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The Magicians of Confidence

Centauri Dreams regular Al Jackson responded to yesterday’s post about Neil Armstrong with reminiscences of the Apollo program, but because the first of these ran as a comment to the story, I was afraid a lot of readers wouldn’t see it — we have far more subscribers through RSS than any other medium, and many of them do not see the comments. When Al submitted a second comment, I decided to merge them into a single post here. The author of numerous scientific papers and a widely known figure in the interstellar community, Al saw the Apollo program up close as astronaut trainer on the Lunar Module Simulator. Here he talks about Armstrong and Aldrin and the antics of the crew that followed Apollo 11.

by A. A. Jackson

I spent almost 4 years in the presence of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. I came to the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in 1966, where I was placed as a crew training instructor. I had degrees in math and physics at that time. Seems engineers were pressed into real engineering work or had been siphoned off into the DOD. Spaceflight attracted a lot of physicists who could be put to work on all kinds of stuff.

It’s funny, I met Buzz first, I think as early as 1966. At MSC in those days I used to be in Bldg. 4 (my office) or Bldg. 5 (the simulation facility) in the evenings. Sometimes we worked a lot of second shift and I was unmarried at the time with a lot time on my hands. Anyway Buzz would come to Bldg. 5 to practice in a ‘part task’ trainer doing manual rendezvous , something he had pioneered. So I kind of got to know Buzz, but I can’t remember much but small talk and later talk about the Abort Guidance System which was my subsystem.

Image: Al Jackson (facing the camera at the main console of the Lunar Module Simulator) performing a checkout of LMS systems with his colleagues. Credit: A. A. Jackson.

When the Lunar Module Simulator (LMS) got into operation I started seeing Neil, but never talked to him much. Of all the Apollo crews Neil and Buzz were the most quiet. I remember the time when we had them in the cockpit from about 8am to nearly noon and they had not said anything for like 3 hours, someone wondered if we ought to go up and check if they were all right! I do remember Neil from the trips to MIT and TRW, to go to briefings on the Primary Guidance and Navigation and the Abort Guidance System.

I had seen Buzz do a little ‘chalk talking’ about technical stuff, but on the TRW trip Neil got up and gave a short seminar about rendezvous in orbit, some math stuff and all. He really knew his stuff. I remember being kind of surprised because I knew about Buzz’s doctorate in astronautics, but did not know Neil knew that much engineering physics. I do remember Neil coming to the LMS the morning after the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle crash, I think the backup crew were there, and them asking him how he felt and he said “O I’m just a little sore.” Actually he had bitten his tongue badly.

The Apollo 11 crew were the backup crew for Apollo 8, except for Fred Haise — that crew too could have been first on the moon. I puzzle these days whether Deke Slayton and higher ups arranged that it would be Neil and Buzz or not. All the astronauts I worked with were very unusual and able men… but Neil and Buzz had more than the Right Stuff, they were kind of magicians of confidence. It would be years before the astronaut corps had anyone quite like them.

You know working Apollo, nearly 24 – 7 for five years, in those days we had our heads down in the trenches, so it is strange to think back, a lot of odd things and lore escaped my attention. I was never a diary keeper, but wish I had been. I do remember how seat-of-the-pants everything was. Everything became much more formalized in the Shuttle Era and I was glad I did not stay in crew training for all but 5 years of my tenure at JSC.

It was the Apollo 12 crew who were the most fun. Pete Conrad was the most free spirited man I ever met. He bubbled with enthusiasm and humor, a thinking man’s Evel Knievel. He was an ace pilot who kept us in stitches all the time. Conrad and Bean spent a lot of time in the LMS (I think Neil and Buzz spent the most) and we instructors really got tired of wearing our headsets , so when crews were in the LMS we would turn on the speakers we had on the console since the crew spent most of their time talking between themselves. When Conrad was in the cockpit we had to turn the speakers off, since we would unexpectedly have visitors come by.

