NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by William Vantine
15 October 1997
[This oral history with Tom Stafford was conducted in Houston,
Texas on October 15, 1997. This oral history was conducted by William
Vantine and Michelle Kelly for the Johnson Space Center Oral History
I was, in a way, interested in it when the Mercury Program got started,
but I was ineligible because I was just a student in school. But I
always liked to fly things, to go higher and faster and fly the latest
things. Then, particularly after [President John F.] Kennedy made
the challenge to go to the Moon, I said that's got to be a great challenge,
and I wanted to do that. We didn't know when we'd have another selection
So the first group was selected in '59, when I was in school. I was
in school class at Edwards, class '58 Charlie, which graduated in
the summer of '59, after the first group was on board. So when there
came calls for the second group of astronauts, I applied for it and
then went through Air Force screening and then through NASA screening.
In the interim, I wanted also to continue my Air Force career, and
I always said the Air Force had good technical ability, but their
big problem was management. So instead of complaining about it, I
wanted to do something positive, and I applied and got one of the
three slots that the Air Force had at Harvard Business School.
So you were at Harvard when you got the call?
Yes. I hadn't been there very long. I stopped in my home in Oklahoma,
saw my first wife's parents, and I drove down to Houston for a final
interview, went back, and meanwhile I had all my things shipped to
Boston. I'd gone up there already and rented a house near Harvard,
a duplex, and got there. I told the dean of the business school that
I was in a selection process, he understood that, and if I was selected,
I would resign from the B School. I'd been there for three days and
seven case histories when Deke [Donald K.] Slayton called me and said,
"Are you still interested?"
I said, "Absolutely." And I told him I'd be resigning tomorrow.
So I had the notoriety of being the first dropout of the class of
'64 at Harvard B School.
[Laughter] No hesitation there.
In fact, when the packers came, I says, "Don't unpack yet."
I was kind of optimistic I'd make it. I says, "Don't unpack all
the furniture, just some of the basics, because you may be packing
Had you applied for the first class, or were you in the first class
No. In the first group? No. The first group, you had to be a graduate
of test pilot school, and I was just a student in the test pilot school.
I wasn't a graduate.
Interesting. When you went on after on to Gemini VI—I was taking
a look at that—Gemini VI has a couple of notorieties involved
in it. One of them was how fast they turned around when they launched
VI and VII.
Well, there's more to it on Gemini VI, yes. It was decided that the
approach to landing on the Moon would be a lunar orbit rendezvous.
That was the basis of how we'd go to the Moon instead of going to
the Moon direct and back, because it would save you a lot of weight.
So we were sizing the lunar module, sizing the command module, sizing
the giant Saturn V booster, but nobody had ever done a rendezvous.
So it came out to Wally and I to prove that. But in the training—and
also we had a computer, we had a platform, we had a radar, and we
said, "What's going to happen if we lose the radar? Can we still
do the rendezvous? What happens if we lose the platform? What if we
lose the computer?" Or, you know, different combinations.
So from that we developed an on-board—really a rudimentary-type
thing. It was made out of cardboard and plywood that had a couple
of displays and some software in the basement of McDonnell Aircraft
in St. Louis, and from that we worked out backup charts and worked
out procedures to do it. In fact, many of the techniques we worked
out are still used today on the concentric phase of rendezvous.
So we got all squared away and ready to go and got in the spacecraft
and the Atlas Agena, we could hear it thunder off down the pad, Pad
14, but it never got to Ascension Island. It turned out that the Atlas
did all right, but when the Agena lit off, they had made some changes
to have an oxidizer fuel lead-in change, and it did it wrong, and
the thing lit off and blew up and blew all over the Atlantic Ocean.
So it was decided to put a transponder on Gemini VII and launch us
in a fast turnaround. So we couldn't dock, but at least we could do
a rendezvous, and we briefed—to get the maximum thing on the
crew I explained to [James A.] Lovell [Jr.] and [Frank] Borman, as
we were coming in the terminal phase, I'd call every five degrees
that we were pitching up above the horizon, I wanted them, as they
were going backwards, to pitch down so they would get maximum return
on the radar.
From an operations standpoint, what enabled them to ready the launch
pad so quickly and turn that around so fast? How did they do that?
Well, they started this whole procedure, and they pulled Gemini VI
off the pad, had it already on trailers and everything and to turn
around and go. But they'd never done it before, but they'd worked
out the procedures and the techniques. See, the Air Force was responsible
for launching it; not NASA, the Air Force. It's a Titan booster on
an Air Force pad. That and the Aerospace Corporation and Martin and
also McDonnell. So they worked it out, and I think they had it worked
out where maybe the Gemini was still attached to the second stage—I'm
not sure—versus bringing it up separately and attaching it.
But anyway, that same day that Gemini VII launched, that afternoon,
the first stage was moved from the second stage and moved right down
to the pad and started to be stacked.
Were they prepared beforehand? Had they talked about the idea of having
two spacecraft in orbit at the same time? Because you had VII and
VI at the same time, and they were monitoring both.
Was that a real-time "get ready to do it"?
Well, in other words, we'd never done that before, had two spacecraft
go, and how do you look at the telemetry signals and all this, how
does it feed into the control center? So that was a real chore, how
they we that.
