the umpteenth time in our married life, we took up temporary
residence at Mother’s house in Hyattsville, while we looked for
a house we could buy. We finally located a new home at 4716 Rockford
Drive, in a subdivision called Landover Hills, between Hyattsville
and Bladensburg MD (we are standing in front of it in this picture).
The subdivision had been built by Mr. Williams, a long-time family
friend and neighbor, who told me to my chagrin of the many times
George Myers and I had taken his lumber and bricks to build our tree
and ground “houses” as young teenagers. Mrs. Chapman and
our new dog “Puppy” survived the trip East quite well,
and our furniture came on schedule to allow us to take up
housekeeping very soon after closing. Our basement was filled with
boxes for several years, until we finally got things weeded out or
located. It was great to be back near some of our family —
Mother, Marion and her daughter Margery, even though Will lived in
Blair (Nebraska) and Mary Francis in Spokane (Washington). Margaret
(Newton NJ) and Mary Jo (Toledo OH) also lived a long way
We had been in Landover Hills only a few months when a tragedy occurred — Puppy disappeared. We let her out in the morning, and never saw her again. Mary Charlotte was devastated. She fasted three days a week. We visited every pound within 25 miles. She advertised for over three weeks. But Puppy was gone. Several months later she was willing to consider a replacement, and we found Su-Su on a farm near College Park. Soon Su-Su was as dear to MC as Puppy had been. She was part rabbit, even though she was supposed to be full-blooded German Shepherd. She was scared to death of people, particularly men. I was the one exception — she followed me everywhere, even to the bathroom, whenever we were in a strange (to her) place. She would bark like mad whenever anyone came to the door, then run and hide while they were inside. But she really did love us, and we could not help loving her.
By this time in her life, Mrs. Chapman was totally blind, and also very hard of hearing. She had to buy batteries for her two hearing aids every month or so, and replace the aids themselves every few years. It was her greatest expense. She spent most of her time listening to her radio, with the speaker right beside her ear. She knew how to find her favorite stations, and enjoyed many of the programs, though I’m sure she was bored with all the advertising. Aside from these handicaps, she was in surprisingly good health, right up to the time of her death in 1968.
My new job was not exactly what I
thought it would be. In the first place, Jim Fleming, whom I had
known for many years and greatly admired, had been “kicked
upstairs’, and was no longer the division chief. The new man,
Chesley Looney, was somewhat austere and difficult to know, although
competent and a good manager. He was the kind of man one had to work
at to like, and I determined to work at liking him. Goddard
reorganizes every year or so, always coming out with more
directorates and/or divisions. Of course, the space program was
expanding and much of this was legitimate. I couldn’t help but
feel that some of it was simply to make more upper jobs for the
people who ran the place. My branch, the Operational Computing
Branch, was a composite group of four sections. One supervised the
contractor who actually operated the large stable of computers
assigned to our division. One received the tracking data of all the
unmanned satellites that circle the earth, and prepared it for
various users, including our third section. This section used that
data to compute the position of each of these satellites at every
minute of time for two weeks in advance, to give the personnel at the
tracking stations and in the control centers at Goddard the ability
to receive by radio at the tracking stations the instrument data
generated in each satellite. We had 55 satellites at the peak of our
work. The fourth section computed the pointing in space of those
satellites that carried cameras (such as the weather satellites) or
directional instruments. One-third of my 38 people were black,
including one section head, but they were as hard-working and
competent as the rest, and I soon became color-blind. It was such a
joy to be in charge of people so highly dedicated to their work and
so knowledgeable as well. I had a lot to learn of the technical
details of their work.
I mentioned earlier the size, speed and complexity of the computer stable our branch was responsible for. Our main job was not so much the day-to-day oversight of the operation — Ches Looney took care of that! We had to do the paper work, get the budget items ready each year for the Congressional appropriation for NASA (which is by line item, and we had more than a few), to monitor actual expenditures against appropriation, and many other less obvious administrative tasks. I did spend a good deal of my time trying to absorb the tremendous amount of technical detail, including both the software and hardware that IBM had supplied to us. At one time I conducted an in-house course of instruction on the logical organization of the monster computer, the 360/95. Most of the senior technical people in our directorate attended, as well as some outside of the directorate. I also gave several courses on the operating system that controlled the computers, being able to process 16 jobs at once in the larger machines. Later in my stay at Goddard I was asked by the computer science professor at George Washington University to give a course on systems programs (such as operating systems) to candidates for the PhD degree in computer science. I did this for two successive years.
