Cernan: “Epic moment of my life.”
It has been 29 years since the voyage of Apollo 17, and who can say when we’ll go back to the moon. But when we do, rest assured there will probably be pilots who bet engineers on just how it will be done.
Former Grumman test pilot Tom Gwynne has some advice for future bettors: Get it in writing. “We won the bet,” says Gwynne. “Although I’d have to say it was a hollow victory. I never did get a sip of champagne.”
A Daring Dress Rehearsal
The lunar module was the Apollo program’s big unknown. Data from the [Apollo 5] unmanned flight looked good, but the LM lacked the assurance that comes from having sharp-eyed astronauts living aboard it in space—flying, probing, noticing every detail of its in-flight performance. The LM would get its second chance to fly in space with the March 3, 1969 launch of Apollo 9. It would be an ambitious 10-day mission with the goal of performing in Earth orbit the entire sequence of events required on a lunar mission, except for the actual landing.
It was our Grumman support team’s first direct experience with astronauts on a real mission, and I found it exciting that men whom I knew were up in space flying our machine. The giant three-stage Saturn V booster lifted off on schedule and performed flawlessly, placing the spacecraft into exactly the planned Earth orbital altitude. The critical maneuvers of command and service module (CSM) separation from the spacecraft/LM adapter, and rotation and docking to the LM, went perfectly. After six hours of checking out the CSM and its systems, [commander James A.] McDivitt fired the service propulsion system, and the powerful rocket engine boosted the heavily laden CSM-LM combination into a higher orbit. He sounded relieved that the dormant LM was still there after the force of the first burn. Following these operations the crew settled down for a meal and sleep. I took advantage of the quiet time to hand over my Mission Control watch to a colleague.
I was back to Mission Control early the next morning, listening to the crew puffing as they donned their spacesuits to enter the LM, which they had named Spider. The crew channel went dead. We did not learn until the postflight briefings that [lunar module pilot Russell L.] Schweickart had vomited. After some delay he entered the LM and flipped dozens of switches to activate its systems. He commented that the LM was quite noisy, particularly its environmental control system. McDivitt joined him, and after they unpacked the television camera in the LM cabin we watched them on worldwide TV. Our friend McDivitt promptly embarrassed us by pointing out to the world a washer and other bits of manufacturing debris floating through the cabin under zero gravity. It was a chastisement we deserved, and it motivated us to still more stringent efforts to clean the cabin and all closed compartments of the LM during assembly and test.
McDivitt and Schweickart extended the LM’s landing gear, which locked smartly into place upon command. They checked out the LM’s systems and fired the LM descent engine for more than six minutes at full thrust while in the docked condition, simulating much of the powered descent burn that would be required to bring the LM down from lunar orbit for landing. When McDivitt and Schweickart rejoined Dave Scott in the command module, they felt that their LM would be up to the challenges ahead.
The fifth day in orbit was the crucial part of the mission for the LM—the demonstration of the LM’s flight maneuverability, and its ability to rendezvous in orbit from a far distance. My colleagues and I scrutinized the instrumentation readouts on our consoles carefully as the crew reactivated Spider’s systems. Hundreds of pressure, temperature, voltage, current, and other measurements located in all the systems were sampled several times a second, giving us detailed real-time information on the LM’s health and performance. With all systems activated, Spider looked good to the crew, to the flight controllers, and to me. Over the net came Flight Director Gene Kranz’s crisp voice: “Apollo 9, you’re go for LM sep” (lunar module separation).