sure that, at the age of 84, Gordon could have still kicked my ass if he'd wanted to.

Still, he was nice enough to autograph a Command Module model I'd brought for the occasion, and we had a nice conversation over a pizza afterward, so I think I was forgiven.

I also gave him a copy of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow.
When he asked "What's it about?" I answered, "Well, you're in it."

The further the Wild West frontier days of spaceflight fade into history, the more astonishing their accomplishments become. The hardware of the era looks more and more primitive. It's all chicken wire and rudimentary computers slower and stupider than those in a modern baby's toy. I can't help but recall Princess Leia's first impression of the Millennium Falcon: "You came in that thing? You're braver than I thought." After all, the Apollo 12 mission is closer in time to Lindbergh's flight in 1927 than it is to us.

"SCE to AUX" shows that it's not hardware and software that make the difference between great success and failure. Not entirely, anyway. The most vital, indispensable resource is people, such as John Aaron, who are so well-prepared that they know what to do when something they haven't prepared for inevitably happens. We can update the equipment all we want but we'll always need steely-eyed missile men.