Wednesday, March 27, 2019


Exactly how were the two huge crawler-transporters that move the giant rockets from the VAB at the Kennedy Space Center to launch complex 39 pads A and B born? It’s a question that has come up often. Frankly, very few people actually know the correct answer. For the most part the official public pamphlets, the bus tour guides and even the space agency’s own web sites sort of write around that question. They direct you toward the mechanics of constructing the vehicles on-site and the tremendous astonishing weights involved and then they press on to the Saturn V and other amazing details. Yet, the question remains… who thought of these machines? Someone or some group had to come up with the idea in the first place… right?

Crawler /Transporter being assembled.

First of all for us in this search- forget everything you read on Wiki… whatever, and what is posted by on social media by self appointed “spaceflight experts.” We are going to use a source who was there, who actually managed the effort to find a way to move the huge “Saturn C-5,” which later became the Saturn V, from, what was originally called the “Vertical Assembly Building,” that later was renamed as the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Florida “Moon Port” which later became the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and its launch pads. That person’s name was Garland D. Johnston and he worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.
Final concept of the VAB

Johnston’s task was a daunting one and had actually started in 1962 when a team from MSFC’s Structures Design Branch consisting of himself, Charles “Chuck” Gassaway were sent down to KSC to meet with another large team on the subject of how would we launch the next generation of Saturn rockets. The first two Saturn I boosters had already been launched from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 34 and Complex 37 was under construction for the Saturn I Block II, but the scramble to get to the moon was on and everyone was looking ahead to far larger boosters. The meeting at KSC was headed by an Army Corps of Engineers Major by the name of Rocco Petrone and covered a very wide range of topics. Petrone, like a good Corps of Engineers officer, divided the monster task by having everyone in the room stand and state their background and credentials as he and his aid took notes. Then he announced that five of the following people were to step across the hall with him for a splinter meeting. The names he called were Johnston, Gassaway, Bill Bodie, Don Buchanan and Ed Davis. In that splinter meeting Patrone announced that they would be the five people who would figure out how to launch the Saturn V. 

C-5 being transported on rails (1961)
They were to listen to experts from all ranges of rocketry and construction concentrations and everything from how far apart the pads would have to be to remain operational if the Saturn V exploded to what sorts of vibration would be expected from 7.5 million pounds of thrust. Interestingly the pad distance was finally calculated as 9,000 feet by the group. Of course the first part of their problem would be moving the booster to the pad. 

VAB with water canals

I think they're gonna need a bigger barge.
Ideas as far ranging as using water canals to float the stack from the VAB to the pad to using railroad rails were all considered, yet none of those met the math that was needed.

On a Monday when Johnston was back at his desk at MSFC, the answer to this huge show-stopper strolled casually into his office. An Army PFC who was on loan to MSFC by the name of Bobby Erwin had just returned from his honeymoon in Paradise, Kentucky came walking in.

“Garland,” he said, “you won’t believe what I saw last week when I was up at my daddy’s farm. Bucyrus-Erie shipped a strip-mining shovel down to my daddy’s farm in pieces and put it together there. It took 300 railroad cars to bring it all down there. It’s eating its way over the coalfields now and building its own road as it goes. It has a platform as big as a football field. It has tracks 8 feet high with diesel engines in each track. The platform has no vibration on the table and it maintains the table flat within one-quarter of an arc second.”

Crawler in storage, 1978 author's photo
The moment that Johnston heard Erwin say “a platform as big as a football field” it struck him like a thunderbolt. This was how they could move the Saturn V! He immediately had Erwin sketch out a drawing of the huge machine on a piece of notebook paper. They illustrated it with four double tracks, one on each corner, and did a stick- figure image of a six foot tall man by one of the tracks and the notation “as big as a football field.” Johnston then tore the notebook paper loose and ran down the hall to the fire escape and took that route down stairs to Buchanan’s office and ran in nearly shouting, “Don! We have a way to launch the Saturn V!” Buchanan took one look at the sketch and upon hearing what Erwin had told Johnston he agreed that they were finally on to something practical. They started the telephone tree calling everyone in their group and then Buchanan called Redstone Airfield and ordered the NASA aircraft. He flew to KSC that same day and presented the sketch to Petrone and KSC director Kurt Debus, both of whom immediately approved the idea. With that he called Johnston on the phone and told him to get Bucyrus-Erie on the phone and tell them what NASA needed and that they wanted them in Huntsville immediately. The only problem was that KSC currently had no funds to pay Bucyrus-Erie for their travel and for drafting up a set of plans.

