Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Roy Neal
Houston, Texas – 27 April 1999
All right. For identification this is Roy Neal with Caldwell (call
him “Cadwell”) Johnson, and we’re going to talk
about some of the early days of the space program. Our location this
morning is the [Johnson] Space Center in Houston, Texas. And if you’re
ready, Caldwell? I think we’re all ready to go, okay?
Most—most everyone calls me “C. C.” I—the
reason being is that the given name was hard to pronounce and people
solved the problem by just saying “C. C.” And they didn’t
have to worry about it.
As a matter of fact, the given name was so hard to pronounce that
it’s spelled “Caldwell” and pronounced “Cadwell.”
How’d that happen?
Beats me. But my father has the same name, and it’s pronounced
the same way.
Well, with your permission we’ll make it “C. C.”
if you’ll make it “Roy” coming in this direction.
All right. Fine.
Let’s go back to the days of something they called the Space
Task Group [STG]. Now somehow at that time the manned space program
had a beginning. That you were a key man in that early design and
test phase. Can you tell us how it all happened? How it all went together?
I think it started with the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division [PARD]
at Langley [Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory; later Langley Research
Center, Virginia]. After World War II there were many surplus solid
propellant rockets around. It was ordnance. They were not made for
spacecraft or rockets of that sort. It was—it’s pure ordnance.
Robert [R.] Gilruth got the idea that he could investigate the transonic
speed range, which was virtually impossible to do in wind tunnels.
But using rockets to propel the test models in free flight, equip
them with a small radio transmitters, called telemeters at the time,
and collect the data that way. He formed a division; it was called
the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. Max [Maxime A.] Faget was
there, Robert [O.] Piland, Bill [William E.] Stoney, myself, and there
was maybe 50 or 60 eager young engineers now that had come there.
And this was a whole new technique of getting data; and it was wide
open. You could do anything you wanted.
They either purchased or leased or the government had land at Wallops
Island, off the Virginia coast, just near Maryland on Eastern Shore.
And it was set up as the launch facility, and it was a terrible place.
There was nothing but a marsh and a strip of sand, and they had a
few Quonset huts on it and so forth like that. And it was kind of
living in the raw when you’d go up there to test things. But
anyway, that’s what started it.
The first thing, you know, these things that were supposed to explore
the transonic region were getting hypersonic. And we had some vehicles
that were getting close to escape velocities. And so the first thing
you know, people started saying, “Well, if we just made it a
little bit bigger and had a few more things, we could put a man in
it.” Ever so, we were playing Pinochle at lunchtime talking
about this and, you know, bullshitting. But it—more and more
people got to thinking about it. And I think that—that’s
what started the whole business of the space program.
You were flying under the banner of NACA [National Advisory Committee
for Aeronautics] during most of that time—
Yes. And then—
The [National] Advisory [Committee for] Aeronautics—
—the transition was (when?) 1958 or something like that.
’58, yeah. And—
And suddenly there was something new called NASA.
The National Aeronautics and Space—
—Administration. Wasn’t that a grand name?
Yeah, that was a grand name. Of course, we were very excited and also
worried because the Air Force was in that game, too. And the politics,
didn’t know for sure which way it was going to go. But the President
finally decided it was going to be a civilian outfit.
And actually you married the military, in terms of getting some of
those early boosters, didn’t you?
—Army and Air Force now that I’m remembering it.
Yeah. And in fact, most of them are Army.
Well, let’s go back over those beginnings, because now we see
the Space Task Group. Here’s this—
—new organization. It’s NASA. You’ve just changed,
and not your allegiance—but you’ve changed the flag under
which you’re flying. And so now the Space Task Group is getting
organized. There you were, at the very beginnings. What role did you
play at that time, and how did it work?
I was a designer of the—of these test aircraft. And roughly
the Agency was set up in an administrative department, the research
department, and then what was called the Technical Services. Now all
the people like the—the Fagets and the Gilruths were in the
research department. I was in the technical services. It was our job
to perform a service—an engineering service—for the research
people. This included the shops, the instrument people, and all that
sort of thing. And so, in a sense, I was brought from the organization
I really worked for to help these people. So, that’s how I became
connected with the organization.
Did they give you a title at that time? Because everybody in government
service has a title.
No, it wasn’t all that formal. I was a section head and I was
called that, but—and there were a bunch of young fellows—I
think one of the things that made it go, too, is that we were all
young. All the older people were in those wind tunnels. And this was
a new game, and fortunately it had a bunch of young people because
you can’t teach the old guys a new game.
And the wind tunnels, we—they were like the battleships. And
you remember in the services how the battleship were all having a
big fight with the aircraft world? And the old admirals didn’t
like these airplanes; and the wind tunnel people didn’t like
those of us with these pilotless aircraft doing the research work.
And I think that had a lot to it. That it was young blood. We didn’t
have enough sense to know that it was, you know—it was going
to be a difficult thing to do.
It seems to me, though, C. C., that at that time something big happened.
You had been working with pilotless aircraft, and suddenly the mission
had to do with sending a human being—
—up into space. An unknown area.
An unknown ocean, if you will. And how did that beginning come together?
How did you begin to design something for a human being?
I don’t know except that obviously, sooner or later, whatever
you do, you’re going to put a man in the thing. No matter what
it is. I’m sure the—it’s almost no point in doing
things if a man is not involved sooner or later. And of course, by
“man” I mean “mankind,” “humans,”
or something like that. And I’m sure it must’ve first
been speculated about monkeys, if for no other reason they’re
smaller. They only weigh 12 or 15 lbs and—as opposed to 150
lbs or something like that.
A good idea, maybe, to test hardware on animals before you put human
beings in the loop.
Yeah. In fact, there were a bunch of jokes about that in Mercury days.
In fact, I think I remember making a cartoon that—something
to the effect that—do you remember Sam? The monkey Sam? And
he more or less just went along for the ride, but I wrote a memo and
suggested that as long as he was there, if you could teach an astronaut
to do this, you could sure as God teach a monkey to do this!
I noticed you said you wrote a memo. You have a lowly opinion of memoranda,
I know! Well, that one was kind of a joke. And they—the crew
people didn’t take it as a joke at all.
I wonder why.
Yeah. I wonder why.
Where did the name Project Mercury come from? Were you—
I don’t know.
—do you remember that?
I don’t know.
Out of left field. Suddenly.
I don’t know.
The messenger of the gods.
Yeah, I guess so.
With wings on his heels.
Wings on his heels.
Well, then along came the astronauts. Seven test pilots were chosen.
They came into the picture. By that time, where were you in the design
phase, by the time that the men came into the loop?
Well, let’s see. 1958. I have a drawing at home of the—a
drawing I made of Mercury, the first performing model. We put together
a little paper and explained the systems, and I made the overall configuration
images. And that was dated June of 1958. And see, that’s just
about when NACA became NASA. So, we were that far along before there
was a NASA. And see, that was quite a bit before any astronauts came
What do you remember of that first design that you put together? Can
you visualize it for us?
Well, in the first place it was a pencil drawing. It was not made
with a computer. I can tell you that much. And it was—I still
have the original. For some reason, I kept it. And it’s remarkably
like Mercury turned out to be. It’s a man in it. A retrorocket.
It did not have an escape rocket system. (That came along later.)
But otherwise, it’s the same parachute arrangement, and it’s
the same shape.
Did it have a window?
Yeah. It had a little window. Yeah. And, so, it’s not true that
we didn’t put a—have a window in it.
The process of putting a spacecraft together has always been fascinating,
and most people haven’t the slightest idea of how you do it.
So, here’s your chance, C. C. Tell us: How did that Mercury
spacecraft come into being?
Firstly, the guys in the research division (in the Pilotless Aircraft
Research Division) had found out that, of course, that there’s
a lot of energy has to be dissipated when a spacecraft enters back
into the atmosphere, that the blunt body was the most efficient way
to do that. Everyone else had always assumed that things should be
pointed. And it turns out that the blunt body is really the better
way, if you just want to brute force something, you can decelerate
yourself with the least amount of trouble with that blunt body. Now
with the blunt body, it turns out, that the force vectors are such
that a man can lie on his back and across the craft. When he’s
at the point, you cannot—it’s hard to fit a man into the
little thing that’s got a point.
Second place, it was obvious from all sorts of tests the Air Force
had done that men can sustain accelerations better, more or less,
what’s called eyeballs-in—that the force is in—if
you’re lying on your back. You put that together with the blunt
body. Then there were parachutes available that were quite dependable
parachutes. We had had a lot of experience with these solid propellant
motors that you could do the retrofire business, to slow yourself
up so you could reenter the Earth. So, suddenly we had all the fundamental
elements that it took. Now then it’s just up to someone to shape
these things together, package them, and arrange them geometrically
so that all these things fit.
Well, that was essentially my job, was to package all these separate
elements that other people had worked out and selected. I never selected
a rocket motor for it. I never selected the kind of parachute. I didn’t
design the initial heatshield for the thing. Other people did it.
But I took all of the things they did and put them into a package.
There’s a—there’s an English word that’s difficult
to pronounce. It’s called: concinnity. C-o-n-i-c-c-i-t-y [sic].
Something like that. And it means an artful arrangement of things.
I would use the word more often except it’s so difficult to
pronounce. So, that’s what I tried to do: make an artful arrangement
Once they came aboard, did the astronauts have anything to say about
all of this?
