Apollo’s Haise and Cunningham: We got the glory, but the workers got us to the Moon
TITUSVILLE, Fla — It is not every day that one gets to sit down with someone who has made history, let alone the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 13 and Apollo 7 – and at the same time. SpaceFlight Insider was given just such an opportunity during the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Fred Haise talked about the workers and astronauts’ experiences working on Apollo, and also what it was like to be a part of one of the most important accomplishments in human history along with the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 7 – Walt Cunningham. With this week being the 45th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 13, SFI brings you this interview in its entirety.
Haise and Walt Cunningham sat down with this author to discuss the program’s workforce as well as what it was actually like to live and work through the Apollo era. Haise relayed that the drive to get to the Moon saw traditional schedules upended in the relentless pace of “Go Fever”.
“It was a hectic time, it was hard on people, this wasn’t just at Grumman, it was at North American (Aviation) the same way,” Haise said. “Up until, probably, literally the lunar landings, a little beyond – it was seven days a week, 24 hours a day in the test stations. I know at Grumman, I’m not sure about over at North American, but one year between ’67 and ’68 there was only one day off all year, meaning they only shut down test operations for just one day all year – Christmas.”
Cunningham – who carried out the first test flight of the Apollo Command and Service Module, Apollo 7, in 1968, along with the mission’s commander Walter M. “Wally” Schirra and Command Module Pilot Don F. Eisele – recalled the circumstances similarly.
“By that time, in the mid-60s era, I was assigned to a crew which was working on the Command Module at North American, out in Inglewood, California. They were still in the development stage, but, as Fred touched on, I myself can recall being on the road, away from home, 275 days out of that year. I practically lived at the plant. This was the Block 1 spacecraft which had a lot of development problems,” Cunningham noted that the issues with the spacecraft consumed a great deal of time. “The only way that we could get any time in the spacecraft was to perform the tests.
“So, the engineers would install something… actually, we ended up building a little ‘bunk room’ upstairs… well, the factory was operating 24 hours a day…,” Cunningham said.
“We had a trailer,” Haise chimed in at this point. “We had a trailer and a tunnel… where the production line was and all of the LEMs were in test stands. So you went through all that and you had to wear the smock and the gloves – they even had a machine that would blow air on you and all that.
“The trailer outside gave us two double-deck bunks, a shower and a sink, and then we had a little area that was beyond that, that was like two desks and radio communications to all of the test stations that they wanted us to select the channels. Then we had another room that was a small conference room. It was a fair-sized trailer that was hooked up to a tunnel to the test area.”
Cunningham noted that there were differences between the two companies that he and Haise supported during the race to the Moon.
“Out there (at North American) we were putting the spacecraft together, down at the construction facility, and, after a while, we had them add this little bunk room up there. For some reason, most of the time, it was Frank Borman and I out there. I guess we didn’t have as exciting as a night life as some of the other guys (laughs). We would spend a lot of nights up there, before we’d get a call.”
Cunningham noted that there was some privacy, but that the focus at the time – was on the mission.
“There was just the two of us up there, four bunks I think, so, sometimes there were more than two of us, but uh, we’d get the call, go down and do the test and then come back and go to sleep again.”
Haise noted that given the experimental nature of what the assembled team was trying to do – it was rarely a matter of something being done just once.
“A lot of times you’d have trouble during a test, you didn’t know how long the delay was going to be. If there was something that I could contribute, I would even join the test team to argue about what we ought to do next, to troubleshoot. But, if I didn’t have anything to add to the equation, I would just go back to the trailer, to the bunk room and wait for them to call you to go back.”
When asked about whether-or-not this provided astronauts assisting in the testing process had a lot of downtime – both veteran space flyers were emphatic in their response.
“No,” Haise stated flatly.
“I don’t remember having a lot of downtime,” Cunningham said.
“If you actually managed to have any downtime, you tried to make the most of it by taking a nap, to get some sleep. I wasn’t all that familiar again with Walt’s side, but some of the early tests, even on the system basis, like a rendezvous-radar, the landing radar… one ran 23 hours straight and the other ran 27 hours straight. The first EMI (Electro-Magnetic-Induction) test that we did ran a week! It was multi-volume procedure and that ran a whole week,” Haise said with a thin smile.
Cunningham highlighted that the legion of an estimated 400,000 NASA personnel and contractors were the reason that Apollo will go down as the success that it was.
“If you asked me what I remember most about then, here is what I remember more than anything else, is that, regardless of whether we were working at NASA, the people on our support team or assigned to our crew team, everybody at the contractors’ office, and I’m sure it was the same at Grumman – every single engineer owned that program,” Cunningham said, a sentiment that Haise underscored emphatically.
“Right,” Haise said.
“When I say ‘owned’ it, it was as important to him as it was to me and what I was doing. To this day, you can talk to them and they will let you know that it was their program and it wasn’t going to fail because of something they did or didn’t do. That was the kind of commitment and dedication that we had.
“It was because [of] that, the challenge, and I say that because it was viewed as an impossible thing to most of the public. The public today has kind of gotten away from that sense of biting off the impossible and the going in and solving it regardless of how difficult it is viewed as being,” Cunningham said.
Both Haise and Cunningham noted that the workers’ dedication to accomplishing the mission was nothing short of extraordinary.