My orbit calculation section had a major role to play in the launch of new satellites. The launch area people would track the launch vehicle (we NEVER called them rockets) until the satellite achieved orbit. It was up to my people to locate it as it went around the earth, from the tracking station data sent to us in real time over NASA’s world-wide communications network. Until we could do so, it could not even be determined if the ‘bird’ was in the proper orbit, and several of them were decidedly not. The most flagrant case I can remember was of one of the later OAO’s (Orbiting Astronomical Observatory). We watched on TV as the camera followed the launch vehicle’s fiery trail into space, listening to a substitute announcer who read the script rather than watched the sky, because he announced, “We have cut-off" when the rocket engines were still going full blast! It was determined later that the cone shield (that protects the satellite from the hot atmosphere at its final high speed) had failed to be blown off by explosive bolts. The extra weight caused the rocket motors to burn until fuel was exhausted, rather than cut off when orbit was achieved, for the simple reason that orbit was never achieved and the bird came back to earth and fell in the Indian Ocean! I had the privilege of seeing on TV all the launches — manned and unmanned — during my 4-1/2 years there, and it was always an exciting experience. Although I once had an opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center, it was not during the time of a launch.
In my building (#3) was the control center used for the manned Mercury and Gemini programs (Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, and many others). Even though the control of the Apollo shots to the moon was at Houston TX, our people at Goddard operated a full set of consoles so as to take over control of the mission on a few seconds’ notice, in the highly unlikely event of Houston becoming suddenly inoperative. There was a whole directorate dedicated to manned flight activities. For instance, the tracking data for the Apollo spacecraft on its way to and from the moon and while on the near side of the moon, was obtained by the football-field-sized tracking dishes in Australia, Spain and California. These determined the horizontal and vertical angles of the line of sight to the spacecraft and the distance by radar. Two of them were always able to “see” the spacecraft, while the third was occulted by the earth as it rotated. This tracking data went by telephone circuits to our computers, where it was converted to center-of-the-earth coordinates (X, Y, and Z, and the corresponding velocities). We sent the converted data to Houston where it was used to determine at every instant the exact position of the Apollo spacecraft. I have a plaque, given to every employee at Goddard at the time, testifying to my part in landing the first men on the moon.
A major part of my responsibilities was that of technical review of proposals from contractors for work to be done at Goddard. It was NASA’s practice to farm out as much of the technical work as possible to qualified contractors, and it was the responsibility of these technical review committees to be sure each proposing contractor was technically capable of doing the work proposed. In my final year at the Center, I was on a committee to review the planned program — manned and unmanned — of NASA for the following ten years, to ascertain which tracking stations could be dispensed with (as economy measures) without diluting the effectiveness of the missions. This task gave me the knowledge of the details of these missions well into my retirement, permitting me to speak authoritatively about them even though I was cut off from the Center after retirement. I look at this as another of the special provisions the Lord made to qualify me for the tasks He planned for me.
One of the new
delights I found at the Space Center was the Thursday noon space
film. I could hardly wait from one week to the next to view these
amazing films. It wasn’t long before I thought of Chuck Corwin
and his need for films to interest the high-schoolers in Japan, so I
wrote to him and told him of them. His answer was that he would
indeed love to have them, but I would have to come with them to
explain them. This floored me, as I had just started to work here at
two-thirds my salary for the last five years, and I had very little
annual leave although I was earning 26 days a year. But I had seen
how the Lord can work things out, so I told Chuck by mail that I
would work on it. That was the summer of 1967. By conserving my
leave, I managed to allocate four weeks in April and May 1968 to a
trip to Japan. Mary Charlotte and I would drive to Chicago, where
Will and Judy were still living, then to Spokane to visit Mary
Francis, then to Seattle where I would leave Mary Charlotte to drive
to Los Angeles and stay with friends there while I flew to Japan for
two weeks. The final week we would drive back from Los Angeles.