That's tremendous, tremendous. Was it VI when you were supposed to
launch and you didn't launch, it didn't go off, and you weren't sure
what was going to happen there?
Well, anyway, we got through all the procedures and everything, and
we got all set to go, and at T-minus-three seconds, the engine shut
off, and exactly at T-zero they shut down. We still have the all-time
record. The shuttle shut down a couple of times, but nothing like
we did. And we had the liftoff signal. But we knew in the seat of
our pants and all the training we had, we hadn't lifted off. Furthermore,
the only one who can call liftoff is a fellow astronaut looking at
the base of a booster, you know, on a TV screen, and when he sees
first motion, he's the only one that can call liftoff. It was Al [Alan
L.] Bean, and he didn't say a thing, and that's exactly what he should
have done, is not say a thing. He didn't see anything.
How come y'all didn't eject?
Well, we knew Bean hadn't called liftoff, we could tell in the seat
of our pants we hadn't lifted off at all, but also we had a dead man's
curve of at least a second, because by the time you pull the D-rings
and fire the pyro-trains [phonetic], reaction time—they had
us calibrated and—I think my reaction time was point-three-eighths
of a second from the time I'd see something and start doing it. But
then the pyro-trains have to start firing and start working. So it
turns out what we would have seen, had we had to do that, would have
been two Roman candles going out, because we were 15 or 16 psi, pure
oxygen, soaking in that for an hour and a half. You remember the tragic
fire we had at the Cape.
Jesus, with that fire going off and that, it would have burned the
suits. Everything was soaked in oxygen. So thank God. That was another
thing: NASA never tested it under the conditions that they would have
had if they would have had to eject. They did have some tests at China
Lake where they had a simulated mock-up of Gemini capsule, but what
they did is fill it full of nitrogen. They didn't have it filled full
of oxygen in the sled test they had.
Talking about the Apollo 1 for a second, going back, originally when
you were getting ready for Gemini IX, Elliott See [phonetic] and Charlie
[Charles A.] Bassett [II] were the prime crew for that, and they were
killed in the T-38 accident. How do the astronauts versus the American
public versus the media, how do they look at the Apollo 1? Obviously
when an astronaut is killed in the line of duty is viewed differently
than Elliott and Charlie when they were killed in the T-38.
Well, I think, because you pick up a paper and every week or so there's
a light plane crash, somebody is killed here, somebody is killed here,
occasionally an airliner goes down, in those days there were lots
more military crashes than we have today. So, you know, plane crashes
and fatalities were somewhat familiar, even though it was an astronaut
in a plane crash. We'd killed one earlier, a man named Ted [Theodore]
Freeman, who came on as secondary. He got killed. He'd been on board,
I think, about a year.
Was there any pressure after Apollo 1 fire to slow the program down
like there was after Challenger?
Let's go back to the Gemini—
All right. Okay.
—and work through that. Yes, there was. We launched and we had
double failure that morning. There was supposed to be fifty pounds
of pressure to pull the plug that started the computer clock and the
timer that showed we'd lifted off, and it turns out they just kind
of rattled and fell out, and that really saved our lives, because
when they looked at the telemetry of the thrust chamber pressure,
you saw the thrust chamber on both chambers build up, and suddenly
one dropped and the other got the shutdown signal. But what happened
to the one that dropped? So they said something was wrong with that
thrust chamber. It started losing thrust before the shutdown signal.
They went back and found that the gas generator—you know, you
get spun up by the pyrotechnic, you know, that starts the fuel flowing.
Each thrust chamber had a gas generator, that somebody, when it says
"remove the dust plugs," you know, you have these orange
and plastic dust plugs, well, in the fuel line, somebody screwed the
fuel line in on top of the dust plug, so the pyrotechnic spun the
turbine, started the fuel into the fuel chambers, hypergolic—you
know, it burns instantly—but then as the fuel, as it started
up, pressurized the fuel, it came back in, the fuel, to the turbo
pump, got stopped by the—got squeezed in. So that was a close
Gosh, that would be awfully scary. How long did it take them to get
you out of the vehicle on that?
Then a fire broke out down below, had to put the damned thing out.
That's when I was accused of saying, "Aw, shucks." We were
up there about an hour and a half.
When you were doing VI and VII, when you were getting ready to do
the rendezvous on that, what was going through your mind when you
were doing the rendezvous? Nobody had ever done a rendezvous in orbit
Then finally they found out what was wrong, the gas generator, found
out about the plug, reworked that. So finally, three days later, they
launched. We launched, and I was wondering what would go wrong this
time, you know. First launch, you’ll never forget. So it was
really great. The Gemini was a real hot-rod, riding that thing. It
was in orbit in five minutes and thirty-five seconds. I think in the
first stage it goes over five Gs and shuts down in a big—and
they had a fire in the hole, the way the Titan was designed. The second-stage
engine fires before the bolts blow, so the flame comes up all around
top of the top. Whoosh! Like that, and, whop, you fly through it.
And then you pick up to nearly eight Gs on the second stage before
you go into orbit, and then you got from about eight Gs to zero G
in about a tenth of a second. So you pick up 1,500 miles an hour in
the last ten seconds. So it is a real ride.
