Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
by Kevin M. Rusnak
Houston, Texas – 22 August 2001
Today is August 22, 2001. This interview with Ernie Randall is being
conducted in the offices of the Signal Corporation, in Houston, Texas,
for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. The interviewer
is Kevin Rusnak, assisted by Carol Butler and Jennifer Ross-Nazzal.
I'd like to thank you for taking out the time this afternoon to share
your recollections of the space program with us. If we can start,
actually, back at the beginning, tell us some about where you grew
up and the kind of interests you had as a child and going into school,
and maybe the path that led you into the space program.
I grew up in Oklahoma. My mother died when I was five years old, so
I was raised by my grandparents—my sister and I. We grew up
in little town, Ada, Oklahoma. It was a great little town to grow
up in, very small, rural, and it was just a good place to grow up
I really first developed an interest in science, I guess when I was
in the seventh, eighth grade, probably the eighth grade, I took a
general physical science class, and didn't really know what field
I was really oriented towards, but I just knew that we took some tests,
and they'd indicated an interest—things like he liked to tear
apart things and put them back together and things of that nature.
I liked to read. I had learned to read. In the summertime, I would
go and live with an aunt in El Reno, Oklahoma, kind of give my grandmother
and grandfather a vacation away from two kids. My aunt lived next
door to the librarian in El Reno, and she got me hooked on reading.
I became quite interested in reading. In the seventh and eighth grade,
I got interested in William Beebe, deep-sea explorer, with the bathysphere,
[Auguste] Piccard. I got in to a guy by the name of, if I remember
right, his name was Willy Ley, a German rocket scientist. So I developed
I did a lot of reading about submarines, submersibles. This was ‘40s
time frame. There was a lot of submarine development going on and
there was accidents and there were rescues and things, and I read
some stories about development of submersible vehicles and things
of that nature. So I had developed an interest underwater, really,
as a young person. I made my first—took a compressor out of
a refrigerator and made a diving bell that you could put on your head.
It worked great until you bent over. If you ever bent over and lost
the air, and the compressor couldn't keep up, so you'd have to be
very careful not to bend over.
But later, after I graduated from college and was married and everything,
why, as a sport I took up scuba-diving. We ordered our first diving
units that came from U.S. Divers, and but at that time, U.S. Divers
was in France. We were living in Wisconsin, and it was just very unusual.
It was difficult to go out and go diving, because you drew a crowd
pretty quick. So I dived until I actually came to Houston.
It is so difficult to find good diving without going out to what is
known as the flora reefs, which is about 200 miles out. When I first
moved to Houston, the only way you could get out there, somebody had
access to a destroyer, an old mine layer, I think it was, or something.
It was a very large ship. So it became a production.
One of my branch chiefs liked to scuba-dive, and he and I taught the
first scuba-diving lessons that were held by the JSC Employees Association.
We taught it in a pool up on Telephone Road. This guy's name was Dick
[Richard L.] Holt. Dick flew, so we used to fly up to Possum Kingdom,
which was an excellent clearwater place to fresh-water dive.
I've had the opportunity to live pretty much in each sector of the
United States, and so I've dove off the coast of Washington and the
Thousand Islands in the coast of Oregon. Cave-diving in Florida, scuba-diving
in the Gulf. I taught a class at the University of North Dakota [Grand
Forks, North Dakota] when I was assigned in North Dakota, and we'd
go chop a hole in the ice and go diving.
So I had an interest, and that's kind of where I started to develop
an interest, oriented towards science. Like I say, I didn't have a
particular area, but I just knew that I really liked science. I liked
math. I didn't care that much for physics, but I liked math. I shouldn't
say I liked it. I didn't have a problem with it, so that made it nice.
When I got into high school, they had it set up so that you had to
take biology one year, chemistry one year, physics one year. I liked
biology; that was okay. But when I hit chemistry, I really, really
found a niche. Again, it just was something that was easy. When I
got into college, if I needed a couple of hours, I'd just sign up
for something in chemistry, because that was easy to do. But I was
very fortunate in that the school system that I went to in grade school
and high school, Ada had a pretty good school system and they had
good teachers. So they encouraged, you know. We got the right encouragement.
I can remember, I think I was talking to Mr. Stewart [phonetic], who
was a biology teacher, about, what are some things I need to take.
He suggested I take typing. He said, "Typing is something that's
really handy to have." So as a young man, I'm in a room that's
predominantly—there's two things girls did: they took typing
and they took Home Ec [economics]. Well, I didn't care for the Home
Ec, but I thought the typing was reasonable and there was a couple
other guys that took it, so there was a couple of us, sitting on the
back row back there. That was a good piece of advice that I got.
I was also lucky. I played a little tennis when I was in high school,
and when I got to college I got a scholarship. That was a big help,
because my grandparents were not—we weren't poor, but we were
probably a couple steps above it. They didn't have a lot of money.
So from eighth grade on, I pretty well had a part-time job that I
had to have.
So I was lucky going to college. I lived right across the street from
the college. We had a little college in our home town. Back when Oklahoma
became a state, the legislature created—education was a big
thing, so they created five colleges that were to be educational colleges.
Their job was to produce teachers. And so they had Northeastern, Northwestern—I'm
sorry, six—Northeastern, Northwestern, Southeastern, Southwestern,
Central, and East Central. East Central was located in Ada, Oklahoma,
so we were a little sleepy college town. I could live at home, so
I was able to go to college. I have a B.S. in chemistry, a minor in
physics, a minor in math.
When I graduated from college, I wanted to go to work at Redstone
Arsenal [Huntsville, Alabama], which is now Marshall Space Flight
Center [MSFC]. I really wanted to go. I could see myself mixing up
rocket fuel and all of that good stuff. But the week that they came
to the college to interview, I was sick, and so I missed it.
The next week, it was twelve o'clock and I was walking home. It was
a Friday and I was walking home to have lunch, and I ran into a friend
and he said, "Hey, did you interview for Western Electric?"
I said, "No, I didn't even know they were interviewing."
He said, "Yeah, you ought to interview. They're offering pretty
So I went over to the dean's office. Treadwell [phonetic] was the
dean's name, Dean Treadwell. He knew me from my freshman year. My
first semester I made three As, two Bs, and a D, and he called me
in and he said, "How can anybody have these grades and made a
D in personal hygiene?" [Laughter]
We had a young lady teaching us, Anna Weaver Jones [phonetic], who,
it is rumored, dated Stonewall Jackson, in competition with another
young lady we had there that taught history, who was madly in love
with Stonewall Jackson. You could develop a prejudice with her very
easily, and I caught chewing gum the second day, which I learned was
one of things she didn't like. She caught me with a toothpick in my
mouth, which was something else she didn't like. She was a character,
to put it bluntly, and as soon as I told him who my teacher was, he
said, "Okay. But it keeps you off the Dean's List, because you
can't do that." So Dean Treadwell knew me for four years.
So when I went in to talk to him, he said, "The guy's gone."
So he called the hotel there in town and the guy was just getting
ready to leave. He was going to go back to the city and fly back to
New York. He told the dean, no, he couldn't, because if he did, he'd
miss his airplane and he'd have to spend a week in Oklahoma and he
did not want to do that. So Treadwell told him, "Okay, but you're
Fortunately for me, the dean talked him into coming back out. He explained
it to me. The program was at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Cambridge, Massachusetts]. It was a special program that was set up
for a particular defense project that at that time was classified.
As a matter of fact, I think it was the number one defense project
in the United States at that time, and it was called SAGE, Semi-Automatic
Ground Environment. He said, "I want you for your math and your
physics. You won't be doing any chemistry."
I said, "Well, I'm not interested."
When I said that, he was just—I mean, you could just see him,
"God, I'm going to have to spend a weekend in Oklahoma for this."
