Jack Clemons was a lead TRW engineer working on Apollo and a member of the mission control backroom team that supported flight controllers on the return to Earth of Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. A former senior engineering software manager for NASA’s space shuttle program, Clemons is the author of Safely to Earth: The Men and Women Who Brought the Astronauts Home (University Press of Florida, 2018). He lectures frequently about human space exploration. He spoke with Senior Associate Editor Diane Tedeschi.
Air & Space: As a contractor, did you have a good working relationship with your colleagues at NASA?
Clemons: During my 16 years working with NASA on the Apollo, Skylab, and space shuttle programs, I had nothing but good working relationships with my NASA colleagues, who were also my customers. They demanded excellence. They expected results to be complete and on time, and they didn’t tolerate excuses. Yet everything was done with professionalism—not nastiness. I attribute that now to the “failure is not an option” culture that pervaded NASA back then. They expected everyone working on these programs—whether government employee or private contractor—to behave as if he or she wore only a NASA badge.
Based on your experience, did the culture at NASA change over the years?
Apollo’s “failure is not an option” culture was still pretty much in play during the early days of the space shuttle program, though some cracks were showing. For example, heat shield tiles on the orbiter’s underbelly were breaking off during launch as early as the first flight in 1981, and later NASA decided that since that hadn’t caused a problem, it should be considered an acceptable risk. That, I believe, is when the gradual erosion of the culture at NASA began. That “acceptable risk” thinking would ultimately result in the loss of seven astronauts when Challenger exploded during launch on January 28, 1986, and the loss of seven more when Columbia burned up during reentry on February 1, 2003. Fortunately, NASA’s space shuttle culture righted itself after that second loss.
When you look back on the days of working on the Apollo command module reentry as an engineer at TRW, are you amazed that the job could be done without the power of today’s digital technology?
When we were working up procedures for managing the Apollo command module’s reentry, we were using the most advanced computing systems available. NASA’s approach was built around exploiting the best current technology for Apollo and supplementing it with human expertise—400,000 humans in fact. That meant doing a lot of labor-intensive calculations—with pencil and paper and a slide rule and NASA reference manuals—to get all the info we needed to feed the ground-based computers used by NASA to plan and support a mission. We had to come up with a way for the astronauts to watch the onboard guidance computer during reentry to make sure it was working correctly, and if it wasn’t, to allow the command module pilot to take over control and fly the reentry manually. And that was all okay. In fact, it was fun. We weren’t standing around the water cooler grousing about how NASA should have waited until better computers came along. And most important, it worked.
Having said that, if NASA decided to return to the moon today and, just for old time’s sake, chose to use that same 1969 technology to get there, I don’t think I’d sign on for the trip.
Could the same work be done today with less employees because of digital advances?
Absolutely. In fact, the onboard computer used by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11 in 1969 was a clattering antique compared to the computers used onboard the space shuttle a decade later. And there were computer technology upgrades throughout the entire era of the space shuttle. It’s the nature of technology to make laborious and often imprecise tasks performed by humans more readily completed with greater precision. That means fewer people are required to do that same job, but that often opens a need for more people with different skills.
Much of what my team did for the Apollo program required painstaking calculations by hand. When the space shuttle rolled around, almost none of that was required because the technology had advanced. What replaced it, however, was a need for hundreds of new professionals skilled in an area that I hadn’t been taught in college: software programming.
Artificial intelligence is another significant advance in computing technology, though still in its childhood at the moment. Like other advances, it will lessen the need for certain skills in the workplace, including aerospace. However, as NASA astronaut Scott Kelly observed after an unmanned cargo spacecraft exploded after liftoff: “Space is hard.” That’s especially true for human space travel. I don’t see artificial intelligence eliminating many critical aerospace jobs done by humans anytime soon.
What is your reaction to moon landing conspiracy theorists?
This question comes up from time to time when I’m giving talks about the Apollo program. Sadly, more than a few folks today imagine that, back in 1969, the U.S. government concocted an elaborate hoax meant to fool the Russians into thinking we had beat them to the moon—that the whole charade was clandestinely staged in some remote corner of an Arizona desert. As silly as that is, even my mother, who had followed my adventures for years, once asked me if it was true, because she had just seen on TV that we had faked it.
There are numerous independent verifications of the truth of our moon landings—many from sources with no connection to NASA. During my talks, my answer is that 400,000 people, including me, worked on putting men on the moon. Do you imagine all of them could keep this big conspiracy a secret? Furthermore, why would I stand before an audience claiming we did land on the moon when I could make a heck of a lot more money exposing the conspiracy? I know I’m wasting my time—true believers are unpersuaded. But to paraphrase what astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson had to say about science, the good thing is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.