We had to get off right away, because they'd had some of the second
stages in the weapons systems blow up for auto-ignition back there
in the gas generators. So we got off, got everything going, get the
[unclear] from the ground. Then we started in this final co-elliptic
phase, and I was using my back-up charts, and with that, I had the
solution before either the ground or the onboard IBM computer, to
make the terminal phase, you know, where you aim at it. We worked
a situation where you just track it, and at a certain angle and distance,
you know, you thrust, and it brings it up, and you're really out in
front. Well, the inertial angle is like this. Right at sunrise you
break out, and here's your target. So if the target moves right, you
move right; if it moves left—just like flying an instrument
landing system, an ILS.
What was interesting, that wasn't the way we planned to do rendezvous
at all to really start with. We were going to do a pure [unclear]
energy but far more [unclear]. And some Russian published an article
in a magazine in '62 and '63 about the co-centric use of rendezvous.
Ed Lyonberg [phonetic], who's now dead, had it translated and decided
they'd start working that. So we really adopted the Russian version.
That's interesting. So we learned something from the—
It turns out they didn't use it, though.
They didn't use it? They'd just written about it?
Yes. The one time they ever used it was on their anti-satellite program.
Was there ever any issue when you'd be coming in for the rendezvous
where you were supposed to keep the sun—did the sun ever get
in your way?
No. Because the sun's over here, and you're coming like this, from
below, and the belly of the spacecraft away from you is into the sun.
You can still see some of the stars breaking out in the sunlight.
So it had a flashing light on it so you can see it. So the sun was
here, and it was illuminated, and we were right here. So as you really
break, you break in a posigrade mode, you see. Because if we hadn't
done anything, we would have done that. So you come up here, and to
match that vector you've got to go this way. So our breaking was in
a posigrade mode, posigrade and down, because we shot past and around.
So after Gemini VI, then you went on to fly Gemini—
Yes, we flew in formation there for several hours [unclear], and got
within a couple inches of them. One thing that's interesting we determined
about anthromoric measurements, the original Gemini mock-up at McDonnell
Aircraft—a Gemini mock-up, and it had two big round rings that
went around it. You'd get into your suit, and it would rotate in a
ninety-degree position. When they did that, God, my back and my neck
started to really ache, and I couldn't figure out why. [James A.]
McDivitt had the same problem. Couldn't understand it.
So they built just a plywood mock-up and started to check in our measurements.
And, you know, gravity pulls down on you all the time when you walk.
That's what makes you—older people, your nose grows, your earlobes
grow, your breasts sag. It's gravity, the increment of gravity. Gravity's
working on you all the time. So when I'd rotate like this, you know,
there's no Gs on you, you unload, all the spinal column, your neck,
and the way the discs and all the tendons unload. So from my buttocks
to the top of my head I grew an inch and three quarters, and McDivitt
grew two and a quarter inches. I don't know, for some reason it was
never [unclear]. People hadn't thought about these things.
So they put a bump on the inside of a hatch, and it started from Gemini
VI on. They call it the Stafford bump. They couldn't change the outside
mole line for aerodynamics, but they had plenty of insulation. The
hatch was about this thick. So they put a nice little bump in there,
and that really helped. Of course, once you had the helmet off, but,
you know, and Gemini was so small, you could take off your gloves
and helmet and put it down there, but you had to ride with one foot
on top of the other in the foot well. Of course, in zero-G, you had
to. And then to get the food out, it was on a little locker over here,
had to pull out like that. Well, you've seen the Gemini. It was small.
Less room than you had in the front seat of a bug Volkswagen.
And you're a tall man in the first place. Were you one of the tallest
Of the group, yes. I'm supposed to be about six feet. If I really
stand up erect, I'm about six-one or close to it.
That rendezvous, then we turned around, then [Eugene A.] Cernan was
to be my pilot, and I was commander and back-up on Gemini IX, and
we were to fly in Gemini XII, and then going into St. Louis, well
documented and everything, I was flying their wing, was briefed that
the glide slip was out, but the localizer was in. I'd been to that
airport many, many times as a back-up on Gemini III and also prime
on Gemini VI. So I'd lived up there a lot at McDonnell Aircraft. I
was stacked right in the super. The forecast was 1,500 overcast, three
miles' visibility, which is practically BFR.
Well, it wasn't like that at all. The weather really got down. I was
flying their wings, their first time as a crew, you know, working
together, and he was way fast. He flew the final approach. It was
supposed to be about a 155-60 knots. He was about 225, and he missed
the runway. I looked around like that, stuck my head in the cockpit,
and said, "You missed it." I said, "We missed the runway,
and we're going to the far end of the runway headed down." And
so he looked around, and so—boom—he broke like that, instead
of trying to make a smooth turn to keep—so I tried to follow
him and finally said, "Hey, I can't." I missed wing-man
approach, and he kept trying to bend around one runway. I could see
these clouds practically hanging down to the ground with snow flurries,
and I didn't like that at all, so I said, "I'm making a missed
approach." I just picked up the gear and added the power and
up with the flaps.
Last I saw him, he tried to make the original runway, he missed that,
went around behind the tower, and that was the last I saw of him.
We went way out. Then our fuel started to get low, and I said, "Hey,
I've got to declare an emergency. You're holding me too long."