He was really—and he said, "Well, look, I'm here. Let me
talk." Well, every time we talked—he started out at $365
a month. That was the salary. Every time we'd talk a few minutes and
I'd say no, he'd go up ten dollars. So when he hit four and a quarter—I
had just read in a magazine that the top wage a chemical engineer
or a chemistry major could make that year. The top wage was four and
a quarter, across the country.
Well, everybody that—I found out later—that Western Electric
hired there, one guy got $375. Everybody else took the $365, because
that was a tremendous amount of money. But the big hook, really and
truly, the big hook for me was getting to go to MIT. That was a big
deal. For engineers and things, that's really a mecca to aim toward.
It was a really good program. SAGE was a program—it was the
first application for computers. What they did was they divided the
United States into sectors, and you had a control center, and then
in this sector that this control center controlled, you put long-range
search radars, and patterns are circles, so you wind up with gaps,
so you put in what they call a gap-filler radar, and then you put
in your height-finder radars.
What you wind up with is a 3-D picture of anything moving in the air
across your sector. And, of course, we were oriented in those days
to bomber threat from Russia. We were worried about them coming over
the polar cap. This is pre-ballistic days, and the big threat was
bombers. And so SAGE was designed—the entire United States was
laid out into sectors. We lived in Newburgh sector, Newburgh, New
Then I went to Madison, Wisconsin, took a special assignment to go
down to Kansas City to bring in a combat center there that was designed
for training. The Air Force was bringing their crews in, training
them in Kansas City, then sending them out to a sector. I went back
to Wisconsin, we finished up that sector. We went to Portland, Oregon.
Then we moved to Montgomery, Alabama; Grand Forks, North Dakota; Sioux
City, Iowa. Then I went up to Maine on what they called a retrofit
program, and that's where I left Western Electric and joined up with
But if you'd look at a sector and you look at how we made it up, and
we had data links, we had the capability to have our friendlies—let
me explain it to you. In a control center, you had two rooms. You
had a surveillance room, and the job of the guy sitting in there was
to watch the consoles. Anything that moves, you tag it, identify it,
you figure out what it is. Is it something that's got a flight path
filed, and things of that nature. If you can't identify it, it becomes
a bogey. You then pass those off to the weapons room.
In the weapons room, you've got a combat commander. He has a weapons
director. Each weapons director has six intercept directors. Each
intercept director has six fighters, that he's controlling. So you're
controlling some pretty good firepower there.
It was a great job because you got to go out to the sites and visit
with the pilots and explain the programs and work with them, and explain
the importance of doing this and doing that. We were working with
some really hot aircraft, and it was really a neat program. You had
the capability for your fighters to squawk so you could identify them,
so you've got telemetry data and you've got air-to-ground, and so
you've got all of this little thing.
But I'm sitting there saying, "How am I ever going to go back
to Ada, Oklahoma, and apply this to something?"
And then one day I get a chance to go to NASA. And what do they want
me to do? They want me to do this worldwide. And so what I had done
for six and a half years just really meshed nicely with when I came
They had run the Mercury program. I came right after MA-9 [Mercury-Atlas
9] and they had run the Mercury program, but it was still pretty inspiring,
you know, the thing that we had done. So when a new person came in,
the guys expected a little oohing and ahhing, you know. And I said,
"That's really great, but you're doing twenty-four-words-per-minute
teletype, and we're used to high-speed telemetry, real-time type stuff."
And so I wasn't super impressed, but I was very fortunate that I came
out of an environment.
So as soon as I got down here, I started getting calls from friends
in Western Electric that came out of the same environment that I did,
and probably in the next year, nine or ten other guys came down. They'd
spend the first night at my house, check in at the center, and then
they'd start looking for a job. So it worked out for those of us that
worked on this project, the SAGE project, it worked out very well
for us to come down and fold into what we were doing at NASA. It was
a fairly smooth transition. It was easy to understand the concept
of what they were trying to do, because they were talking about the
Mission Control Center. Well, I'd been working in a Mission Control
Center for six and a half years, so I understood Mission Control Centers
and weapons direction and things of that nature. So it was an easy
transition in that sense.
How did you find out that there was this opportunity at NASA? Was
this something that you were looking around for a job, or they approached
Actually, we were living in Maine and we really liked New England.
When we were in Sioux City, I had told my boss that I was going to
quit, that I wasn't going to take another assignment. I was already
enrolled at Oklahoma A&M. I had a scholarship lined up, to go
back to school to get a master's degree.
My boss called me in, he said, "Now, look. I've got your assignment,
but don't panic. We're going to get it changed." Because they
knew all the guys in the South hated to go to the North, and vice
versa. But my wife and I had really enjoyed living in Boston while
we were going to school, and Newburgh, to a certain extent, was pretty
nice, at that time. Maybe I shouldn't say that on TV. Maybe it's not
too swift today, but anyway, it was a pretty nice place to live.
He said, "You're going Maine, but we're going to get it changed
to Fort Lee, Virginia. We're going to send you South."
I said, "Well, I tell you what. I told you I was going to quit,
but if you'll send me to Maine, I'll stay." Because we really
enjoyed Maine, we really liked it.
We went up there, and we were there a couple of years. But I had just
come off of a three-month assignment to bring in a new secret long-range,
heavy-duty search radar. It was an over-the-horizon radar that was—you
couldn't jam it. It had a random generator in there, a random-frequency
generator, so every other time it burped, it changed frequency, so
that there was no way you could—and it was random, so there
was no way you could jam it. It took us three months to bring it in,
so I was going home maybe every other weekend, something like that.
So I'd just come off of several months being away from home, and they
wanted us to go north to—what's the island off of Canada up
there? Nova Scotia. They wanted us to go up there, but they weren't
going to let us take our families, for six months. So that's when
I started looking.
I may get in trouble for telling this, but I was very fortunate that
at that period of time, 1961, 1962, engineers were in great demand.
To give you an example, AVCO wanted me to come to Washington, D.C.,
and Jiminy Christmas, they were very nice people, but they just bugged
you to death.
So we got a call one day and the guy said, "Look, we're going
to send you tickets for you and your wife to fly down. We'll pay for
a babysitter. Just the two of you come. Spend four days. We'll put
you up in a room, you'll have a car waiting on you, and if it's convenient,
if you could just come by for a couple of hours and visit. Just have
a weekend on us." That was the kind of treatment you were getting.
So I flew to California, to San Francisco, to interview with Rocketdyne
[Division of North American Aviation, inc.], because I still had in
the back of my mind, you know, I'd never done any chemistry work,
and I thought, "Oh, I'd like to go out there."
I had talked to Dennis [E.] Fielder in Houston, and they had expressed
great interest in me coming. I had had several talks. Being an Okie
out of Oklahoma, I'm sure they felt the same way, but Dennis was from
England, via Canada, a long distance. The conversations were a bit
difficult to understand, so I had to talk to him several times to
be sure I really understood what was going on. Dennis is still a close
friend today. I'll tell you stories about him, too.
So I had had these conversations, and they said, "Look, come
I said, "Well, send me a plane ticket."
"We don't do that."
I said, "We don't, either." [Laughter]
And so it was a real hangup. So I flew out to San Francisco on Thursday,
had our interview Friday morning, and it was really a bad interview.
They took us out to, literally, an airplane hangar that was sectioned
off. We called them cattle stalls. The noise was terrible, and how
people worked in that environment, I couldn't understand.
In Western Electric, our work environment was pretty plush. I mean,
we're working in brand-new buildings. For the first nine months, until
we integrated the control center and the sector, we pretty much had
the run of the building. The Air Force was there, we were training
them, but they responded to us. So it was a pretty nice work environment.
Nobody was standing over you.