The reason why: Conrad, an old Navy man, could string together some of the most creative blue language you would ever want to hear. The main guidance computer aboard both the Command Module and Lunar Module was called the Primary Guidance, Navigation and Control System (PGNCS), but the crews called it the PINGS. Conrad never called it that. I can’t repeat what he called it, but he never, in the simulator called it that. The instructors remembered the trouble Stafford and Cernan caused on Apollo 10 with their language, and we thought lord! Conrad is gonna make even Walter Cronkite explode in an oily cloud! Yet on Apollo 12 he never slipped once, that’s how bright a man he was.

A month or two before Apollo 11 Conrad and Bean were in the cockpit of the LMS and John Young was taking a turn at being the pilot in the CMS (Command Module Simulator). We were running an integrated sim. Young had learned that the CM would be named Columbia and the LM Eagle. Conrad being his usual individualistic self said that must have pleased Headquarters. (Of course Mission Control needed those names when the two vehicles were apart for com reasons).

So Conrad could not resist. He told Bean and Young right then and there that they were going to name the CM and LM two names that I also can’t repeat. Bean and Young had a ball the rest of the sim giving those call signs, but that only lasted one day. Conrad, as you might suspect, never used the language in an insulting way or even to curse something — he was a very friendly and funny man. But it’s so second nature in the military to use language like that, and those Navy men, well, they never said “pardon my French!” Later the three Navy men (Conrad, Bean and Gordon) gave their spacecraft proper Navy names! Remember them?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Abelard Lindsey August 28, 2012, 11:45

    Pete Conrad was the guy that went out and deployed the cover over the skylab during the first skylab mission. I believe this is the longest EVA on record by Americans.

  • ljk August 28, 2012, 13:33

    Mr. Conrad also swore up a storm while trying to fix the remaining large solar panel on Skylab in 1973. I wonder if that EVA was followed on television?

    And speaking of jokes, the cuff checklists the Apollo 12 crew had while strolling on the Moon had some funny sketches and other interesting items on them that were not part of the regular NASA mission plan. In the spirit of A. A. Jackson’s necessary censorship in this article, I will merely suggest that you investigate the Apollo 12 section of the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal site to see for yourselves.

  • ToSeek August 28, 2012, 16:45

    The Skylab 2 EVA isn’t anywhere close to the longest – it was 3:20. ISS and Hubble servicing EVAs are routinely twice that or more, the longest on record being 8:55 by Susan Helms and James Voss on 11 March 2001.

  • A. A. Jackson August 28, 2012, 18:22

    In that picture I notice I am the only one wearing a tie , also it must have been winter because in Houston , in the summer, only the mahogany row guys wore wore ties, so I don’t know what the occasion was.
    The big pile in the middle is the cockpit, you can see the stairway to it just behind the instructor console. The scene projectors surround it. Someone must have been in the cockpit because I am wearing my headset.
    This may have been at like 3am in the morning, since once the full simulator was there we only did maintenance between about 8pm and 8am , I worked some very irregular schedules in those days.

    When in orbit the surface came through the LMS windows from a film strip made from Lunar Orbiter imagery. Back in the far corner is about the last 50,000 ft were simulated. Created by having a big circular cast of the lunar landing site upside down, it in that big circular looking thing. A camera ran up and down , six degrees of freedom. I remember the technicians would sometimes attach a plastic bug to it so when one landed there would be a giant monster right in front of you. The crews loved that, someone ‘upstairs’ put an end to that.

    Funny glitches with the simulator , one I remember, we started out simulating Apollo 9. Then we started doing ascents from the Lunar surface. For a while there you could burn totally out and not make orbit, up would come the Lunar surface , crash. Everybody thought our sim of the guidance computer had a bug in it. Simpler than that , someone forgot to put the mass of the Moon into the equations of motion, the Earth was still in there.
    There was a whole bank of PDP computers that you can’t see, so there is a lot of D to A equipment in that room.

