If a capsule was good enough to get a crew to the moon, these old-timers say, it's good enough to get a crew back to Earth.
- By James Oberg
- Air & Space magazine, May 2004
(Page 2 of 4)
Szalai got them all on the phone—there wasn’t time for a formal invitation letter. He was ready to use flag and country to persuade them to cancel their plans for the week and fly to Houston, but he never had to. “Everybody usually has an excuse,” he says, “but none of these people did.”
Brand, Myers, and Szalai flew to Houston on Wednesday, while Cohen made the two-hour drive from College Station. On Thursday morning, they got a brief welcome from JSC director Jefferson Howell, then went to work in a conference room on the top floor of the center’s administration building. “One of the nice conference rooms,” says Myers, with carpeting, soft chairs, and a restroom across the hall. “There wasn’t anybody there except us chickens,” he adds. “There were no other NASA looker-onners.” And no time, really, for reminiscing. Yet the feeling of a reunion was inescapable. “I was stuck in a room with all my old buddies,” says Brand.
The first task was to assess the Apollo command module as a possible lifeboat, or crew rescue vehicle, for the space station. That remains NASA’s most immediate need, since without it the station crew is limited to three people, the seating capacity of the Russian Soyuz craft. The second question was whether an Apollo capsule could serve as the proposed crew transfer vehicle, which was envisioned to launch from Earth on an expendable rocket, visit the space station, and return to Earth, possibly many times.
The team began by ticking off the Apollo design’s advantages. In their formal report, the members called the Apollo command and service module—the cramped three-person capsule plus the cylindrical module that provided propulsion and stored critical items like oxygen and fuel—a “highly successful, rugged, and robust system.” Compared with a vehicle like the shuttle, it was simple and well understood, which meant reduced risk. And only six weeks after the Columbia accident, risk was very much on the team members’ minds. “Everybody reacted that you’ve got to do everything you can to make the thing safe,” says Myers.
The idea of ransacking museums for actual leftover Apollo hardware was quickly discarded. None of it was thought to be usable, due to age, obsolescence, lack of traceability of the parts, or water immersion—the capsules had come down in the ocean. But the team just as quickly concluded that a rebuilt command module would work well for the first, and simpler, of the two roles—the space station lifeboat. Even without the service module, the command module could accommodate at least four astronauts and enough air and other supplies for a bailout mission.
The vehicle could even grow slightly larger than the 1960s model. “If the CM were scaled up by 5–8%,” said the group in its report, “a crew of 6-7 might be accommodated in a self-contained vehicle.” The only things that would have to be built new were a propulsion module for leaving orbit and a docking adapter for the station.
But there was a limit to scaling up, says Szalai. You didn’t want to make the capsule so big that you strayed from the design that had been so thoroughly tested during the Apollo program. Remaining within that envelope also enabled you to keep the parachute and launch pad escape systems used for the lunar missions.
Whatever data the team members needed for their analysis, they mostly had in their heads. Brand brought along “some stuff about the Skylab rescue mission,” and Cohen had “a few thought-joggers, like Apollo dimensions and weights.” But, recalls Szalai, “the amazing thing is, nobody referred to notes. The things that are most important to you are burned into your brain.”