If you're going to orient a radar site, you have to come in at sunrise,
catch the sun right on the horizon, things of that nature. So if you've
got to come in at six, you come in at six. If you don't have to come
in at six, you come in at eight. And if you came in at six yesterday
and worked till six last night, then maybe you didn't come in till
noon today. So it was a fairly casual, pleasant operation to work
under. It was pretty loose, in other words.
So went I hit Rocketdyne, it was very structured, and I wasn't sure
I'd like that. So we're sitting in the office and the guy walks in
and he said, "Look, you guys, we're going to ship you back East.
If there's anyplace you need to stop on the way and visit relatives
or anything, we'll spring for a stop."
I said, "I've got an aunt that lives in Houston." [Laughter]
He said, "Okay, I'll take care of the ticket."
So I rush out and I called Dennis and I said, "Dennis, I can
be there in the morning, ten o'clock."
Dennis said, "We don't work in the morning."
I said, "Well, that's when I can be there. I'm scheduled to fly
in there Friday night. I can meet with you at ten o'clock, and I'm
flying out of there Saturday afternoon."
So Dennis brought a group in at ten o'clock on a Saturday morning.
Jim [James L.] Strickland. I forget who all was there. I interviewed.
That's how I got my interview with NASA. They offered me a GS-11.
At the same time, I was offered a GS-13 out at Edwards [Air Force
Base, California], which was pretty tempting, unless you've been to
Edwards. [Laughter] Houston wasn't the greatest place to live, but
it sure—I just could not get excited about the East Coast or
the West Coast. It was just not the place. My sons were approaching
the age where they were going to be going to school, and I wanted
to settle down. We'd been on the road for six and a half years. I
was a field engineer.
One of the perks of the job that we had with Western Electric is that
we were given $60 a week expense money, nontaxable, to cover the cost
of the fact that we were mobile. In 1957, four and a quarter [$425]
plus 240 is not a bad salary.
I went down to visit with my science teacher, who was working on Saturdays
at a local drygoods store, to tell him about my job. The school superintendent
for a little town called Bing, just outside of Ada, happened to be
in, talking to him. When I told him I had hired on at four and a quarter
a month, this guy told me, he said, "Shoot, I can give you a
job at Bing at 1,200 a year." So you do the math. Four and a
quarter was pretty good, and then 240 on top of that. So Western Electric
was pretty tempting to get me started.
But when I made the decision to leave, I had family in Oklahoma, my
wife had family in Oklahoma, and our kids had grown up away from our
families. So the East Coast and the West Coast wasn't all that great.
I thought that GS-11 in Houston, with the cost of living, and the
area, and the availability to Oklahoma was better than a GS-13 in
Later on I turned down a 15 to go to NASA Headquarters, for the same
reason. Also had a chance to go to Hawaii as the assistant station
director at one point. I turned that down, because when I checked
into the educational system out there, at that time—I don't
know how it is today—I'm sure it's better, but at that time,
whites were a minority and a lot of folks sent their children back
to the States to be educated once they reached the seventh grade.
And like I said, I was looking for some roots. I wanted a place. When
we moved to Houston in 1962, we bought a home at 306 Crystal [Street,
League City, Texas], and that's where we live today. So we pretty
well settled down.
So that's how I got to Houston. I took a look at all of that and I
said, "Okay, we'll come to Houston," and we've been very
happy ever since.
That's good to hear. So when you show up for work your first day,
what was your impression of the Manned Spacecraft Center as it existed
at that point, and the sort of environment in which everything was
operating, the status of the work you were going to be doing, all
those sorts of things?
When I showed up for work at Houston, it was pretty chaotic. Personnel—you
go down Telephone Road and you turn right and you go back and you
get off down on Navigation, someplace down there. Today you'd probably
have to fight your way in or fight your out of the area. But Personnel
was in a little old building down there, and I believe there was a
grocery store on the first floor, and you walked up this flight of
stair and here's Personnel.
We were in the Stahl-Meyers Building, which today is an Oshman's [sporting
goods] warehouse. The office complex next door was the Houston Petroleum
Center, and I think the oil derrick is still there today. The Houston
Petroleum Center facilities were pretty nice. Stahl-Meyers was not
very nice. The air-conditioner worked about two days out of the week,
and we were upstairs, and it was pretty packed. We were jammed in.
I think in our office, which was about the size of this room, I think
there were six of us in this office, so it was pretty tight. But everybody
knew, you signed on, you know, that it's—we knew this was temporary
and we knew that it was going to get better. So you really didn't
look at it in that light.
I went to work on a Monday and the next Friday—no, I went to
work—I take it back. I'm not sure what day it was I went to
work, but I was told the next Sunday I would be flying to California
for a conference. I wish I could remember the guy's name that was
the personnel director for Flight Control Division. He was a super
nice guy, a gray-haired fellow. I can't remember his name right now,
but he and I had many philosophical discussions, because there were
things I wanted to do and the government didn't do it like Western
If you were going to travel for Western Electric, you traveled between
eight and five. If you were caught on the road at 5:01, you're in
deep stuff. You traveled on company time. And so my first comment
was, "What is this Sunday night jazz?"
Well, I learned that at NASA, you travel on Sunday night out and you
come home on Saturday night or Friday night, coming in, I learned.
I also learned that if you're going to go to school, you can't go
to school to acquire knowledge. You have to have a job that requires
that knowledge already. I wanted to get my master's and I wanted to
get it in computer science. This gentleman, we had a long talk, so
I said, "You wouldn't have hired me without a B.S. You require
a B.S., but yet you won't—"
Western Electric, if you want to take basket-weaving, they would sign
you right up. They figured if you were learning something, somewhere
down the line it was going to help. So Western Electric had a very
liberal education policy, and the government's just the opposite.
Unless you can show that your job demands knowledge of something,
they wouldn't spring for you going to school.
So I was going to go on my own, but I laid out a program and went
out there and the guy that was head of the science department at U
of H [University of Houston] said, "Okay, but you've got to take
thirty-two additional hours."
I said, "But the whole program's only thirty-two hours."
He said, "Well, that's the written. That's what's published."
But he said, "I'm head of this department and I have a program
and you have to satisfy my program."
I said, "I don't have that much time." So I never did get
a master's degree.
But I left on Sunday night, went out with a couple of guys that were—I
won't tell you his name. I went out with a guy that was in my group,
my management, and we went to this conference, and this guy gets up
on the board and he starts laying out theoretical, mathematical equations
that has something to do with the way Saturn would affect water on
the Moon type thing, really, really way out, theoretical, off the
wall. And they are writing this thing, and I sit there for two days
and I don't have a clue what they're talking about. And I'm thinking,
"I have really made a mistake." [Laughter]
So I went to my associate that I was traveling with, and I said, "I've
got a problem. I have really misled you folks, because I don't know
what they're talking about. I do not have that kind of background
and I can't help you."
He said, "Well, I don't either."
I said, "Why did we go?"
He said, "You know, I really don't know. They told us they want
to send so many people to these conference and they picked some people
out of here and some people out of there, and they picked you, too."
So my first week, I was pretty scared at the end of it, because I
thought I had jumped way off over my head. But we got back, and once
I began to understand my role, it was a lot more comfortable. But
you asked me what my first week was like. It was not pleasant. [Laughter]
It certainly sounds like it was a unique first week.
It was. It definitely was.
When did you actually begin finding out the real duties you were going
to be learning? How were you trained, or did you find out about everything
you were working on?
Really, I wasn't trained. I've had some excellent education through
NASA. Over the years I had the opportunity to attend some really,
really outstanding courses and things. But I didn't do anything—the
first year was really just, you kind of got in there and got your
hands dirty and you just kind of wallowed around in the mud and made
yourself a hole, really. We'd just kind of talk about things, like
we started talking about the Gemini program, how are we going to organize
the network, because the network was going to expand. What are the
capabilities to communicate? Things of that nature. How are we going
to tie this in to the control center? And that's where this first
document that Harold and I worked on, this network data flow thing.
