My favorite guy in all of NASA history is someone you’ve likely never heard of – John Aaron, the engineer they called the “Steely-Eyed Missile Man.”
I’ve been crazy about the space program since I was a kid, but oddly it has never been the astronauts that captured my fancy. I love the guys like Gene Kranz, one of the earliest flight directors. (Ed Harris played him in “Apollo 13.”) Not only was he a great pilot-turned-mission-leader, he was one of those guys who learned every aspect of the program. He had to. His first job upon arriving at the just-built Cape Canaveral base was to write up all the procedures. All of them. Everything from steps before launch to abort procedures to mid-orbit docking maneuvers. He was writing official rules for things that hadn’t been invented yet!
And that’s what I love about all of those crews in the 60s. None of this had ever been done before — had barely been conceptualized — but they believed! And this small band of nerds, armed with math, bravado, and steel, took us to the moon.
The Right Stuff astronauts helped, of course. I’m not discounting their actions, their knowledge, or how heroic it was to strap themselves into a shaky metal cage that was three times more likely to have blown up on the launch pad then to actually complete the missions. Each of the early missions, from Mercury through Gemini and Apollo, had near-brushes with catastrophe. It’s a miracle that we weren’t killing our space cowboys left and right.
What saved them, of course, besides a dollop of ingenuity and a smattering of sheer luck, were the procedures that Kranz and the other early leaders put together. Looking at all the stations in master control, each with a small staff focusing on different aspects, the men who would become the flight controllers were swamped by the enormity of the project. They had simply too many things to consider at any given second, too many potential emergencies to consider. They came up with preset checklists for each station so that at launch they could sum everything up into “Go” or “No Go.”
A “No Go” from any desk meant the launch was delayed; anything else kept them in motion.
These same preset checklists were used for aborting missions, as well. If anything on the list of catastrophes happened, you told Flight it was time to abort.
Their prep lists were so extensive that, even though they were constantly on their toes with surprises and decisions to make, there was almost never a scenario that they hadn’t planned for …
… until Apollo 12 was hit by lightning during take-off.
They didn’t even realize at first that it had happened. So much was happening that the astronauts didn’t get a chance to mention the blinding flash they’d just flown through, and the windowless master control had no visuals. The entire roomful was bent over their individual monitors, scanning data, and doing manual calculations to verify those numbers.
A word about their early computers – these things were so basic they barely deserve to be called computers. They were limited to doing the things that couldn’t be done by humans, basically reporting the gauges and switch positions of everything inside the cockpits. When they had to adjust telemetry, it was easier for these men to pull out a slide rule and do it by hand.
They were rocket scientists, after all.
This is where we get to my man, John Aaron. He was in mission control that day, monitoring the cabin pressure when everything went crazy. Systems left and right blinked out, then came back with scrambled data. As Commander Pete Conrad reported, “We got a bunch of alarms, and … we had everything in the world drop out.”
Mission control spent a minute in panic, desperately trying to analyze flawed data and speculating whether the navigation and life-support systems could still be trusted.
They were on the verge of aborting the mission when Aaron piped up.
“Flight, have the crew take the SCE to Aux.”
He might as well have been speaking Swahili. Nobody had a clue what he was trying to say. The command had to be repeated a few times and even Conrad said, “What the hell is that?”
It turns out, during his training, Aaron had taken an interest in how the systems were put together, even studying a minor unit called the Signal Conditioning Equipment, which supplied power to instruments in the control, fuel cell, booster, and cryogenic systems. The SCE’s power was damaged, so it was undervolting everything down the chain.
They flipped one switch to auxiliary power and within seconds all major systems were back online.
NASA has the Audio feed of Apollo 12 launch available in their archives. Listening only to the main channel, what comes across is how quickly and efficiently everything is fixed. The total time from the lightning strike to resolution is roughly two minutes. During the brief stretch of total quiet, however, master control was in tightly-controlled pandemonium.
It takes a great mind to stay calm and work the problem during intense conditions like that, and NASA put great training into their entire staff to get such results. But taking those twenty seconds to analyze a glitch that had never been reported before and recognize an almost trivial schematic loop, then conceptualize a solution that would save the mission …
That takes a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.