I guess they shut the field down when it crashed. So he kept trying
to bend it in close, you know, full flaps. He ended up slamming right
into the building, where they were building the Gemini spacecraft.
He hurt about thirteen people. Had he hit about a hundred feet shorter
in that building, he would have wiped out the Gemini Program. His
wheels dug into the roof. Fortunately, he just head in like that and
they dug in and his plane careened over and it killed him, unfortunately.
So we took over.
I'd had so much experience with the systems, I told Cernan to concentrate
on the extra-vehicular activities, besides learning the rendezvous,
because I knew the systems, being a back-up on Gemini III and the
prime on Gemini VI and used to fly on a 125-foot tetherless rocket
pack as an Air Force experiment built by LTV [Ling-Temco-Vought].
It had hydrogen peroxide thrusters. To keep from burning through the
suit he had on, he had steel mesh on his trousers and elbows, a Mickey
Mouse idea, but we were willing to try it.
We knew three different types of rendezvous. One is an early rendezvous.
We had an M equals 4 on Gemini III, which means you'd cross the nodes
four times to go down to an M equals 3, is going to be the standard
we'd use on Apollo. Then to do the first optical rendezvous, tracking
optically. And then to do an overhead rendezvous to simulate a command
module having to come down and pick up a lunar module or in case a
lunar module had to abort off for some reason, the command modules,
halfway around the Moon, you'd have to go high, you know, and [unclear]
and then let it come down from above. So we'd never done one.
The first rendezvous, we got there, the shroud—we knew that
they had a problem. Let's go back. We got all set to go on the Gemini
IX, and I'd trained Cernan. He did a lot of work on the EVA [Extravehicular
Activity]. And all they had to [unclear] was a little steel platform
over in Building 4, a little smooth steel platform, [unclear], and
he'd try to maneuver around on that, and they did some rudimentary
handholds on it, and all we had was a little water evaporator with
a fan on it. We didn't even think of putting defog on the visor like
you do for snorkeling or scuba diving.
So anyway, we were all ready to go and all set. Again, we could hear
the Atlas Agena roar off from Pad 14. This time the Atlas got out
over the ocean, did a bunch of loops, and Range Safety blew it up.
So we scrubbed out that one. So they decided, well, look, they did
have a back-up thing. "We want to do another rendezvous and check
out some things, do some more things, do these different types of
McDonnell had worked out this thing called the "Augmented Target
Docking Adapter," ATDA, in which they took the nose out of my
old spacecraft, Gemini VI, the nose section, the reentry nose section,
had the twenty-five-pound thrusters, rehabbed it, put on a docking
mechanism and a transponder and a battery pack and put it on the shrouds.
So we scrubbed out and they recycled then. They were supposed to launch
in May, and they put this ATDA in. We were down on the pad, and here
was the whole thing, pure black. I talked to the program manager,
Chuck [Charles W.] Mathews, had him come down, and said, "You
see that black so and so? You want me to try to rendezvous with that?
I need some reflected light." The Agena was painted silver and
black. This thing was just all black. So he said, "Well, the
I says, "Bullshit." I said, "Put some silver tape on
it. It's not going to overheat that much." So they put some silver
tape on it.
I was concerned about how long those twenty-five-pound thrusters were
going to last. I think they only had fifty pounds of fuel on each
ring, fifty or a hundred. They said, "Well, it should last you
for months," the calculation. This becomes a very interesting
story. John [F.] Yardley, who later became associate administrator
for manned space flight, he was the Gemini program manager, then later
went back to that, said, "Well, it should last months. We can
duty cycle it, give it commands on and off." So we got ready
to go, and—ZAP—off it went. And so we're ready to go,
and we didn't get an update for the ASP [phonetic], so we scrubbed
So, turned around three days later, and meanwhile, it turns out they
said they turned it on, within five or six minutes one ring of that
fuel was gone. It's only got two. You have to understand it was doing
some weird things. It was slowly tumbling and they couldn't control
it, and they didn't have a deploy signal on the shroud, either. They
didn't know what was going on.
So we got all ready to go and we launched, and it lifted off in June.
I remember coming up to it, and you could see the constellation Antares.
There was a full moon out. We got up close, I could see this weird
thing. I came right up close to it, and it just broke out in sunrise,
and here was the shroud, like that. I call it "The Angry Alligator."
It looked just like that and inside. And it was slowly rotating.
Once we got over ground station I told them—I backed off, told
them to stabilize it. They did, and pow, pow, pow, you could see the
fuel coming out. I said, "Shut it off." They shut it off.
And I described the whole thing to them. To get an accurate picture,
I got the Gemini spacecraft—it was a very maneuverable thing,
rotate it, got on my camera and put the telephoto on my little camera
in the window, and I just matched the velocities. We rotated. I got
within about, oh, maybe a foot of it, like that, and just rotated
around. You could see that things were taped and tied. It turns out
this was a Douglas person built—Douglas built shrouds, and his
wife was having a baby. So he left word with the Mac technician, "Secure
the disconnect lanes," which means hook them to the bolts or
something. What this guy did was wrap them around and put tape on
them, and there was 300-pound springs like this, and they had kind
of a jagged edge for pyrotechnic fire, you know. So anyway, we did
the rendezvous right on, didn't use much fuel.