The Thursday before we were to leave on a Saturday was the day of the Washington Black riots, which continued on Friday. We had advertised for a couple to stay with Mrs. Chapman, and they came on Friday. Friday night I packed my bag, with three space films, and weighed it at exactly 40 pounds (all that was allowed on economy air tickets at that time). At 6:30am Saturday morning I went out the front door with my bag in my left hand, to put it in the car. As I turned to close the door without setting the bag down, I thought lightning had struck me, such was the pain that stabbed my back. I was just able to gasp out Mary Charlotte’s name, and she came to the door and helped me inside to lie face down on the sofa. As I lay there thoughts of lying in a hospital bed with my feet strapped up to the ceiling flashed through my mind. The terrible pain had subsided somewhat, but I could not move without increasing it. Then I thought, “Satan is trying to keep me from going to Japan! He won’t get away with it!" I asked Mary Charlotte to get the telephone book and call down the chiropractor list until she found one that would take me at that hour of Saturday morning. The seventh one did. By now the couple staying in the house had gotten up and the young man and Mary Charlotte managed to drag-carry me to the car, and she drove me to the chiropractor. He and she got me into his office and onto his table. He found that two of the lower vertebrae in my back had been dislocated, and probably the disk between them crushed. In the course of the next half hour, he managed to get the bones back nearly in place, relieving the pain. He then put an 8-inch-wide piece of adhesive tape around my middle and told me not to lift anything for thirty days. His fee was $6 plus the cost of the adhesive! We got back home and prepared to leave, but had to wait until 9am for the cleaner to open, as they had closed early the previous afternoon in fear of the riots. Then I drove all but 50 miles of the way to Toledo, but Mary Jo wasn’t there. We had dinner, called Will, and then drove onto Chicago, arriving at midnight. After a short visit there we went on to Spokane to visit Mary Francis and Howard. A chiropractor there worked some more on my back, more exactly positioning the vertebrae, and I was off to Seattle and Tokyo.
I had gotten a letter of introduction from my colleagues at Goddard to Dr. Sato, the #2 man in Japan’s modest space program, which I had mailed to Chuck. However, when he took it to the Tokyo University, the #1 man in the program, Dr. Takagi, dean of the Graduate School of Space and Aeronautics of Tokyo University, took it on himself to give me an entire day, touring the laboratories and shops in the morning, and speaking to his entire staff in the afternoon. He first introduced me to talk about our work at Goddard (Chuck translating), and then introduced me a second time to give my Christian testimony. I had never before done this publicly, and I didn’t know what to say, particularly to these men who probably knew very little of the Bible and the Christian faith. But I had read in the Bible that when called on to testify, God Himself will give us the words to use, so I prayed for Him to do just that, and started to speak. After the talks, as I was being escorted from the building by Dr. Takagi, he congratulated me on what a fine presentation I had made. I suddenly realized that I had not the faintest recollection of what I had said. I still don’t know. That taught me that God does indeed give us the words to say, but He doesn’t want us to use those words again as He will give us the new words each new audience requires each time we speak for Him. I can testify that he has done so for me many hundreds of times!
The rest of the two weeks are somewhat of a blur in my memory. I do recall speaking to the Radio Research Laboratory, another government group. They took me to a huge communications dish in operation about 50 miles north of Tokyo. I knew NASA had these too, but had never actually seen one. Another meeting was to the Japanese equivalent of our Institute of Radio Engineers, as the professional electronics people in the US are called. Akio Sasaki interpreted for me, and I showed a set of slides especially prepared for me at Goddard for the purpose. Akio had been my interpreter at the Tokyo Christian Crusade seven years earlier, and Chuck had gotten him for this task as Chuck didn’t know the technical terms used. A 20-minute period had been reserved for questions, but no time for my testimony. When no one asked a question, I launched into my testimony, which was well received. They gave me an honorarium of $50, which I should have shared with Akio, but I mistakenly thought he would be properly compensated as well. Akio had taken two days off from work to prepare for this translation from the script I had sent him. My failing to share with him cooled our relationship, and although I saw him on other trips to Japan, and actually stayed in his house, I don’t believe he ever forgot that. The return home was uneventful, and my back didn’t give me any major problems, although I carefully avoided lifting anything.
When we first arrived in the
Washington area, we learned that Ben Sheldon, the missionary we had
visited in Korea seven years earlier, was now pastor of the Sixth
Presbyterian Church, on upper Sixteenth Street in northwest
Washington. So we began attending there, and in a few months Ben
asked me to serve on the session. It was a mistake to have accepted,
as I hardly knew anyone in the church. We volunteered our home for
visiting speakers, and had the privilege of having such people as
David du Plessis and Peter Marshall (the son) as our guests. But the
long drive across the city and the difficulty in getting to know the
people, made us decide to find a local church, which we did in the
Eastminster Presbyterian Church of Bladensburg. We still correspond
with and occasionally visit some of these dear people, and we enjoyed
nearly four years of fellowship with them.