So we kind of eased into it that way.
The first time I walked into the Mission Control Center, you could
look up and see clouds. It was just steel girders and they'd just
started doing some things on the first floor. The first floor was
beginning to come together, and they had laid the girders for the
second floor stuff. I had been working for NASA about eight or ten
months at that time.
I lived right across the lake. We drove to Houston every day. I made
the decision—a lot of people lived in Houston. I didn't want
to move, so I told my wife—I drew a circle with a center point,
the site. I drew a ten-mile circle, and I said, "We'll live inside
this circle," because I didn't want to drive. I had friends that
worked in New York City. They got transferred from Western Electric
down to New York City. They commuted four and a half hours one way
each day. They would leave four o'clock in the morning, get home eight
o'clock at night. They didn't see their children all week because
the kids were still in bed when they left, and when they came home,
they'd gone to bed. So they only saw their children on the weekend.
And I knew that was not for me.
So we went ahead. We thought we had seven days to find a house. We
found our house in three days, and I called the moving company the
morning of the fourth, to tell them that when our furniture came in,
don't unload it, because we'd been told that's how it gets damaged.
They said, "Well, it's funny you ask, because they backed up
to the loading dock. We're just getting ready to start unloading."
I said, "He's not even due for three more days."
"Well, he's here." So they came right out that day and unloaded.
But I wanted to live close.
As far as the first year, really and truly, I just can remember a
lot of blue sky. You sit in a room, and "How are we going to
do this?" And "This is the way we did it in Mercury, but
they told us if we ever did it that way again, they'd kill us."
So you just kind of felt your way through it and worked the process
Dennis Fielder was just outstanding. To get into Dennis' office, a
lot of times you had to almost get down on your knees and crawl in,
because he would take butcher paper and go around the room, and he'd
tape it up, and he'd start, and he'd just start writing, and he'd
just write and write and write and write and write. He'd just sit
there and he'd lay it all out. The guy was just great, but particularly
at saying, okay—I mean, he was already thinking Apollo. We were
still trying to figure out how we were going to do Gemini, but Dennis
already had one eye out on Apollo and he'd just write these things
He was a very interesting person to work for. I went into his office
one day. Stahl-Meyers was hot three days a week, at least. And I come
in one day and Dennis is sitting there with a suede vest on, and I'm
just wringing wet, and he'd just cool as a cucumber. I said, "Dennis,
how do you do it?"
And he said, "Well, Randall, it's a matter of controlling one's
own thermostat." That was his answer, and I couldn't begin to
imitate his English accent. But Dennis was cool. And everybody in
town knew him. He was a bachelor. Everybody liked him. He had his
little beard, before beards were popular. He was just a super neat
guy, and everybody in town knew Dennis. He was a real nice guy. But
he really knew how to get out in the future. He was very good at that.
At this point, what exactly were the responsibilities that you had?
You're talking about developing these things for Gemini, but maybe
you can explain a little—
We were, and I don't remember the title, but we were in—Dennis
Fielder had the branch. I was in a section that was headed by Jim
Strickland. Jim had a very large section. Jim probably had twenty
people in his section, which, you know, an ideal section is seven.
So he had a large section. Dennis' branch was a part of Flight Control
Division. John [D.] Hodge was the Flight Control Division chief.
Chris [Christopher C. Kraft, Jr.] had just stepped up a notch to the—I
don't know whether he was the assistant director—he might have
been the director, but you had Mission Planning and Analysis Division
[MPAD], which is the people that were really the ones that belonged
out at that seminar. I mean, those guys ate that stuff up and they
were good at it.
They had Recovery Division, MPAD, and Flight Control Division, is
the way I remember, plus a little office that this guy—I can't
remember his name right now—handled the personnel stuff. Our
division was Flight Control, and at that point Flight Control was
everything. You had Recovery, you had Mission Planning and Analysis,
you had the flight controllers themselves, the people that manned
the Mission Control Center at the Cape [Canaveral, Florida] for the
Mercury program, and we were down there for the Gemini program for
three flights. So really, there weren't as well-defined lines then
as there were when we moved out to the center.
When we moved out to the center, the first thing they did was split
Flight Control Division into four divisions: Flight Control Division,
Flight Support Division, which I went into, which was responsible
for the Mission Control Center, the mission operations computers,
and the network and things of that nature. You still had the MPAD.
There was a separate division then. And Recovery, which became a division.
So once we were kind of like all compressed, like a zipped file. We
were all compressed, so there wasn't a lot of maneuvering room. You
kind of knew what you were working on in your area, but as soon as
we got out to the center, we kind of popped out, and then we really—you
know, you focused in on your thing more.
I worked, in general, in the area that would concern data flow, integration
of the control center and the network, identifying capabilities, because
there's things you could do from MILA [Merritt Island Launch Area,
Florida] that you couldn't do from Tananarive or something like that.
Or [Guaymas] Mexico was always a pretty limited station. None of the
flight controllers liked to go to Mexico because they didn't have
command capability. They liked that being in control thing. All you
could was just talk. You just identified those capabilities and things,
and that's what we pretty much worked on.
A lot of times, it takes about six months to learn the language. When
we hired somebody, we just figured six months. You've got to give
them that much time to start picking up the language.
Maybe then you can run us through some of the history of developing
the system for Gemini, how these things were integrated from this
early point, where you're trying to develop what are the requirements,
what are these things that we need, until it was actually operational,
when you hit these first missions, where you've got real hardware
that you're testing out to make sure it works during a flight.
The first thing I can remember, of course, was going down to the Cape,
when we started getting ready for the program. The control center
had been pretty well defined. They had a pretty good handle on what
they wanted in Mission Control Center for the Gemini program, and
it was pretty much what they had in Mercury. Some capabilities had
changed, but it was fairly similar in layout. It was the same building,
same consoles and things. The network console, which was responsible
for the control center and the network, the network console had been
staffed by Pete [Henry E.] Clements in the Mercury program.
If you look at the history of the Mercury program, Bermuda was very
important, because that's where they got their "go/no go"
for orbital insertion, and that's where you knew you either had or
didn't have Apollo. So Bermuda was very important. And they had a
lot of problems on Bermuda hardware-wise and things like that.
So the Gemini program, the network was pretty important because the
potential for delays that had manifested itself in the Mercury program
were still there, as far as they knew. There was two Air Force guys
that were manning that console.
So I remember going down there, and there was a half a dozen of us.
When they had reorganized Flight Support Division, Dennis Fielder
had moved up to a planning-type operation, and a guy named Dick Holt
took over the ops branch. We were in the network—I think they
called it Network Integration Section or something like that. We had
these two Air Force guys that had probably—I don't know what
their history was, whether they had worked with Pete in the Gemini
program or something, I really don't remember. I just remember we
were supposed to be learning that console.
Like I say, there was a half a dozen of us, and we were sitting in
the viewing room, and all you can hear is the flight director. We
all had headsets, but nothing to punch them into. So I sat there for
a while. We were running launch sims, so I just got up and walked
out of the viewing room and walked down and introduced myself to the
two guys and asked them if they mind if I plugged in behind them.
Well, everybody was sure—you know, we were all new, you don't
know what you can do, what you're going to get in trouble for doing,
so you're really walking on egg shells.
Kraft, it was kind of like being in the presence of the Pope or maybe
even a little higher. We all knew Kraft and Hodge, so you walked lightly
around them. Nobody would go down there, because they thought they'd
get chewed out or something. But it was obvious we weren't going to
learn anything, so I just went down. So I sat through two launch sims,
and Dick Holt come down and said, "Okay, let somebody else come
"Hey, I was the one to come down."
