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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AeroAstro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2008–2009 issue of AeroAstro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Reflections on Apollo and the next giant leaps

The Giant Leaps Symposium

By Dick Dahl

MIT's three-day Giant Leaps event in early June brought together Apollo veterans and modern-day leaders in aerospace engineering, energy, environment, public policy and education in a rare opportunity to examine the lunar program and how its lessons might be used in the future.

In his introductory remarks at a one-day symposium, Aeronautics and Astronautics Department head Ian Waitz said that MIT saw the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing as a perfect opportunity to look back at the history of Apollo and to future challenges in aerospace. In reflecting on that historic accomplishment, Waitz said that the famous "earthrise" image taken by astronaut Bill Anders stands out as a visual metaphor that MIT adopted for the "Giant Leaps" event.


The Giant Leaps Symposium begins as President Kennedy's special advisor Theodore Sorensen takes the lectern to offer reflections on Apollo. Also on the dais are (from left) AeroAstro professor of the practice and former Shuttle astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman; Apollo director of guidance, navigation, and control systems Richard Battin; Apollo command and service module manager Aaron Cohen; lunar module program director Joseph Gavin Jr.; Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt; and Apollo flight oeprations director Christopher Kraft Jr.

"I think we all understand that when the world vicariously stood on the moon and looked back at the earth and out to the heavens, our perspective of all three of those things changed," he said. "And likewise, we hope today as we look back on history and we stand here today and then look out to the future, that our perspective will change. We've sought to extend the metaphor yet further for aerospace, notonly looking out at the future of aerospace exploration but also looking at earth and air transportation and some of the challenges of energy and environment."

As Ian Waitz, head of MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics pointed out in his introductory remarks at a one-day symposium, MIT is an integral part of the Apollo story. He related how MIT's official relationship with Apollo began on April 9, 1961 in the form of a Western Union telegram to Charles "Doc" Draper, who then held Waitz's job as head of AeroAstro. The telegram, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, announced that MIT had been chosen as the first Apollo team member and awarded it $4 million to develop the guidance navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft.

Richard Battin, who became the director of the Apollo guidance navigation system, remembered the earliest days of MIT's involvement. On Oct. 4, 1957, when the USSR touched off the space race with its launch of Sputnik, Battin worked in Draper's MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, located in a less-than-posh space next to the railroad tracks on Massachusetts Ave. With the support of a contract from the Air Force, the lab responded to Sputnik by devising a space vehicle of its own. It became known as the Mars probe, which its planners intended would pass by Mars and return to earth. He recalled that the work on the Mars probe, which focused on development of an on-board computer navigation system, continued until the day when MIT received a telegram from NASA announcing that MIT had been chosen as the first Apollo team member and awarded it $4 million to develop the guidance navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft.

"What happened to the Mars probe? Well, it never flew," Battin said. "But the computer work for the Mars probe was the basis for the Apollo guidance system."

Aaron Cohen, manager of the Apollo Command Service Module, recalled that the story of Apollo also included tragedy, such as the fire that took the lives of three astronauts during a service-module test on Jan. 27, 1967. But he pointed out that it was a tragedy that led to great safety improvements.

"There were many changes made to the ... module to make it more reliable and safer," he said. "The most important changes were to eliminate the flammable materials, but also since we never could identify the ignition source, we took great care to protect the wires from being damaged, thus avoiding a spark that could cause a fire. Overall, there were more than 100 changes made."

Chris Kraft

Apollo flight director Christopher Kraft makes a point during the Symposium session "Apollo: reflections and lessons."

Joseph G. Gavin Jr., director of the Lunar Module Program, recounted the rigorous testing procedures that his group performed—and the ironclad rules that arose from them. One, he said, was "There's no such thing as random failure."

"If indeed the design has been done properly and the environment is understood, there has to be a reason for the failure which you can find and which you can fix. And in the course of 10 years of Apollo we recorded something over 14,000 anomalies from all the test programs. Of those, only 22 defied analysis. And in the case of those 22 we changed something anyhow."

Harrison "Jack" Schmidt, Apollo astronaut and former U.S. senator, summarized Apollo broadly by listing its keys to success.

The most critical component of Apollo's success, he said, was "the reservoir of young engineers and skilled workers" that was available.

"The average age of the vast majority of the employees in NASA was between 20 and 30 years old," he said. "And you've got to remember that. It is just absolutely critical to have the stamina, imagination, motivation that comes with young people. And if your agency has an average age as NASA does today of about 50 years, you probably are starting out with a problem and you need to figure out how to fix that."

Another, he said, was "adequate management reserves of funding."

"We basically had a management reserve of 100 percent," he said. "You'll never get that today. But it is extraordinarily critical to reduce program risk and human risk in any kind of complex program of this kind."

Christopher C. Kraft Jr., director of flight operations for Apollo, said he felt the overall lesson of Apollo was one of possibilities.

