Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Michelle Kelly
League City, Texas – 1 April 1998
oral history with Caldwell C. Johnson was conducted in the offices
of Space Industries, League City, Texas on April 1, 1998. This oral
history was conducted by Michelle Kelly, Summer Chick Bergen, and
Carol Butler for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.]
...[The Pilotless Aircraft Research Division, PARD] at Langley. It
was formed after World War II, and it was going to exploit some ordnance
that the military had developed for essentially solid propellant rockets
which were used as missiles. They were available, they were cheap,
the Army had more than they knew what to do with. Robert [R.] Gilruth
and perhaps some other people decided that that might be a very effective
way to do aeronautical research in the transonic regime. That is just
below and just above the speed of sound. Wind tunnels had a very difficult
time at that time coping with that particular speed range, and so
there were very few data available.
They formed this Pilotless Aircraft Research Division [PARD] to exploit
that technique of building models, launching them from Wallops Island—they
acquired that site—out over the Atlantic Ocean, and using telemetry
and tracking radars to acquire a great deal of data.
It started off with—I don't know, there probably were a dozen
people recruited from different places at Langley, all engineering
people, for the most part, were very young men, just out of the Army,
people like [Maxime A.] Faget. He was from the Navy, but a fellow
named [Joseph G. "Guy"] Thibodaux was his buddy. They both
were from Louisiana, and he [Thibodaux] had just come back from Burma.
I just picked those two. These were young engineers who were eager
beavers and bright, really wanted to do something.
I had already been working at NACA [National Advisory Committee for
Aeronautics] the time. This was before NASA, and I was working in
the engineering side of the house, not the research side of the house.
It was a part of the organization that implemented concepts that were—got
the machines built and the equipment built to use by the research
people. It takes both sides. And then the shop fabrication types of
people formed the third group of people. So there were the research
engineers, the design engineering people, and then the shop people.
So it was a little close-knit group of people.
In the course of doing that [pilotless aircraft] research work, velocities
of these craft were getting higher and higher and higher, and we were
finding out more and more things about heating and the reentry into
the atmosphere, because they were practically going out of the atmosphere
before they entered. It was inevitable that, sitting around at lunchtime,
maybe playing hearts or pinochle or something like that, you'd start
kind of bullshitting about the thing, and somebody says, "Why
don't we put a man in one of these things? We're damned near orbital
Do you remember who said that?
And we'd say, "Yeah. Big deal," you know, something like
that, and pretty soon it started to get more and more serious. The
management was certainly aware of it, but there was no mechanism that
I know of in the agency to officially begin a project like that. You
know, you can't—[Daniel] Goldin can't just up and think of a
whole new thing and say, "Let's do it." It's just politically
So what you do is you get a group of people interested in it, start
kind of faking their time sheets. You know, you charge it to something
that's chargeable, but you're spending some time working on it, and
the management agrees not to look too close. They know what's going
on, and they sense that it's a good thing. And finally you get it
to that place, you know, between guys like Faget and [Charles W.]
Mathews and maybe John [H.] Disher at headquarters, only a few people
kind of knew about this, and the first thing you know, there's enough
data to get everybody's attention.
The Air Force was in the game. They were doing their things, too,
and there was kind of a competition going on. I don't know, I can't
remember exactly what happened that it [Mercury] was finally gelled
into a recognized formal project, but somewhere along the line it
happened, and it all came about through this informal evolution of
an idea. And I've thought of it since then. One time there was a group
of people at Johnson Space Center. They were called the Advanced Projects
Office or something like that, New Projects or something, and they
were formed not because—this doesn't sound very nice, but not
because they had any great ideas about what to do, but they didn't
have anything else to do. The Center said, "We ought to have
a New Projects Office." So they picked these people and said,
"You're the New Projects Office. Invent a new project."
Well, they didn't have the foggiest notion how to do it, of course,
and so they asked some people, myself included, they said, "How
do you get started?" And I told them more or less what I just
told you. They didn't believe it, and they just walked away, paid
no attention. Because a thing like that emerges from the ranks. If
there's a good idea, it gets developed because somebody's enthusiastic
about it. And a lot of them [ideas] die. Some of them are not good
ideas. Only one in a thousand of them gets through. You can't just
pick some people and say, "Go off and invent something."
You've got to wait until somebody does it, and then you do something
with it. And I think that's the way Mercury started. I'm sure it started
Do you know who came up with the idea?
Well, of course, the Russians were in the game, too, you know, and
pretty soon it was pretty clear that other people were working on
the same thing, and there was a desperate attempt to be the first
to do that. It's remarkable how close things came out to be. You know,
[Yuri A.] Gagarin's flight and [Alan B.] Shepard's [Jr.] flight were
only months apart. You would think that, given all these years that
they've been in the aircraft business, it seems kind of strange for
two big events like that to come within a couple of months of one
another, as opposed to years apart. But anyway, that's what happened.
How did you get to Langley?
Well, I was born and raised in Hampton, and that's where Langley was,
and I don't think there was any—it was inevitable I'd end up
there. When I was a kid, the neighbors, several of them, were young
engineers that had come to work for Langley, and I would hear them
talking about things, you know, and sit around and listen. The families
were socializing together. And somehow or another I just knew that
was what I was going to end up doing, one way or the other, and talking
to these guys.