He said, "Yeah, okay, but let somebody else."
So that's how we got on the console. Then we started riding the console,
and we'd just sit through the sims and learned a lot. The network
position was a great position to learn a lot of things, because a
lot went around because you were right next to the flight director.
So there's a lot of things going on that—it's not that you're
eavesdropping, but you're sitting there.
I remember one of the first things. I really remember it because of
what happened later. We had had in, I think it was the early Mercury
program, but they had had a launch blow up in a cloud. Didn't have
good visibility. So they had rules about coverage and things. Kraft
was worried about meeting the launch date because of the weather,
and Walt [Walter C.] Williams said something that I never forget.
He said, "Chris, a year from now, nobody in this country will
be able to tell you the date we launched, but they will be able to
tell you whether it was a success or a failure." I thought that
was pretty good. That really came back later when we lost a craft.
So you've got to learn a lot of things in addition to what your job
is. I was very fortunate. Or anybody that sat on the console was very
fortunate to be where we were sitting in the room. It was one thing
to be down in the Trench. There was a lot going on down there. But
I had a four-star general behind me which ran the recovery forces,
that you can't help but become friends with. Of course, people from
Headquarters and PAO [Public Affairs Office] are behind us. And of
course, anytime PAO needed anything in the building, they'd come to
us, so we were good friends with the guys on the PAO. So it was just
the opportunities to interface with people and do things. It was pretty
neat to be in that position.
So we rode that position, and then when we got to GT-4 [Gemini-Titan
IV] —GT-3, they sent a crew back to Houston, and we piggy-backed
GT-3. I came back for that flight. I ran the control center for GT-3,
in the backup mode. We monitored the whole mission from backup, because
they wanted to demonstrate the readiness of the control center. Then
when GT-4 came around—I don't know if "prime" is the
right word, but I think that's the word we used. The early missions
were one-day missions, so Chris was red flight. So you wanted to be
on the red team, or the launch team, because that's where all the
After we got into twenty-four-hour-a-day stuff, then you had a term
called "on the network" and "off the network."
"On the network" means that during the orbital pass they're
going to be in contact with the majority of your ground stations,
and so you've got periods where you've got a whole bunch of contacts,
and then you've got periods where you have to send a ship out there,
and you can go a whole pass and that ship is your only contact, because
you had a mission rule, you had to talk to them once a rev. And so
a lot of times, that's why Guaymas was so important, even though people
didn't like to go down there, because they didn't have command. But
Guaymas was important because that was an off-the-network site, so
you'd put a ship out in the northern Pacific and you'd touch them
up there, and then they'd come down across Mexico, and Guaymas would
pick them up. Then you wouldn't pick them up again until they got
up to the Pacific again. So you wanted to be on the team that was
on the network, which was almost always red team with Chris. So it
was neat to be on the red team, or what we called the prime team.
GT-4, five, six, seventy-six, eight, and ten, Apollo 1, then I had
an unmanned LM [lunar module] mission with Gene [Eugene F.] Kranz.
Apollo 7, 8, 9, I skipped 10. I was not prime on 11 because I wanted
EVA [extravehicular activity], and I was prime on 12. Those were the
missions that I—
Even the ones that you weren't prime for, did you still work on?
Yes. Like I say, on Apollo 11, I wanted the EVA. Apollo 11 was divided
into phases, and you couldn't say, "Okay, I want launch and I
want EVA and I want reentry," because that would be the really
neat ones. But you'd be asleep during maybe one or two of those. So
you divide up the phases, and when you picked a phase you wanted to
work—we had an Air Force captain named [John A.] Monkvic, and
he was really hot to be on the launch team. I said, "That's great,
because I want to be there when they step out on the Moon." That
was my goal.
Now, GT-9, did I say I worked that one? I was in Hawaii for GT-9 and
I was in Hawaii for Apollo 10. I had gone out on the network to brief
the Western Network, we called it. Hawaii, Guam. We had some tracking
ships in Sydney [Australia]. We had near-Earth and deep-space stations
in Australia, and I made a tour out through there and briefed on Apollo
10, what we were going to do on all of that, and I wound up in Hawaii
for the Apollo 10 mission, so I didn't work GT-9 and Apollo 10. I
was out at a site.
But I switched over. I did not work GT-11 and 12, because I switched
over to Apollo 1. We had moved up—you know, we were flying GT
on one floor and we were getting the other floor ready for Apollo,
so I had moved up and started the work, the integration work and stuff
like that, the documentation you've got to do and everything, to get
ready for Apollo. So I did not work the last two Gemini programs,
11 and 12—10, 11, 12.
In your previous career with Western Electric, had you done anything
like real-time flight control, anything that prepared you for that?
In a sense. In a sense, you do, because you start out, first of all,
in the testing hierarchy, you start at air surveillance. If you demonstrate
certain capabilities, then you work your way up into the weapons.
That's kind of where everybody wants to be because you get to pull
the trigger. So in a sense, when you're directing a team or a flight
of six intercepts, you've got your bogey, you tell him what he's doing.
In a sense, you have some flight control thing. It's certainly nothing
like the space program, but you're watching.
Maybe you'll have—let's see if I can remember right. One day
we had, in North Dakota, we had a general bringing a bunch of Catholic
nuns through, and one of the intercept directors sang out that he
had "Tail numbers 206, 206 was aborting, due to a SIF problem
at Twenty Angels," or something like that. And of course, there's
all of these nuns sitting there and you're talking about aborting
and SIF and everything. And what had happened was that you had scrambled,
and one of your interceptors had developed a Selective Identification
Feature problem, which is how we told the good guys from the bad guys.
So he had a SIF problem, and he was an angel aborting, due to a SIF
problem. So that got the general into trouble. But you had that type
of thing. You're monitoring in a cinch. You don't have full telemetry
so that you can monitor the health of the aircraft, but you have the
capability to monitor some things, and you know where he is, what
his heading is, whether he should be going up or down, turning left
or right, and that sort of thing. So there was a very generic level
of flight control involved in that.
A lot of times, later in the program, at North Dakota, I was the Bomarc
test director. We were responsible for integrating the Bomarc missile
into the Grand Forks sector. I had done some Bomarc testing in Montgomery,
Alabama, before I transferred to Grand Forks, and had worked back
in the control center, monitoring some of the launches down there.
We got in big trouble one time when we hit our target, there's supposed
to be a mathematical offset because the drones cost several million
dollars, so you don't want to nail the son of a gun. And we did. We
blew him right out of there, and it cost the Air Force $2 million.
And so somebody caught heck because we were too good on hitting our
target. I just remember that, for whatever it's worth.
Out of curiosity, did you ever talk with Dennis Fielder about your
work on the Bomarc?
I really don't remember it coming up.
Because you had mentioned that he came to NASA via Canada, and one
of the arguments for canceling the AVRO Arrow program that they were
working on was using the Bomarc missile.
That's true, that's true, very true.
I just wonder if there was any kind of a—
I don't recall that conversation, I really don't. But that's true,
I do remember that happening. I guess the thing I remember the most
about the Bomarc missile is going out there and standing next to that
son of a gun on the launch rail, and they got a little tiny pin, about
like a pencil, laying over on the table, and if the thing accidentally
fired, that little pin would hold it. That's when I learned about
high shear strength on some metals, because that little bitty baby
would sit there and hold that missile. I thought that was pretty impressive.
I know you can go the opposite way and you can have shear pins on
Bushhogs, and they're designed to shear, so that you don't damage
your transmission. But, boy, the shearpin on that Bomarc, it was something.
I couldn't believe it would hold it down, but they assured me it would.