Well, I—they were probably as—they were probably in a
state of shock, too, at the time. I’m not quite so sure they—they
must’ve looked at this thing and thought, “My God! What
have we gotten ourselves into?” But it was the first place,
it—you know, it doesn’t look like much if you look at
Mercury. It doesn’t look like much of anything.
Not if you’re used to flying high-performance jets.
That’s right. But they didn’t come in roughshod and try
to throw their weight around.
The image that has been presented in books and motion pictures gives
somewhat of that idea. You’re contradicting it.
Oh, that’s not so. They were sensible enough to know that different
people have different skills, and their skill was flying airplanes.
It was not designing airplanes. Not that they couldn’t—they
could’ve learned to do that, too, I’m sure, because they
were very intelligent, capable guys.
Well, Mercury of course was designed to put a man in orbit. But you
also designed it so that it could be remotely controlled. You could
eliminate the man from the system if you had to.
Yeah. That was a running battle throughout the program, that there
were those of us that say, “Why should we waste 150 lbs and
learn about all the safety of a man when with a quarter of that weight
you could automate the system?” On the other hand, people would
say, “Well, what’s the sense of doing all of this if the
man is not involved? Sooner or later the man’s got to be there.
” Unfortunately the system got polarized. I don’t mean
within the Mercury Program itself. But if you remember, NASA finally
divided into two camps: the manned and the unmanned systems. And,
you know, there’s a place for the merger of the two. There’s
some things that men do wonderfully, and some things they’re
not very good at. The instruments can do things quick, but some things
they can’t do worth a damn. They can’t think, for one
The Russians followed a different tact. They said, “Okay, we
want this automatic control.” And to this day, they still have
—as they fly their cargo vessels up there to replenish the Mir
space station. Do you think, perhaps, that might’ve been a better
path to follow in retrospect?
Well, it would seem like it’s a sensible thing to do, since
it—there are many missions that if—there really isn’t
any point in having a man there if it’s simply a resupply mission.
Or let’s say, to turn it into the reverse. It—it’s
just a Shuttle type of thing going back and forth; it’s routine.
And that’s one thing that the men don’t do very well.
All the routine things.
So, there would be a place for unmanned cargo aircraft?
Oh, I—yeah, I would think so. I would certainly think so. For
instance, the docking activity. You know, it’s easy to automate
the thing. The total navigation system. It’s just—well
obviously we have all sorts of unmanned satellites doing all kind
of things in space.
You were working with Max Faget, were you not?
Yeah, oh, yes. Very closely.
He was designing. You were taking the design and putting it, as you
say, into “artful form.” I understand that you even designed
portholes (no windows) in the original Mercury. Is that right?
It was a port, yeah. I suppose. I’m not quite sure the difference
between a porthole and a window, except a porthole is generally small
and a window is larger, somebody might say. But, and if you remember,
Mercury ended up with a thing called a periscope. And it turned out
to be not a very satisfactory device. But, you know, it was clear
that the man; he’s got two eyes—the best instruments there
ever were. Two—those two eyes. And to deny they—those
eyes the—a port to look out is kind of silly. That same thing
came up in Skylab years later. It’s that same argument.
A lot of navigation aids also called “stars.”
Yes. That’s right.
If you can see them.
The Mercury interface between the capsule and the rocket was a big
contribution. I understand that was a matter of some concern for you.
Can you tell us about it?
Well, at that time the only candidate launch vehicles were things
like the Redstone rocket and the Atlas, neither of—neither one
were designed with the idea of putting the Mercury on the end of the
thing. So, they were designed to their own particular requirements.
We had a heatshield that was vital to the thing that really wasn’t
the best thing in the world to be the interface with something. And,
so it took a little finagling to make these two completely separately
designed objects take the loads, make certain they separated when
it was supposed to, and not separate when it wasn’t supposed
to. And, so there was a lot of mechanical engineering involved in
the thing that you might say had nothing to do with the spaceflight
It had a lot to do, though, with the way that thing flew.
Yes. Yeah, yeah.
How’d you come up with that design?
Well, we had been, you know, in the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division—had
been doing that all the time in a smaller way. We had ordnance rockets
and then we had the test vehicle that went on the front, and they
had to be separated after they did their thing. And so, we had had
a chance to explore a whole lot of different ideas. Some worked and
some didn’t work.
There was another thing that we found in the Pilotless Aircraft Research
Divisions, that people didn’t know a hell of a lot about the
aerodynamics of hypersonic flight. But we found out the hard way that
things that had funny shapes—asymmetrical shapes—were
more prone to having trouble than things that were more or less bodies
of revolution. So, we stuck with those bodies of revolution for a
long while until the Shuttle came along. If you notice, everything
was essentially a body of revolution. And there were a lot of us that
were very much worried about the Shuttle, since it was so clearly
not a body of revolution.
Obviously, we’re going to get to the Shuttle—
—just a little bit later. Right now, let’s stay with Mercury
—a bit because here you had a spacecraft that finally was conceived
and you flew it on a Redstone rocket, suborbital, testing your wings,
as it were, even though there were no wings on that spacecraft obviously.
Did the spacecraft evolve at all during the Mercury days? Or did it
pretty much remain in the same design for all the flights?
Initially, it changed a little bit. But by the time it got to actually
being flown on the Redstone, things had settled down. And there were
very few changes of consequence then; that is, you couldn’t
look at it and see any great difference. There had been problems—there
was a series called the Little Joe’s and the Big Joe’s,
and they were boiler—called boilerplate things designed just
to test certain performance characteristics. Now those flights, and
they were unmanned of course, suborbital, but they revealed a number
of surprises. And that was—it was very important because we
caught the thing at a stage of design that you could change the—you
might say, the production article without a great deal of cost and
trouble. And of course, there was no man involved in it either.
Can you elaborate that point for us just a bit, what you discovered?
Yeah. If you can remember the shape of Mercury. It was essentially
a cone, except for where the apex of the cone would be it ended up
a cylindrical section. If you can remember. The sides sloped up and
there was—It was balanced like that because—to house the
parachutes, for one thing. There just wasn’t enough space in
there for them to house the parachutes. We miscalculated the heating
effects of doing that.
It turned out that the sloping sides of the Mercury were relatively
cool. And—but when that change in direction—suddenly instead
of sloping sides, a cylinder—it got very hot there. Much, much
hotter than anybody had anticipated. And they had to change the—the
skin of the thing. Found out that it was completely inadequate. Now
a—Big Joe found that out. I remember that when we got it back,
we had burned some holes in the side. Actually burned all the way
through! And it had survived, though, but it was obviously—needed
to be redesigned. But some flights like that pointed out a number
of things. The stability of the system was always in question.
You say there was some question about the stability, obviously, was
Yes. Whether this blunt body shape would work. But, do you remember
there was a Big Joe flight that it did not separate from the Atlas
initially? What happened was that the Atlas continued to thrust when
it was—not much, but just enough that when it—Mercury
tried to separate, the Atlas kept pushing. And the Mercury spacecraft
used up all of its control gases trying to turn itself around, to
enter the—to enter the atmosphere in the right direction. But
it was still being pushed by this great, monstrous Atlas. And it wasted
all of its gas trying to turn the whole system around, and it had
ran out of gas; and finally the Atlas gave up and fell off, too.
But now it was—Mercury was heading in the wrong direction to
come in with no control system to turn it around. But it was inherently
stable in the other direction, and it turned itself around. Now, we
were absolutely delighted at that because here was—it…unexpectedly…[exhibited
greater one-]point stability than anyone had thought. Now that—you
know, that’s a very satisfying feeling to know that if you had—if
you ran out of all your control gases, the damn thing was going to
turn around in the right direction anyway.
Wasn’t that the real reason for the ballistic reentry itself,
and the shape that you came up with?
Well, it—well, the real shape was to take care of the heating
problem. Now, it was theorized that it would be stable in this position
also. But there were a lot of people that were—would not have
thought you could become 180 deg wrong and then turn yourself around.
But it did.
Like “I shot an arrow in the air. It came back to Earth, I know
not where. But it came back to Earth.”
That’s really the point.
And they come down point first because you’ve got feathers on
Well, finally with Mercury then you realized you had a machine that
could take men into space. There was something else that had to be
learned. How would the man react inside the spacecraft? Did you follow
Well, of course there was just a small group of us; so everybody paid
attention to everything. But that really wasn’t my bag. I didn’t
design life support systems. I wasn’t—I was interested
in the physiology of the man simply because it was a mechanical system
as far as I was concerned and he had to be supported mechanically.
And so, I was interested in the body structure and how the couch should
be made and that sort of thing. And, of course, the man had to be
positioned properly in the spacecraft.
If I remember correctly, C. C., as Mercury really began, somewhere
shortly inside that envelope the President announced after [Alan B.]
Shepard’s [Jr.] flight that men were going to go to the Moon.
And I imagine that created a few changes back at Langley, didn’t
It sure as hell did. You know, it’s one thing to sit around
a—the table at noontime and play Pinochle and bullshit. It’s
another thing for the President of the United States to all of a sudden
tell the world what you’re bullshitting about! You know, “Now,
put your money where your mouth is” is what that would be.
How did you accept that challenge?
I don’t know. I—if I knew then what I know now, I’d
think I’d have gone to Australia or somewhere and got the hell
out of there. But I don’t know.
But you didn’t.
You went ahead.
I don’t know. I think that’s a good thing about being
young. You’re not—nothing frightens you much when you’re
young. You know, you can lick the world.