Also, I'd talked to John Welawerken [phonetic], who is the retro officer,
working orbital mechanics. We'd been flying out of circular orbits.
So we had a new computer loaned to us, started with Gemini VIII, and
I said—we'd learned some things—"If we could really
fire out of a slightly elliptical orbit, a more down trajectory, it
would enter the atmosphere at a steeper angle, and I might be able
to really grease it down at an aim point." So I worked that out
Oh, also before launch, with this new computer program, about two
weeks before launch, in the simulator I noticed at the very last you
could read out what different longitudes you were crossing, because
you'd be coming down a latitude, usually, like that, not crossing
too much in latitude where we'd end up, right east of the Cape. But
the computer said at the last lift vector up, just at the very last,
to reduce G load. Well, the G load wasn't that much, three or four
Gs at the last. We found out that we could interpret how fast we were
approaching it. If we're not going fast enough, we'd have to pull
lift vector up, or if it was too fast, we'd split S and roll down.
So I called the captain of the ship, which was the Wasp,
it was the same one that picked Wally and I up. You've got to remember
this was June of '66. We're going from May into June of '66. They
didn't have GPS [Global Positioning System], didn't have Loran. All
they could do was shoot sunrise and high noon with the sextant. I
said, "Look, we've got a beautiful new program, and if the inertial
platform's on, I think I can really grease this thing down. At least
we can do it in simulations right down there. So if you could work
it out to have that Wasp right on the target point, I'll
try to put it right there in front of you."
So Captain Hartley [phonetic] said he'd try to do that. And, of course,
we had live TV. Anyway, that's just another part. You can edit that
back in. These things keep coming to my mind. We worked this out beforehand.
So anyway, we decided to—okay. We had an angry alligator. We
decided to go ahead and do the overhead rendezvous, and we sequenced
ourselves and came down. I didn't have any inertial needles. So I
What were you using? You didn't have the inertial needles. What did
you use? What were you using for a guide?
Mark One eyeball.
Your eyeballs, huh?
Yes. You know, the docking site. But, you know, coming in from below,
you're trying to hold the inertial angle steady, but you've got the
stars up there. So as it moves over, you can move over, you know,
so you damp it. Coming down from above, we had no inertial needles.
There was no inertial needles in our display. We had crossed needles.
We didn't have anything that ever said inertial. So I got locked on,
you know. We'd use the back-up charge, ground solutions. So here we
come screaming down from above to do this. I remember the target was
going right over the Sahara Desert. The difference between looking
straight down like this and looking out like this is all the difference
in the world. If you look out like this, you can barely see a little
bit of curvature of the Earth, barely. You see just flow lines, just
air slowly going past. The more you pitch down, the faster it goes.
When you're pitched straight down and holding it straight down, you
think you're hanging on your shoulder harness just a couple hundred
thousand feet. I mean, you know you're going 25,700 feet per second.
Tchoo! It's just gone like that.
And so here I was coming right down, and here was this target, and
here was this stuff going past me like that. That's what happened
to that commander on the Mir Progress, as I pointed out . So anyway,
I was trying to integrate, because, you know, we had an orbrate ball,
and I needed to keep that going to know where I was with respect to
the local vertical, but I needed to know inertial, so I was integrating
in my mind what four degrees per minute was and how this was coming
as I was closing the break. I did have range and range rate. But it
was a real—I got there and I was just sweating. Jeez, I made
it, but what a bear.
I came back and debriefed. He says, "Don't ever try that again,
looking to do a rendezvous." It's one thing just to fly around,
you know, like this, you know, twenty or a hundred feet. It's a different
thing to come in from fifteen or twenty miles, looking down, trying
to brake the whole time. It was a bear.
Because the Earth is moving quickly underneath you.
The Earth is right underneath you, seeing the target. Well, had it
been nighttime, you'd have seen oil fires or lights as soon as you
go on, or a flashing light down there, but trying to get a reference
to get a—so you wouldn't have the—at this range, this
way you wouldn't have that. So you need to have a reference zone.
I made it in, and I did the only overhead rendezvous we've ever done.
And I says, "Don't do that unless you have an emergency."
It's one thing just to fly around the station; it's another thing
to do a whole rendezvous coming in like that.
So, real fast, what they did do, which helped them coming even from
below, they got the software fixed up and they were right between
missions so Gemini X, John [W.] Young on that, they had inertial needles.
You could call up that mode.
So we did that, and then we separated and did an optical rendezvous,
the first optical rendezvous using optical track. We had the radar
for a back-up, but we proved out you could do that, you know, with
degraded [unclear]. So we did those three different types of rendezvous.
Then came time for Cernan to go EVA, and they wanted him to go out
and cut loose the shroud, to cut it loose. I looked at it. I could
see those sharp edges. We had never practiced that. I knew that they
had those 300-pound springs there, didn't know what else. So I vetoed
it right there. I said, "No way."
So we got ready for the EVA, so we got squared away, depressurized,
opened the hatch. Now, Ed [Edward H.] White [II] had a hard time getting
in on Gemini IV. He nearly didn't make it, the suit didn’t.
So we put a bar with a piece of cable here so they'd have kind of
an over-the-center mechanism with the commander [unclear]. So we depressurized.
