The RocketStar Engineers Behind the Apollo 11 Mission

NASA Astronaut Buzz Aldrin is one of the first humans along with Astronaut Neil Armstrong to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, photo courtesy of NASA

By LAURA LOREK, Publisher of Silicon Hills News

HOUSTON – The astronauts get all the glory, but hundreds of thousands of people worked behind the scenes to put the first men on the Moon.

“It took around 400,000 people to land humankind on the Moon from engineers to computer programmers to the people who sewed airtight space suits,” said Astronaut Mike Collins, who along with Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, flew the Apollo 11 Mission to the Moon. He made that statement

in a Google video.

Last week, a group of engineers from IBM met at the Gilruth Center at Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston to talk about the work they did on helping to make the Apollo 11 mission to the moon a success. IBM had more than 4,000 people working on the Apollo 11 mission, said John E. Kelly, executive vice president of IBM.



Sadie Stanley, former IBM Radar Programmer, Homer Ahr, former IBM computer programmer, Dave Proctor, former IBMer who coded the lunar descent maneuver model, Tommy Steele, former IBMer and lead engineer on the instrument unit for the Saturn Moon Rocket and Phil Pollacia, former IBMer who managed the preflight trajectory at Johnson Space Center .

They were all working on a national goal set by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, to land on the moon and return safely to earth. Astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin accomplished that by safely landing on the moon, 50 years ago on July 20th.

“It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong said as he stepped foot on the moon.

At that historic moment, Homer Ahr, former IBM computer programmer, was at the dynamics console in the Mission Operations Control Room, known as MOCR, in Building 30 at the Manned Spacecraft Center, later renamed the Johnson Space Center. That room, under the control of NASA’s Gene Kranz, a former fighter pilot, served as the nerve center for the Apollo 11 mission.

Ahr watched the second by second real-time processing of the data for Armstrong’s descent piloting the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle.

The last-minute and 45 seconds became fairly-tense as Armstrong flew above the surface of the moon looking for a place to land the Eagle, Ahr said.

“I remember praying at a minute and thirty seconds,” he said. “Dear Lord, just tell him to put it down, just put it down. And a few seconds later he put it down.”

On his descent to the moon, two alarms sounded that almost led NASA to tell Armstrong to abort the mission. Both signaled the computer was overloaded with data and couldn’t process it all. Kranz gave the astronauts the go-ahead to land despite the alarms. But that wasn’t the only problem the astronauts had to deal with on descent.

“At about 600 feet, noticingEagle’s computer was taking them down into a boulder-strewn area near West Crater, Armstrong took over manual control of the descent,” according to NASA. “He pitchedEagleto a more vertical orientation, which slowed the descent, and decided to overfly the rough area and look for smoother terrain to land on.”

During that time, the Eagle almost ran out of fuel. At about 100 feet, a fuel warning light came on, that meant Armstrong only had 90 seconds left of hover time, according to NASA.

With less than a minute of fuel left, Armstrong found a place to land in the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon and shut down the spacecraft announcing back to NASA the historic words, “Houston,Tranquility Basehere. TheEaglehas landed.”

Armstrong’s shadow can be seen on the moon as he takes a picture of the lunar landing module, known as Eagle and its landing site on the moon. Photo credit; NASA.

“The truth is if anyone in the world was going to land on the moon, it was Neil Armstrong,” Ahr said. “During some of the training, using a lunar module simulator at Ellington Air Force Base, up the road here, the trainer crashed.”

On May 6, 1968, Armstrong narrowly escaped with his life after the simulated lunar landing research vehicle he was flying at Ellington Air Force Base malfunctioned, according to NASA. Armstrong lost control of the vehicle because of a loss of helium pressure, according to an accident investigation by NASA. Armstrong ejected from the vehicle 200 feet from the ground and the vehicle crashed and burned on impact. Armstrong parachuted to safety and wasn’t injured.

“The vehicle’s instrumentation did not provide adequate warning about the adverse situation,” according to NASA. They corrected the problems for the eventual Eagle landing.