Because we had run right up to the stop. We had some tests that were
cleared. You had to go clear to Washington to get cleared to do the
thing, because you run right up to where you push the button and that
means you pull that pin, because that's part of the procedure is to
pull the safety pin at a certain point. So once you pull that thing,
you've really exposed yourself. We ran one test like that and, boy,
there were a lot of sweaty palms while that was going on.
I bet there were. I'm kind of struck by the fact that here you are
coming into flight control and you've had both experience in the field,
having worked on network sort of things, and you've had some of this
flight control experience, through these types of control centers,
yet it seems that most of the other flight controllers coming into
the Mission Control Center were like fresh out of college and never
had any of this sort of experience. So I was wondering how you fit
in with the rest of the flight controllers.
I really don't remember. I don't remember anybody sitting around,
saying, "This is what I've done. Y'all ought to move over because
I know this and I've done that." I don't really remember any
of that. I would say that we were more focused on what was coming
up that what somebody had done in the past.
I think it would be safe to say at that point in time that there was
a lot of testosterone in the room. Everybody thought they were the
200-pound gorilla. And I'm not sure, frankly, that that wasn't encouraged
a little bit. I know that in mission rules review sometimes it got
pretty heated, and I think what that did was force you to make dadgum
sure that when you took a position, you were really comfortable with
that position, that you really believed in that position, and you
were ready to go to mat for that position. Because you knew you were
going to get attacked by somebody just for the fun of it, if nothing
I mean, the astronauts loved to chew on the aeromeds [aerospace medicine
doctors/flight controllers]. I think we were getting ready for one
of the Gemini missions, and the aeromeds had a mission rule that if
they lost a certain parameter that indicated whether somebody had
ejected or not, they wanted to abort the launch. Now, sitting on the
pad in a Gemini spacecraft was not a pleasant thing. I don't know
if this is true or not, but I was told that in developing that ejection
system, they shot a guy out of a bomber, straight down. The first
three or four guys they shot out, it broke their legs, so you've got
to admire the guy that went fifth, knowing that, you know. So we knew
that coming out of those—just sitting around on that pad is
not something you want to do any longer than you have to. It was either
[Walter M. “Wally”] Schirra [Jr.] or it was probably more
like Pete [Charles] Conrad [Jr.], because this is something he would
say. They said, "How are we going to know? How are we going to
know if he aborted or not?"
And Conrad said, "Hell, that's easy. You just listen, and if
you hear a real fast little [demonstrates], they didn't abort."
That was his answer to the solution. And the aeromeds lost their mission
rule. Everybody laughed and they went on. But there was a lot—like
I say, I think it was good. I think you really came up with a very
pure product because you knew the distillation process was going to
be very strenuous, and I think that was good. I think that gave us
a good quality, like in our mission rules and things of that nature,
I think that gave us a good quality to the product.
Maybe you can describe for us, as you're sitting on a console in the
Gemini program, what sort of things are you looking at in front of
you? What kind of event lights do you have on your screen? What are
the types of things that you're monitoring, actually, during a flight?
During the Gemini program, you've always got one eye on MILA, MILA
being the tracking station, because MILA was mandatory for launch,
and I can tell you something about that when we turn the camera off.
In pre-launch phase, you've always got MILA in the back of your mind,
how's that doing. You're always watching that. You've got to be looking
ahead, too. You want to be sure that Bermuda, everything's fine out
there, because that's real important. But really, from the network
console, you're not monitoring—I'm not sitting there looking
at the status of a tube and the klystron and the radar or something
like that. I'm not monitoring at that level, but really, you're talking
to the M&Os [Maintenance and Operations] at the sites, are they
comfortable and things like that. You're talking to your people, to
the people down in the real-time computing complex, the computer supe
[supervisor], making sure that everything's going good down there.
And your display people, your air-to-ground people.
The network controller has, or had, when I was on the console, a staff
support room. This staff support room was manned by personnel from
the Goddard Space Flight Center [GSFC, Greenbelt, Maryland], predominantly
contract personnel, but they were Goddard folks. The way it worked
was, Goddard had the responsibility for building the network. They
started with getting the ground and then acquiring the equipment,
building the facilities, getting the personnel, staffing it, training
it, integrating it, so that it's all up and ready to go. So they had
people that were highly expert in their systems, so if I had really
wanted to get down to the nuts and bolts on a particular system, I
could get on the loop and call my command guy and talk to him, or
my radar guy, or whatever the situation was. And of course, you're
attuned to what's going on.
There's always silly things. GT-4, we fired the thing and somebody
sent forty pounds of nickels in the P- [pneumatic] tubes or something.
The next thing I know, they've got these wires out there on Chris'
console, running wires and stuff, and he's trying to fly the mission.
I remember one time a guy was running up and down there, and Chris
jumped on him and told him to get out of the room. He didn't care
if the P tube didn't work. And then about ten seconds later, Chris
realized. So he calls the guy and the guy comes back in the room,
and he is really scared. And Chris said, "I am sorry. You're
just doing your job."
And that's the type of person that you've got to work with in the
control center, and those were people that—like I say, in the
mission rules reviews, you'd go head-to-head with somebody, just toe-to-toe.
I mean, it was no give. Then you'd go out and drink a beer, it's all
over. I don't really know of anybody that ever carried a grudge out
of a—I really don't. That was a really pleasant environment.
We knew that we had a job to do, a very tight schedule, and if somebody
did something and it took us four months to figure out it was a human
problem, then we lost four months.
So you had to be able to stand up and say, "Hey, I screwed up."
But you could do that knowing that you were going to get whipped royally,
but then they'd be right there five minutes later, just like it never
happened. And you knew that you could do that. Now, obviously, if
you did it too many times, they're going to move you out. But everybody's
going to make a mistake. So you could do that. You could stand up
and say, "Hey, guys, I'm sorry. I made a mistake." You could
do that and know that you weren't going to be crucified for it, and
that really gave you a good environment to work in.
You could go in the control center, run a sim [simulation], make a
mistake. When the sim supe come around, you could say, "Hey,
you're right, I screwed up," and you knew that nobody was sitting
there saying, "Going to remember that." So that was a very
pleasant environment to work in, and that was the type of people you
had. If somebody did something wrong, they'd stand right up and say,
"I messed up." From Kraft on down. I thought that was pretty
Is that something you had to learn, to work inside that environment,
or you were there and that's how it was?
Well, I think you acquired, and it's like being on a team, and you
become comfortable with people and you want to do good for your team.
So I think it's something that builds on you. You begin to realize
the commitment. I mean, I don't even know where I was when the president
made his speech. I remember seeing it on television. I think I was
in North Dakota.
I do remember one time in North Dakota, we had some pretty sophisticated
radars, and so they came in one day and said, "Okay, from this
time period to this time period, all radars will point to the north."
That was unheard of. You do that, you reduce power. We'd never heard
of that. Then we found out Mercury spacecraft. In the early days of
Mercury, they weren't sure what the radar energy would do to the explosive
bolts, so they didn't want some radar pinging energy off of the spacecraft.
So there were times when the air defense system shut its eyes, so
to speak, so that they didn't mess up the Mercury spacecraft.
I bet they didn't share that with the Soviets, though.
Very secret, very secret. Going to work on the number one defense
project makes it difficult for your home life, in a sense. So my wife
learned early on that I couldn't come home, and, "Honey, what
was your day like?" because you couldn't talk about it. So I
think that helped my marriage and things, because my wife was used
to me having to go in at six o'clock in the morning. I didn't have
an eight-to-five-type job.