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Undeterred by that problem, Johnston went to Francis Tucker who was the administrator for Gustav Kroll, the Chief of the MSFC Structures Design Branch. Tucker hurriedly went through the budgets and found $10,000 that they could offer to Bucyrus-Erie to come to MSFC and start design work on two of the most historic and iconic crawlers ever built. Bucyrus-Erie created a set of specifications “as thick as a Sears catalog” to which the MSFC team added a few changes and slapped a NASA cover on it. They put the job up for bids thinking that certainly no one else but Bucyrus-Erie would bid on such a machine. They were wrong… Marion Power Shovel outbid Bucyrus-Erie and ended up being the ones who constructed the two crawler/transporters that we see today.

So, now you know the true and accurate story of how the crawler/transporters were born back in 1962. This was largely sourced from a letter written by Garland Johnston and included in the MSFC Retiree’s Association book “50 Years of Rockets & Spacecraft in Rocket City” published in 2002. 

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Thursday, March 21, 2019


It’s often said, especially in this era of Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary publicity, that the Saturn V was created by Wernher von Braun. We hear over and over that the Saturn V, “…was the brain child of Wernher von Braun…” “…von Braun invented the Saturn V…” “…the father of the Saturn V was Wernher von Braun…” and all of that is like saying that George Washington invented the United States. In fact the Saturn V grew from the engineering and rocketry design whirlwind of mankind getting to the Moon, “…before this decade is out…” Dr. von Braun was the guy who steered the vehicle through the storm and led the team of tens of thousands of engineers, technicians and managers through the political typhoon with vision, charisma and a lifetime of desire to go to the Moon. Thus, with that myth shattered, let’s take a look at how the Saturn V actually took root and grew.

One truth in the myth about the Saturn V is that von Braun and his German rocket team did have their sights on the Moon before World War II and even during the war itself. In fact he was thrown in prison by the SS after he was overheard at a party talking about their rockets and space travel rather than the V2 and winning the war. After the war his team was brought to the United States, but again they were set to work making rockets for war. Now, however, they could openly talk about spaceflight and the Moon. In October of 1951 when von Braun attended a symposium on space travel he met with the staff from “Collier’s” magazine. That meeting resulted in two heavily illustrated articles, “Across the Space Frontier” in 1952 and “Conquest of the Moon” in 1953. Both projected huge boosters and the assembly in orbit of vehicles to travel beyond Earth. That sparked a media interest in the subject and in 1955 von Braun as well as his rocketry team member Earnst Stuhlinger and spaceflight expert Willy Ley were featured in three Walt Disney televised features “Man in Space” “Man and the Moon” as well as “Mars and Beyond.” Both of my daughters grew up watching those shows on DVD. The concept of Earth orbit rendezvous is the thread that runs through all three programs.

For the next half dozen years the von Braun team of rocket engineers, which was now heavily integrated with Americans, grew and looked toward huge rockets. In 1957 the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) came to Huntsville and the seeds for an actual huge booster were planted and gave birth to two rockets which had been already simmering on the drawing boards; the Nova and the Juno V. Although the Nova began to grow under its original name, the Juno V soon became the Saturn. Additionally the Nova, although originally considered to be in 3 flavors; 37 million pounds of thrust, 22 million pounds of thrust and 12 million pounds of thrust was paired down. In fairly short order it was trimmed down to the 12 million pound thrust version using eight F-1 engines. That version was considered capable of perhaps sending a manned vehicle directly to the Moon. That version was also soon to die from its own girth. It was so large that the assembly and transportation as well as static firing of the whole first stage was simply impractical in the 1960s. Additionally, should it blow up on, or just above the pad, it could effectively destroy a large area of the space center. However, one simple decision in what method would be used to actually get men to the moon would soon spell the certain end for the Nova.

Saturn, however, was conceived in a series of much more adaptable versions- the C-1 (“C” stood for “concept”) and the C-2. The Saturn C-1 was powered by eight H-1 engines with a second stage to be added in the Block II that originally had four RL-10 engines, but was upgraded prior to the first flight version to six RL-10s. These boosters were supposed to fit the bill for the MALLIR program. What? Never heard of that? Well, it’s one of those acronyms that didn’t live long in the storm to get to the Moon. It stands for “Manned Lunar Landing Involving Rendezvous” which later became known as Earth Orbit Rendezvous, or EOR. The MALLIR acronym died in EARLY 1961. 