And of course, they would help, too. If they noticed some kid that
showed some interest, they would go out of their way to—you
know, I remember one time one of the guys invited me to come to Langley.
He had to work, but he introduced me to a couple of people and let
me sit around and watch things that were happening, you know, and
he picked me up at the end of the day and took me home. That was a
big deal, boy. That was a big deal. So that's how I happened to be
there and it worked out all right for me.
Now let me ask you a little bit about Mercury itself. How did you
actually start designing it, or what ideas were thrown around to design
something that would hold a man on top of a rocket?
Well, first off, part of the research that was going on between a
man named Bill [William E.] Stoney and Robert [O.] Piland and Max
Faget involved—one of the problems was reentering the atmosphere.
A great deal of heat is generated in braking. You can't slow something
up without something happening, you know. You've got to absorb all
that energy somehow. And it was enough to melt metals. The Army was
dealing with it with ballistic missiles, and they were developing
one shape. In the course of this research at Langley, of all things,
it turned out that a blunt face, give Mercury a kind of blunt face,
you would think that that's a horrible way to enter, that you really
should have a nice point. The trouble is, with something pointed,
it doesn't have much drag, and it keeps going fast a long, long time,
and it gets [into] denser and denser atmosphere, and it just gets
[into] a situation worse and worse. The best thing to do is slow yourself
down as quickly as you can while you're still high so that you can
dissipate the energy at that point instead of getting so hot, and
this blunt body did that. And it would get so hot that a shield of
gas around the front of the thing almost essentially insulated it.
And it kept shedding…[the hot air]—all the hot air was
hitting this one little place, getting so hot right on the surface,
it was re-radiating its heat back out.
So, everything considered, it was a far, far superior way to enter.
Now, it turned out when you've got that blunt shape, all of a sudden
now it was reasonable that they could put a man lying on his back
with his feet up like this and it doesn't take such a big thing to
do it. If you notice the pictures of the Mercury, that thing was only
six feet across, and the man was almost six feet, but by the time
he drew up his legs like this, sitting, you see, and all the G forces,
that is, the acceleration forces on your back—that's why you
saw the pig in that couch there on his back.
So, see, it all worked out exactly right. It all came from doing the
research work and devising this blunt body concept, and that's persisted
on the spacecraft as a better way to do it up until the time of shuttle.
Now, the down side of it is it cannot land on the Earth without a
parachute or something like that. That's the down side. The real thing
that made it was the fact that it could survive the heat of entry
into the thing, and that came about just by these several young fellows
exploring this regime and using their heads, and they came up with
that. I would like to claim some credit myself, but I can take no
credit for that, I'll guarantee you.
From what I understand, some of those people came up with the data
and realized what they wanted to do, but you were the one who translated
that onto paper.
Well, yes, in a sense that's just about what I did. I took their ideas
and the concept and would simply reduce it to a geometric presentation
that you could understand. Of course, there's some practical things.
You have to fit the people inside, and you've got to get the parachutes
in there and all the other paraphernalia. So it takes two sides of
the thing. But we never worked like this group here and this group
here. It was just kind of like this. There was no doubt that the flow
went from the research people to people like myself and then to the
shops. That was the direction that things moved. But all of them were
just like that. There wasn't there and here and here, and there was
not a big paper transfer from here to there.
We all worked in the same building, and so it was just a matter of—you
know, you just talked to one another, and after you do that a while,
first thing you know, you understand what the other people are talking
about, don't have to write a lot of paper about it. Unfortunately,
the world is no longer that way. You know, it's now nothing but a
trail between everything. The down side of that is you have a hard
time tracking it because there wasn't any paper left. That's the down
side of it.
How did you communicate between, as you call it, the shops and as
well as management, and how did those ideas come across for Project
Well, the management consisted, as far as I know, of about—I
shouldn't talk about that because I didn't penetrate the top management,
but there was only enough people like this. The Washington headquarters
just almost purposely seemed to stay aloof of the thing. I think they
were frightened that it would—in fact, Dr. [Hugh L.] Dryden,
he was a good man, but he said it was just a stunt, you know, of no
practical consequence, just a stunt. I think they were politically
frightened that it would turn out bad and then they would get smeared
with this thing.
So I believe it was people like George [M.] Low, he and John Disher.
There may have been more at headquarters, but those two guys, as far
as I know, were the only guys at headquarters that ever seemed to
pay attention to it that much. Abe Silverstein was involved in it
a lot, but he was at another lab, the Cleveland lab [Lewis Research
Center], and it seemed like the different NASA, NACA centers, the
same rivalry went on then as it does now. One center was not very
enthusiastic of something the other center was promoting. They didn't
fight it, but, you know, they were never enthusiastic.
But, by and large, I was busy doing my thing, and I wasn't fretting
about how the management of the thing went. In fact, it was when McDonnell…got
the contract to build a Mercury, the first thing they did, they were
building parts, and we decided to fly a boilerplate of one. Not a
boilerplate, but we were going to take parts from McDonnell and just
put it on a rocket and launch it from Wallops Island, I think. I forget
whe[n]. Anyway, I was in charge of getting this thing all assembled
from all the parts and doing that, and it was in an area of the shop
maybe half as large as this building, and it was roped off, to make
it small enough.
