Monday, December 19, 2022



Reentry for Apollo 17 took place on Wednesday afternoon December 19th, 1972. This was my last “Apollo day-off from school” and for the first time during the mission the TV coverage was pretty extensive. That was good for me because the lightweight coverage of the rest of the mission had left me with about a half hour of audio tape to fill.

There was an interesting “first” that happened during Apollo 17’s reentry. For the first time NASA PAO allowed us to all hear what the astronauts were actually saying inside the spacecraft, in real time, during the reentry and recovery phase. Apparently they allowed Ron Evans to go on open microphone, or “VOX” with the other crewmen in the background. Either that or Evans had a stuck microphone, no matter, it was still pretty cool. The only time that he could not be heard was during the black-out portion of the reentry. As soon as the black-out cleared, however we could hear him again.

I was entranced! It was so cool to hear them talking to each other and Evans making calls. I did not even care that I did not know what most of it meant; I would figure it out later when I played the tapes over and over driving my family insane. Splashdown was a work of art and the impact of the spacecraft was captured up-close by a TV camera on one of the recovery helicopters. Later we saw close-up pictures of the crew exiting the vehicle and flopping into life-rafts. The images were so good that you could see Schmitt scoop a hand full of the blue Pacific water and toss it gleefully at Evans. In short order the crew were on the deck of the carrier TICONDEROGA making short speeches. I considered Cernan’s statement about Apollo 17 being the end of the beginning. It rang hollow, even to a 15-year-old; Apollo 17 was over, and so was the Apollo program. 

The networks went back to their beloved regular programming, because that is what people were “really” interested in, and I packed up my recording gear and my models and went back to my room. I spent the next four hours listening to my Apollo 17 tapes and trying to recreate Apollo itself with my well-worn command module model; it didn’t work.

My model command module- circa 1967

Spool the clock ahead to 2009. While writing my second book on Project Apollo, I glanced over my shoulder and saw my five-year-old daughter in “the play area” of our home rooting through a basket of assorted and well-worn toys. Coincidentally, she came up with an old, partly broken Saturn V toy and, raising it over her head, she was making the “Shhhhoooommm” sound.

“Where ya’ goin’ sweetie?” I asked, expecting an answer about some cartoon show fairyland.

“To the Moon,” she unexpectedly replied.

Without hesitation I dropped my work and turned to her,

“You wanna go to the Moon eh? Well daddy can help.”

With that I dug into my collection of space stuff and soon we had a LEM, a CM and a couple of astronaut action figures from the “Daddy Shelf.” A bit of dusting off and we were down on the carpet playing lunar EVA. Soon daddy asked,

“Do you wanna see real men walking on the Moon?”

“Yeah,” she replied with a wide smile.

I broke out my Spacecraft Films Apollo 17 DVD set and put EVA number one on the big TV. As they worked the ALSEP she asked, “What are they doing?”

I told her that they were setting up experiments.

“We need some experiments,” she said with a glow.

Thus, we gathered old pen tops, toy thimbles, doll chairs and even a packing peanut with a toothpick stuck in it- they all turned into lunar experiments.

“Ya’ know what else we need?” she asked, “It starts with an “R”… rover.”

Gleefully stunned that my kid even knew what an LRV was, Daddy got one of those from his collection too. For the entire afternoon we played being on the Moon. 

At one point she glanced at the TV and asked innocently,

“Are those guys on the Moon right now?”

“No,” I replied and explained that all of that took place long ago when daddy was a little boy and that we do not go to the Moon anymore. Busying her tiny fingers with our “experiments” in our ALSEP on the carpet, she asked,


Indeed, “why?”

How does one answer that to a five-year-old? How does one who had the privilege to watch men walking on the lunar surface, live, on television, explain to the next generation why it is that we as a nation simply gave it up? How does one explain to our children that they will quite likely not have the chance to go and do such things themselves— or for that matter even have the chance to see it happen, live? How does one explain the myth that the money spent on Apollo would be better used to cure all of the ills here on earth if we would just stop going to the Moon? How does one explain to a kid what myopic, self-serving politicians are? How does one explain to future generations that my generation stepped away from the peaceful advancement of human civilization because the TV ratings were low? Perhaps we should use the words of President Barack Obama when he casually defunded the Constellation program's return to the moon and simply, arrogantly state that we no longer go to the Moon because,

“…to put it bluntly, Buzz has already been there.”

Indeed, “why?” will be the next generation’s question and my generation has no good answer.