Sometimes when we were doing data reduction—we'd do data reduction-type
work—when we were working in Western Electric, you did all kinds
of jobs. We had these big computers and you did all kinds of stuff,
and when we went to school, we learned programming, we learned how
to operate the computers, we learned radar. We learned all of those
things. Air-to-ground. Now they call it computer science. Then they
called it digital techniques, was the way MIT, I think, put it. It
was called digital techniques. So it was not unusual for me to go
to work at four o'clock in the morning, come home at noon for the
end of the day.
So when I went to work at NASA, I don't think it put a strain on my
marriage, because I hadn't had an eight-to-five job previously. You
talk about your interface at work, which is pretty important, but
your interface at home is important, too. I think my work at Western
Electric helped me then at NASA, in my home life, because my wife
was used to me working crazy hours, long hours, things like that.
I think coming in to NASA, it was just an acquired thing. You begin
to understand and appreciate, you begin to sense the goals. Let's
face it, landing a man on the Moon is the last decent goal NASA has
had. We had a goal. You were working towards that goal. Guys worked
themselves to death for that goal. A lot of guys died after we accomplished
that goal because they couldn't handle forty hours a week eight-to-five.
After we finished the Apollo program, it was a real shutdown, layoffs
and things like that. It's the first time I can remember where they
actually fired people, things like that, fired government employees,
cut back on contractors.
It was really different, and some guys couldn't handle that. I know
a lot of guys took on extra jobs or things. I went into business.
Somewhere around '71, something like that, I was sent to a management
school. We went over to Bandera [Texas]. They locked us up for fifteen
days. There was a bunch of us that liked to shoot skeet. They gave
you fifteen or twenty tasks, and you could pick twelve of them, and
one of them was, go into business. And you laid out, how do you go
into business? What are all the things you do to go into business?
They had just shut down our shooting range that we shot at in Pasadena
[Texas]. So when I came back, a guy that I knew in the class that
was from Houston said, "Man, they just shut my range down. You
ought to do that. That's a good idea."
And I said, "Well, I shot up there, too. That's where I came
up with the idea." So after everything died down, why, my boss
and I were big shooters, so we started looking at it as a joint thing.
It took me six years, but I finally put together a package and I opened
Clear Creek Hunting Range, '76. But a lot of guys, you know, guys
were selling Amway and they just couldn't handle an eight-to-five
We've talked to a whole range of people that once Apollo was winding
down, they were like, "What's next? What do you do after putting
a man on the Moon and having spent all this time there?" And
then other people seemed to be able to grasp some different challenge
and approach it in maybe a little bit different way, but sort of with
the same enthusiasm. So I think we've had a whole spectrum of people
here telling us about these experiences. But I can see how that after
spending eighty hours a week and doing something as inspiring as getting
men to the Moon, it might be difficult to match that later on. But
it sounds like you had a solid grasp on where you were going and what
you were doing so that you could get through that period.
I enjoyed it. It was a different challenge, but I enjoyed it. I could
never imagine working anywhere else than here at the center. Like
I say, I had chances to go to Washington and I had chances to go to
Hawaii. I had a lot of contractors. I had gentleman that was with
IBM told me, he said, "As long as I've got a job at IBM, you've
got a job if you want it." And I thought that was a pretty nice
thing for a guy to say.
I don't know the time period. I know I was a GS-12, which caused some
problems because I was kind of a pseudo section head. We had a section,
but it was very big, and I had some guys that were working for me,
and one guy was a 13, so that didn't sit well. But when they decided
to formalize the sections and make it a section, they came out with
a rule that if you sat on the console, you couldn't be a section head.
Now, that rule wasn't a center rule; that was a decision of management
within our division.
So I told them, "Okay, I don't want to be the section head."
Pete Clements called me down. He said, "Randall, that is the
dumbest thing I ever heard of in my life. Why would you turn down
I said, "I cannot imagine lifting off and not be in the control
center. I just think I could do that." And that's the way a lot
of people felt. Boy, that was the place to be and that's where we
wanted to be. A lot of guys made a lot of sacrifices to be there.
So there was a lot of commitment to the program. I think it's one
of the reasons it is the success that it was. People were willing
to make a personal commitment, and I think that was good.
That may be a good place to pause for a minute so we can change out
Okay, we're back, if you want to continue on what you were just mentioning.
After we flew the Apollo-Soyuz [Test Project, ASTP] mission, somewhere
in that time frame, I had been made a GS-14 a year or two earlier,
even though I didn't have a section, so it was a little unusual, but
I took over a section called the real-time computer complex [RTCC].
I think there was nine people in the section, that manned the ops
[operations] console in the real-time computer complex. We were responsible
for all the computers on the first floor, not just the mission operations
computer, but all the computers.
I had two contracts. I had a ninety-man IBM contract that was responsible
for maintenance on the computers, and then I had about 340 people
with SDC. They provided the computer operators, the people who physically
ran the computers, hung the tapes, and managed the tape files and
things like that. This was an operations function, but it was pretty
different from what I'd had in the past. This was probably the first
time that I had had to really work directly with contractors, and
it was a bit of a problem because putting IBM and SDC in the same
room was kind of like dropping sodium in water. I mean, you'd just
stand back for the explosion. They just didn't like each other. They
didn't want to work together. Each wanted the other one out of there.
It was just really not a good situation.
It took me probably two months, but the very first meeting I told
them, I said, "Now, the first guy that says he has a problem,
I'm going to hit right square in the nose. That's just the way it's
going to be. The only people who've got a problem in this room is
And I had run into this one other time. I had run into it when I was
on the network console. MILA was high-speed data, and we were having
a problem getting the data, and the people responsible for the communications,
that were sitting on the west side of the Banana River, said, "Everything's
great." MILA, on the east side, said, "Everything's great."
So I told them, I said, "Look, I want you two SOBs to swim out
there in the middle of the river and fix whatever's out there, because
we have got a problem." Because they kept saying, "It's
their side of the creek," "Their side of the creek."
So that's the only other time I can think of that I really had—but
this was really a bad problem because it was just very important that
these two companies worked together.
But that was probably the biggest challenge I had, and the other was
Apollo, I had nine people. We had to staff the console twenty-four
hours a day, seven days a week. Figuring out that schedule was really
a problem, because how do you satisfy nine individuals? So, being
the fantastic manager I was, I put them all in one room and I said,
"Y'all solve the problem. It's your problem. You solve it. If
you guys want to man one hour a day, for nine hours, and then come
back and do it again, I'll go with it."
I would not let them go over ten hours, because during GT-8, when
we had the GT-8 problem, the launch team, we were getting ready to
get off the consoles and we went back on the consoles. We were in
the process of handover when a problem happened, and we went back
on the consoles and put in about a fourteen- or fifteen-hour day,
and they came in with some kind of a study after that, and they said,
"Don't do that." After ten hours, it drops really off, and
after twelve hours, it's just really steep.
So I told them, I said, "You can man anything up to ten hours
a day, and I'll let you work at least seven days a week if you want
So that was probably the two biggest challenges I had in running that
section, was getting the initial scheduling off. I said, "If
somebody's got a problem, don't talk to me. Talk to one of your buddies,
because they've got to fill in for you."
The only time I worked the console, I would work the holidays. I told
them, "I'll work Christmas Eve, Christmas Day." I would
take care of those, because that just seemed like a fair thing to
do. Because I got all my weekends off, so I told them I'd work the
holidays. So that was probably the two biggest problems I had in running
that. That came together well, went well. Really enjoyed it.
Then we had a reorganization and I took over the configuration control,
MCC configuration control section, which I think is probably one of
the most under-appreciated tasks that is accomplished at the control
center. If you ever lose track of the configuration, you're in so
much trouble it is unreal. If you do not know what's happening when
you go drilling that hole, if you don't know what's under it, you
can really get yourself in trouble. I had that for about a year, and
at the same time we had run Skylab while I was in the RTCC, and after
Skylab they had what they called—they had on board Skylab the
SO-65 experiment, and they needed to do a data reduction thing on
it, and they were way behind schedule on that. Everything were really
messed up. Kranz was calling me daily on it.