“He held on to the bitter end,” Ahr said. “So, we knew he was going to hold on till the bitter end. He was not going to get that close to the landing and not land.”

Astronaut Neil Armstrong in the lunar module following his historic moonwalk, photo credit: NASA.

IBM’s computers played a major role in the Apollo 11 mission. They were the most powerful computers in the world at the time, said Kelly, executive vice president of IBM. And to see how much computing power has advanced in 50 years, today a smartphone has more processing power than the entire mission control operations that landed men on the moon.

“The biggest risk was not that the technology wasn’t up to it, we did everything we could in terms of the quality of our code, the accuracy, and precision of our code, the performance of our code, we trained for months to do this,” Ahr said. “What I was worried about as the biggest risk was me screwing up. Because we had to put in a lot of inputs into the computer and if you messed them up you had to redo them and redoing them took time.”

During training simulations, NASA almost didn’t make the go-no-go call during descent because Ahr had messed up.

“But that was what training was for,” he said.

The engineers were doing things between man and machine that had never been done before, Kelly said.

“We didn’t know we could fail,” said Sadie Stanley, former IBM Radar Programmer; one of the few women programmers at the time.

The Apollo missions built upon themselves and each one provided lessons and information to improve for the next one, saidDave Proctor, former IBM engineer who coded the lunar descent maneuver model. They also built on intelligence learned from NASA’s Mercury and Gemini missions before the Apollo program, he said.

“I thought the risk was in the descent and ascent, the rest of it we had done before, we had several training missions, 8 9, 10, we had gone into orbit around the moon before,” Proctor said. “The new part was descending and ascending, these parts we had never done before, but it worked out really well even though it was a little close on the landing.”


Standing before a model of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, IBM Houston programmers Susan Wright (left), Mitch Secondo (rear) and David Proctor look over equations they have programmed into NASA computers at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Most of the formulas were taken from the complex mathematics used by ground computers that guided Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to their lunar landing. Credit: IBM

Everyone working on the Apollo 11 mission was scared, but they just focused on doing the best job they could to get through that phase and then onto the next phase, said Phil Pollacia, former IBMer who managed the preflight trajectory.

“At some point in time, we just had to say, we didn’t know we couldn’t do it, so we just did,” Pollacia said. “And one step after another step made it happen. And sure enough at the end of the mission, we all took a deep breath and relaxed.”

“Until the next mission,” Stanley said.

Tommy Steele joined IBM right out of college at the Huntsville Marshall Space Flight Center and he became the lead engineer on the instrument unit for NASA’s Saturn V, a three-stage liquid-propellant expendable rocket developed for the Apollo program to take humans to the Moon.

Most of the people working on the Apollo 11 mission were in their 20s and a lot of them were kids right out of college, Steele said.

“All of this stuff we were working on, there weren’t any bad ideas,” Steele said. “Even a raw recruit out of college got to work on important things.”

“No one had ever attempted an engineering project like this,” Steele said. NASA did an outstanding job of getting the mission accomplished and working with all the companies working on it, he said.

“We never flew a mission that didn’t have something go wrong,” Steele said. “The key was to be able to accomplish the mission in spite of that.”

Today, Steele, who retired from IBM in 1992, lives in Round Rock and is part of the “Round Rock Gang” a group of former engineers and staff that worked on the Apollo, Space Shuttle and Skylab missions. They get together to reminisce about the work they did and how much has changed. Today, NASA astronauts hitch a ride to the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft with Russian Cosmonauts. At the time of the Apollo 11 Mission, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in a Cold War and that kind of collaboration seemed impossible, Steele said. For a young engineer right out of college, it was the most exciting project in the world to work on.

Video by IBM

“Everything about the space program was embryonic and it was pretty exciting stuff,” Steele said. “There were so many people who dedicated their every thought for six or seven years toward getting this done. They did things that have never been done before. And they did it without worrying about who got credit.”

Steele also thinks the U.S. will get to Mars, but it will first have to have a better understanding of how space occupancy and long-flight space missions work.

“Mankind’s’ thirst for the next frontier – it never changes,” Steele said.

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