"We Called It 'The Bug'"
The Apollo Lunar Module wasn't pretty. But it got the job done.
- By D.C. Agle
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
Courtesy of NASA
(Page 2 of 10)
But even the most junior aeronautical engineer back in 1962 knew that windows cause thermal, structural, and weight problems. The windows would have to get smaller. Still, there was no getting around the requirement that astronauts had to see where they were going. Then some bright bulb at NASA or Grumman (nobody recalls exactly who) realized that just because pilots always flew sitting down in the atmosphere did not mean they had to fly that way outside of it. (The closer an astronaut’s face is to the window, the greater his field of view, and a standing astronaut can position his face much closer to a window than a seated astronaut can.) Studies showed the astronauts would not encounter more than one third of Earth’s gravity during the flight of the LM. The result was that the astronauts would now stand side by side at a distance of 16 inches from a pair of two-square-foot windows. The new configuration gave them a 20-times-greater field of view from one-tenth the window area.
By October 1964, after almost two years and a mountain of engineering drawings, Grumman had a good idea what its now-33,000-pound lunar lander would look like—like no flying machine anybody had ever seen before. “You have to remember that the LM was carried in the Saturn’s protective shroud and only operated in the vacuum of space,” says Kelly. “That allowed us to design it from the inside out because we had no concerns for aerodynamics at all, which resulted in the distinctive look for the LM.”
But what was for engineer Kelly a “distinctive look” was something else for the aviators who would fly it. “My first thought was that the thing was Godawful,” says Apollo 14 lunar module pilot Ed Mitchell. “Although I knew exactly why it looked the way it did, I still couldn’t help but think…yuck! I mean, I was a fighter pilot and used to aerodynamic as well as aesthetically pleasing high-performance jets, and here I am looking at this…this…thing.”
“We called it ‘the Bug,’ ” says Gene Cernan, the mission commander on Apollo 17. “And to me it looked like some gigantic monster that was gonna hop down New York City just gobbling up society.”
Looks aside, the LM was the astronaut corps’ one and only way down to the lunar surface and off. With so much at stake, Grumman’s factory in Bethpage, Long Island, became a familiar stop on many an Apollo astronaut’s weekly itinerary. Since time was the most valuable commodity in the Apollo program, NASA spared no expense in getting the astronauts to and from Bethpage. “I would sign out a T-38 [a supersonic jet trainer],” remembers Mitchell, “and fly it from Houston up to Calverton Field on the tip of Long Island. Then I’d grab a smaller jet, a T-33, and fly that down to the airport on Grumman’s site.”
By 1966, visiting astronauts found Grumman’s Plants 5, 25, and 30 overflowing with 7,500 personnel, 3,000 of them engineers who were well on their way to cranking out by hand more than 50,000 technical drawings for the LM. For each module, it took six months to go from drawing blueprints to bending metal, and another two years to test each vehicle. For astronauts, engineers, craftsmen, and technicians alike, the LM experience was long hours, tremendous pressures, and a payoff that was years down the road.
“During testing, the hours were very sporadic,” says Apollo 13 LM pilot Fred Haise. “On many occasions I’d be in the LM cabin working on a test and things would not be working smoothly. Then there would be a stop and the test engineers would decide whether to proceed. If I thought it was going to take a while, I would leave the LM and go back to a trailer we had nearby and try to take a nap. If I thought it was going to be a short delay, many times I would just lay on the floor of the LM and go to sleep. Later, I figured that over the 17 months I worked at Grumman, I probably slept 30 days’ worth in the LM.”
Challenger was orbiting the moon at a speed of 4,563 mph and an altitude of 40,700 feet, and things were about to get a lot more interesting. Cernan launched computer program P-63 to begin the Powered Descent Initiation. When P-63 flashed on the LM’s little green electro-luminescent computer display and the main engine kicked in, an LM crew knew they were approximately 260 miles and 12 minutes of computer crunching away from the moon’s surface.