We had a house guest our first Christmas in our new house — Osamu Okamura, who was a former Tyrannus Hall resident who had felt a call to the Christian ministry, and needed a US sponsor to allow him to study at a US seminary. When Chuck Corwin told me about him, I agreed to be his sponsor, as this involved no real obligation on my part — mostly a government formality to prevent foreign students from becoming welfare cases. We invited Osamu to spend the Christmas holidays from his seminary with us, as he could not go home, and had no other US close friends. He came by bus just as Mary Charlotte had a rare case of sickness, and he had to put up with my cooking for his entire visit. I am amazed that he is still one of our close friends. He figured importantly in my life in future years, and this was my introduction to him.
When we returned from California in May 1968, we found that Mrs. Chapman had
fallen and broken her collar bone. The couple taking care of her had
taken her to the local clinic, but they were not able to do much for
her, and recommended that she be taken to her doctor. We had no
family doctor at that time, so I asked my nephew, Dr. Charles Balch,
for a recommendation. The doctor Chuck recommended, however, seemed
only interested in his fee, for he did nothing for her beyond giving
her a sling. She must have damaged more than her collarbone, however,
because she rapidly went down hill, and complained of difficulty in
swallowing. I believe she knew her time was fast approaching, as she
wanted to return to her people in Tennessee, something she had never
asked before. We arranged for her to fly to Nashville with Mary
Charlotte, and Garland Phillips (a niece by marriage) had an
ambulance meet her at the airport to take her to the hospital in
Lewisburg. She soon lost the power to swallow altogether, and had to
be fed intravenously. After a few days in a nursing home, she went to
be with the Lord. I arranged to drive down over the Fourth of July
week-end, and the funeral was deferred until July 5th. The dear old
lady was 88, and had been blind for 11 years. She was buried in the
Palmetto Cemetery in a family plot.
The world was electrified on Christmas Eve of
1968, as Frank Borman and his two crewmen, while circling the moon in
Apollo 8 as the first human beings to visit a celestial object, began
to read from the King James Bible the first twelve verses of Genesis
chapter 1, describing God’s creation of the heavens and the
earth. NASA had arranged to distribute the TV program live to any
nation that wanted it, and it is estimated that at least one-third of
all mankind heard that broadcast. It was a tremendous witness of the
faith of the astronauts, and gave the lie to the slander that a
scientist could not believe in creation.
Apollo 8 tested the capability of the Saturn launch vehicle to send a spacecraft to the moon, and the construction of the command module to sustain the three astronauts for the ten days needed for the round-trip to the moon. Apollo 9, flown three months later in earth orbit, tested the ability of the lunar module to be launched from the command module with two astronauts and then to dock with it when the lunar landing mission was completed. Apollo 10 followed in two more months to prove the viability of the whole system in space in the vicinity of the moon, but did not land the astronauts on the moon. That was reserved for Apollo 11 in late July of 1969.
Once again Chuck Corwin invited me to bring my
space films to Tokyo and participate in church and university
meetings. I don’t remember much about this trip, except that it
was centered around the independent Christian churches in Tokyo for
the first two weeks, and included a week in Taiwan, sponsored by the
Presbyterian Church there. These independent churches in Tokyo were
quite different from our city churches. Most of them were very small,
with few having as many as 100 members. The buildings were typically
Japanese, and usually included living quarters for the pastor and his
family on an upper floor. Every meeting was packed, showing the high
interest among the Japanese people in our space program. The Japanese
space effort had still not borne fruit, but was to do so the
following year, when a Japanese-built space probe was successfully
launched from a Japanese launch site on a Japanese-built launch
vehicle. I do remember a return visit to the Radio Research
Laboratory I had visited the previous year, and they seemed as
enthusiastic as ever about our program. While an effort was made to
include an evangelistic outreach at each meeting, the Japanese are
very conservative. Their very culture teaches them to be slow in
making commitments, as every American doing business with them knows
only too well. It was difficult for me to measure the effectiveness
of these programs in bringing Japanese to Christ. I do have a few
letters and reports of university students coming to the Lord as a
result of one of my meetings, but just a few. Nevertheless, I am
grateful to the Lord for giving me the opportunity to speak for Him
in this way. I stayed in one of the rooms in the dormitory building
known as Tyrannus Hall, founded by Chuck several years before, and to
which we had contributed $10,000, about half its construction cost.
Such is the prestige of Tokyo’s universities that young men
from all over Japan come there to get their education at one of its
605 universities. Many of the Christian boys that come to Tyrannus
Hall become pastors and all become vibrant Christians in the walk of
life they choose. They have formed a modern Samurai society, and made
me an honorary member.