I'm flying the spacecraft using pulse mode, one millisecond pulse,
going local horizontal. And Cernan goes out, and the first thing he
does is place the rear-view mirror on the docking bar. He's huffing
and puffing. He's torquing the hell out of this spacecraft, and I'm
pulsing it back to be sure none of the thrusters fire on him. So we
were supposed to out about two hours and thirty-some minutes, go take
this rocket pack and get into it and fly it around and maneuver around
just like they do on the packs now, but this is hydrogen peroxide.
Okay. So he goes back. He goes out in front and does a few little
maneuvers and he's having a very difficult time. There was nothing
for him to hold on to. Remember, the Gemini suit was a very easy suit
to wear. It was lightweight, twenty-five, twenty-eight pounds, and
when it was uninflated, it was limp. Nothing to it, just kind of heavy.
When you pressurized, it trimmed to one position to hold your arm.
You had to hold them out. Whop, it would go back, where Apollo was
a big suit like they have now. It was big, heavy, and bulky. You could
move your arm, but you could stay there.
So he's really huffing and puffing. He goes to the back. So he's hanging
onto the back end of the Gemini, going through this check-out procedure
for the rocket pack. Then he says, "Tom, my back's killing me.
It's burning up. It's really killing me."
I says, "What?"
He says, "My back."
I could look in the rear-view mirror, and I could see the sun. Of
course, you never look directly at it. I said, "Do you want to
get out of the spacecraft?"
He said, "No. Keep going, but my back is killing me. It's burning
up." So he finally, just before sunset, gets turned around into
the seat. We had two lights back there. One of them burned out for
some reason, during the vibration of the launch anyway. We had one
light. And then a couple of minutes after sunset, he was strapping
himself in. I was down to a couple of steps. You know, at sunrise
I would cut him loose. He fogged over. Whop! He could not see. It
was just like that, fog. So we did defog on the visor, and he had
overpowered that little water evaporator so much, it was unbelievable.
And then we started to lose one way of two-way com. It was real scratchy.
So he could hear me. So I worked out a binary system. I said, "Look,
if you can hear me, make a noise for a yes. For a no, make two noises."
So I'd hear a "squawk," and for "no," I'd hear
a "squawk, squawk." So I said, "Can you see?"
I'd hear a "squawk, squawk." We were out there. We didn't
have any TDRS [Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, used during the
Shuttle Program], any tracking, and we were cutting across the Indian
Ocean down by Indonesia. I don't think we had an Australia tracking
site. I think we went south of Hawaii, then, before we hit the West
Coast of the U.S. We went a long time. It was nighttime. We saw the
Southern Cross go by. What a hell of a lonely place this is. Here
you're 165 miles up, you know, flying, pressurized. Your buddy's twenty-five
feet back there. He can't see, and we'd lost one way of two-way com.
There's not a thing you can do until you get daylight.
So it came up daylight. He could see it was daylight. I said, "Okay,
Gene. If this doesn't burn off fast, we're going to call it quits
and get out of there." So after five or ten minutes, nothing
happened. So I said, "Okay. Call it quits, Gene. Get out of there."
Of course, he'd been through it procedure-wise. He'd had some of the
connections hooked up, but he was still on the chest pack umbilical.
So he disconnected from the backpack and he couldn't see. He was absolutely
How long could he not see for?
For 125 feet. It was a long tether.
And how long was he unable to do it? How many minutes was he not able
to see for? Was it a long time or a few minutes?
Was he unable to see? How long was he fogged up when he was out there?
Oh, hell, you have thirty-six minutes of daylight, and he fogged over
in a couple of minutes. So he was thirty minutes of nighttime he couldn't
see. We came out in daytime, he couldn't see. He just had this fog
over him. So I said, "Stick one of your arms up." I looked
in the rear-view mirror and saw this arm come up. I said, "Okay."
There was a rail on the top of Gemini. I said, "I'll kind of
guide your hand over." So I says, "Move your hand over,
start to float up." By then I started reeling in the tether.
Is said, "Stick your hand up." I reel left, right. He finally—I
said, "Right there." He grabbed a hold of it. Then blindfolded,
I said, "Just walk hand over hand." So he walked hand over
hand, blindfolded. Then I kept pulling. I had this big 125-foot snake—it
was about that big—in the Gemini cockpit. I kept trying to get
it down. I was pressurized, [unclear] and work it.
So he finally got close. I said, "Swing your feet around."
So he finally got around. I reached up, and I grabbed one of his feet.
Of course, I was pressurized. I put him down in the ejection seat
and turned his face towards the sun the best I could, and finally
I suggested, I said, "Look. Take one of your hands and pull down
on the helmet as much as you can and put your head up and see if you
can take your nose and rub a hole on it." So he did that, and
he could find a little hole he could see.
Meanwhile, we hit the West Coast. I said, "Look, I've called
it off. He's fogged over, he can't see. We've semi-lost one way of
two-way com. I'm not going to fly the rocket pack." My main thing
is to get him in before the next sunset. So we got all squared away,
and he got in, and we worked out this maneuver. Still, he couldn't
see hardly a thing. So he got down. I helped guide him down. He knew
how to feel on this thing. So he came in closer, and I just reached
over and grabbed this over-the-center mechanism and slammed it and
then reached up, pressurized, you know, and latched it home and dogged
the hatch shut and turned up the air flow valve. We was wedged down
in the seat. Then as the pressure came up, our suits decreased.