The C-2, whose study had begun in June of 1959, was simply a C-1 first stage with a more powerful upper stage on top. That stage was the S-II and it was the first component that would actually evolve into the Saturn V.

(By the way... some folks on Internet space sites like to fancy-up images of this proposed hardware- so they look like they're actually ready to fly. I prefer to use the original drawings from the official reports of the time)

Unfortunately the math didn’t work out and the C-2 stack proved to be underpowered for use in MALLIR. So in May of 1961 the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) at Huntsville re-evaluated the C-2 and, before it ever got off the drawing board, they decided the C-2 needed to be replaced by a bigger booster. Then gasoline was thrown into the campfire of going to the Moon on May 25, 1961 when President Kennedy challenged the nation to go to the Moon within the decade.  The following day, the C-2 was officially deleted and it was announced a month later. Now the thoughts of a bigger booster became an urgent need. Enter the next piece of Saturn V hardware- the F-1 engine. Having been in development since the late 1950s, the F-1 was a 1.5 million pound thrust engine that was at the very edge of human engineering ability. It was perfect for the next Saturn, the C-3. Although the first stage of the C-1 would continue into production as a proving vehicle for the clustered engine concept, the C-3 would have a new first stage that was 26.66 feet in diameter and powered by two F-1 engines giving it a thrust of 3 million pounds. It would be topped by the C-2’s S-II upper stage which would be expanded from 21.8 feet in diameter to match the 26.6 foot size of the first stage. Unlike it’s later years on the Saturn V, however, the C-3’s S-II stage would have only four J-2 engines and 800,000 pounds of thrust. It would also sport a four engine S-IV third stage and an Apollo spacecraft.

Once again, the numbers didn’t really crunch for a drawing board Saturn vehicle and the C-3 was found too small to do the job. It was the sweetheart of June 1961 and outmoded in December of that same year. Now a taller, more powerful launch vehicle was cooked up at MSFC; the Saturn C-4. It was a three stage monster with four F-1 engines in the first stage and the S-II second stage plus a series of upper stages known as the R-I and R-II which were supposed to serve as utility stages in Earth orbit as well as burning off toward the Moon. On November 6, 1961 MSFC directed North American Aviation, the prime contractor for the S-II stage to add a fifth engine in the center of its four J-2 engine cluster and it’s power came up to 1,000,000 pounds of thrust as it’s diameter came up to 33 feet. In spite of what you may see in some documentaries on the Saturn V that show the change from double bulkheads with the LOX tank and the LH2 tank each having their own the stage getting a common bulkhead late in its development- the S-II actually had a common bulkhead between its LOX and LH2 tanks as early as 1960. Thus this feature was not a dramatic game-changer late in the development.

Notice that in the C-3 drawing above the first stage is identified as "S-IB"... interesting eh? This image is from the document "Apollo Working Paper 1023, Project Apollo, Description of a Saturn C-3 and Nova Vehicle" dated July 25, 1961, NASA Space Task Group.

As the year of 1962 began it looked as if the C-4 was the vehicle that, along with the C-1 that could do the EOR job and get us to the moon in the decade of the 1960s. Of course… it can never be that easy.

Yet again, the math didn’t quite work out and the number of flights needed to get EOR to work was still too high. MSFC’s engineers speculated that it would take 34 C-1 Flights and 53 C-4 flights to get to the Moon by 1968 at a cost of $8.16 billion. The C-4 needed more power and here is where von Braun is said to have personally solved the problem. The question came up about back-flow of hot exhaust gasses from the four F-1 engines impinging on the big open space between the engines. The chamber temperature from a single F-1 was 5,970F and a huge amount of shielding would be needed. Reportedly it was von Braun himself who pointed to the area and said why don’t you just put another engine right there? The idea solved the under power issue and the backflow issue at the same time and the vehicle now became the Saturn C-5.

On December 10, 1962 NASA selected Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) as the means for getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The schemes for EOR and Direct Ascent both went into the trashcan. At that moment NASA had in rapid development the perfect launch vehicle for the LOR mode- and it wasn’t the Nova. The Saturn C-5 was the right fit at the right time. The LOR decision, however, drove a steak into the heart of the Nova booster.

The tall slender C-5 monster would first be known to many of us as the rocket that sent the GAF View-Master action figures to the Moon. It was displayed as a model whenever NASA wanted to show that we were really going to make it to the Moon. When Walter Cronkite and John Glenn did the TV news show “Four Years, Nine Months and 29 Days” on March 1, 1965 the Saturn booster model that they displayed was a C-5. It had characteristic over-sized fins, an elongated S-IVB stage and crimped Saturn Launch Adapter (SLA). It was the face of the Moon rocket even after the designation was changed from C-5 to Saturn V on February 7, 1963.