The visit to Taiwan had its own elements of interest, the principal one being my contact with a Taipei doctor with whom I stayed for several days. He was from an aboriginal Taiwanese family, and indicated a surprising antipathy to the ruling mainline Chinese, who he said were as ruthless to the native Taiwanese as the Japanese had been. He illustrated the difficulty in getting an education there in his childhood. He had to learn Japanese to get his elementary education before World War II, when the Japanese ruled Taiwan. Then he had to learn Mandarin Chinese to get his university education in Taipei. Finally, he had to learn English to get his medical training, as all the available medical textbooks were in English. That would daunt anyone wanting to become a doctor. The second thing I remember that surprised me was the high cost of land in Taiwan. I knew that land in Japan was sky high but didn’t expect to hear that a church in one of the southern cities in Taiwan was going to have to pay $50,000 for the land on which to build their sanctuary.
The relationship of Mary Francis to Howard Doran had been noticeably strained at the family reunion, so it was no surprise for us to learn that they had gotten a divorce. What was a surprise was that Mary Francis planned to marry Bill Spears in Minneapolis in a few months’ time, and wanted me to give her away in a church wedding there. This put me on a spot. She had not even let me know when she married Howard, and that omission still hurt. The only way I could justify this present marriage and church ceremony was to consider the first marriage as a horrible mistake, the less said about it the better. So I agreed, and many of the family — Mother, Mary Jo, Will and Judy, and of course Mary Charlotte headed for Minneapolis to take part in the wedding. It was a very pretty wedding, and Mary Francis made a beautiful bride. Bill claimed his first wife had left him for the man next door, and that he was an innocent victim of her infidelity. Mary Francis was quite taken with the idea of mothering his four children, and when this second marriage broke up years later, I wondered if her interest was not more in the children than in Bill. Bill was a regional manager for his insurance company, for whom he seemed to have sold his soul. We learned later that Mary Francis had to work to provide food and clothing for the family, as all the money Bill made went back into the company.
July 26, 1969, is one of those dates that really
stand out in human history, as that is the date Neil Armstrong
stepped out on the moon with the words, “One small step for
man, a giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin and Neil had landed
in the lunar module several hours before actually moving out onto the
lunar surface, with half the world holding their breath all that time
waiting for it to happen. It was almost as marvelous that we
earthlings could be watching it live on TV as it was that man could
indeed walk on the moon. Several years later it was published in the
world-wide editions of Time Magazine that Buzz had carried with him
to the moon the bread and wine of the Christian communion service,
and in synchronism with his fellow elders and congregation in his
church in Houston, partook of the elements there on the moon. This
witness proved that scientists can be Christians as well as believers
We at Goddard had participated more than usual in this mission, as we had a laser experiment at the Center to work in coordination with a sophisticated retro-reflector set up on the moon by the astronauts. This reflector of 100 precisely ground prisms could accurately reflect a laser beam from the earth that struck it within 7 degrees of its perpendicular. Our laser projector there at the space center had to be systematically scanned over the face of the moon, until its beam passed over the reflector. It was like pointing a pistol from Cape Town, South Africa, and hitting Big Ben on the Parliament Building in London. It took several days of searching, but we did make contact, and got a measure of the distance from the laser projector to the reflector (208,000 miles) with a possible error under six inches. I had the privilege years later in Germany to have dinner with the man whose company made that reflector!
The tremendous interest in the first moon landing
and the obvious success of using a space film showing to bring people
to an evangelistic meeting, gave me the idea of touring the Caribbean
with the Apollo 11 film. Mary Charlotte and I had never been there,
and she was eager to accompany me. I located as many as I could of
the missionary organizations that had missionaries in the Caribbean
and wrote to one in each island that we wanted to visit. The response
was quite enthusiastic, and I made up a detailed itinerary. We would
drive to Miami and fly first to Jamaica, then to Haiti, the Dominican
Republic, Aruba, St. Vincent, Grenada, Trinidad, Barbados and finally
Antigua before returning to Miami and home. I made complete records
of our meetings and other opportunities, as well as the names of
people and places we visited, which I won’t attempt to itemize.