So finally he got back in his seat, raised his visor, and his face
was pink, like he'd been in a sauna. He says, "Help me get off
my gloves, too." So I helped him get his gloves off, and his
hands were absolutely pink. So I took the water gun and just hosed
him down. You shouldn't squirt water around in a spacecraft. Turns
out he lost about ten and a half pounds in two hours and ten minutes
outside. That was the third day.
We landed the next day. By the way, the ride on the carrier, I want
to tell you about that. We got the suit back to Houston, and the next
morning they still poured a pound and a half of water out of each
boot. So they figured he was pumping 4,500 to 5,000 BTUs an hour out
What a thought that must have been for him, too, to be out there and
not be able to see. God!
So we said, "There's got to be a better way to train. There's
a lot we don't know about walking in space." And after that is
when we came up with the idea about training under water.
How did you come up with that idea? How did that come about?
Well, various people had been thinking about it. We said, "You've
got to do something." So they started working on the idea after
Gemini IX, because we said, "Hey, we just can't go like this,
because you're going to have to walk in space and various things in
the future." I think Buzz [Edwin E.] Aldrin [Jr.] finally got
in to train on it for XII, and he really worked out the handholds,
so he had it worked out pretty good by then.
And they put a defogger in after that?
Oh, yes. We put a defog on, put defog on the visors. Even though [Michael]
Collins and Dick [Richard F.] Gordon [Jr.] had a hard time, they huffed
and puffed, but they had lots more handholds and things, trained under
water. Buzz Aldrin had a chance to train under water more. Now, they
just barely started training. So it worked out. But the whole thing
came after Gemini IX, when we said, "We've got to do something
Now, an interesting point. When we were suiting up down in this trailer
we had on Pad 16, you have the suit tech with you. There's two different
rooms. Of course, when you suit up—it wasn't even sophisticated
like Apollo, where you could talk to each other, had radios. You couldn't
talk till you got plugged into the spacecraft. So Deke Slayton came
in. I had my longhandles on and I had my urine collection device on.
I was putting my suit on, and he told the suit tech to get out, he
had to talk to me. He came in and shut the door and said, "I
need to talk to you, Tom." He said, "Look, this is the first
time we've got this long EVA, this rocket pack, and NASA management's
decided that in case Cernan dies out there, you've got to bring him
back, because we just can't afford to have a dead astronaut floating
around in space." We'd never thought about that or anything.
So I thought for a minute, and I said, "Jesus Christ, Deke."
I mean, all these thoughts went through my mind. I said, "Look,
to bring him back, I've got to have the hatch open because of that
cord going out." And I said, "Here I'm going to have to
fly it." There's no autopilot to retrofire. You flew it. You
flew the retrofire maneuver. You had autopilot for straight forward
or straight back or straight forward, but any maneuver you made, you
had to fly it. In retrofire, you had to hold it. And you had an autosequence,
but you had to back it up. We'd never simulated what all this total
mass would do to that Gemini like this. I said, "What will happen
to the hatch if the thing's floating around during retrofire?"
I says, "Then suppose I get through retrofire and I blow off
the adapters and start down, I've got to roll the thing." I said,
"You know the spacecraft has got a real low stability coefficient
on the thing." I used a few other words, too. And I said, "Then
I hit the fireball, and I've got this hatch. What the hell is going
to keep that hatch as I roll the spacecraft trying to hit for the
aim point with this mass behind me is bumping the hatch open and all
And I says, "Furthermore," I said, "he's got all these
six layers, all this superinsulate. All I've got is this one layer
of nylon on top the rubber bladder and I've got 3200 degrees Fahrenheit
plasma about three inches from my shoulder. How long do you think
this damned suit's going to last?" And I says, "Furthermore,
if I get through all that and I come down the drogue, I know a bunch
of that, insulated as he is, and all that, and that cord, that's going
to survive. What's that going to do to the drogue chute? Then I put
out the main parachute. What's it going to do to the main parachute
with all that stuff hanging up there?" I says, "Even if
that would hit the water with the damned hatch open, what's going
And he says, "Well, what do you want me to tell NASA management?"
I said, "You tell them that when the bolts blow, I'm the commander
and I'll make the decision. That's it."
"All right." He left.
So anyway, we get all buttoned up. So we finally—you know, [unclear]
he was all ready way before me because this discussion with Slayton.
So we get all plugged in, and Gene says, "Hey, Tom," he
says, "Dick was in there talking to you quite a while. What did
I said, "He said he just hoped we'd have a good flight."
And finally, after we did splash down, after the final thing, we're
back in the crew quarters having a drink, I told him what Deke said.
It was pretty rudimentary in those days, Bill.
[Laughter] That's interesting.
So anyway, it came everything, so we got finished with the EVA, and
he nearly froze that night because of all this water in his suit.
Did he stay in the suit?
Oh, hell, you couldn't get out of the—
You couldn't get out of the suit?
No. Hey, I had ride with my feet one on top of the other, and the
way you had visibility, you had a window right here in front of your
face about this distance. You could get the helmet underneath your
knees and the gloves in there.