And in this case, it certainly was possible.
Oh yeah. Yeah.
How soon did you begin designing on Gemini, coming out of Mercury?
I personally didn’t have much to do with Gemini. It—Gemini
was really an outgrowth of Mercury. I mean, it’s an extension
of Mercury. McDonnell was already set up, and the people that were
working on it. And they had learned a lot of things about spacecraft
and Mercury and—the organization that did Mercury was all in
place. I really never had much to do with things once they got into
the factory. Once a job would, say, be turned over to McDonnell Douglas
Wasn’t the big thing, though, the big difference (from your
point of view) the fact that Gemini was designed to dock with other
objects in space. And that’s where you came aboard and said,
“Okay, let me go to work.”
Yeah, except even then, I—I’m surprised now in telling
you this, but—I’m surprised that I was not involved, didn’t
involve myself, in that. I think the reason was that we was—had
started Apollo. You see, we were working on Apollo before Alan Shepard
took his flight. And so, as far as I was concerned, I was deep into
Apollo when Gemini was being developed. Now, as it turned out, I wish
I had paid some more attention; because some things happened in Apollo
that were led by Gemini. For instance, the docking system had a lot
to be desired. And it ended up that Apollo inherited some of the concepts
from Gemini, which was not a fundamental—not a very good system.
And it was later on corrected in Apollo-Soyuz. But that’s another
Well, we’ll get to that—
—part of the story, too, I hope. Didn’t you at one time
even consider a paraglider landing system?
Yes, yes, yes, yes! And it just—there were so many troubles
with that thing, just every time one turned around. But I really shouldn’t
talk about Gemini because I didn’t have a, you know—a
hell of a lot to do with Gemini.
Stay with the chutes.
All right. Well, how did all this preliminary thinking affect the
planning for Apollo? Now let’s see. I notice here you once said,
“In designing Apollo, the engineers and designers would come
to what seemed to be a completely rational design, but it would’ve
been achieved in a completely irrational manner.”
I love that quote. Is that true?
I—it is true. It’s almost like a—what’s the
old story, if you give enough monkeys enough pianos, and one of them
will end up playing The Blue Danube or something like that? I don’t
know what it is. I think it’s—I—the first place,
for some reason or another we were not antagonists. That’s suggested
a lot of people that work together are antagonistic, and they are.
Somehow or another, there was an exchange of ideas without the feeling
that “I have got to win my argument.” And that people
would listen to what someone else said; and then think about it and
say, “Well, maybe that’s not a bad idea after all.”
And I think that had a hell of a lot.
Now that’s not really a rational process, I suppose. You know,
people would—I’m not doing this very well. If I could
do this very well, we would do everything right. You know that statement
was—has been made about juries. Oftentimes I’ve heard
lawyers say that, that a bunch of the most ill-informed people that
do nothing but argue and fume and fuss and have got different points
of view, and they’ve already made up their minds before they
go—somehow, 9 times out of 10, they come up with a reasonable
verdict. Twelve people. You say, “Well, how in the hell did
they ever do it?” But they seem to do it.
Well, in this case you had a big mix them and match them. You had
the von Braun team in Marshall [Spaceflight Center, Huntsville, Alabama]—
—you had your team—
—which was here in Houston by that time. No, let’s see.
We’re still back in the Gemini days.
You haven’t even come to Houston.
No. That’s right.
You were still—where you were during that period? At Langley,
or getting ready to move to here?
Getting ready to move to here. In fact, I—Gemini was really
got going after we moved here I think.
And Apollo, of course, is—
—is really—the planning phases for Apollo started coming
together after the move to Houston. Is that what you’re saying?
Yeah. We had a letter contract with North American before we left
Why North American instead of Rockwell? I mean, instead of McDonnell
Well, McDonnell Douglas, first place they had Gemini. And Mercury
was still going. Like I said, you know, all this happened before Alan
Shepard took his first flight.
So, a new contractor who’s—
So, a new contractor.
Beside, I remember doing the evaluation of the Apollo proposals all
the many companies put in. Alan Shepard was on this team I was chairing.
And he wouldn’t come to the meetings. And I said, “You
know,” I said, “come on, Alan.” I said, “I
know you—I know that you’ve got the hots for North American,
but, you know, let’s give this a proper try and score them like
everybody else.” He says, “It’s hopeless. They’re
going to win anyway.” And I said, “Well, we’ve got
to go through the—I don’t know that you’re right,
but in any case nobody asked us to just give an offhand opinion. They
want us to evaluate the whole damn thing.” Well, anyway, it
turns out Alan was right. And later on, I said, “How—why
were you so damn sure?” He said, “Well, I reasoned that
they were just flying high, wide, and handsome with a—”
you know, they’d done some supersonic flights and all. Hypersonic
flights with the—what is that?
X-15, yeah. And they were on the West Coast. The West Coast needed
some money. They were—it was about a disaster area at that time.
Convair was folding up and everybody. And he said, “You know,
anybody can figure out what’s going to happen.” He said,
“It don’tmake any difference how we score this. It’s
going to be somebody else.” Now I daresay—say in hindsight,
that’s probably as good a way to decide something as any other
But as you—
Anyway, that’s how—that’s how—apparently that’s
how the North American got their job.
—as you began to look at Apollo, here you were mixing the Centers—
—coming into a whole new arena. For the first time you weren’t
flying on a missile anymore. You were flying on a rocket designed
to fly as a rocket.
There was—there was a couple of things right up at the very
beginning that got that started right. First off, it was agreed that
in the hierarchy of the system that the spacecraft was first, the
launch vehicle was second, and the launch facility was third. That
was going to be the pecking order. Now that was a great thing to decide.
Whether it was right or wrong, whether it—it was the right order,
the fact that there was an order was a very important thing. The second
thing that happened, at least between the spacecraft and the launch
vehicle—that is, between Houston and Marshall—was that
we agreed one day, right at the very beginning, that the interface
between those two systems was going to be as though there was a sheet
of ¾-in. plywood across there. And everything on one side was
Marshall’s, and everything on the other side was the Manned
Spacecraft Center. Now obviously you can’t completely do that;
but there was going to be no integration of these things. The spacecraft
was not going to try to run the launch vehicle, and the launch vehicle
was not going to put through wires through to try to run the things
Now—and that concept lasted throughout the program; and that
was a great thing. People argue that say, “There’s a great
duplication. Why in the hell should we have two, let’s say,
inertial measurement units? One of them in the launch vehicle and
one in—?” We said, “The reason we have two is so
we don’t have to have meetings and decide what the one of them
is going to look like. It’s cheaper. You do yours any goddamn
way you please. We’ll do ours any goddamn way we please. And
don’t you second-guess us, and we won’t second-guess you.”
Now, I think that’s a great way to do that. I can’t think
of anything worse than to try to integrate the whole damn thing! It
takes 10—in fact, that’s what’s happened to the
Space Station. Not only is it different agencies but different countries
have to get together and decide what the hell they’re going
to do. Don’t even speak the same language!
Like a Tower of Babel.
—a little difficult, isn’t it?
Yeah. You can’t even—you can’t even do this when
you—when you’re all in the same country. How in the hell
are you going to do it?
And yet as I remember that era, you had a tremendous spokesman as
well as a powerful engineer. His name was von Braun.
Did you work closely with him at all? Or was he on the other side
of that big piece of plywood you put up?
Well, he was on the other side as far as I was concerned. But obviously,
we—it—at some level in the NASA hierarchy that piece of
plywood didn’t exist. But I just meant engineering.
The mix was upstairs?
He was a remarkable man. I didn’t know him personally very much,
but I had come in contact and seen what he did. If you remember, a
lot of people said, “Well, he’s just a silver-tongued
devil and makes a great spokesman and, you know, he’s managed
to keep his German accent after he’s been here 40 years,”
and all this kind of thing. But I can remember on one occasion I’d
gone to Marshall to discuss something that—we were at loggerheads
about something. And we talked and talked and talked. And we argued.
And neither one of us wanted to yield a point of—it’s
almost like we didn’t even want to solve the damn problem. I
mean, we didn’t want to agree. And we got back together after
lunch. And all of a sudden von Braun walks in. And he said, “How
are you guys doing?” And we had to admit that we were kind of
stalled out. And he said, “Well, what’s the problem?”
And somehow or another we told him the problem. He said, “Well,
the solution is simple. Do this and this and this.” And we agreed
that it was a very reasonable suggestion he made, and so we settled
it—he settled the damn thing in about 15 minutes, and we had
been spending—we had spent the whole damn morning arguing about
—so he was not just a figurehead.
He was an engineer.
He was an engineer, and a good one.
A very good engineer.
Okay. I think we’re running out of—
Voice Off Camera: Go.
Got speed. All right. Now we’re going to pick up again. And
at this point, we’ve been talking [about] Dr. von Braun.
And you called him “Wernher.” We all did. But he was “Dr.
von Braun,” and he was a militant leader of his people. He was
one of the influences at that time over on the propulsion side of
Let’s talk about some of the people around you, who were building
the spacecraft and the roles that they played. Can we do that?
Sure we can. I’m going to speak of the civil servants, not the
contractor people. Because in the first place, although I knew some
of them very well, you know, I wouldn’t presume to talk about
their—how they ran their shop or anything like that. But, I
think we were very lucky because at the Langley Research Center, it
had operations people, it had aerodynamicists, it had structures people,
and, with the advent of the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division,
it had gotten some propulsion people. Now as guys started out, they
didn’t know a hell of a lot about propulsion, but they soon
learned by doing it. Of course, you know Max Faget.