“For the part that each of them had to do – they were going to get it done, they were very motivated. I remember this one time during a test, there was this young boy in the back, he was modifying something we were testing, and he was from Brooklyn, New York. At one point he said, rather casually, ‘Sir, I don’t know why you want to go to the Moon, (laughs) but let me tell you something – I’m going to do the best job I can to make sure that you get there!’,” Haise relayed this personal reflection with a ready smile and a sense of awe at what the team he was a part of had accomplished.
While both astronauts noted that working on the effort to send crews to the face of a world untouched by a human presence was a daunting and thrilling endeavor, Cunningham in particular made note of the difference between his military experience and that of his time with the space agency.
“North American was a big part of what was going on, they were working on both the Block I and Block II (Apollo) spacecraft. The difference between then and now is that we were involved at the design level, the Critical Design Reviews and all of those kind of things. As opposed to checking into a squadron and having the airplane sit out there and just go out and check out in the new airplane,” Cunningham said.
Things have changed considerably in the 45 years since Apollo 13 lifted off of the launch pad and on its way into the history books. Both of the space flyers noted the changes that have occurred in the interceding four and a half decades.
“It’s no different than a major company like Boeing who is building a new airplane. A test pilot’s role is identical then as it is today. So you’re involved from day one as part of the design team, except that as a test pilot you are looking at it from the viewpoint of reliability and operations and you are making those kinds of inputs to the design. You are involved in the testing long before you ever fly, you are really part of the whole ‘shebang’ until the vehicle is ready to go fly,” Haise noted.
“Talking about the differences today, two years ago I went through SpaceX’s facility – it was an impressive setup. They have one building, floors clean. It wasn’t crowded with people, you can look at the spacecraft over here, meanwhile testing was being conducted over there in the corner. It’s a very efficient kind of layout to do these things,” Cunningham said. “But, you didn’t have the flight crew involvement that was going on back when we were developing the lunar module. Back ‘then’ the crew was involved during the design, and while we didn’t always ‘win’ in terms of having decisions made about the spacecraft – but you could express your opinion on it and, as a matter of fact, we provided the kind of operational experience that was in the hands of the engineers.
“The engineers had their level of expertise and we had ours, so I feel that operational experience is a very important thing. Today, you show up and you better doggone well learn what it is that they got – ’cause it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to make any sort of changes that late in the design,” Cunningham stated.
“If you went to Boeing when they were building the new Dreamliner, or the 777, I don’t think that there is much difference. There is less people involved, because Apollo was a much larger program overall, and many more components; it wasn’t just one vehicle – but I think that the approach is very similar.
“The heritage in the space program grew out of the aircraft development and test world. Most of the parties that were involved with the early space program had experience in some manner from that world. It’s nothing new in the system engineering process to develop and design a new vehicle,” Haise noted.
“At the contractors, it was the same thing too, they had Bob Smyth; I know he was involved with the early development of the lunar module. He provided operational input for the contractor,” Cunningham said.
“We had really a minimum amount of, I’ll call them ‘arguments’ if you will, about the lunar module because, if we did, we would get Bob Smyth, who was very germane in the early Grumman tests – he would make sure that we got it right,” Haise said. “I think at North American [they] even had psychologists involved with the design… (laughs).”
“It was not quite as smooth and nice as it was at Grumman because, basically, I can remember one time the head of Rockwell at the time complaining to Bob Gilruth that we were okay, we were on schedule – until you got the astronauts involved and now everything is slipping, he was complaining about the schedule. I wasn’t in the conversation, but it’s my understanding that Gilruth told him, ‘That’s okay, we’re not charging you for the time!’,” Cunningham said with a slight grin. “But Fred is absolutely right, they had all kinds of ‘human engineering’ folks, not necessarily operationally-experienced people.”
“At Grumman, they had quite a spread in terms of the age of the engineers, the people on the design team certainly; I’ll call it what they did, they had principal engineers which represented about 15 years of engineering experience or more on down to ‘fresh outs’ (of college),” Haise said.
“You can’t expect someone fresh out of college to do [a] good job of engineering; on the other hand, what was brand new was space operations and doing that; I think that I heard one time that the average [age] of the crew in mission control, back during Apollo, was 28,” Cunningham said.
“Yep, 28,” Haise confirmed.
“What I’m getting at is that space operations was new, it wasn’t like you could find people who had 10-15 years worth of experience, they were developing brand-new stuff and they also owned their job too. The reason why we were successful… you know, Fred and I, we got the glory out of it. But, what was the key to success in those days was the engineering, the operations, the design people, and Mission Control. I also want to add this too – management. Management at NASA in those days was willing and able to make the tough decisions – and then live with them. So, while we might have received the glory, those folks should get the credit for Apollo,” Cunningham concluded.
Apollo 13 launched from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 2:13 p.m. EDT (19:13 GMT) atop one of NASA’s massive Saturn V boosters. It was supposed to mark the third manned lunar landing. However, events revolving around a cryo stir of one of the Apollo CSM’s oxygen tanks unfolded: the tank exploded, crippling the CSM and forcing Haise, along with Apollo 13 commander James A. Lovell and command module pilot John L. “Jack” Swigert, to seek refuge in the Lunar Module. The trio conducted a free return trajectory around the Moon and safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean five days after liftoff on April 17, 1970.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.