"Apollo taught us we could do anything we set our mind to in this country--anything!--if we know what we want to do, where we want to go and have the commitment to get it done. There are many people who say, 'If we can go to the moon and bring man safely back in 10 years as we did in Apollo, we can do anything.' The problem I have with that is they don't recognize what that means. We need a commitment, a dedication of everybody in this country who matters to make those kinds of things happen. That's what we had for Apollo."

The second Giant Leaps panel focused on applying Apollo lessons to energy, environment, and air transportation challenges. Panelists were (from left) AeroAstro head Ian Waitz (moderator), presidential science advisor John Holdren, Boeing business strategy and marketing V.P. Michael Blair, Energy Department Advanced Research Projects program manager David Danielson, Pratt & Whitney Technology and Environment V.P. Alan Epstein, and FAA chief scientist and technical advisor for energy and environment Lourdes Maurice.

Apollo panel 2

Lessons learned and the future

Following the presentations from the Apollo veterans, two panels examined Apollo from a different angle, contemplating how lessons learned from the venture might be applied today and in the future.

John P. Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the executive office of the President, was the keynote speaker of the first panel, which looked at "the next giant leaps in energy, environment, and air transportation. He identified a variety of challenges currently of concern to the nation: economic recovery, health care, reduction of dependence on foreign oil and cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, and homeland security. Looking back at how Sputnik and the space race influenced a generation of young people to enter science, he hoped that "we can inspire a new generation with these major issues to which science and technology have so much to contribute."

Michael B. Bair, vice president, business strategy and marketing, at Boing Commercial Airplanes, said the same kind of commitment is needed in private enterprise. While the airline industry has had a "pretty remarkable" run in improving fuel efficiency over the last 50 years, "we're running out of ideas" for future improvements. One answer, he suggested, may be biofuels.

Lourdes Q. Maurice, chief scientific and technical advisor for environment at the Federal Aviation Administration, said that when addressing problems of climate change and reducing energy consumption, the United States needs to take a more international perspective. "It's not all about the U.S.," she said. "Everyone is going to have some input. Everyone is doing to be part of the decision making and we all have to think a little bit differently."

giant Leaps panel

The Symposium's future of space exploration panel: (from left) AeroAstro professor Edward Crawley, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center chief scientist James Garvin, Space Adventures vice chairman Richard Garriott, AeroAstro lecturer Erika Wagner, Orbital Sciences CEO David Thompson, Lockheed Martin VP James Crocker, and MIT professor Maria Zuber.

The final panel, "The Next Giant Leaps in Space Exploration," looked to the future--and, once again, to the stars.

Keynote speaker, Maria Zuber, who heads MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, described herself as a strong supporter of the space program. But she cautioned that any programs developed for space exploration need to be "reality-based."

"It's great to be a dreamer, but the only good space mission is one that's in space, really working," she said.

Zuber enumerated a variety of specific endeavors that a reality-based space program could encompass: development of a sound plan for the International Space Station, further investigation of "dark energy" in the universe, searching for terrestrial planets beyond earth and around other stars, and the quest for life beyond earth.

James H. Crocker, vice president and general manager for sensing and exploration systems, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, saw a crucial continuing role for NASA in providing "access to space."

"We need to remember that one of the things that NASA does best is build capability," he said. "You can't do things in space if you're not in space."

Richard Garriott, vice chairman of Space Adventures, addressed the future of commercial space flight. The key to developing such an industry, he suggested, is to reduce its costs from the current "tens of millions of dollars" to "a mere millions of dollars."

"My challenge to MIT students specifically is to become part of that journey," he said. "And my challenge to government space programs and private, traditional aerospace is to find a way to partner with and capitalize and take advantage of the technologies that this fledgling industry is bringing to bear versus resist it or ignore it."

By contrast, David W. Thompson, chairman and CEO of Orbital Sciences Corp., pointed out that another category of space-related industry is well developed and thriving. He said that satellites, which provide communication, navigation, and imagery services to consumers on earth, now comprise an industry that generated about 60 percent of the estimated $185 billion spent on space-related activities by public and private interests last year.

"In a somewhat quiet way over the last 40 years, commercial space ventures ... have found markets where customers voluntarily spend between 15 and 25 dollars per month per subscriber for space-delivered commercial services," he said. "These areas I think provide a very strong foundation for growth across all sectors of the space enterprise in the years ahead."

But panel moderator Edward F. Crawley, the Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT, suggested that the interest among students to become part of a new space effort may be lacking.

"I find in dealing with our students here that they're not really very excited by the current plan," he said. "They sort of think it looks like something their grandfather did or maybe their father did."

MIT lecturer Erika Wagner agreed, but suggested that creating the same kind of spark that influenced those fathers and grandfathers could happen again.

"I think if we want to get the next generation engaged, we have to do amazing things again and we have to take back the story line and talk about what's hard. I think Kennedy had it right. We were going to go into space because it was the difficult thing to do, and that that was how we inspired the next generation, and that challenges are good."

Dick Dahl is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. David Chandler of the MIT News Office also contributed to this article.

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