I just happened to be there one day, and here this guy was standing
around the other side of the ropes, and pretty soon he stepped over
the ropes—didn't have a badge or anything—stepped over
the ropes, and he came up and started looking at this thing that was
going together. I was an eager—probably a little asshole or
something like that, and I went over, and I said, "What's your
business?" He apologized and said, oh, he was sorry and didn't
meant to interfere, and he left. And about then I saw somebody else
there, and I said, "Who is that guy?" He said, "That's
George Low. He's head of the whole program." That's how much
I knew about the management. [Laughter]
That's a good story. I like that.
Next day when I came to work, I was kind of surprised that I didn't
find a pink slip there, but George wasn't that kind of guy. That's
kind of the way he was.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you worked with the contractors?
After you designed the capsule, so to speak, how did that transfer
into actually building the thing?
First off, McDonnell…—it was McDonnell [Aircraft Corporation]
then—McDonnell, they were a very capable group of guys. They'd
been building airplanes and they knew how to build this. And this
machine, the Mercury, was more an airplane. It didn't have wings,
but it was built like an airplane is built. And those guys knew ever
so much more than we did about the practical aspects of fabricating
a man-carrying machine. We really didn't know anything about—some
detailed things about it. We understood the theory, but we didn't
know how one really goes about doing it, see, and McDonnell did. Every
now and then there would be a little bit of friction between us. That
is, they knew they knew more about how to design something than we
did. On the other hand, we were the government's representatives,
and we really could call a shot. So every now and then there would
be a little bit of friction, but it turned out that all the people
involved were sensible enough that we overcame that.
It worked ever so much better than it did when a similar situation
developed with North American for Apollo. That got to be kind of nasty.
But maybe once a month there would be a more or less formal get-together
with a dozen people on either side and compare notes on the status
and how things were going and what the problems were. In fact, I just
showed you the agenda of one of the meetings I just happen to have.
It worked quite well, because there would be no more than a dozen
people involved from either side, not great hordes of people.
Who was on that team, do you remember?
If I had some chance to think about it, I could probably name them.
Of course, John [F.] Yardley was running the thing at McDonnell. Somewhere
along the line, Jim [James A.] Chamberlin, who was head of the group
of people that had come from Canada, from AVRO, he had been their
chief aero dynamicist. I think that's what he was. When AVRO was breaking
up, he assembled a bunch of guys to come to work in the U.S., and
they were not just random people. He had gone around and picked them.
So you can imagine the level of capability you get if you can take
a company of several thousand people and you go around and you pick
three dozen of them. Now, he may have picked some that decided they
didn't want to come to the United States, I don't know, but, anyway,
he picked the best of the bunch, and in my view, they saved us. I
don't believe we could have done the job without those guys. They
were crackerjack engineers. One or two of them turned out to be not
so good, but most of them were just red hot.
Some of them had a tough time moving from Canada to Hampton, Virginia.
It's a different world altogether, and a lot of them were English.
Their wives didn't much like the idea. We used to joke about a thing
they called the—I think it was the $5,000 cure, and what it
was, was that the families would move to Hampton, the wives would
be in tears most of the time, they didn't know anyone, and we didn't
even speak English, as far as they were concerned. So they would take
the $5,000 cure; they would have to go back to England for several
months. But then they would come back, and after the wives found out
that the plumbing here is so much better and the grocery stores have
got so many more things and the automobiles were everywhere, and all
that, they finally decided it wasn't so bad here after all.
Can I ask you what that group specifically contributed to the project?
Every aspect of it. There were guidance and control people there.
There were structures people. There were aerodynamicists. There were
operations people, which is very important. They had people that were
accustomed to the operational world, not just the engineering and
design world. But they were spread across the whole spectrum, and
they contributed a great deal. We'd have never done it without them,
I don't believe.
Generally on these things I personally, as the thing really got going,
I seemed to have less and less to do with it. It wasn't that I was
disinterested, but there would be other things coming along. See,
by the time we were halfway through Mercury, we were starting to talk
about Apollo, and Gemini was getting started. In fact, when the first
Mercury flew, we already had configured a lot of things on Apollo,
and it just seems like there's some people that like to deal at the
early phases, and some like to deal later in the middle phases, and
some like to operate it when it's all through. So I just happened
to always be on the starting side of the thing.
By the time that thing [Mercury] was finished, I had no idea how the
damned thing worked, I mean, and all the details. I knew the principles,
but if somebody showed me a part of something, I couldn't tell you
what it was. I didn't really worry about the nuts and bolts on the
thing by that time. Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying that's not
an important part. All the parts are important. There's no such things
as one thing being—and the operational people, we always had
a rivalry with the people that are going to operate it. They always
poke fun at the people who designed it, say they did it stupid, and,
you know, we would always say, well, if they flew the damned thing
right, it would be all right, but they always screw it up flying it.
The fact is, we both did it the right way. For instance, Jerry [Jerome
B.] Hammack [phonetic], you talk to Jerry. Now, Jerry, see, was on
the operational side of the thing, and it was his business to deal
with what happens in the real world when you start to fly this thing,
what happens when it lands out in the ocean, how in the hell do you
get it back? Say you send a ship out there and pick it up and bring
it back. That's easy to say, but there's a hell of a lot of things
you have to do about that. But we really got along fine. We all knew
each other well.
