“We Called It ‘The Bug’”

The Apollo Lunar Module wasn’t pretty. But it got the job done.

(Courtesy of NASA)
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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.

In the moment prior to PDI, Challenger was on its back, windows pointed heavenward, its big and—for the moment—silent main engine pointed in the direction of orbital motion, the direction Challenger was headed.

Inside the lunar module, the astronauts were in full spacesuits, including helmets and gloves. They were surrounded by 12 instrument panels on which were arranged 158 switches, 16 variable controls, four hand controllers, two computer keyboards, and a mosaic of changing and fixed numeric displays. To work efficiently in zero gravity, they were restrained from floating around the LM cabin by elastic cords that were fastened to the floor of the LM at one end and hooked onto the sides of each spacesuit at waist level at the other. Of course, they couldn’t go far anyway in the LM’s crew compartment, which measured 92 inches in diameter by 42 inches deep.

Along with the two astronauts inside the LM, there was a third “crewman.” Dubbed “Pings” by the astronauts, the Primary Guidance and Navigation Section (PGNS) was the first digital autopilot in a manned spacecraft. With PGNS driving, the astronauts were relieved of some of the more monotonous and labor-intensive flying duties and thus were free to monitor the instruments and observe the moonscape. They could, however, take over manual control when expedient or necessary.

At a given moment, planned months in advance and 250,000 miles away by a roomful of men with thick-rimmed glasses and slide rules, PGNS opened an array of valves, allowing two of the most corrosive chemicals on earth, unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, to rush through fuel and oxidizer lines with the full intent of obliterating each other on contact. The controlled annihilation took place in the descent engine’s combustion chamber.

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