Max Faget. Max and a man named Guy [Joseph G.] Thibodeaux [Jr.], a
fellow from Louisiana—let me see how they got to know each other?
Oh, they were mustered out together. Thibodaux was in the Corps of
Engineers in Burma during the war, and Max was on submarine. And somehow
they both got—I think they’d both been to LSU [Louisiana
State University], too. LSU. And somehow or another, they both got
mustered out at the same time, in the same place, and they decided
to seek their fortune with NACA. And they both got hired, and both
immediately got sent over to Bob Gilruth’s organization that
he was just putting together for the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division.
Now there were some others, but those two were kind of buddies and
stuck together. Thibodaux, for some reason, elected to work the propulsion
systems. Well, for one thing, he’d been in the Corps of Engineers
and I guess he was good at blowing up things. So he got into rockets.
And Max, of course, was a aerodynamicist. So he got involved in aerodynamics.
But here were two guys, typical of those people that came to work
then. Eager to make their mark in the world, and just getting out
of the service, and one thing and another. And, you know, bright as
can be; and that was just typical. There was the Chris [Christopher
C.] Kraft that—he was in the operations side of the house. He
was then in what we called Flight Research. They were using airplanes
to do the research work. And, so these people had—and Jerry
[Jerome B.] Hammack was over there. And Chuck [Charles C.] Mathews.
And all these people were—had gotten their feet wet doing other
things. So, somewhere within Langley itself, it had all the basic
elements to do this whole thing.
We had the Wallops Island little launch center. Now I’ll grant
you, compared to Cape Canaveral at the time it was a rinky-dink place.
But nevertheless, it pointed out some of the problems with ships at
sea and not hitting them and getting boats out to pick up things and
that sort of thing.
Bob Gilruth figured largely in all of that—
Oh, yes, yes.
But somehow or another, he didn’t seek to—didn’t
seek to stand in front of a lot of people and say a lot. But people
listened when he said something. And he waited a while to speak; and
then when he said something it was pretty clear that he knew what
the hell he was talking about. And what’s more, you’d
better damn well do what he was talking about!
Would you say that essentially he was the boss?
He was indeed the boss! There was no question about who was the boss.
And you can’t always say that about some things. But he did
not come out and make great speeches and say this. But he—I
remember once—this is kind of a personal thing about myself
with him. I had grown a beard. Don’t ask me why, but I had.
It was all the rage at the time. It was a great, bushy thing. And
we were in the cafeteria one day, and he said, “Why don’t
you—why don’t you shave off that beard?” (It was
clear he didn’t like it.) And I said, “Well, I would if
I had a good reason to do it.” And he said, “I’ll
give you a good reason. You go home and shave that goddamn thing off!”
I went home and shaved it off.
Hard to imagine Bob Gilruth—
I know it. But he—and he didn’t say it in a loud voice.
He just told me it very quietly. I don’t think anybody else
even heard what he said. But I heard what he said!
Now let’s take this beast called Apollo from the ground up.
How do you design a spacecraft that’s really going to be the
center point to fly to the Moon with three people when your total
experience up till that time has been along a different line of endeavor?
Can you describe the evolution of Apollo?
Yeah. Well, let’s just start with the so-called command module.
That is where—the thing that houses these three guys. It didn’t
take long for everyone to agree that a crew of three was the proper
number. I think because there was always the possibility that one
person would be hurt or disabled, and that would leave two people
to manage to get home. At one time, it was—it said, “Well,
we—that—with three people you can stand three 8-hour watches
per day.” That was probably the shipboard influence that got
into the system.
A lot of Navy at that time—
It turned out that operationally that never happened. Everybody slept
at the same time, and everybody worked at the same time. That—and—to
this day, they do that on the spacecraft. It’s not a business
of somebody standing watch, you know, and all. Eight bells. It’s—you
know. But given the three, they had to be configured in some arrangement.
There had to be places to sit and places to sleep and places to eat.
A toilet facility. A fellow named Will [Willard M.] Taub and I fiddled
with that a long time.
And then there was the argument about ground impact and the men sustaining
the g-forces. That—the fundamental argument was: “Do you
cushion the entire spacecraft,” like Mercury was. It had a big
bag, if you remember, and you would squash the bag. “ [Or] do
you individually cushion [each] seat…?” I argued to do
each seat; and I remember Charlie [Charles H.] Feltz at Rockwell (North
American at the time)—Charlie Feltz and his gang were arguing
to spring the whole spacecraft. To drop the heatshield and have a
series of dampers to do that.
I remember we argued all day there. And some time during the night,
Charlie switched to my side. And so then we ended up springing the
seats. My argument was that it was silly to take a 14,000 lb spacecraft
and spring that, when all you had to do was individually spring a
180-lb man. Three 180-lb men. Now, it’s not quite that simple
because it—that caused a hell of a lot of trouble, springing
those seats. If you ever looked at that conglomeration of struts in
there that take side loads and up and down and back and forth and
all that. But then there was the business of getting out of the thing
in a hurry in case you had a fire, which it turned out they did have.
To locate the entrance and the exit of the thing so that they’d
get in. Then there was the business of docking. They had to be arranged
in a manner that, after you docked—that there was a passageway.
So, putting all those things together that we arrived at the three
seats side-by-side like this, and they would fold away. They could
be folded away so that they’d have more space.
Now that arrangement misled people later on in the design of living
areas in spacecraft. And I’ll tell you why: Because the crew
was so confined in the command module that there was no need for supports,
in a sense, in zero gravity. There was always something your toe was
under, or you were always here. You couldn’t go anywhere anyway.
And the crew began telling people that this business of zero g is
of no consequence. “Don’t worry about it. We don’t
need any kind of supports.” Because everything was based upon
being in a place that you couldn’t go anywhere anyway! Now that
misled people in Skylab for a while in the design of things in Skylab.
But I kind of wandered away from there, configuring the Apollo spacecraft.
We’ll come back to that a little later, as a matter of fact.
Here you were, still designing the Apollo.
Yeah. And all this was going on, you see, when we were at Langley
and hadn’t even come to Houston. I have all the old—you
know, many old sketches of these configurations and all.
The Space Task Group moved to Houston at the time of the Gemini series
That’s when you actually made your move—
—so as Gemini was beginning to fly, you were making the move.
But you had already designed—
—the next generation of spacecraft, and were building. Was there
hardware in the loop at that time?
Yeah. There was—some things led up that had been learned in
Mercury led Apollo astray; that is, the wrong conclusions were drawn
from some things. Mercury was a horrible thing to work on, because
it had an outer shell and all the equipment was packed inside, and
it only had a small hatch to get in there. And so only one man could
get in at a time and work on anything. And it was just a mess, you
know, to put everything inside. Well, it was put inside because it
was going to be in the water; and people reasoned that you should
keep the place dry, as though we were going to use it over again.
Now if we had had any sense, anybody knows you’re not—you’re
not going to use the damn thing over! That’s been in salt water
and bumped around. And I don’t give a damn how careful you are;
you’re not going to use it again.
Gemini recognized that problem, and then everything on Gemini was
on the outside! They put everything on the outside. Because they—McDonnell
had found out how much damn trouble it was to—for technicians
to try to climb inside and put everything inside, so they put everything
on the outside.
Apollo was kind of caught in the middle. It had not really found out
the true story about that. We didn’t quite know what the hell
to do. But suddenly, the business of the Van Allen Belts and radiation
problems came into focus, and of all these dire predictions of—that
you’re going to get fried alive when—somewhere between
here and the Moon. So, all of a sudden, we decided that we’d
better arrange the equipment the best way we could to surround the
men. The devil with whether it was inside or outside. And then—and
also reasoned, “We’re never going to use one of these
things over again anyway.”
And so, then that drove the arrangement of equipment. To offer that
as extra shielding, you see, around yourself. Now it turned out that
the Van Allen Belt didn’t play much of a role one way or the
other anyway. But there’s oftentimes things influence a design
that later on turn out to be for the wrong reason; and there’s
some times you did something for the wrong reason but it turned out
to be the right reason for it. That’s what I probably meant
by saying there’s a very irrational process that you go through.
Serendipity, I guess it’s called.
That’s a good word.
Serendipity. Well, finally through this evolutionary process and the
people that you’ve described taking their role in the formation,
Apollo began to fly. Once it was flying, did it evolve very much during
the missions? Did you make many changes over a period of time?
That’s—that makes me think of something probably more
interesting than that about the changes. When a program starts, a
dozen people make all of the important decisions. They essentially
cast into concrete the fundamentals of the thing. A dozen people.
Or five people. And as a program develops, there’re more and
more and more meetings to decide more and more minor things. And after
a while, near the end of the program, there will be 50 people deliberating
whether to put a piece of Velcro this big right here or put it over
here. And great minutes are written about why they put the Velcro
here or there. And three years before that, four people decided whether
or not to use a Saturn or to use some other kind of rocket. It just
works entirely backwards.
So, there are multitudes of things that go on later in the program,
but they get more and more trifling. More and more trifling. And always
the weight is a problem. The weight always exceeds what you think
it’s going to be. Now that’s the place where the guys
at Marshall saved Apollo’s ass, I’m not kidding you. They
built some capability into that Saturn that was not—I don’t
say it was not supposed to be there, but it was not the design objective
to do certain things. They put enough in there that—I don’t
know whether they recognized that we were going to be in over weight,
but they put that margin in there. And that saved the day.
