DURING HIS 34 YEARS AT NASA, KEN SZALAI had plenty of interesting work, from testing the world’s first digital fly-by-wire airplane system in 1972 to running the Dryden Flight Research Center in California in the mid-1990s. But he never got an assignment quite like the one he was handed in March 2003—five years after retiring from the space agency, and less than six weeks after the space shuttle Columbia accident. NASA wanted to know if Szalai, by then a private consultant, could lead a handful of veterans from the agency’s golden years in a study to determine if the Apollo space capsule, or at least the Apollo design, could be dusted off and turned into a vehicle for future astronauts.
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Their answer was yes, in all likelihood. And that opinion, along with more detailed engineering analyses now being conducted by NASA and its contractors, is figuring prominently in the new White House plan to send astronauts to the moon in the next decade. If NASA’s Project Constellation, which aims to build a Crew Exploration Vehicle for reaching Earth orbit and beyond, revives the 1960s-style space capsule, at least some of the credit should go to the high-caliber panel of Apollo veterans who gathered for two days last year in Houston.
Theirs was an old-fashioned meeting—no viewgraphs, massive handouts, or even laptops. It was retro space culture at its best. When they were done, Szalai, who at 60 was the youngest one there, thanked each participant personally and paid the group perhaps the ultimate compliment for engineers: “It was easy to see why everything you once worked on was successful.”
At the time Szalai got his call from NASA, the agency’s space transportation plans were in disarray. The heartbreak of the Columbia accident was only part of the problem. Concepts for a next-generation space vehicle, the shuttle’s eventual replacement, were becoming more confused each day, at least to outsiders. Even the name of the program kept shifting—Space Launch Initiative, Orbital Space Plane, Reusable Launch Vehicle. No one was more perplexed than Congressman Ralph Hall (D-Tex.) of the House Science Committee, who asked why the agency had canceled the $3 billion X-38 mini-spaceplane it was building as a lifeboat for the space station, only to replace it with something called the Orbital Space Plane. The Orbital Space Plane, said NASA, would serve as a lifeboat as well as an “up” vehicle for getting astronauts to orbit. Someday, that is. The only thing going up for sure was the price tag: NASA estimated the space plane would cost $12 billion, and the cost was climbing.
Against the backdrop of growing Congressional unease, Szalai got a call from managers in NASA’s Space Launch Initiative office. It had been several years since they had last looked at the advantages of winged vehicles versus capsules. And now that the agency was talking about a combined up and down vehicle for the space station, the question had once again beeen raised: Could NASA save money by using old Apollo hardware or blueprints? Was there some technical reason why that design couldn’t be adapted for this new Orbital Space Plane?
It wasn’t a totally novel idea. Prior to the first shuttle flight, in 1981, a serious proposal had been made to place a leftover Apollo command module inside Columbia’s cargo bay, docked to the airlock hatch. In an emergency, the astronauts could have entered the module, separated from the shuttle, and returned safely to Earth. Similar ideas kept popping up over the years. Yet NASA had not studied the question in light of its new requirement for a vehicle that was both a lifeboat and a means of getting astronauts to orbit.
“I got the call on a Monday,” Szalai recalls. “I was to get the answer to them the following Monday.” He spent the first few hours making up a schedule. “I decided immediately on a small team” to keep the discussion manageable. “I didn’t want any pushovers—I wanted very strong and opinionated people.”
For starters, he knew that Dale Myers, 81, a former deputy head of NASA who had led the North American Rockwell team that built the Apollo command module, was available. From his tenure at NASA, Szalai knew veteran astronaut Vance Brand, 71, who had worked on a five-person command module configuration for rescuing astronauts from the Skylab space station in the 1970s. “And I really wanted John Young,” says Szalai. “He’s one of the smartest people I know.” Young, 72, had traveled twice to the moon in an Apollo capsule, and was still on NASA’s payroll in Houston. Aaron Cohen, age 73, was the fifth panel member. Now an engineering professor at Texas A&M, he had headed NASA’s program office for the Apollo command and service modules and had gone on to direct the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
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.