I understand you also hold some patents, even with Mr. Hammack. Can
I ask you a little bit to describe them?
Yes. I'm not quite sure how—I think there were seven of us that
jointly hold the patents. I could probably tell you their names now.
I know Jerry was one, Allen [B.] Kehlet, Max. There's got to be more,
but I don't know. I don't know who selected those names. Now, some
of them were obvious, certainly Faget and some of the others, but
I don't really know how we picked those names out, but I'm glad they
picked my name as one of them. [Laughter] Like I told you, you could
take a dollar and that patent and buy a Coca-cola, but it's nice to
have my name written on that thing.
I'm rattling on like I know what I'm talking about.
No. That's okay. We want to hear whatever you have to say. I was also
then going to ask you a little bit about the automatic control systems,
and you may not have delved into it so much, being that you were more
the theoretical side of development, but did you debate whether or
not it should be completely automatic—
Yes, there was—
—or whether it should have some manual controls for the astronauts
to maneuver the Mercury spacecraft?
Well, it was a manned spacecraft, and I think that's the bottom line.
It was a manned spacecraft. It was not an automatic spacecraft with
a man in it; it was a manned spacecraft, M-A-N-N-E-D. And there's
nothing wrong with making it automatic, but to do it in a manner that
the man no longer had any control would have defeated the purpose.
Now, I'll tell you frankly, just as an engineer, sometimes I can't
think of anything worse than to let that guy have anything to do with
it. They can tell you countless tales of how often they save the day,
and I can tell you countless tales of how often they damned near wrecked
the thing, but it was a manned spacecraft, and, by God, it ought to
be able to be flown by the man. But we would argue about it.
I'm supposed to have promoted the idea of putting a chimpanzee in
there, and I'm sure everybody joked about such things like that, but
nobody seriously thought about doing it. But what we did argue about,
though, was why in the world should you pick a 190-pound man to do
something that a 130-pound man could do? That just made life very,
very tough. On the other hand, there are no 130-pound test pilots
around the world, and naturally he should be a test pilot. You had
already weeded out—you know, he would not have been a test pilot
if he was unfit to do that kind of thing. But some things were awkward.
[Virgil I. "Gus"] Grissom was the shortest stature of all,
and yet he was the longest torso. Between his seat and his shoulders
he was the longest, and yet he was overall the shortest. So that made
it very awkward to design things like a couch and controls to reach,
that would fit him and at the same time fit some of the guys that
would have long legs and long arms but a short torso. And so that
was kind of awkward.
How did you get around that problem?
Well, I don't know, we just compromised, you know, and nobody would
complain. Not any one of them was about to complain, because if he
complained, he might be erased off the list. So he may complain after
the flight. He may have said, "That was the dumbest goddamned
thing I've ever seen," you know, but he never said a word before
the flight. "It was perfect, perfect, fits me like a glove,"
that kind of thing. They were a gung-ho bunch, I'll tell you that.
Did you work with them in any of your designs?
Yes, in Apollo especially. We would have questions of how quickly
can you bail out of this thing in case you crash on the ground. I
remember once John [W.] Young—for four or five days we had this
damned plywood mock-up sitting there in the shop, and it had a door
that would open and a mattress on the floor, and at a given signal
he would see how long it would take him to scramble out of that thing
and dive out through the thing. Well, it was made out of three-quarter-inch
plywood, and you know how the edges were all like that, and that guy
was blood from bottom to top at times. But noontime would come, you
know, and he'd banged against the side and missed the mattress and
done all these things and skinned up all of his arms. They'd say,
"Just one more time, John, and let's try it this way." "Okay."
He'd get back in there, you know, and out he would come again. They
really did their job.
Very determined. Well, at that time did you transition directly into
Apollo, or did you transition in Gemini and adapt the spacecraft?
I don't know. I kind of jumped Gemini mostly at the beginning. Well,
see, Apollo had started by the time Gemini was going, and what Gemini
was, was really exploiting the Mercury. It was with McDonnell, and
there were some things that had been learned on Mercury that they
decided, "Well, we'd better do it different," if you had
to do it over again, and decided it was very necessary to explore
this business of rendezvous to see whether that concept would work.
You couldn't do it with Mercury, so they decided to do it with Gemini.
But at the same time, there was a group of us working on Apollo, in
the early stages of Apollo.
I saw something here that I might say something. It says, "NACA-2
Space Task Group."
You may have heard this story before, but they wanted X number of
people there [Space Task Group], and Robert Gilruth went to Floyd
[L. "Tommy] Thompson, who was the chief engineer of Langley,
and he said, "I need," whatever it was, "fifty people."
Floyd Thompson said, "Well, that's fair enough."
Gilruth said, "Well, I'd like to go around to pick them."
Floyd said, "Well, I can't quite agree to that." He said,
"You want fifty, you pick twenty-five and I'll pick twenty-five."
And to this day, no one knows which side of that twenty-five they
were on, whether Floyd wanted to get rid of us or— [Laughter]
[Laughter] Did you ever find the story of how you got chosen?