How much extra weight did you have to pack by the time you finally
flew? Was it a big difference?
You’re damn right it was! The Apollo—the parachute system
for instance was designed for a certain weight of the command module;
the command module exceeded that weight. They had to go back in and
redo the parachutes. And this thing snowballed. When you redo the
parachutes, the space for the parachute takes more space. Now you
don’t have the space, so you have to figure out something also.
It’s just terribly important to recognize what your weight is
likely to be.
C. C., I’m going to hold here for a moment.
Voice Off Camera: And rolling.
We were talking of the fact that, with the Apollo in the design phases,
once you started to fly I had said, “Did the flights then create
the occasion for, was there a need, did you change the spacecraft
very much in the evolution of flight?”
Surprisingly little. It—if you consider the fact that we went
through a year or so of detailed engineering before we settled the
issue of whether there would be Earth orbit rendezvous or lunar orbit
rendezvous. Now that’s not a trifle. That is a fundamental characteristic
of the whole Apollo, is whether or not it would rendezvous a great
number of things in Earth orbit and then head for the Moon and land
with a big thing and come back; or whether or not you go to the—like
a lightweight to the Moon and then separate at the Moon and land,
and then rendezvous at the Moon and then come back home. There were
fundamentally two schools.
Marshall wanted, I suppose (since they built large launch vehicles)—they
wanted to put up a lot of launch vehicles and orbit the Earth with—and
then launch a big monster towards the Moon. It was—the issue
was kind of debated at Langley (and we were still at Langley then).
There was a man at the Langley Research Lab (not part of the spacecraft),
but that he had calculated and had presented an argument that this—the
most economical way was to rendezvous at the Moon. To land a small
craft on the Moon and rendezvous in orbit about the Moon, and then
come home. There was no point in putting a big, heavy spacecraft down
on the Moon and have to take it all back when all you needed to do
was put the men down there in that.
But intuitively, when you think how difficult it is to orbit the Earth.
You say, “My God! are we going to try to do this at the Moon?”
You know, “We haven’t even done this on Earth that many
times!” And so, more or less intuitively people would say, “Well,
that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.” But
the more you got thinking about it, and the more this guy talked about
it (his name was John [C.] Houbolt, John Houbolt). The first thing
you know, it was a very convincing argument when you got right down
to it. And we had tried all sorts of ways to land big things on the
Moon on paper at that end, and most of them were a bunch of nonsense.
There were some politics in the thing, too. Because for instance,
the Lewis [Research] Center [Cleveland, Ohio] built big propulsion
systems, and they were going to get the job of having this big lander
that was going to land on the Moon. Marshall built the great Saturns,
and they wanted to build a whole bunch of Saturns. So, there got to
be some politics. For some reason or another, the argument [of] lunar
orbit rendezvous prevailed, that argument. I can remember the—I
can remember the day the decision was made, but that’s another
story. But that was a—that was a major change in the program.
And how in the devil Apollo managed to change itself at that stage
of the game without starting all over, it’s a miracle.
For instance, North American kind of fought the whole idea of lunar
orbit rendezvous because they knew that there would be another contractor
would come along and get this craft that was going to go down to the
Moon. They didn’t want anybody to have another piece of pie.
But even though they didn’t want that to happen, they agreed
to configure the command module so another craft could have docked
at the end of it. Now, there’s two groups of people: the politics
told them to do one thing. There’s probably some engineering
heads agreed that, “Well, we’d better hedge our bet, you
know, and fix it up.” But the upshot of it was that somehow
we got by with that whole thing; got our new contractor to build the
lunar module. [North American] Rockwell made some few changes to the
command module to accept it. We built a different—what was called
a SLA [Spacecraft Lunar module Adapter], a great adapter that would
house the lunar module. And this was a completely different configuration
from what we started. How in the devil we got by with that, I do not
know. Now—but we did. And it all worked. It—somewhere
in the back of people’s minds, they must have something was
telling them that this is the way it’s going to be, and they
were really working towards that end.
When did the final design get locked in? Had you moved to Houston
by that time?
Yeah. Charlie [Charles W.] Frick was the Program Manager for the command
module. And Charlie knew—he knew that this thing had got to
be settled. We could not keep on arguing this and people charging
ahead like everything was settled when it wasn’t settled. He
managed to convene a great meeting at Marshall with Rockwell (I keep
saying “Rockwell,” it’s—
—North American)—North American and of course von Braun’s
people and us and people from Lewis and I don’t know. That whole
10th floor was just jam packed with people. And everybody got up and
gave their little stories and their spiels and saying things that
we had all been saying for 2 years. Same goddamn thing. And there
was this kind of silence after everybody said anything, you know,
what are you going to do? And all of a sudden this guy named John
[W.] Paup (P-a-u-p, he spelled his name), he was the Program Manager
at North American. He all of a sudden says, “Who’s the
son of a bitch here that’s not for lunar orbit rendezvous?”
There’s all these people sitting there. Not a soul said a damn
word. And John said, “Well, I guess that’s what we’re
going to do!” You know. That was the advent.
And that’s the way it was.
That’s the way it was.
So, you had a design—
We had a—
and things were ready to go. And then as you were finally getting
ready to send men up into space, disaster struck.
Yes, yes. That—
The Apollo 1 fire.
And all of a sudden, the design flaw had been discovered, hadn’t
And it was—we made such an obvious mistake that I think that’s
how it got by. It was a schoolboy mistake. And, you know, a bunch
of us were all involved in it. And we all had better sense (I think
we had); but there was one little thing that just escaped us, and
none of us thought about that: the fact that it was going to be tested
on the ground. Now if it had been that would never have happened in
space. But we overlooked that when you pressurize that thing with
that much oxygen in it at sea level pressure, that’s a hell
of a lot different than the 5 psi that it would see in space. And
it was a bomb ready to go off!
And, you know, people blamed it on North American for, let’s
say, shoddy wiring or something like that. Well, that may have been—that
may have been the trigger; but it was a disaster waiting to happen.
And it was—would not be fair to blame that on North American.
I think all of us that had a place in the decision to use that system
should take the blame. Not any one person, but collectively, we should
have known better.
That was a valid reason for using that system, wasn’t there?
Yes. It was, but it was not a good enough reason. If we had really
thought about the hazardous situation on the ground testing, I know
we would have never gone that way.
How would you have done it differently?
We would’ve made a more complex system and accepted the complications
of changing the atmosphere in flight, which we ended up doing. That’s
what we ended up doing. And the reason—the first place the reason
that there was a pure oxygen atmosphere in there was, at that time,
we—our pressure garments were not developed as well as they
are now. If you had more than about 5 psi (5 pounds of square inch
of pressure) in these suits, they became so stiff that the men couldn’t
do anything, you know. The medical people had said, “Well, we
need the 5 pounds of square inch for metabolic reasons.” Now
it turned out they didn’t.
People in Denver don’t have that. People in Denver only have
3. And in Mexico City. But anyway, that was, you know—that was
a little mistake. We could’ve made a different pressure suit.
But anyway, we ended up with the 5 psi of oxygen. What we didn’t
think about is that when we’re on Earth in sea level pressure
that it would not be 5; it would be 15! And, you know, in principle
it’s no different. But in fact, that partial pressure of oxygen
is just a bomb. If you filled this room with that and, you know, one
spark and the whole room would just poom! We’d be gone. So,
it was a terrible mistake. You can’t undo it.
You redesigned around it.
How did the redesign work? What did it do?
Well, it changed—it—while on sea level, the thing had
an atmosphere more or less like what we breathe here right now. But
as it ascended…[it reduced cabin air pressure to stay within
5 psig, and added oxygen as necessary.] More complicated but it works.
It works all right. Now it all started because that pressure garment
would not hold anymore pressure than this. And so our whole command
module was only designed for 5 psi; and later on, when you get to
Apollo-Soyuz, that gave us a problem with docking with Soyuz because
they were designed for sea level pressure. And so, we had to build
that—if you remember that intermediate module in between them?
There was an airlock so you could go from one to the other.
And I think we’re working our way slowly toward that.
So, let’s continue and finish up with—
—Apollo, and then we’ll move through Skylab into Apollo-Soyuz.
Right now, here we are: the next major thing that came along, other
than the fact, the obvious fact, we flew to the Moon. That must have
been a tremendous moment for all of you.
Actually making it.
It’s unbelievable. I—you know, my mother—my mother,
she knew I worked on all this. And she said, “You don’t
really think that happened either?” And I said, “Well,
of course.” And she said—she said, “I watch television.
You know what they do on television. They fake all kind of things.”
And I said—she said, “Were you there?” “Well,
no, mama, I wasn’t.” “Well, how do you know that
you were not fooled along with all the rest of us?” Well, I
must admit she had a point. I really wasn’t there. And I got
fooled about a lot of things, so—anyway I don’t think
I ever convinced my mother. I think she went to her grave not quite
Do you really think that NASA staged the event in the desert?
NASA doesn’t have that much sense to do that. I think ABC or
CBS might get away with doing it.
I’m glad you didn’t say “NBC” in that context.
Yeah, I was careful not to say it.
Thank you kindly, sir. Well, the next big thing then that happened,
though outside of the obvious (which was a success), was failure in
terms of Apollo 13.