Eventually the “R” stages were deleted and the SLA was reformed to its conical shape. The red escape tower was painted white and the standard roll pattern was established. The Saturn V became then most popular and easily recognized launch vehicle ever… at least among those of us in the Apollo generation. It also got men to the Moon before the end of the decade and for three years thereafter.

Of course some of us still like to think of the old C-5 View-Master version a lot too.

By the way... for those of you who miss those View-Master first man on the moon slides... they can be found HERE

And for those of you who like Wes' writing you can check out his best-selling book APOLLO PART ONE HERE or the whole six-book series... HERE where you can get them sent to you autographed and personalized! You can get them in e-book... HERE

Monday, March 11, 2019


When the first Space Shuttle, STS-1, launched on April 14, 1981 an Apollo spacecraft was still orbiting the earth. 

"What!?" you may ask... well, here's the story.

At exactly 11:00:00 Eastern Standard time on March 3, 1969, Apollo 9 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center's Complex 39A. The goal for Apollo 9 was not the lunar surface... it was Earth orbit. The mission was to test the hardware that couldn't be tested on Earth, yet was critical to landing on the Moon. A number of questions had to be answered by this mission. Could the Lunar Module and all of its complex and delicate systems survive the boost of the Saturn V?  Could the trasposition and docking maneuver actually be done without damaging the LEM? Would the Apollo pressure garment assembly, also known as the lunar space suit, and the portable life support system, known as the PLSS backpack actually function in space? How would the LEM's descent and ascent engines operate in the space environment? Would the new rendezvous radar function as designed? Plus a laundry list of other tests that needed to be done in the space environment. You can only simulate so much on Earth.

Launch of the mission was delayed three days because all three astronauts, Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart caught head colds. Considering that there had been a head cold on Apollo 7 and now three more on Apollo 9, NASA decided to put in place a pre-launch quarantine for all future crews. Once in orbit, however, LMP Rusty Schweickart was struck with what is now known as Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS). It is a totally unpredictable nausea whose onset cannot be forecast here on Earth. An astronaut can do all of the "vomit-comet" parabolas in training and never have a twinge, but be struck down with SAS once in orbit. Likewise someone can be prone to motion sickness on Earth, but never feel a twinge in space. Other astronauts could have flown in space before, like Al Bean on Apollo 12, and had no symptoms, yet fly again and be stricken- as Bean was on Skylab 3. At first, Rusty's critical EVA test of the Apollo lunar suit and PLSS backpack was scrubbed by commander McDivitt. But 24 hours later Schweickart's body had adapted to the space environment and he was feeling great, so McDivitt put the EVA back in the mission.

For 37 unforgettable minutes Schweickart went out on the LEM's porch and tested the Apollo lunar suit and backpack. Meanwhile Dave Scott did a stand-up EVA in the hatch of the CSM.

Although the planned live TV broadcast of the EVA never materialized, the whole event happened on my lunch break from school, so I got to sit in front of the family TV and watch a simulation of a space-suited Grumman engineer Scott Macleod suspended on wires. Still, it was cool enough to really inspire a 12-year-old kid like me, plus tens of thousands of others.

Following the EVA the astronauts prepared for the next day's historic accomplishment... test flying the LEM in space.

Read this story in far greater detail HERE in Wes' best-selling book!

At 89 hours into the mission the crew began the process of  actually flying the lunar module. For 5 hours and 42 seconds the crew put the LEM, named SPIDER, through its paces.

That included jettisoning the descent stage and flying back to the command/service module, nammed GUMDROP, with the ascent stage.

Less than an hour after they had re-docked with GUMDROP, the crew set the SPIDER free and Mission Control's Booster Systems Engineer remotely commanded the vehicle's computer to fire the ascent engine. It was allowed to burn to propellant depletion. That burn put the SPIDER into a 235 nm X 6,970 nm elliptical orbit. Some said that the SPIDER would likely degrade its orbit and reenter the Earth's atmosphere in about 18 months. That was incorrect...  the SPIDER actually fell into our atmosphere on October 23, 1981... six months into the Space Shuttle era.

If you liked this story and want far more details- get APOLLO PART ONE and the rest of the six-book series "Growing up with Spaceflight" HERE!
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