    There were two Apollo sim setups , there was a CMS and LMS at KSC.
    In the movie Apollo 13 there is a long shot of the CMS at one point , they did a good job of replicating that simulator but their reference shot must have been the KSC set up. In Bldg. 5 in Houston the high bay is divided into three main sections , tho I can’t remember seeing an LMS in that scene in the film the few of us who knew could tell that it was not the Houston set up.

  • Stevo Darkly August 28, 2012, 18:33

    I remember watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Unfortunately, I was only 8 eight years old. I was already a space enthusiast to some extent (like most little boys) and should have been old enough to appreciate the event. But, truth to tell, my attention span wasn’t up to the task of sitting still and focusing on the grainy, blurry, ghostly images on our black-and-white TV. I kept getting up and playing, and my dad would admonish me, “Sit down, dammit! This is history!”

    The later missions had much better TV-transmission capabilities, and were more successful at keeping me transfixed.

    A couple decades later, I got to meet Pete Conrad when I worked for McDonnell Douglas in the late 1980s-early 1990s, where he was an executive.

    A Turkish television network came over to interview him at McDonnell Douglas headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri, for a TV special celebrating the 20th anniversary of the early Moon landings. I got to watch and listen as Conrad responded to interview questions and tell stories for the cameras. It was really pretty cool, a highlight of my career in corporate communications and PR. He was a colorful character and a good storyteller.

    At the time it struck me that, while the US media basically ignored the 20th anniversary of these events, here was this Turkish TV network sending crews to the USA to make a special about it. I couldn’t decided whether this should make me sad or proud. Or both. I settled on both.

    Even more years later, I wondered whatever had happened to old Conrad, so I looked him up on Wikipedia. I was saddened to learn that Conrad had died about 10 years after I met him, in a motorcycle accident, at the age of 69.

    It’s hard not to think of these guys as giants.

  • Stevo Darkly August 28, 2012, 18:44

    Correction; that one sentence should be: ” I got to watch and listen as Conrad responded to interview questions and TOLD stories for the cameras.”

    (The way I worded it above, it reads as if I, not Conrad, was the storyteller. Not true, of course.)

  • coolstar August 28, 2012, 18:56

    Thanks Al, that was very interesting. Really wish I could have met some of those guys. The only astronauts I’ve met have been shuttle crew, and while I’m sure there are lots of exceptions (such as the late Sally Ride and Storey Musgrave, to name the first two that come to mind) the ones I’ve met have impressed me as being boring technocrats who weren’t even interesting public speakers.

  • ljk August 29, 2012, 23:42
  • ljk October 23, 2012, 10:43

    Review: Forever Young

    John Young’s career as an astronaut extended from the first Gemini mission to the early flights of the Space Shuttle, with a Moon landing in between. Jeff Foust reviews a memoir by Young about his life and career, one that focuses far more on technical than personal aspects.

    Monday, October 22, 2012


    To quote:

    Young doesn’t go into much detail about his interactions with fellow astronauts, beyond his insights into the crew of Apollo 11. Collins, his Gemini 10 crewmate, was “bright, capable, classy, and incredibly funny,” while Neil Armstrong was “a neat bundle of some unique personality traits.” Buzz Aldrin, on the other hand, “got on people’s nerves” and “thought he was smarter than he really was.”

  • ljk January 4, 2013, 16:31

    The Last Words on the Moon

    Posted on December 16, 2012 by asteitel

    LM Challenger’s ascent from the lunar surface, caught remotely on video by the lunar rover’s camera. Credit: NASA

    We’ve just passed the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17 leaving the Moon. On December 14, 1972, commander Gene Cernan and lunar module pilot Jack Schmitt in the LM Challenger blasted off from Taurus-Littrow, ending the last manned lunar sojourn. It was a significant event, one worth commemorating with some well chosen words akin to Armstrong’s one small step on Apollo 11. So, what were the last words on spoken on the Moon 40 years ago?

    Cernan and Schmitt wrapped up their third and final EVA – Moon walk – twenty minutes before midnight in Houston on December 13, 1972. They’d spent about 7 hours and 15 minutes on the surface that day covering more than 22 miles in the lunar rover. Over their three EVAs they’d chalked up a total of 22 hours 5 minutes and 6 seconds on the surface.