Yeah, yeah. I can’t, you know, speak technically about that
much because that cryogenic system, I—,you know, I understand
how it works and all that. But I’m not sure of the mechanics.
It wasn’t your area of expertise.
No. I don’t remember.
Well, why don’t we then move out and beyond.
Because now Apollo has gone to the Moon. It’s performed its
functions. And the time had come for, not an adaptation but for another
spacecraft: a space station to be called Skylab.
Did you work on it?
Yeah, I sure did.
How did—what did you do?
I was out of a job about that time. Apollo had done its thing. We
had not started on the Shuttle. I was running an outfit called the
Spacecraft Design Division at Johnson Space Center. We were dealing
with the advanced design of space stations and that sort of thing.
But I was out of a job in the sense of, you know, a pressing particular
project to work on.
There was a—there was a person there that was called the Principle
Investigator for Habitability and Crew Quarters for Skylab. Now that
program was really run out of Marshall. And, other than the crew being
here and some operational aspects, it was a Marshall program. But
JSC was cognizant of this, of what they called a “principle
investigator,” which was more or less a research type of activity
that had to size up the crew quarters and how habitability provisions
went on. The guy that was doing that became ill and had to resign
that position. I think I had been fussing to somebody over the lunch
table about some of the things I had noticed on it, and so one day
Gilruth said—he didn’t use the word “smart ass,”
but, you know, he said, “All right,” you know, “smart
ass, you’re now the principle investigator. You fix the thing.”
Well, I was really delighted because I’d seen some things I
didn’t like on it. The people at Marshall were so—they
had so many problems with the structure and what you might call “hard
systems” that they didn’t really want to—nobody
wanted to mess with the crew quarters and how people lived and what
they eat and how they dress. I didn’t know a damn thing about
it, but I figured I could learn. And so, I set about trying to organize
this and do more than just report on how it went. I decided that the
best thing to do was to redesign it so that it would work, so that
when I reported it I could report something that would work and not
something that didn’t work. Because I knew damn good and well
what we had wouldn’t work.
And so, we waded on. I divided up habitability into some elements
like architecture and mobility and restraint and the environment and
the clothing and the food and the waste management and tackled each
one of them, as opposed to just arm waving and saying, “I don’t—”
You know, I didn’t give a shit about the color of the walls
or that kind of thing. And I was worried about the lighting and places
to sleep and what the garments—the garments for instance.
There were going to be three crews of three men. That’s nine
people. None of them the same size. You didn’t even know who
they were going to be beforehand. But this—but the Skylab had
to be stocked with clothing for people that you don’t even know
who they’re going to be. Well, all of the crew says, “Well,
you know, we’ll carry our own flight garments.” And I
said, “I can’t think of anything worse than a flight garment.
When you don’t know what size anybody’s going to be and
you’ve got something between the shoulders and the crotch that
is not long enough for you, you’re going to be in deep trouble
through the whole mission. Beside, the temperature’s going to
vary. Either you’ve got the jump suit on or you don’t
have it on. You don’t—you can’t take off your shirt
without taking off the whole thing.” I said, “If you wear
just like everybody now wears shirts and pants and underclothes and
undershirts, that’s what we ought to put on there.” Well,
finally everybody agreed that that was the sensible thing to do. There
was no use in inventing new clothing just to go there.
Now, I remember one of the guys said—we had this pretty blue—I
think it was pretty blue clothing made, you know. And we put white
stripes down there so that when you take photographs, you could—you
could tell the position of people so that, you know, you could study
how they react and check it. Well, that’s when the crew rebelled.
You know, they said, “You won’t let us wear our damn jump
suits, but,” they said, “we’ll be goddamned if we’re
going to wear these little legs with white stripes down their side.”
So, there was a little bit of compromise there.
But—and the food. The food on Apollo and everything had been
in plastic bags, you know, and that kind of things. And you’d
mix it up and squash it all around and squirt it in your mouth. Well,
that’s all right. That’s better than not eating. But if
you’re going to be someplace 3 months, you really should have
something that’s more like, you know, you’re accustomed
And so we reasoned that we should, first place—we should have
a place where everybody was meant to eat in. And you sit around the
table. And you talk like you— you know, you don’t perch
on the side. You see the people in Shuttle, how they do? Somebody’s
sitting over here and somebody’s hanging up here, and, you know,
that’s no damn way to eat for 3 months! And so we built a little
table, had a little table fixed, and then we made a—we designed
a tray and put all the foods in cans, and the trays were electrically
heated and with timers, and so you could put all the stuff in there
in the morning before you went to work, and when you come in at lunch
it’s all heated up for you.
We got some utensils from Oneida. Stainless steel. That was magnetic,
so that you put magnets in this little table top, and when you put
your fork down it just stays there. I’ve got a set of that home
now that I use. Things like that. We argued that if you put a little
bit of gravy on a plate, you can take a plate here on Earth and turn
it up about like this and nothing will fall off. It just don’t
go floating away in zero gravity. I said, “Eat with a knife
and fork and cut your goddamn meat and all.” And it did. It
worked fine. Everything worked fine. But I notice Shuttle goes right
back to the goddamn old bags in space stuff and the like.
Now you’re talking the difference between a spacecraft and a
But that’s what you were doing; you were designing and working
a space station.
We tackled everything that way. You know, we said, “Why change
it from Earth unless you have to do it?” The cabinets and all.
People went around inventing new latches on cabinet doors. Ace Hardware
has worked on cabinet latches for a zillion years. They know all about
it. Some of the engineers designed special ones that will break the
first damn time anybody uses them! You know, some of the NASA guys.
So, what did you do? Go to the hardware store?
Can you tell us a little about that?
Well, it’s just like buying the silverware, the flatware they
ate with. Went to Oneida. In fact Oneida gave it, they were so—they
were so pleased to have their stuff on there, they gave it away. But
that’s the way that we tackled that whole business on there.
Now some of the things, it was too late to change.
NASA had—do you remember George [E.] Mueller was the head of
Manned Spaceflight? He knew of a man named Raymond [F.] Loewy, a very,
very famous French-born industrial designer. And he had talked somebody
into hiring Raymond as a consultant out of Marshall. Marshall didn’t
want to have anything to do with him. In the first place, he was a
Frenchman (I gather). But—so, he came around here one day and
I was delighted—you know, I thought, “Man, what a guy
to have on your side! This—this famous Raymond Loewy.”
And he was appalled by the way the Skylab looked inside, with all
the harsh metal and everything. And he advised some things to do.
And one thing he said was, he said, “I think it’s marvelous
that you’ve arranged this little” what we called the “wardroom,”
where they could eat around this little table. He said, “But
it needs a window.” And he said, “You know, that’s
the most relaxing thing in the world.” I went to Marshall and
I said, “We need a window.” The poor guys were behind
schedule, over budget. Cutting a window in the side of that thing
in a pressure vessel and putting a big, thick piece of glass that
wouldn’t come out of there, they couldn’t think of anything
worse. And I knew that problem. Hell, I’m enough of a structures
guy to know that what a pain in the ass that is. Thermally, every
way in the world! But I said, “We’ve got to have a window.”
Well, it ended up in this great meeting in Washington, again, to decide
whether or not to put the window in. And poor Leland [F.] Belew, who
was the Program Manager, he told how terrible it was to have to do
this; and I told how, you know, with—I went through the story
of the two eyes, the most wonderful instruments in the world, and
to deny them being able to look out and see things is crazy. And George
Mueller listened to this and he listened, and he knew the problem.
And he turned to Raymond Loewy and he said, “What do you think
about this, Mr. Loewy?” And Loewy said, “I can’t
imagine not having a window.” And Mueller turned to poor Leland
Belew and he said, “Put the window in.” And it turned
out that that window was the means of—a lot of things were observed.
Just casually. People would be sitting there just looking out the
window and say, “What the hell is that?” You know, you’d
see a—something on the surface of the Earth that nobody had
ever noticed before because not many people get up there and look
down at the Earth, you know.
It’s one thing that every astronaut that’s flown—We’re
out of tape again.
Voice Off Camera: Speed.
Skylab must’ve been fascinating, putting all these design features
And then when you had the chance to see them work, when you saw Pete
[Charles C.] Conrad [Jr.] running the Skylab 500 up there and Joe
[Joseph P.] Kerwin exercising—
Yeah, that’s right.
There you saw the reality of your dream, didn’t you?
But before that could happen, you had to fix that machine. Because
when it first went up there, it didn’t quite take the right
Can you describe that for us? And how the fix was made?
Of course, everyone was—everyone was shocked when—after
the launch, we found out that one of the—one array was gone
and the other one didn’t deploy and—
These are solar arrays, you’re talking about?
—yeah, the solar arrays. And that some of the thermal protection
had torn off. And it was—I suppose most of us just gave it up
and said, “Well, that’s the way things go.” But
as people started looking at it, it, you know, wasn’t clearly
a lost cause. For instance, we had Apollo sitting there to be launched,
and it could go up. The craft was in orbit; it was in pretty good
shape. It was getting hotter by the minute because there was no sunshade
then in any way; their thermal protection had gone. It wasn’t
making any power, but it had batteries and it was still alive.