My little girl is all grown up now and in college where her minor is Space Studies. On November 16, 2022 she stood on the river bank just outside of Titusville, Florida and along with her school mates screamed "GO BABY GO!" as the Artemis I launch vehicle boosted the next generation of lunar spacecraft, Orion, to the moon. Yet once again critics from my generation arise in myopic opposition to the program. Wine may get better with age, yet NASA critics just maintain a predictable, worn-out ignorance.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2022


 The following is an excerpt from my book "Growing up with Spaceflight, Apollo Part Two" and is protected by Copyright 2015 Wes Oleszewski. No part of this may be republished in any form. 

Taurus-Littrow was the name of the landing site for Apollo 17. Located near the southeast rim of the Moon’s Sea of Serenity, the site is a meandering valley between three mountains called “massifs” (pronounced mass-eefs) in a range dubbed Taurus. Littrow is the name attached to a nearby crater. Overall, the lunar EVAs would be the longest ever and I could hardly wait for them to take place.

In order to tape record the mission, as I had recorded Apollos 14, 15 and 16, I had been saving up what money I could in order to buy what I believed to be “the best” quality cassettes. In my arsenal I had two Memorex 120-minute cassettes and two off-brand 60-minute cassettes. The Memorex tapes were for the actual mission audio and the off-brands were to capture the “extras” that the news media may just toss out here and there. Yep- I had it all covered from flight broadcasting to contingency broadcasting. This time I would be using the best of everything… right? Well, 30, years later in 2002, when I went to take my carefully stored “Apollo Tapes” and transfer them to digital CD, the only ones that gave me trouble were those expensive Memorex cassettes! They were so bad that I had to take apart freshly bought modern cassettes and physically cut the Memorex 120-minute tapes in half and then place the historic tapes into the modern, off-brand, cases in order to get them to play. Meanwhile, my off-brand cassettes from the Apollo and Skylab era still play just fine. Yet, in December of 1972, I thought that I had it all covered.

It was clear from the beginning that the TV coverage of the Apollo 17 mission would be at a bare minimum. NBC, for example, came on the air at 9:45 pm, just 13 minutes before the scheduled launch time. For Apollo 16, NBC’s launch coverage had started nearly a full hour before launch time. But Apollo 16 had launched on a Sunday at mid-day when most network affiliates were showing old movies on some sort of “Award Theater.”  Apollo 17, however, was supposed to launch in “prime-time” and most network executives would have blood shooting out of their eyes at the thought of losing even a minute of prime-time to cover a spaceflight. Thus, their Wednesday evening viewers were now scheduled to missed only the end of "Hec Ramsey.”  ABC and CBS were both on at 9:30 with launch coverage; meaning that their viewers would miss the last half hour of "The Movie of the Week" and "Medical Center" respectively. Either that or the executives at those two networks had a greater sense of history and the news coverage thereof, yet perhaps their eyes did not bleed as easily as those of the suits at NBC.

It was the plan of all of the networks, however, was to catch Apollo 17 getting off the ground and into orbit, which was scheduled to take a total of 11 minutes and 46 seconds, and then switching at the top of the hour to, “…our regularly scheduled program, already in progress.,” Thus, the executives at the networks would be keeping those prime-time advertising dollars and ratings points firmly in their pockets as well as keeping the shooting of blood from their eyes to a minimum. They would also rob us space-buffs of scads of spaceflight TV watchin’ in the process. After all, they figured, no moon flight had ever suffered any sort of a technical delay, so their bet on the timing of this coverage seemed to be a sure thing. The network suits would win, and the space-buffs would get skunked once again. It was well planned by the three big networks- who were all we had to watch in this era before wide-spread cable TV. Of course, events of that Wednesday evening would cast immense suffering upon those network suits- especially at NBC.

To those of us not in the firing room at KSC, the final minutes of the countdown, appeared to be moving along smoothly for Apollo 17. That included the crew which consisted of Commander Gene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ron Evans and Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt. What only a few people in the firing room knew was that there had been a glitch at the 2 minute and 47 second mark in the count. At that point the automatic sequencer failed to send the signal to pressurize the S-IVB third stage’s liquid oxygen (LOX) tank. Controllers in the firing room quickly moved to manually pressurize the tank and it did come up to pressure, but their action was not swift enough to satisfy the sequencer and at T-30 seconds the count was “cut-off” by the sequencer itself. There was a great deal of confusion in the media as the NASA Public Affairs Officer, Chuck Hollingshead, went into low-flow mode. The public was left guessing as to what the problem was and whether or not there would be a launch tonight. It soon became clear that that those “regularly scheduled programs” were not going to be seen tonight and the well-planned broadcast schedule of those network executives turned to toilet paper. Before the evening was over, they would lose their 10 o'clock hour and broadcasting "The Julie Andrews Hour," "Cannon" and "Search" all because of the Apollo 17 launch sequencer. It was a rough night to be a TV broadcast executive, but an intense night to be a space-buff.