No, I decided not to ask. I decided not to inquire. Besides, Floyd
Thompson is now passed away, and Gilruth is not in good shape, so
I wouldn't know anyway.
For the American space program, we're very fortunate.
Well, whatever it was, I sure like the way it came out.
In the Gemini program, were you involved with the rendezvous and docking
mechanisms at all?
No. It seems kind of strange now, but I wasn't. Well, it was really,
like I said, by that time I was busy with Apollo.
How did you get started on Apollo?
Same way with Mercury. I know people were speculating, once you see
that you can orbit—it really hadn't been done, but everybody
had convinced ourselves that it was a piece of cake. So then we were
speculating about the moon, and it was the next place to go. It was
out of the question to go to any of the planets, but the moon seemed
reachable. I must admit, I didn't have a lot of confidence in the
whole thing, but somehow it struck me that how in God's world are
you going to ever hit the moon in the right place that far away to
go, you know? But after a while I became convinced, too, with a lot
of other people.
How did you know that it wasn't made out of green cheese?
Well, I didn't. The scientific community was no help at all. Those
guys are so proud of their own claims of what something is like, they
will not cooperate or get together, and big guys like Nobel laureates
would say, "Hey, the thing is nothing but a bunch of pools of
dust miles deep. You hit these pools of dust, and you're going to
go [makes a sound indicating descending]."
One of the guys, an eminent scientist, said, "These things that
look like mountain ranges and all this are really just frothy kind
of foamlike rock and is of no substance. You hit it, and it will just
crush all underneath there."
Owen [E.] Maynard and I were designing the lunar module, and I remember
saying, "We can't accept that kind of crap. We can call the program
off if that's the case. How can you land on something that's nothing
but froth and pools of dust that you'll sink down miles?" And
we decided it can't be that way. For Christ's sake, we can look up
there, and they had telescope pictures of the thing and there's a
big mountain range. How in the hell could it be any different than
a dry place on Earth? I think we said Arizona. We picked Arizona.
And we went ahead and designed the landing gear like it was like Arizona.
I don't know why the program didn't stop. You know, nowadays, if two
big-wheels [eminent scientists] like that were to make such a pronouncement
about something, my God, NASA would have a hemorrhage. There would
be more damned committees formed and all this stuff to try to work
this out, it would go on for years and years. Nobody seemed to even
pay any attention. I think everyone was just sensible enough to know
that, in their own hearts, they knew it wasn't a bunch of pools of
dust and all like this. So we went on and designed the landing gear.
Sure enough, turned out to be just like Arizona. [Laughter] Without
water, absolutely no water. In fact, now they're not even sure there's
no water there.
What insight you had.
Well, it was necessity. We couldn't afford to believe the other way.
We'd have had to call off the whole damned program. And fortunately,
somewhere along about that time, was it Surveyor? What was the spacecraft?
Surveyor? You know, Surveyor got pretty close and took some pictures
of the thing, and anybody could see these big rocks sitting there,
and what the hell, of a rock could sit there, then something else
could sit there.
I remember some guys came by one day from—I forget where they
were from, and they said, "We're going to survey the moon. What
do you think is the best thing could happen? What kind of information
do you need in order to land there?" I was in a bad mood that
day, for some reason or another, and I said, "The best thing
that could happen is for your spacecraft to crash on that moon and
bust all to pieces, and then we would know it's strong enough to land
on." He was very crestfallen, you know. And I was ashamed of
myself for having said that, but I think that was the day we were
told we were going to sooner or later move to Houston, and not many
people were very enthusiastic about that. Since then, I think it's
a fine place. It's a great place.
How was the development of Johnson Space Center then? You were there
right through the initial stages, and then it was the Manned Spacecraft
Yes, and before that it was a series of buildings downtown in Houston.
They could rent spaces, you know, and what a mess. It was a building
over here and a building over there and one of them over here. One
of them even was an apartment building, and they knocked all the doors
off the different apartments so you could kind of walk between one
and the other, you know, and sometimes your office would be in the
kitchen. I mean, literally, we'd be in the kitchen. Nobody had an
office in the bathrooms, but that was the only thing off limits, but
it would be in the damned kitchen.
Where was your office?
First it was in the Houston Petroleum Center, and that was a nice
place. It was a new building that had just been built, and we were
the only occupants in there, I think. Then we got moved to what we
called the Franklin Apartments, which is on I-45, just off of I-45,
along about—I can't even think where it is now. Anyway, it was
noisy and hard to get to, and I-45 wasn't complete, it was always
under construction at the time. It was a mess. But I don't believe
your physical surroundings have anything to do with your work. It's
only when you become bored and unhappy that suddenly the building
isn't suitable to you. You don't pay any attention to it when you're
busy. In fact, more often than not, if you find somebody complaining
because he don't have a window and somebody else does, or something
like that, you might as well get rid of that asshole. All he's going
to do is worry about his status in the office or something like that.
So were you part of the group that actually helped move from downtown
Houston into what is now NASA, in Johnson Space Center?
I didn't have anything to do with the organization of it. It was just
delightful to move to there. Well, I lived in Dickinson, for one thing,
and that's only a fifteen-minute drive.
Let me go back to the lunar module a little bit and your development
of it. I guess the first question I have for you is, you didn't know
what the moon was made of, so you decided Arizona. But from there,
how did you know how to design it or to develop it?