You know, once the shock got off—wore off, people said, “Well,
you know, let’s fix it.” And, it was a madhouse around
here! It was a madhouse! Almost immediately, I think, Jack [A.] Kinzler—I
think he was running the machine shops, Technical Services. And I
think they had been doing some work that had to do with things inside
of Skylab of—and he knew that there were—there were ports
on the side, airlock type of ports that you could put things out through
there. I don’t know what his whole thought process was, but
he thought about an umbrella. Raising an umbrella.
Some other people had had kind of guessed at the problem with the
solar arrays, what was—why one of them was stuck. And they theorized
that, “Well, it could be cut loose.” And once you cut
a few things, it would hope—spring itself open probably. I got
to thinking about the problem, too. And we decided, “Well, we’d
better have some sort of backup. That Kinzler’s idea sounded
like a good one, and the most practical one to do.” I suggested
that we do an EVA [extravehicular activity]—what was called
a standup EVA. You open the hatch on the command module, Conrad stands
up in the hatch with a boat hook type of thing, we have an awning
already stowed away with guide ropes on it. We had found places on
Skylab that he could take this hook and hook these things and then
literally pull this awning up over the top of the thing.
It would’ve been very effective, but it was risky, certainly
riskier than what Jack had proposed. Because it meant bringing the
Apollo right up close to it, and in the meantime they would also try
to cut the—you know, cut the solar array away. But we decided
to do them both; in case one of them didn’t work, we’d
have the other one now. So, there were kind of two groups of people
working like mad.
Anything anybody wanted, you got that worked towards that. I remember
one night, we suddenly realized that we needed a certain paint—a
thermal type of paint—to put on this awning that we were making.
The only place you could find some, I think, was Durham, North Carolina.
We got an astronaut in a T-38 and within a half hour, he was on his
way to North Carolina. The man had the paint ready when he landed.
He paid the man whatever it was ($10 a gallon), got back in that $3
million—$30 million airplane, and flew back—flew back
here. And we painted the thing the next morning. But that was the
way things worked. And, whatever needed to be done got done. And by
God, they fixed the damn thing! You know, I think that was a—that
was a real coup, to salvage that thing. And it went on for three missions.
As someone in the design phase of all this, it must’ve done
your heart good to see that something like that could happen.
Yeah. And you know, it could still happen. It’s not like that’s
the only time it’s going to happen. No reason why it can’t
happen again with things.
It’s kind of the history of the space program, isn’t it?
Use your ingenuity to make up—
—for what you don’t know.
It would’ve been so easy to have given up. You know, that first
24 hours after it, it would’ve been so easy for everybody to
say, “Gee, that’s tough.” But somewhere along the
line, somebody said, you know, “Goddamn it, we’re going
to fix it!”
Do you—would you like to have seen the Skylab stay up there?
Or were you one of the group that said, “Let’s bring it
back. It’s time has been served.”
No. I’m embarrassed every time I think about it. We had a crackerjack
space station there; and we—you know, if you look at our history
in the spaceflight business, we never plan for anything to last long.
Every program was dead end. I don’t even think we wanted anything
to last. It was too much fun building new things. We had that marvelous
Saturn V. The greatest machine that was ever built! And the only one
left is sitting over here in the visitors’ place, and here and
now, nowhere else. That great machine. Mercury, you know, abandoned
it. Abandoned Gemini. And abandoned Apollo. Left Skylab, you know,
just—“Yeah, what the hell, we’ll build a new one.”
It’s that kind of attitude. It’s almost—it’s
almost like the Agency doesn’t want anything to last!
Isn’t that the American way—
—the same way?
Yeah, I guess—I guess that’s what it is.
Well, of course, one thing that was done next after Skylab, there
was something called Apollo-Soyuz [Test Project].
As a matter of fact, there was a split in the road right there; and
you worked on Apollo-Soyuz as well.
Can you tell us about that?
Out of a clear blue sky, there came some message from Headquarters—.
We’re about to catch that big time alarm. Do you want to—
Say when. We were just about to start talking another project on which
you worked: Apollo-Soyuz. ASTP. What do you remember? How did that
begin to go together? It was kind of a divergent program, moving away
Part of the—part of the activities in the Spacecraft Design
Division had to deal with that—with joining two spacecraft.
Now, Apollo had done it and Gemini had done it. But it was an ad hoc
arrangement in both of them. It—as we thought about it, we said
that, “Sooner or later, spacecraft that wish to join in space,
we—you cannot afford that they have already been tested somewhere
else and not—they have been made matched pairs so that they
are fit. It’s got to be some—it’s got to be like
a railroad car, that any railroad car in this country, either end
can attach itself to either end of any other railroad, whether they’ve
ever seen it or not, they all work. We need something like that.”
That the Gemini docking arrangement and the Apollo one were just the
It was what was called a male-female situation. One side is male and
one side is female. If two males get together or two females get together,
then this system won’t work. They also blocked the very passageway
that you would like to affect. Almost always if you put the two things
together, that’s a convenient place to pass through. But these
things were such that they occupied this space! So, you had to disassemble
them after you docked before they would fit. So, as we were thinking
about it, we decided that the system should be essentially two circles
(like this). And then we got thinking more about it, and we said,
“Well, how can they be universal and all lined up?” And
so then we said, “They should do this. Not like this, but like
this.” Now you’re all lined up, and you can still have
the hole through the center. We were working on that.
Just about that time, Dr. Gilruth called [Glynn S.] Lunney and me
and a guy from Marshall named George [B.] Hardy and he said, “We
have been told to meet with the Russians and talk about advanced systems.”
And he said, “I picked you two guys. I picked Lunney because
he knows about the operations involved, orbital mechanics, and communication.
And,” he said, “I picked you because you deal with the
hardware systems and mechanical systems of spacecraft.” He said,
“I have no idea what these guys want to talk about. What are
we going to talk about if we get there?” And Lunney says, “Well,
I can tell them of our experiences at the Moon and the guidance systems
and our communications things.” And I said, “We’ve
been working on a docking thing that, sooner or later, we must get
around to talking about docking.” And Gilruth said, “Great.”
He said, “Let’s get our act together; and we’ll
cross our fingers and hope that we are guessing what they want to
talk about.” And we hit the nail right on the head! When we
got there, they had some presentations in a very general kind of way.
Nobody mentioned Apollo-Soyuz. It was just hypothetical activities
in the future. And Lunney told them—gave them his story and
I gave mine.
And we signed a memorandum of understanding, it was called, that we
would keep in communication and discuss ideas, and that 6 months from
then they would come to Houston and we would have—talk again.
When they arrived in Houston that following summer (we went there
in October of 1970)—incidentally, that was not a good year in
Russia and the United States relationship. We were in war in Vietnam.
There were great billboards, all in Russian, showing Uncle Sam with
blood running out of his mouth and little babies, tearing them apart
and stomping on them, you know. I thought, “Oh Jesus.”
You know, “Here we are, right in the middle of it.” Well,
anyway, it was nothing. We were treated fine. They arrived in Houston
the following summer, and we were flabbergasted. They said, “Why
don’t we have a joint mission?” No more talking about
the hypothetical future. They said, “Let’s—next
year, let’s dock.”
The Russians instigated—
And I almost dropped my teeth, you know. And we had to think on our
feet pretty damn fast right then. And of course, the telephones got
as busy as hell between here and Washington. But first off we said,
“We cannot get ready in a year. We need more than a year.”
And they couldn’t have gotten ready either, but I think they
just wanted to act big time, you know, and say, “Let’s
do it in a year.” But they said—and we said, “We’ll
do it.” Now we’ve got to get down to cases and really
Well, that led to a series of meetings; and then we went back to Russia.
And lo and behold! The next meeting that we had in Russia, they said,
“We have an idea for a docking system.” And they showed
us a picture, and it was exactly the damn thing that I had showed
them when we went over there the time before. And they said, “We
have a great idea. We want to do the thing this way.” And we
were all being very diplomatic, and nobody said—everybody agreed.
When we got down to really the nitty-gritty (it’s one thing
to just say this, but obviously we’ve got to agree, for instance),
and on Lunney’s side of it they had to agree to a zillion things
about communications and all the tool systems and launch and all this
kind of thing. But I just dealt with the mechanical things.
On—probably on a trip later than that, they had designed their
docking system—essentially it had three fingers. Like this.
We had designed ours with four. Now obviously, it can’t be three
on one side and four on the other. We were going to have to agree
on that. Their system was—was mechanically driven; that is,
with a bunch of little rods and gear teeth and things that form little
motors; ours was hydraulic. And whether we used three or four didn’t
make any difference to us. But they would’ve been dead in the
water if they tried to mechanize theirs with four. It was enough trouble
with three of them, but to have another whole set.
I said, “Okay, we’ll do it your way. We’ll go with
three.” My counterpart, a guy named Vladimir [Sergeyevich] Syromyatnikov,
a brilliant young guy, he didn’t know what to do about this.
I had agreed to do it their way. And he was prepared for a great,
long, bloody argument, you know, and all this. And I just said, “Okay,
we’ll do it your way.” And he called for a recess. And
he went to tell his boss that, you know—that we were not going
to fight. We were going to agree. And he—they—I think
they thought there was a trick. There’s got to be a trick here
somewhere! And it wasn’t any trick! I knew it didn’t make
any difference to us, and I knew it would not work for them. And it
was silly to hold it just as a matter of principle, just because we
gave into them. But anyway, apparently they finally ended up going
to Gilruth and asking him, “Was it all right if I made that
decision?” And Gilruth said, “Yeah. Whatever he said,
that’s what the hell we’re going to do.” And so
they went with it.