When I went in, they had no procedures, no documentation. So I told
everybody to stop. I said, "Just stop everything."
"We're going to be behind."
I said, "I don't care. Stop. Take thirty days, come back to me,
and I want a decent set of procedures so that what we're doing in
Houston is okay with what they're doing in Golden [Colorado],"
which was where the contractor was, which would make everybody happy.
So I had that and configuration control for about a year. I got moved
up to the branch staff, then I got moved up to the division staff,
and I really wasn't totally happy about that point in time. Didn't
really feel like things were going the way I wanted. So I went in
and talked to my division chief about a transfer, and he said, "I
can't transfer you as a 14."
And I said, "Well, then I'll go to a 13."
Talked to a friend of mine in personnel and they said, "No, you
don't want to do that, because you give up some things. There's a
RIF [reduction in force] coming. Just hang loose, because where you're
sitting, you're very vulnerable for the RIF."
So we had a RIF, and I went over to talk to Gene Kranz and got a transfer
to Crew Training and Procedures Division, and that's where I finished
up my career over there, working simulations. I worked on a second
SMS [shuttle mission simulator] trainer. It was a procedures training.
I worked on that until budget killed it, and that's where I finished
up my career.
Went up to Gene and told him I'd like to retire at fifty, take an
early out, and he said okay. Then when the time came, he said no,
so my division chief went up and said, "Look, you promised him
he could." So he said, "Okay, but this is the last one,"
and I understand it was a long time before anybody else took an early
out. So I took an early out and retired at fifty, and my wife and
I have traveled the world since.
You haven't gone to work for another contractor or something like
that, like a lot of these people?
I retired on Friday. I talked to his wife this morning. Sam [Samuel
D.] Sanborn came over on Sunday and he was working for Grumman, and
said, "Look, I just want you to work twenty hours a week. You
can work anytime you want, pay you $85 an hour, and just do it for
And I said no, because the first thing I know it'll be thirty hours
and then it'll be forty hours, and then it'll be sixty hours. Because
I had seen it. I've seen people do it.
My friend from IBM called me, asked me I'd like to go to work for
him. I said, "No, I'm just going to retire." So I did and
haven't regretted it.
Well, if you don't mind, I'd like to go back and ask some last questions.
Let me tell you one thing that was really interesting. I mentioned
it out in the hall a while ago, but it was an interesting thing that
I really enjoyed. When we started flying Shuttle, we had a lot of
nausea. We were flying a lot of people that weren't test pilots, that
weren't used to high speed, a lot of maneuvering-type things. You
know, we were beginning to get Joe Blow-on-the-street-type people.
So they came out with a program. They said they needed volunteers
for a motion-sickness study. I think this probably went on for a year
and a half, two years. So I volunteered as a candidate for the program,
or a guinea pig, whatever you want to call it. At that time I could
do that because the job I had, we ran sims about three days a week,
and, really, I could get ready—I guess it was two days a week,
we ran sims. I could really get ready for sims, as far as preparation
and all that, in a couple of days, so I really had a little extra
time. I'd been going to some classes and things like that, learning
some new systems, some new software and things.
So when I volunteered for this program I didn't feel like I was bothering
my job, because I felt like I could work it in. It was only maybe
two or three hours a week, something like that, four hours. But some
of the experiments were really wild and really different, and I didn't
realize there was levels of nausea. They had them so well-identified
that they could take you to prescribed levels, usually. Only one time
in my case did it get out of hand. They had a chair like a barber's
chair, and they've got all these sensors on you and everything, and
you hold a switch. You have to press the switch and hold it in your
hand, with your thumb depress the kill switch. What they were doing,
they had a shower curtain-like arrangement around the chair, and they
were testing patterns to see if there was any correlation-type thing.
We had run several sets of experiments, so this day we were going
to go in, and not only were they going to spin you, not only were
they going to tilt you, but they were going to change it in 360 so
that you got really an exaggerated wobble. But they would do this
gradually. They could tweak it so that you did it gradually. And they
were talking to you all the way through it. We're whizzing along real
good and I forget what degree we were, but they kicked it a half a
degree. I think it was in pitch. They said, "How are you doing?"
and I said, "I'm doing fine." And I woke up—they had
a complete medical facility next door—and I woke up on a table.
I had gone to Level 12 just in a matter of seconds.
It made me appreciate what the guys had gone through on GT-8, because
I can remember they flew the data back. We got it back to Houston
on a Saturday. And of course, my job was to set up. I had control
of the control center. My job was to run the control center, so if
they were going to apply data to anything—and in the disaster
plan, the network controller becomes keeper of the data, which was
a real problem during Apollo, which I can tell you about.
But anyway, I can remember looking at the data. Kraft and [Clifford
E.] Charlesworth, there was just a slew of people had come in because
they all wanted to see the data, because we hadn't seen any of the
rates. And it was just unreal, the rates that they pulled on GT-8.
It was amazing that they could even function. And the crew credited
it to the fact that they had had so much training in the centrifugal
machine that we had at that time. It's now a swimming pool, but at
that time. They were getting a lot of training and they felt like
they had gotten enough exposure in that, that had helped them accomplish
the function of finding the stump thruster. But on Apollo 1, three
of us had to translate the air-to-ground tape, and that was tough.
But getting back to the nausea thing, the experiments that they designed,
it was really interesting. I mean, there was really some innovative
stuff going on. I had forty-two flights on the Comet. We called it
the Vomit Comet [KC-135]. Getting to go into zero G, the last, I think,
twenty minutes or something like that, of the day, it was free time.
You could do what you want. So it was pretty interesting.
I guess that's just one of those other sorts of things that went on
that you never really knew about.
Well, there's a lot of little things you just remember. The first
time we were launching GT-6, when the launch plug fell out, I can
remember McDonnell-Douglas, I think, was the prime contractor for
the booster, and the guy was sitting down on the console and he jumps
up and he says, "What happened, what happened, what happened?
I don't understand." And nobody knew. Nobody could figure out
And Kraft says, "Well, by God, I know what happened." This
wasn't in his book. I don't know why he didn't put it in. But he said,
"I know what happened. The damn plug fell out."
The guy says, "That's impossible." And sure enough, they
were—two of the crew—there was a couple of astronauts
down there in a half-track, or an armored vehicle, and they pulled
up and looked through a pair of binoculars and said, "The plug's
laying on the pad." And it turned out that's what—and Chris
caught it just right away. I can remember that.
I can remember [Walter M.] Schirra talking to C. C. Williams in the
early Gemini configuration control center. The booster console had
an astronaut on that console. They did away with that a little later
on into the Gemini program, but the early Gemini flights, there was
an astronaut not only at the CapCom console, but C. C. Williams was
sitting at the booster console.
And if you'll look in the books it'll tell you that there was only
two people in the control center that had air-to-ground, and that
was flight and CapCom. Well, that's not true, because C. C. Williams
on the booster console, or the astronaut, also had air to ground.
Because the guy that Schirra was talking to, all the time they were
sitting there—because they did not want to punch out. They absolutely
did not want to punch out. And all the time I can hear Schirra saying,
"Talk to me, C. C." That's all he said. "Talk to me.
Talk to me, C. C."
And C. C. was telling him, "I'm watching it, I'm watching it.
I've got it. I'm watching you, you're not moving." And C. C.
talked to Schirra all that time. I can remember just plain as day.
C. C. got killed later on.
Well, we're almost out of time for today. I don't want to keep you
too much over.
That's probably more than I should have said.
Well, why don't we just wrap it up here then. I'd like to thank you
again for taking out the time this afternoon.
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