Well, that Arizona business came sometime later, but first off, there
was a great controversy about whether or not to fly directly to the
moon or to the so-called lunar orbit rendezvous, and most people intuitively
rejected the rendezvous. It just seemed absolutely out of the question
to get up there and separate these craft and one go down and one somehow
launch again and meet up with the first one. It just seemed—you
know, so many things.
But after a while, the guys that were analyzing the situation, they
presented a very convincing argument that it was not only plausible,
but by far the simplest way to do it, and from an energy standpoint,
there was no question about it. There's no point in landing a big
heavy thing on the moon if you don't have to, and leave the heavy
thing in orbit where it doesn't cost a whole lot to leave it there.
But the original contract with North American did not specify that
mode. It was rather vague, and so North American was charging ahead
as though in some manner there would be a direct landing, and I think—and
they fought that for a long while, and I believe they fought the rendezvous
because they knew that someone like Grumman or somebody else would
get the lunar module, and they flat didn't want to share any of this
with anybody, and they fought it like mad, till finally it was just
obvious that they were not going to win. In the course of twenty-four
hours, they went from full over this way to full over that way. They
found out which side of the bread the butter was on, and they decided
they'd better do it this way. But that helped prolong the argument
for a long time. If Rockwell—well, it was North American at
the time, if they had really gotten behind it, it would not have prolonged
the thing so.
The miracle, in my mind, is how in the world did we manage to change
the mode so drastically and still salvage the whole system. The command
module and service module had to be changed a little, but not much,
and somehow they managed to accommodate the lunar module in the whole
launch system. It had not been planned at all, and ordinarily you
could not make such a big mistake and then somehow salvage the thing
midway through the thing, and it did, almost without a glitch. I'm
going to tell you, it's a miracle, a real miracle. I don't know how
it happened. So there had to be a great deal of luck throughout this
whole business. I don't mean just luck from a safety standpoint, but
it just had to be a lot of damned things went right, no question about
Can you tell me a little bit about your input into the design of the
Yes. We had a contract with Convair—two aerospace companies;
I forget who the other one was [General Electric]—and we were
doing an in-house design at the same time, and those guys were independently
doing—General Electric, I believe it was. They kind of went
their way, each one of them took a separate approach to it, and we
went our way. Finally we got to a place where we had to reconcile
these three different concepts. Well, whatever the technical merits,
and I guess people could argue for years what it was, since we were
the ones that were making the choice, we picked our way. [Laughter]
I'm oversimplifying it, but when it got right down to it, all the
people at General Electric said that was best, all the people at Convair
said theirs was the best, we said ours was the best. We were running
the show, so we picked ours. Simple as that. Well, at least it worked.
I don't know whether the others would have worked or not.
For instance, General Electric—there was a big thing going on
then of the radiation environment of space, going through the Van
Allen Belt and such things as that, and General Electric had designed
in kind of what you'd call "a safe haven." It was a big—not
a big, but it was a chamber that the crew could get into in times
of high radiation levels and protect themselves.
It weighed a lot, took a lot of space, so it had a down side. But
there were big differences like that. Now, I have a drawing that one
of the guys in my group made, his name was Will Taub, a excellent
draftsman and designer, of which these three concepts are side by
side, all to the same scale, and you can see them. I don't know that
anybody's ever seen that thing. I've got a copy of that thing. But
that was very interesting.
But the command module itself, Will and I did a lot of work on that
in configuring the general arrangement, particularly positions of
the crew. There were three men, and at one time it was thought that
they would run a sixteen-hour shift, overlapping shifts, so that one
could sleep while the other two were there and take their turn. So
it started out being arranged from the basis of that going on, one
guy had a place to sleep while the others were up. They would rotate.
Later on it turned out that all three were going to sleep at the same
time and all three were going to be awake at the same time. It turned
out it really didn't make a lot of difference, but it did have some
effect on the initial position of the crew. I remember some of the
sketches show a sleeping place beneath the couches, the two of them,
where a guy could sleep down there.
Did you adopt a lot of your design from the Mercury capsule?
Not a bit. It turned out, by the time one put three men in, and the
whole shape of the thing was quite a bit different, it just—almost
everything turned out to be different. See, the Apollo can fly a bit,
the command module, in the sense that it can develop a fair amount
of lift so that as it comes back into the Earth, it can move itself
around some as it comes in. And that was thought very necessary because
the guidance system was such that it wasn't sure you could hit the
right spot, and this gave an opportunity to correct things. As you
got into the air, you could correct it.
Initially, it was thought that the amount of lift should be some value—the
term L over D [L/D], I think it was 0.35. It's a ratio of how much
lift it has to how much drag it's got. Later on it turned out that
we could not achieve that high a lift for several different reasons.
But fortunately, it also turned out that the navigation guidance and
control and all was much better than thought, and so it did not require
to have such—it could get by with much less, and that was some
of the things that Gemini explored. Gemini was used to check out some
of those things.
That's very interesting. Talking about the lunar excursion module
and the command service module, did you develop the docking mechanism
for those two as well?
No. I was kind of on the outside of it at the time and doing something
else, and I protested it. I got criticized that I didn't think it
was a very good idea, but I was not directly involved in it at the
time, and I'd left the Apollo Program at that time.