When I got back here, the news, of course, proceeded me back here.
And all my colleagues said, “You son of a bitch!” You
know, “You gave away. What did you give in to them bastards
for?” And I said, “Well, we want to get on with the program;
and we don’t give a damn which way it is. We can make it—we
can make it work either way.” And they said, “Yeah, but,
goddamn it, you give in to those son of a bitches.” And I said,
“Now, wait a minute.” I said, “We’ve taught
them more bad things, and we’re going to break those guys.”
I said, “We’ve taught them about preliminary design reviews,
critical design reviews, delta design reviews, coordination meetings,
paper this thick for everything they do.” I said, “They’re
going to go broke trying to do it that way!” And sure enough,
they did. They went—they went broke.
You think the downfall of the Russian economy was all because of Apollo-Soyuz?
No. But we taught them—we taught them how to spend money that
they didn’t have.
They’re still doing it, aren’t they?
But anyway, it was—they were great people to work with. The
technical people. They put their first team there. They didn’t
have a lot of bench strength. But they had a crackerjack first team.
And everyone was cooperative. We didn’t talk politics. We didn’t
have anything—you know, nothing like that went on.
For the first time, you were able to see Russian engineering.
What you saw. Did it surprise you?
Well, I wasn’t surprised because they had been doing some great
things. But I really didn’t expect to personally run into so
many guys that were really crackerjack.
Did you learn anything from them?
Yes. You know, a lot of things that they—and—now one thing
they did have a problem with: They didn’t trust one another
as much as they trusted us. Now this sounds surprising. I mean, in
little things. A fellow asked me, he said, “Will you give me
a certain—some information I need?” And I said, “I
don’t have it with me, but I will—I’ll send it to
you when I get back.” Later on I saw him, and he said, “You
never sent me what you told me you would.” And I said, “Yeah,
I gave it to Ivan” or somebody else, you know, “to give
to you when you got back.” And he said, “Don’t ever
do that! He’s not going to give it to me. He’s going to
keep it for himself.” Now, we would never think about doing
a thing like that. But I guess they were not quite as sure of themselves,
and were kind of protecting each—protecting themselves.
As you look at what you learned of the Russian space program, had
theirs followed a similar track to yours?
No. They just flat didn’t have the money. They—everywhere
you went, you could see that they made do with things that we wouldn’t
make do with. Their labs had wooden oil floors. The plaster was cracked
on the walls. There were light bulbs hanging down on a cord that you
reached up and turned the switch. You know, all their equipment was
kind of crummy, crummy stuff. Now they made up for it with industry.
They worked hard and very conscientious people.
Did it lead you to wonder how, with that background, they were able
to fly the complex machines necessary to go in space?
Yeah, but they did it because they just worked hard. The guys working
on it just plain worked hard. They didn’t spare themselves,
you know. They were really dedicated.
And did they learn from you?
Well, I think they kind of marveled at all the things we’ve
got. I remember, we took a couple of IBM typewriters over with us
because we—you know, we needed some—something there. And
those poor girls there in the offices, they looked at those IBM electrics
and they had these old mechanical clunkers and all, you know. Clunk,
clunk. Making 12 carbons. And make a mistake, and they have to erase
all 12 carbons. And there we had that goddamn Selectric, you know,
and you know. And they just—they just marveled at it.
The Xerox machines. When they first saw a Xerox machine, they said,
you know, “Anybody just walks up and makes a copy.” They
said, “Why don’t you make money?” And I said, “Well,
that’s not considered cricket.” They couldn’t understand
why everybody didn’t just go up and make all the dollar bills.
They were a great bunch, though. I still see Syromyatnikov occasionally.
He comes here when the Shuttle and Mir were docking. You see, he was
a docking guy. And he would be in Mission Control here doing those
Did you think at the time of ASTP—did you think at the time
that we would wind up literally with the International Space Station
at some point in the future?
Why sure, I knew it was going—you know, that’s what we
were really working towards. There wasn’t much point in doing
Apollo-Soyuz if it didn’t kind of demonstrate that it’s
reasonable to do these things.
This was in the thinking then—
Yes. And of course, if you’re going to assemble things in orbit,
you’re—as far as I was concerned, you had to have a docking
system. And from Lunney’s standpoint, there has to be a communication
system and an agreement on operational protocols to do this. And so,
this was all paving the way. And I’m sure the Russians must’ve
had that in mind.
You were laying the groundwork for the future.
Well, something else that happened just about that same time. It was
the advent of something called Space Shuttle.
You and Faget got deeply involved with that, didn’t you?
Can you tell us a little about that?
Yeah, we—I think what really happened—now this is a terrible
thing to say, but I think we got bored. You know, Apollo was flying
great; and Skylab was hanging around and all this kind of thing. And,
you know, why—let’s have a—let’s have a Space
Shuttle. Everybody wanted to have, you know, something really challenging
to do. And he and I got thinking about it, and we had a configuration
that he and I decided to build a model of it. I was going to build
the booster part, and he was going to build the manned spacecraft.
And it was—it was a horrible thing. It didn’t perform
at all well, you know; and we talked to Mr. Gilruth and he said, “You
guys ought to know better. That thing you’ve got, any fool knows
that that is—”
He explained some of the aerodynamics of the thing, and Max and I
really were embarrassed because we should’ve known better. Here
we’re supposed to be a hotshot spacecraft design, but we made
a bunch of schoolboy mistakes on the thing. Gilruth took one look
at it and showed us what was wrong with it. It didn’t end up
being anything like that. But—fortunately—but we went
through—we must’ve gone through 3 or 4 dozen configurations
of the Shuttle. Of different concepts and things in—in the course
of finally arriving at what it turned out to be, you know.
What were the specifications against which you were trying to design?
What were you really trying to build?
Well, there was a conflict with the Air Force. The Air Force had something
in mind that didn’t—was not the same as what NASA’s
objective would be. But I presume in the politics of the thing, there
had to be some sort of meeting of the mind because, without the Air
Force support, we would’ve never got the Shuttle. So, for instance,
the cross-range capability during entry. The military was interesting
in a great cross range so they could land where they wanted to in
one orbit, at any given time could get back.
Now that is—is not—not necessary at all for this Shuttle’s
missions these days, these so-called scientific missions. That’s
not necessary at all; but you can understand in the military it might’ve
been very important to—to get back on a moment’s notice.
And things like that. Its lift weight and the size of the payload
bay was [sic] really much—it’s—it’s more space
there than the—than the thing can lift. That is generally speaking
if you filled up the cargo bay in Shuttle, it generally would end
up too heavy. But it got off. It got worked out. And it turned out
the Air Force never really used it.
Oh, they used it a couple of times.
Well, I mean it was never used for what it was—I don’t
know exactly what it was intended for. But it was never used to that
capacity, to my knowledge.
I guess that brings us around to your look, based on your knowledge
of the past—your look at the future as to whether this country’s
space program is moving in a good direction, in a different direction,
and do you see a future in space? Do you see people in the future
Oh yes, sure.
—what you did in the past?
Sure, sure, sure. I can’t believe people will be content to
stay on Earth. I just can’t believe it. Any more than they were
content to stay in Europe or to stay in Asia. You know, another continent
beckoned and there’s another mountain to climb just for the
hell of climbing it, you know. Beside we—we’re apparently
overpopulating ourselves. So, sooner or later we’ll have to
Looking back on it—
—C. C., I think you found yourself in the right place at the
right time didn’t you?
You’d better believe it. It’s—I just happened to
catch one of those waves, baby, and we rode them—rode it right
And you know we’ve been talking for quite a while now. I want
to give you the opportunity to make up for my shortcomings. If there’s
something that I should have asked and didn’t, or if there’s
something that you’re just dying to tell us, this is that time.
No. No, I—
The microphone and the camera’s all yours.
I don’t know. I—on—after this interview, of course,
I’ll think of 20 things. But right at the moment, I can’t
think of anything. I feel a little bit sorry for the guys coming along
now. Because the first place—not that everything’s been
done by any means. But we kind of licked the icing off the top of
the cake and, you know, they’ve got to eat the cake with no
icing left on it anymore now. And of course anything they do, somebody
will say, “Oh what the hell! We did that in 1965” or something
You don’t think a colony on the Moon or a trip to Mars might
be a little different?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Particularly if those journeys embodied new technology? Something
Yeah. It’s kind of tough to—not to be able to play in
the game anymore. You know, I know Max feels that way because he said
so. That you don’t like the idea that somebody else is going
to do all these things, and you don’t have a chance to participate
in them. But, you know, you’ve really got to thank your lucky
stars that you got to do what you did.
Was there any single thing in your entire career that stands out in
your memory as, this was really the turning point or a highlight of
all the things that I did?
No. When the things happen, they just seem like that that’s,
you know—that’s as usual. And it’s only after it’s
all over with that you say, “Well, that’s really not all
that usual and that it doesn’t happen very often.” But
each day is just a day working. It’s a day working.
You took it a step at a time.
Yeah, yeah. I sound like a basketball coach now. One game at a time.
Very good. C. C., thank you.
Okay. Well, it’s been my pleasure.
It’s been a grand interview. And we’ve, of course, been
talking with Caldwell (call him “Cadwell”)—
—or C. C—
—and we’ve been talking about the history of the space
program here at the [Johnson] Space Center.
It’s a good place to talk.
to JSC Oral History Website