    As Cernan made the last bootprints, he paused to end the EVA with an appropriately poetic statement:

    “I’m on the surface and as I take man’s last steps from the surface, back home, for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future. I’d like to just list what I believe history will record, that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus- Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.” [Forty-plus years later….]

    Full article here:


  • ljk January 4, 2013, 16:37

    Jack Schmitt’s Christmas Poem

    Posted on December 23, 2012 by asteitel

    Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt (upside down) during Apollo 17′s 1972 mission. Credit: NASA

    NASA didn’t give its Apollo astronauts too much free time during missions. Crews had to go through multi-stage checklists before any manoeuvre and had experiments to run during the three day transits to and from the Moon. Everything, down to meal times and sleep periods, was scheduled. But as Apollo 17’s Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt found out, you can’t schedule poetic inspiration. Even when you’re on the Moon.

    Schmitt joined NASA’s astronaut corps in June 1965 as one of six scientist-astronauts. A former U.S. Geological Survey astrogeologist, he was among those that trained moonwalkers to recognize the right kinds of rocks worth bringing home from the Moon. And while he stands out among Apollo-era astronauts as the only scientist to fly a lunar mission, he almost didn’t make it.

    Schmitt entered the flight rotation as the backup LMP on Apollo 15, which secured him a spot for the prime crew of Apollo 18. Then 18 was cancelled in 1970. But NASA opted to give the scientist a crack at the Moon. The agency was by then planning its “J” missions that ostensibly had science at the core. Schmitt replaced Joe Engle on the prime crew of Apollo 17 and landed at Taurus-Littrow with Commander Gene Cernan on December 11, 1972.

    The orange soil Schmitt found during Apollo 17′s lunar surface activities. Credit: NASA

    Cernan and Schmitt spent three days on the Moon, the longest of any Apollo mission. And they spent the longest time exploring the surface as well, a little of 22 hours during which time they collected more than 243 pounds of lunar samples. Schmitt’s keen geologist eye also famously discovered orange soil. Analysis on Earth revealed the orange material to be tiny spheres of coloured glass, typical of volcanic material release from a surface vent.

    But Schmitt’s made other noteworthy contributions to Apollo 17. While on the Moon, he discovered he was a bit of a poet.

    Full article here:


    The poem:

    “Well, it’s The week before Christmas and all through the LM, not a commander was stirring, not even Cernan. The samples were stowed in their places with care, in hopes that with you, they soon will be there. And Cernan – Gene in his hammock and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long – short lunar nap. But out on the – up on comm loop there rose such a scatter, I sprang from my hammock, to see what was the matter. The Sun on the breast of the surface below gave the luster of objects, as if in snow. And what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a miniature Rover and eight tiny reindeer. And a little old driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment, it must be St. Nick. I heard him exclaim as he – over the hills he did speed. Merry Christmas to all and to all – to you all Godspeed.”

  • ljk January 30, 2013, 9:49

    Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Race: The Complete True Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon”

    Posted on January 30, 2013 by launiusr

    The Race: The Complete True Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon. By James Schefter. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1999. Anchor Reprint, 2000.

    It is becoming increasingly obvious with every passing year that the Apollo program of the 1960s and early 1970s represented a unique time in the history of the United States when seemingly a group of young, idealistic, and remarkable people promised and delivered the exploration of the Moon.

    As Leslie Fish wrote in the remarkable filk song, “Hope Eyrie,” “From all who tried out of history’s tide, Salute for the team that won,” we must acknowledge and celebrate the success of the 400,000 plus individuals who enabled Neil Armstrong and eleven other Americans to walk on the Moon.

    The Race emphasizes the duel between the Soviet Union and the United States to be the first to land humans on the Moon; but I always get worried when I see words like “complete” and “true” in any book’s title. My reason for concern is not misplaced in this instance. It is a flawed book, filled with fascinating anecdotes, but too many of them are untrue. Here are a few of the interesting items contained in this book.

    Full review here: