Steely-Eyed Missile Men

November 12, 1969. The Apollo 12 mission launched that morning. As the rocket cleared the launch tower, responsibility for the mission transferred from Launch Control in Cape Canaveral to Mission Control in Houston. Thirty-four seconds into the launch, the rocket was struck by lightning. Suddenly all the instruments on the capsule control panel went crazy. Ground telemetry was garbled. It was struck again at 52 seconds, and every alarm light on the console was flashing. The rocket maintained its launch path but no one in the capsule or on the ground other than the ground based radar could tell what was going on.

If instrumentation and telemetry could not be restored, the launch would have to be aborted.

The astronauts and ground controllers scrambled to understand what had happened. The engineer on the EECOM station that morning was John W. Aaron, and it was his job to be intimately familiar with the power systems of the command and service modules of the Apollo craft. In previous simulations he had seen something similar. He quickly called out: “CAPCOM, EECOM – Try SCE to AUX,” telling the Capsule communicator, the man whose job it was to handle all communication between the spacecraft and mission control, to tell the pilot to flip a switch. No one else in the room knew what that switch was.

“FCE to AUX?”

“No, S, SCE to AUX.”

The recommendation was relayed to Apollo 12 thirty-six seconds after they lost their instruments. Neither Commander Pete Conrad nor Command Module Pilot Richard Gordon recognized the reference to “SCE,” but Lunar Module pilot Alan Bean did, and knew where the switch was. SCE stood for Signal Conditioning Electronics, the electronics that converted all the signals from the various sensors and equipment to voltages or currents that could be easily displayed or transmitted to the ground, and John Aaron had told them to switch their power supply to the auxiliary power source. Alan Bean found and flipped the switch, and all the instruments and ground telemetry came back to life.

There were still many minutes of resetting circuit breakers and clearing faults, but the mission was saved. For his knowledge, quick thinking and grace under pressure, John W. Aaron was named a Steely-Eyed Missile Man that day.

The rocket stayed on course even after the lightning strikes because the guidance computer, located in the body of the Saturn V, stayed functional. My father worked on the Instrument Unit – the Saturn V guidance system – for IBM at Cape Canaveral. This Christmas I gave him this:

Merry Christmas, Dad

Being Human

I saw this over at Facebook:

How about:

“Being human means reckoning with a history rich in heroic achievement and moral progress, while at the same time fraught with violence and injustice. Ignoring that reality in favor of mythology is not only wrong but also dangerous, but mythology has a place. The noble chapters of human history have just as much to teach us, if not more, than the shameful ones, and the two are almost always intertwined.”

The injustice and violence and all the bad stuff is the normal baseline. It’s the 90% of the iceberg below the surface. The achievements and heroism are the 10% sticking up in the sun. We don’t talk about the bad stuff much because it’s so damned common. The good stuff is, by definition, extraordinary.

It’s like asking “Why are so many people poor?” because poor is the normal condition. The question that should be asked is “How do we get more people rich?”

As to mythology, I like Terry Pratchett’s take on it. Human beings need to believe in things that are not true. How else can they become?

My point is HUMANITY does sucky things. Americans are not exempt, but we’re treated as though we are supposed to be and failed and should be ashamed of that failure. What we’ve actually done on the side of good is extraordinary. What we’ve done on the side of evil is at worst, ordinary.