AS-512, the Saturn Booster that was supposed to send Apollo 17 to the moon just sat there, venting LOX in that familiar white trail of vapor; commonly called “goxing.” Of course, as the countdown clock stood frozen at the T-30 second mark the controllers in the firing room were already working the problem and actually had in place a “work around” solution. First, however, the countdown and the sequencer needed to be recycled to the T-22-minute mark. This recycle was a long involved, procedure-rich activity that would take nearly a full 40 minutes just to complete. Naturally, I was glued to our family TV as everyone else in the family went to bed- with the exception of my dad who worked midnights on the railroad. He just wished me luck by saying to me,

“I hope you get that one off the pad tonight,” as he left for work.

Dad always had a keen sense of how involved I was in spaceflight- even if it was just through a TV set located 1,042.93 miles away from Launch Complex 39A.

Before going to bed for the night, my mom left me alone in the living room with a clear warning,

“No matter how late you stay up for that tonight,” she half snarled in a firm parental tone, “yer’ still gettin’ up and goin’ to school tomorrow.”

Indeed, our deal had been that I could only stay home from school to watch the critical parts of the mission that took place during school hours. Now she had me on a technicality.


I kept CBS tuned in during this phase of the mission. The other networks had good people working the flight, but a good space-buff always kept Cronkite and Schirra tuned in during an anomaly; provided, of course, that they could actually get a CBS station. Meanwhile, the broadcasters did their best to make something out of the nothing that PAO was spooning out. Unknown to us all was the fact that the engineers in the firing room were all set to implement their work-around and by-pass the sequencer. This was not a work-around in the sense that we would see in the Space Shuttle era. This was a “bread-board” work-around. A bread-board is a term for a type of tool used in electronics to study and test circuits. Components are connected together with “jumpers” which consist of a single wire with either clips or plugs on each end. Those jumpers can be used to either connect or by-pass a given component or circuit. In the case of the Saturn V sequencer, (and you electrical engineers reading this please forgive me for over-simplifying here, but I’m writing for “normal” people), there was no big master computer teaming with scads of hard drives. Much of what the sequencer did came down to open relays and closed relays which executed each action that needed to be done by triggering additional relays down the chain. Each of these banks of circuits had a one-hole jack on one side and a similar jack on the other. If the circuit, or its associated relay should fail to trigger its task by closing, a technician could by-pass it with a switch or a by-pass could be done by inserting a jumper with a banana plug on each end into the two holes and thus “jump” across the circuit.  The system hardware had actually been built with this option in mind.

 Basically what had happened was that when the sequencer looked, at the speed of light, for the S-IVB pressurization trigger it saw that K577, the “S-IVB LOX Tank Pressurized” interlock relay was open rather than closed because it did not receive the signal to close. Although the tank had been pressurized manually, the sequencer instantly, seeing the open relay, cut-off the count. It never got as far as the switch that the technician had closed. In the work-around, inserting the jumper would show the sequencer a closed circuit at the open relay as well as the manual switch. The sequencer would then be satisfied and simply move along and launch the Saturn V.

There was, however, one last hang-up that delayed the launch even farther. The folks at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama- who had designed and constructed the Saturn V and the sequencer- needed to convince themselves that the bread-board work-around would actually work safely. This was, however, an expected delay by the ever cautious MSFC engineers and while the team in the firing room at KSC waited, they successfully rolled the countdown clock back to T-22 minutes and began counting down again. They could now go as far down as T-8 minutes, where the chill-down of the J-2 engines in the second and third stages had to be started. If they had no decision from Huntsville by then, they would have to hold until the launch window was violated by through what remained of the countdown. The count did indeed tick down to T-8 minutes and then was held again awaiting word from MSFC.

 Meanwhile excess hydrogen from the S-IVB and S-II stages was being drained off and sent to a “burn pond” adjacent to the launch pad where it was set aflame. Cronkite went to great lengths to assure the viewing public that this was an intentional, necessary and totally harmless fire. For more than an hour, everyone, from the news broadcasters, to the firing room engineers, to a little kid in Saginaw, Michigan all waited tensely for the count to resume.

Swing Arm Number 9, which was the access arm to the command module, had been swung back to the 12 degree “park position.” I wondered what it was like inside the Apollo 17 command module as the crew waited out the protracted delays. In his later book, “The Last Man On The Moon,” Gene Cernan summed it up by reporting that CMP Ron Evans, "… didn't think the delay was any big deal and he went to sleep, his relaxed snore a deep undertone to the chatter on the radio net."