The response was far greater than I had anticipated, and I am
grateful to the Lord for the privilege of being His spokesman to so
many people. According to the best estimates of attendance and radio
audiences, 12,450 attended presentations in 9 churches, 1575 in 7
schools and seminaries, 6200 in a public park and a hall, and an
audience of 425,000 to 4 radio broadcasts. The film had excellent
video but no narration, only background comments and music. It must
have been difficult for the average person to know what was going on
much of the time, but they loved it nevertheless. In one church in
Port-au-Prince (Haiti), the place was so packed that people were
standing up in all the aisles, crowded behind the screen. They craned
their necks to see through all the doorways and windows. In a ball
park on Grenada, we had set the projector up just beyond the stands,
but an hour before time the stands were full and overflowed far
beyond the projector. So we got a stand and moved it out into the center
of the field. Even so, before the film could be shown, the people had
filled all the space between the projector and the stands and spilled
over behind the screen. I well remember the trip over the terrible
road in Haiti between Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien, where OMS
International (formerly called Oriental Missionary Society) had a
radio station and local church. It took us six hours to get there in
a rented Hertz jeep that had several flat tires on the way. We
returned as guests of a government official in a modern car, and the
ride was much, much smoother. Our flight on Dominican Airlines from
Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo was canceled on account of a local
holiday, making it impossible to get to the Dominican Republic. That
also fouled us up in going to Aruba, as there was no air service to
there from Haiti. We wound up going to San Juan (Puerto Rico), on Air
France with the promise of a flight to Aruba from there. This turned
out to be non-existent, so we missed out on Aruba as well, where Jim
Pietsch of TEAM had set up an $11-a-plate dinner at the Holiday Inn!
However, in San Juan we were invited to stay overnight with a local
missionary, who strongly urged me to take my films and meetings to
Mexico — a thought that had not occurred to me, but which
eventuated in more than a year of ministry in that country! I
wondered how come the Lord allowed those meetings to be canceled, but
years later found the answer. I went to the Dominican Republic three
times in later years — not for a one-night stand but for weeks
at a time. Similarly, I went to Aruba on two later occasions, again
for weeks rather than one night. I have not been back to a single one
of the other islands (except Haiti — on the same island as the
One incident might be of interest. During the question period after the showing and talk in a huge church in Port-au-Prince, a person wanted to know where in the Bible God authorized man to walk on the moon. I told of Elijah being taken to heaven in a chariot of fire (wrong, it was in a whirlwind), but that didn’t satisfy my questioner. Then I remembered the radio broadcast in Kingston (Jamaica) a few days earlier which had used the theme of Psalm 8. When I had the pastor-interpreter read that psalm, which says in verse 3, “When I consider your heavens. ..the moon and the stars...” and in verse 5, “You have put everything under his (man’s) feet,” it brought down the house.
The success of Apollo 11 apparently led to
overconfidence. Apollo 12, while accomplishing its mission, lost TV
contact as soon as the first astronaut descended to the lunar
surface. In swinging the television camera around, he inadvertently
panned the sun, burning out the camera recording element. Apollo 13,
as I’m sure you all remember, had an explosion on the way to
the moon which should have meant the end of the mission and the death
of the astronauts. Through a series of miracles, however, the Lord
spared those men, and they landed safely in the Pacific, only seven
miles from their pickup aircraft carrier. There are two little-known
stories about this mission that I would like to relate to you. The
first is about the cause of the explosion.
Over six months after the flight, NASA published a most interesting story about the cause of the explosion. Back in January 1967, a flash fire in a test command module killed the first three astronauts of the space program. A complete redesign of the command module was undertaken, to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy. One of the changes was in the voltage of the spacecraft electrical system — from 12 volts to 24 volts. Oxygen for the astronauts in flight came from three oxygen tanks carried in the large service module, behind the command module in which the men rode. These tanks had a heating circuit powered by the spacecraft electrical system and controlled by a thermostat to keep the oxygen at “room temperature” so that the men could breathe it. The tanks were made by a small company in the mid-West, and had functioned perfectly in all the previous Apollo missions. Investigation into why one of these tanks had exploded and wrecked the electrical system of the Apollo 13 spacecraft revealed the following three independent causes, all three of which were necessary to produce the explosion — a triple coincidence! (1) The firm making the tanks was told by change order to replace the 12-volt thermostats by 24-volt thermostats, but this change order did not get applied, and all tanks continued to be supplied with 12-volt thermostats. These had functioned quite satisfactorily in six earlier missions, so should not have failed in Apollo 13. (2) On delivery to the integrating contractor (McDonnell Douglas) in California, this particular tank had been dropped during unloading. The assembly engineers noted this but could find no disqualifying damage. The only effect was to move the filling tube slightly out of place. While caution should have told them that there might be further damage, the knowledge that rejection would delay the mission by three months while another tank was fabricated, caused them to accept the slightly damaged tank.