I have difficulty lasting through a program. [Laughter] I either do
something I shouldn't, or I just get bored with it, something like
that. But anyway, I didn't like it, but I didn't really have anything
to do with it, so that was that on the thing. It [the docking system]
works reasonably well, but the problem with it was that it occupies
the very passageway that you want to open. This mechanism is in the
middle of the passageway, and it should not be that way, because all
kinds of things can go wrong. If you can't get it out of there properly,
then it's no use to even have docked it. You still couldn't get through.
And it's like having everything in the doorway. Even after you connect,
you can't open the doors because you've got all this stuff in the
way. Later on, we changed that in the Apollo-Soyuz, we changed the
whole thing, and, incidentally, that's what they use today on the
Space Station and Mir, the Apollo-Soyuz type of thing.
I'd like to ask you a little bit about that, too. How did you get
started in developing the docking mechanism in ASTP [Apollo Soyuz
Well, I ended up in what was called the Spacecraft Design Division
at JSC [Johnson Space Center], and we had a kind of a license to explore
technology and design, what future designs might be, and the evolution
of things. A couple of guys and myself got interested in this docking
business again, and we didn't like the thing on Apollo. In the first
place, Skylab, see, was coming along and we still had to do docking
on Skylab. We didn't like this thing, and it was kind of hopeless
to change the command module. We thought, well, if we ever do something
further on, we ought to have a different docking.
First place, we wanted something that did not block the passageway.
Second place, it should be—we used the term "androgynous,"
that is, no sex, no male, no female type of thing, which, see, the
old probe and drogue was. So you couldn't have two male spacecraft
or two female spacecraft docked. So we wanted something that was neuter,
either one. And so we devised this thing of—it's a hole with
things around it that would get together this way instead of something
going this way. We worked that thing. A fellow named Jim [James C.]
Jones, who died some years ago, and Bill [William K.] Creasy was still
around, works for Johnson Engineering now, and I and probably some
other guys helped, but we went as far as building some mock-ups and
calculating performance and that.
Along about that time, the Russians made some overtures at a high
level of the country to discuss future space business, and the word
came down to Johnson Space Center to be prepared to discuss future
spacecraft with the Russians. Dr. Gilruth picked Glynn [S.] Lunney
and me and a guy from Marshall named George [B.] Hardy to think about
this, and we were invited to go to Russia to talk to them. This was
We got together and we said, "What are we going to talk about?
We don't have any program in the United States. There's nothing planned
to do other than some vague way or space stations one of these days."
And we thought, "Should we talk about guidance control, rendezvous
type of things, docking?" I told Dr. Gilruth then, I said, "Well,
we have been doing work on docking systems, a different kind of docking
system." So he wanted to know about that. He said, "Okay.
That's something we could talk about. We could offer that." [Glynn
S.] Lunney and the operations guys had developed some techniques that
looked like reasonable things to do, so he said, "Put that on
the agenda as possibilities."
Well, we prepared ourselves for those different things, and when we
went to Russia, lo and behold, we had hit the nail right on the head.
We had lucked out and had prepared ourselves for the very thing that
they wanted to talk about when they got to it. Well, at the time nobody
had mentioned Apollo-Soyuz. It was just some future activities. They
were interested in docking types of things, but they were still hanging
in there with their Soyuz docking mechanism. Apparently we scored
a big hit with them on that, and when they came back here to the United
States several months later, out of a clear blue sky they said, "Why
don't we have a mission, Apollo-Soyuz." What they always said
was Soyuz-Apollo, which is understandable.
Incidentally, one time there was a bunch of—you know the little
buttons of Apollo-Soyuz, the pretty little red and blue things on
there? The guy manufacturing those made a whole batch of them, or
at least a number of them, with the red and the blue backwards. The
Apollo side was the red, and the blue side was—and those things
are worth their weight in gold if you can find those. It's like a
stamp that's printed upside down.
But anyway, the Russians proposed this program, and we were completely
stunned. We had no idea this thing would move so fast. They were talking
about doing it two years later, just like that, boom, do this thing.
Well, we can't do anything that damned fast. They couldn't have either,
for that matter, but that's what they said. But the first thing you
know, we had to get down to brass tacks as to what to do. It was all
approved up and down the line, so that was the chance to introduce
this whole new docking system concept.
When I remember, there was a group of guys headed over there, his
name is Vladimir [Sergeyevich] Syromyatnikov, and he and I have become
good friends over the years. In fact, just two weeks ago he was here
and I was talking to him. He and I were heads of the committees to
do something about this docking system, and theirs was different from
ours. They agreed to this androgynous system that we proposed. They
agreed that was a good concept and that's what we should do. So they
had designed one real quick-like. They had put one together, a particular
design, and we had a particular design, both the overall concept.
He and I were supposed to get together with our guys and thrash out
what the hell we were going to do about this. We couldn't have two
different ones. Whatever it was, it had to be the same. Other things
might be different, but, by God, that damned interface has got to
be the same.
Anyway, it turned out that the mechanism that they had had, had three
fingers. Like this, you know. They had three and ours had four. Well,
we either had to go to three or they had to go to four. We had to
decide. Their system worked kind of mechanically. Our worked hydraulically.