Somewhere near 20 minutes after midnight Eastern time, MSFC finally transmitted their blessing upon the KSC work-around that the folks at Huntsville who had actually, themselves, designed into the system. The count began again at 25 minutes after midnight and progressed to the point where the S-IVB LOX tank was to be pressurized. Again the console operator manually pressurized the tank. Then when the sequencer looked toward the K577 relay it electronically saw the jumper and thus concluded that the relay was closed. The count continued to ignition and liftoff- which took place at 33 minutes past midnight.

It was impossible to grasp the full glory of a Saturn V night launch through our family television set, but the voice of Chuck Hollingshead as he called the liftoff gave a good indication of what was taking place.

“It’s just like daylight here at Kennedy Space Center…!” he shouted with the greatest of excitement as the TV cameras that had focused on the vehicle were video-smeared by the brightness.

 NBC reporter/anchorman John Chancellor afterward stated, “… …The whole sky became pinkish-green, like nothing I have ever seen. It looked like a hazy day… it was as bright as the sun with a flaming tail, maybe half a mile long… every car in the parking lot here, in the middle of the night at the press site was clearly identifiable, the license numbers could be read…”

Boost of the S-IC first stage on Apollo 17 was completely nominal, yet Cernan sat in his CDR’s position with the abort handle in his left hand almost daring the guidance system to fail. That was because he knew that if he turned the “T” handle counterclockwise he could activate the abort system and the escape tower would fire, but if he turned it 45 degrees clockwise he could disconnect the IU from its guidance duty and the Saturn V would be commanded by the CDR’s joystick hand controller that was in his right hand. That would allow Cernan to achieve every pilot’s dream and hand-fly the most powerful flying machine ever to successfully take to the sky.

 At staging the firing of the eight retro-rockets shot out a brilliant halo of yellow flame that seemed to be a few thousand feet across as it expanded in the near-vacuum of the upper atmosphere. From that point on, Apollo 17 was little more than a white dot on our TV set. For the last time an Apollo crew was thrown against their straps by the Saturn V. It was also the only time that Cernan took his hand off of that abort handle, he knew the jolt was coming and did not want to accidentally trigger an abort.

I listened intently to all of the onboard reports and calls. “Mark, 1 Bravo,” an abort mode, “Skirt Sep.” the point where the interstage skirt that had held the first stage to the second stage separates. If it had not dropped away the crew would have to abort using their escape tower. “Tower Jet,” since the skirt departed cleanly, the launch escape tower was no longer needed, and was jettisoned to save weight. Now all three astronauts could look outside. Prior to this the Command Module had a Boost Protective Cover (BPC) over it. But, when the tower jettisoned it took the BPC with it. Later in the second stage burn as its fuel and oxidizer drained away, the stage’s level sensor was armed and prior to that the crew was given an expected time for “Level Sense Arm.” Level sense referred to a set of five probes in the S-II LOX tank’s bottom that while whetted remained neutral, but when any two of these were uncovered they signaled the Saturn V’s Instrument Unit (IU) to begin the sequence of engine shutdown and staging. The system was not armed until late in the stage’s burn to prevent a false shutdown. Level Sense, shutdown and staging for Apollo 17 took place as planned.

As separation of the second and third stage took place a series of four retrorockets buried in the S-II to S-IVB’s adapter ignited while at the same time two posi-grade ullage motors on the stage S-IVB fired. These were all solid propellant rocket motors that burned briefly; the retros to separate the two stages and the ullages to seat the S-IVB’s propellant fuel and oxidizer. Once expended the ullage motors were jettisoned to scrub weight. In the end the S-IVB’s lone J-2 engine shut down some three seconds early, but Apollo 17’s parking orbit was fine. Unlike previous lunar missions, Apollo 17 would alter the timing of its Trans-Lunar Injection in order to help make up for the delayed launch at the beginning of its third orbit some three hours after launch.

One loss caused by the delayed launch was that there would be no TV coverage of the Transposition and Docking event- where the CSM separates, moves out, turns and then goes back to dock with and remove the Lunar Module from the S-IVB. The tardy launch left the earth-bound antennas that would normally receive the onboard TV, out of position- so there would be nothing to watch. I packed it up and went to bed with two thoughts heavy on my mind; 1) this was the last time that humans would launch aboard a Saturn V and fly to the moon, and 2) my mom was going to wake me up in about five hours so that I could trudge off to waste yet another day in the mayhem of Webber Jr. High School.

For the record, five decades later, I remember every detail about the launch of Apollo 17 that night- but I don’t recall a damned thing that went on at that “school” the following day.