A First-Person Account Of Debugging A Live Saturn V Rocket

A First-Person Account Of Debugging A Live Saturn V Rocket

We all have stories, as engineers, of fixing some crazy thing at the last minute right before the demo goes up. We have all encountered situations where we needed to fix something that was our fault and we needed to fix it now.

This story is something that I think about in those times to remember to stay calm. No last minute fix could ever be this dramatic or important.

My grandfather passed away about a week ago. At the service, I was asked to say a few words and read from his memoirs. This was my choice.

Red Team 4 to the Pod

The first unmanned launch of a Saturn V on November 9, 1967. From the personal memoirs and the pen of William E. Moore January 28, 1994.

There was five of us Rocket Scientists lounging around the ready room listening to the Apollo 4 Countdown on loud speakers and headsets. We were members of the Red Team Group and we were the Electrical Systems experts on all hardware interfaces between the firing room and the Saturn V vehicle three miles away. Our ears were now being drawn into a developing situation happening on the net. No response was received from an electrical circuit that controlled the separation of the S-II Stage from the S-1C Stage in flight.

“That was one of my electrical circuits!”

It just so happened that circuit is controlled by a series of relays located almost directly beneath that cold beast that was spewing out all kinds of funny coloured, very cold gases — the Saturn V rocket. We took a look at our blue prints and found the relay that must be the problem and called for a recycle in the countdown to a point where we could cycle the switch on the electrical networks console to see if the relay would pick up — that was a “no go”. Now things got serious. The NASA Test Conductor was talking ‘scrub the launch’ but our S-II Stage Test Conductor was talking ‘go to the pad’.

Well, the Red Phone rings.

“Bill, how sure are you that this relay is the problem? Are we going to send people to the pad to rewire the rocket and not be able to launch because we guessed wrong?” said “AC” Filbert C. Martin

“It’s worth a shot, the signal is not reaching the vehicle and that relay module is the only active component between the Firing Room Console and the Vehicle. You snap out the old Relay Module and snap in the new one and we will be able to tell if that was the problem a few seconds later.”

“Well, we are a little concerned about sending a team to the pad with a fully loaded vehicle. We thought your team would do a lot of blueprint trouble shooting — I’m not sure we planned to actually send anybody out to a fuelled vehicle”

“Just don’t let them launch this mother till we are at least half way back from the pad — OK!”

About 30 minutes later the five of us (Bob Kelso NRR Sr Tech, Bill Moore; NAR Engineer/ Team Leader, the NASA Safety Engineer, the NRR Quality Control and the NASA Pad Leader) got the official word to head for the Launch Pad with our new Relay Pod. It was 11.30pm. It was a dark, slow, 5km trip. As we got closer to the Saturn V it was shrouded in a white cloud of venting gases which relieved the pressures building up inside the vehicle fuel tanks.

Our goal was to enter this two level hermetically sealed, all welded steel coffin called the Mobil Launcher Base topped by a fully loaded 100m high Saturn V, weighing 2.8 million kilograms, and the permanently attached 115m high Umbilical Tower, weighing 227,000kg. We finally stopped and left our van to walk up and into the second level of the Mobile Launcher Base. About this time, it came to my mind that during one of our training sessions we were told that one of the fully fuelled prototype S-II rocket stages had been exploded out in the desert. The results showed that all buildings better be at least three miles from the launch pads – which they are. We were now within eight metres of this 110mn tall bomb that sounded like it’s giant fuse had been lit, and we were soon going to get much closer.

The Saturn V was more noisy and ghostly than I had ever expected and it had grown much taller and certainly more threatening since last week. The venting fuel made loud hissing sounds when relief valves popped or opened up suddenly. It was very easy to let your imagination infect your brain. This is a very dangerous place and everything seems to be moving in the heavy foggy mist. There was no way to talk to each other, heck, we could barely see each other and… we hadn’t thought of this problem so we held onto each others yellow protective clothing like kindergartners crossing the street. We all wore safety helmets but they just did not make you feel like you were really safe.

As we climbed up the last step prior to opening the sealed submarine type entry door that led into the second level. We slowly opened the heavy steel hatch-type pressurised door it was like stepping into the jaws of a huge steaming dragon. The nitrogen fog, used to suppress fire, and the dim red glow from the emergency lights of level A made it look like a hollywood swamp scene. We started making our way through the 21 compartments to find our Relay Rack as the noise took on a more penetrating tone that seemed to bounce from wall to wall.

The smell became a mixture of kerosene with a mild touch of burnt paint and rubber. I was glad that the astronauts did not take this path to go aboard the Saturn V because my goosebumps were changing to a weird colour of purple. With the realisation that this was a much worse place to be trapped in, the team moved more rapidly to the relay rack. We replaced the old relay module and then had to cycle the switch on the firing room console. We then checked that the relay kicked in and that the signal was picked up on the vehicle. We resealed the cabinet, signed off on all the paperwork and got the out of there without any more sight seeing.

The drive back to the ready room very was fast and uneventful. The five of us were like stone figures, thinking about where we had been and what we had just accomplished. What could have happened and didn’t. All of this without ever realising that this experience was as close to being in the shoes of an Saturn V astronaut as any of us would ever be again.

In later letters, my grandfather mentions how fortunate he really was, having growing up a farm boy in West Virginia to have not just once in a lifetime experiences, but really once in many lifetimes experiences. The service was about celebrating his life, and this seems like one of those incredibly unique events that really does celebrate his life, both in terms of how he handled a mind bogglingly stressful situation and how he tells it the comfortably detailed and slyly humorous ease that was so characteristic of how he spoke.

A really incredible man who really contributed a lot to the world around him and meant a lot to those close to him, he will be sorely missed.

Brennan Moore is a web developer, working at Artsy and living in Brooklyn, NY. This post has been republished from an entry on his blog, with permission. You can check out more of his work on his homepage, or follow him on Twitter.