It was no problem with us to make all four right together. It would
have been very difficult for them, with their mechanical systems,
to go to four and still have a mechanical system. It would become
Right on the spot, that morning, I said, "Okay. We'll change
to three like you want." It was all the same to us, three or
four. They could not make the four, we could make the three, so I
said, "Okay. We'll do three." Well, they didn't know quite
what to do. They had gotten exactly what they wanted, but now they
didn't know what to do. In the first place, they didn't expect anybody
to agree. They were not prepared. In the first place, they didn't
exactly trust me. They kind of thought to themselves, "Who is
this guy? Who's he to say that the United States is going to change
to three?" And they were very wary of this thing, and they hummed
and hawed, and they said, "All right. We'll go back and talk
to our management about this kind of thing."
I said, "What's to talk about? We agreed. Let's get on with it."
Well, no, no. Well, they went back, and that night they must have
had a big—and, of course, I told Gilruth. I told him what I'd
done. He said, "Well, is it okay?"
I said, "Yes. It's all right with us."
He said, "Well, whatever you say."
So the next morning when they got in, they said, "We've decided
it's a good idea for you to do it our way." [Laughter] And apparently
they had checked all up and down the line, and they must have checked
with Gilruth, and he had endorsed whatever I'd said, and now they
felt comfortable with it. But it was very interesting, to have somebody
ask you to do something, and when you say okay, then they don't know
what the hell to do. They wanted to fight, I guess. But we got along
fine. It was a very cooperative group of people.
Was it difficult in the beginning because of the culture difference?
The only difficulty that I ran across was with our people, with our
embassy people and people like that, which was horrible. You know,
they acted like we were in a shooting war or something and we ought
not to even talk to one another, or that we should tell them and let
them go tell the Russian Embassy, and then the Russian Embassy would
tell their people. You know, all that crap. And from the very beginning,
President [Richard M.] Nixon had said that NASA was going to do this
and the engineers were going to do this, and that was that. It was
not going to be the CIA. The CIA had briefed us, and the Army intelligence
had briefed us, and the FBI, and everybody and his brother, "Oh,
don't drink a vodka with them. Don't even wink at one of the woman.
Don't walk around the streets by yourself," and all this kind
of stuff. That was a bunch of crap. Nothing like that went on. It
was all fine. But I could see their cloak and dagger guys and their
cloak and our dagger guys hang around in the background, you know.
It looked like a movie. And they all wore trench coats, just like
in the damned movies, and a fedora. You wouldn't believe it.
The Russian team was first rate. They were crackerjack engineers.
The main difference was their back-up. They didn't have much back-up.
You know, we could be ten deep if we wanted to be. For every position
you filled, we could have put ten guys there. They just had one or
two. But they were really good, crackerjack guys. We got along fine.
There were interesting incidents that would occur, though. One time
we made a trip to Leningrad while we were there over a weekend. When
we all came back, we all have dysentery. Oh man, some guys just damned
near died, you know, and we protested like mad all about this, and
they said, "Nonsense. Nothing wrong with the water in Leningrad.
You just brought this [problem] with you." So that was that.
Well, it was not long after that that they rented some rooms in a
little motel in Webster, and they were kind of living there, and they
were walking around barefoot and taking showers in the stalls, and
they all came down with absolutely the worst cases of athlete's foot
you've ever seen. We've got a whole bunch of little viruses that the
Russians don't have any protection against, and they may not bother
you and me, but it just ate their feet up alive. And they protested
like mad, and we said, "Nonsense. You brought it with you."
[Laughter] The doctors at JSC developed some sort of ointment for
them, and it apparently was fairly effective, but the trouble is,
it just smelled awful, and you could tell those guys a mile away.
[Laughter] But it was a very interesting and nice.
That's good. Well, I don't want to keep Mr. Faget waiting for you
too long, so we can stop it here if you like.
I would like, at some point, to maybe talk to you again and see if
we can briefly cover some of these things and then go back and research
a little bit more on what we've talked about so we can—
We should get involved with Skylab somewhere along the line.
Absolutely. I'd like to do that.
Because Skylab had some very interesting things that went on. For
the most part, JSC does not know much about Skylab, because JSC didn't
participate much in Skylab. There were just a few of us in the Skylab.
I'd like to do Skylab and also shuttle as well. Shuttle is very important.
So at some point, if you don't mind, I'd like to maybe arrange another
time, if that's okay with you.
And we don't have to do it now.
Let's do it later. We're going to have to leave this building in a
week or so. Otherwise, this is a very convenient place. So if we can
do something in a week or so, this would be a good place to do it.
Great. And if it's convenient for you, we can do it over at NASA and
do it in our offices, whatever works best for you. You're really helping
us out, and we want to make it as accommodating as possible. I really
Okay. What do you want to do about such things as these documents
and sketches and things like that?
I don't know. I mean, I would love to look through them, but I don't
know how you are with them. Obviously I wouldn't want to take them.
I would be reluctant to just have them all disappear.
Oh, no. Absolutely. Those are treasures.
Okay. Maybe we can figure some way to copy them or something.
Exactly. I'd really like that. But I'll investigate that as well,
because it looks like some of those documents are kind of older as
to JSC Oral History Website