(3) When the whole spacecraft was thoroughly tested by the NASA engineers at the Kennedy Space Center, the procedures called for the filling of these tanks and various tests to be made on their performance. There were no problems during the tests. However, after the tests, the written procedure called for emptying the tanks of their oxygen until time for the mission. This tank could not be completely emptied because of the misplaced filling tube. Again, procedures written for this unlikely occurrence provided for putting the tanks on full heating current for eight hours, so that all oxygen would be baked out. This was done, but the tanks were not retested — a major oversight. What must have occurred is the fusing of the thermostat by the higher-than-normal current. As soon as power was applied prior to lift-off, the heating current was uncontrolled, and the tank got hotter and hotter — until eventually it exploded, two days into the mission and only one day from the moon.
The second story concerns one of the many miracles God performed to bring the men back safely. One of our divisions at Goddard had the responsibility of computing the trajectories (popularly called orbits) the Apollo spacecraft would fly on its way to and from the moon. This is no simple task. One has to start from assumed initial conditions, and then by taking into account the attractions of the earth and moon compute a small increment of travel. This starts another such computation creating a trajectory to somewhere — whether desired or not — usually not. A small change is made in one of the starting conditions and the whole thing done over. For a trajectory from lunar orbit to the exact spot on the earth where the pickup carrier is waiting has to cope with the rotation of the earth, the orbiting of the moon around the earth, and to a limited extent the orbiting of the earth around the sun. It takes from two to three weeks on our fastest computer to complete such a computation to the precision needed for successful return to earth. A moment’s reflection will show why. When the spacecraft enters the earth’s atmosphere from its lunar orbit start, it will be traveling at 7 miles per second nearly parallel to the earth’s surface. To land within one mile of the carrier, which most missions accomplished, means an error in timing at re-entry of only one-seventh of a second from a burn (firing of the rocket engine) behind the moon three days earlier! That means an accuracy within one part in 200,000 in flight time alone.
The original calculations had been made for the rocket engine of the command module to be fired when the spacecraft was behind the moon, to put it into lunar orbit, preparatory for the descent of the lunar module to the moon’s surface. With the entire electrical system of the command module inoperative, its rocket engine could not be used. Also, it was imperative to bring the astronauts back to earth immediately. To make matters worse, the spacecraft had already changed course to land on the selected lunar site, and was no longer in the earth-moon plane. If nothing were done, the spacecraft would make a big swing around the moon and return in the direction of the earth. It would not go into earth orbit because it was in the wrong plane, but would fly off into space, never to return. The scientists responsible for calculating the new trajectory now required by Apollo 13 had to prescribe not only the time of the burn behind the moon which would place the space-craft in the earth-moon plane, but also the position and velocity (three values each) that the spacecraft must have if it is to fly to the designated spot on the earth’s rotating surface and arrive at the correct instant, and not fly off to some other part of space. Thus the burn would have to be made at the exact instant the spacecraft crossed the plane which passed through the centers of both the earth and the moon, so that it would shift its course back into the earth-moon plane. A final complexity arose from the fact that the rocket engine on the lunar module, which was the only power available, was designed to accelerate the lunar module alone, whereas now the much heavier command module was attached to it and had to be accelerated as well. There was absolutely no precedent for this computation to give a clue as to what might be close starting values! Only God would know what they had to be. And if the starting values weren’t very close, there would not be time to make essential refinements — only one day left before the burn-point behind the moon would be reached.
I am told by reliable persons that these men knew the improbability of success and prayed to God to give them the needed starting values. In fact, many people in NASA and all around the world prayed almost continually to God to bring the men back safely. Be that as it may, the fact is that very first computation was so nearly right that the spacecraft would have landed in the south Indian Ocean. The final calculation permitted the spacecraft to land within seven miles of its pickup carrier. Truly God must have provided those starting values.
Returning to Los Angeles with Chuck to pick up Mary Charlotte, we wanted to get to Blair as soon as we could, as Judy was expecting her first child at any time. At our old church Sunday we learned that Gordon Biles, one of my fellow elders there, planned to turn in his Olds the next day for a new car. I immediately decided to buy it from him for the $800 he was being allowed as trade-in, giving the Mercury to Osamu Okamura, the Japanese seminary student I had mentioned earlier, now at Fuller. We started out for Blair the next day, and decided to cut across a secondary highway in Arizona from I-10 to I-20. We were about halfway between the two interstates when the Olds engine suddenly stopped. Nothing I could do would make it start. We had gas and it wasn’t overheated, but it wouldn’t run. Soon a man in a pickup truck stopped to see what our problem was, but he couldn’t start the motor either. So he took me to Yarnell, a small town 15 miles back, where a garage was located, and the Olds was soon hauled in. We got a room at the only motel, and then tried to call Will. The motel had no phones and there was only one working pay phone in the town, but we finally raised Will and learned that the birth was still expected. The garage man had first thought the timing chain had jumped and had driven 150 miles to get a new one, but found that wasn’t the trouble, that the exhaust manifold had imploded and completely blocked the exhaust. Nothing for it but another 150-mile drive to get a new exhaust manifold, for which I had to pay. Every day we called Will, until Edward Mark Mitchell was finally born on September 16th, Will’s birthday. Obviously the new grandparents had to stop in Blair to contemplate this addition to our small family.
Apollo 14 was delayed almost a
year due to the explosion in Apollo 13, but was finally flown in the
spring of 1971, followed by Apollo 15 in July of that year. Apollo 15
was the first mission involving the “lunar buggy”, the
reconnaissance vehicle which extended the astronauts “walk”
many times over. Jim Irwin was one of the three astronauts on that
mission, and literally “met God” before returning back to
earth. He subsequently resigned from NASA and started a Christian
organization called “High Flight” in which he served many
years as an evangelist. From his published writings and interviews I
have gleaned several stories of this mission which I have used many
times in my talks. The first is the miracle by which Irwin got to go
to the moon. He was a relative newcomer to the astronaut corps, and
would probably have had to wait for the shuttle to become operational
before getting into space. He was, however, assigned as back-up man
for the position of lunar module pilot on Apollo 15. None of the
back-up men had ever gone into space (except one in Apollo 13), and
so he did not expect to go on the flight, but trained diligently
nevertheless. Less than three months before the flight date, Dr.
Harrison Schmidt, the prime lunar module pilot, learned that the
destination on the moon for Apollo 17 was to be a volcanic area.
Having obtained his doctorate in geology, Schmidt asked to be
transferred to Apollo 17, so as better to use his technical training,
and his request was granted. There was not time to train a more
senior man for the post, so Irwin moved up to prime crew. When the
spacecraft reached earth orbit and the thunderous roar of the Saturn
launch vehicle ceased, Irwin remarked to the flight commander, David
Scott, that he had the queerest feeling that God was in the
spacecraft with them. Scott replied that all of the astronauts
experience the presence of God when they go out into space!
On the moon, when the lunar buggy was unfolded and Scott began to test it, he found that the front-wheel steering mechanism didn’t work. The vehicle could be steered with the rear wheels only, but such a malfunction worried them. What if the vehicle broke down when they were 25 or more kilometers away from the spacecraft, as the mission plan required? They would not be able to reach the spacecraft on foot before running out of oxygen. The problem was referred to the experts at Houston, and all that day they tried to find the cause of the malfunction. By the time the astronauts were to have their sleep ("night” is not the word, the daylight period on the moon is 14 of our days long), the trouble had not been found. So Irwin consciously prayed to God to fix the vehicle, and went to sleep. I have shown the documentary film many times, and the sound track carries Scott’s exclamation the following morning when he got into the lunar buggy, “Hey! This thing works! You guys in Houston must have sent a mechanic up here to fix it while we were sleeping.” Believe it or not, God can fix lunar buggies! In the following years I was to use Irwin’s career as evidence of how God works in people’s lives in hundreds of my talks.
In the fall of 1970 Congress decided to pare down the personnel
strength of NASA by 5%, as the Apollo program was nearing its close,
and future missions would be less demanding of government people.
However, they did not specify what program’s personnel would be
cut, and left it up to NASA to determine how to trim its personnel.
NASA Headquarters took the same attitude and passed the “how
to” down to the individual space centers. The experiences I had
already had in space-film evangelism made me want to give full time
to the work, but that would be possible only if I could retire with
maximum pension. Three impediments to this existed. First, I would
have to serve in NASA for five full years to eliminate my income from
the Government Printing Office (about one-fifteenth my present
salary) from my pension calculation. Second, I would have to be 60 or
have 30 years service to retire at full pension, and I was only 57
with less than 20 years service. Third, I would have to have my
specific job eliminated to retire earlier than age 60. Congress
changed all three of those conditions within the two years preceding
my retirement: the five-year average high pay was reduced to
three-years. For this particular cutback the full pension was granted
to those with 20 years service and age 55, and the requirement of
specific job elimination was modified to include the current
situation. I could retire at full pension
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