So he's soaking wet from sweating so much, and he's sitting in that
suit all night.
Yes. That ten and a half pounds, you know, this is—
Of course, some of it got evaporated a little bit in the spacecraft
But we retrofired and came in. Also, I called the ship as we passed
over it, told them to be right on us. I said the platform looked good
the best I could tell. We came across at nighttime, we fired the retros
right on, really held them. You had a notch about twenty degrees down
on the eight ball, over the horizon, and you controlled the retro
pattern by hand, blew off the retroadapter, turned upside down, and
started our lift factor in. Then I flew the needles. You know, I flew
just the roll [unclear] all the way in, and right at the last he was
reading out what this little chart we had, what the given longitude
was, and the right [unclear] pushing too fast, split S, so I rolled
over and pulled the lift vector full down.
And here was the Wasp coming and the first time I ever saw it on live
TV, and right there we were. In fact, he had to turn the Wasp like
this and back down some screws, just boom, right there. It was right
off the East Coast here. They had five C-band radars tracking us,
and we splashed down 0.38 nautical miles from the aim point. That's
the closest of any Gemini-Apollo landing, or the first Shuttle landing,
because John [W.] Young and [Robert L.] Crippen floated long, you
know, from their aim point. So we did that on Gemini IX, 800 yards,
0.38 nautical miles.
That's amazing, from that far out in space to all the way in like
Yes, firing retros, out by Hawaii, hitting down there right off the
Atlantic Ocean. So that was quite a—we did a lot on that one.
That was a pretty exciting one. And Gemini played an important role
in the preparations for the Apollo.
Without Gemini, we could have never gone to the Moon. Now, some people
said, after Mercury, "Why don't we just go do Apollo?" Well,
you know, what we learned on rendezvous and about the orbrate ball,
about inertial needles, how you approach it, the problems you can
have about walking in space, the docking, the whole thing, a precise
touchdown—no, Gemini proved the whole theory out. It was really
a great step. It was ten manned missions and two unmanned.
So after Gemini, we went into the Apollo Program.
Yes, and we started out with various crews. You have to look at the
history on all that. One time—I was on the crew with Frank Borman,
they changed crews around, and I ended up as a back-up commander for
the second mission of Apollo, which was to have McDivitt, I think
[David R.] Scott and [Russell L.] Schweikart and I had Cernan and
Young. I was running the test out in spacecraft O-14, a Block I spacecraft,
at the same time that White, [Roger B.] Chaffee, and [Virgil I. “Gus”]
Grissom were running the final countdown demonstration test at the
Cape on 0-12.
Now, we had oxygen in the suit, but you didn't have oxygen in the
spacecraft. That's the only difference. I mean, there was electrical
shorts. Coolant loops were leaking water and glycol. It was just a
mess. I remember John Young said, "Go to the Moon. This damned
thing won't even go to Earth's orbit." We had this inward sealing
hatch that a bunch of us had griped about, versus an outward opening
hatch. And then Young dropped the hatch on his foot while getting
out. He got out.
I remember Al [Alfred M.] Worden was one of our support [unclear].
I'd heard about the—I was up on the gantry and the other two
guys were still in the spacecraft. "Have you heard about the
accident at the Cape?"
I says, "No. What?"
"We had a fire on the pad."
And right away, fire on the pad, I thought about the booster. I said,
"Was the crew hurt or anything?"
He said, "They're dead."
I said, "How?" I couldn't figure out the spacecraft was
on fire. I didn't understand it. So I leaned down and said, "Hey,
guys, get out of here quick. Come on. Let's go. Forget any debriefs."
So I got them down on the floor, and I told them what Worden had relayed,
and didn't know any of the details.
Of course, the spec they had was five pounds per square inch pure
oxygen, was what we flew in space, that things would not auto-ignite
at 400 degrees. Well, it turns out gasoline passed that spec. At 400
degrees pure—you know, gasoline, five pounds per—but all
it takes is a spark, and the center of that spark is about five to
six thousand degrees, the center of an electrical spark, and that
sets off things next to it and—BANG—you're off to the
You know, huge stand-down. Lots of people said we ought to cancel
the Apollo Program and all this.
Was there a lot of political pressure at that time or pressure within
Well, LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson] was President, and he had Democratic
control of Congress, and they used to have a lot of horsepower. It
was still the Russians were pushing. The Russians still had a head
of steam. So there was a few detractors, but the main thing was, when
you fly, be sure it's done right. Even though they said at a meeting,
I think there was a lot of pressure, you know, for schedule pressure
at the time.
[James E.] Webb was the administrator at the time.
How was his response, do you think, different perhaps later on than
when [Dr. William R.] Graham was the administrator after Challenger,
or were there just different times? How did Webb respond to the accident
perhaps differently than Graham did, or at all?
Well, Webb was devastated, but he said it would be thoroughly investigated,
would be explained to everybody, and we still had a destiny to go
on to the Moon, but we wouldn't go until it was done right. So one
of the great guys we had, now dead, General Sam [Samuel C.] Phillips.
In fact, before that, he wrote the famous Phillips Report about 1965
or '66, said that North American was very sloppy in their procedures
and that they had all types of process problems and everything else.
Mueller, George [E.] Mueller, was pushing a little bit, but Phillips
would listen to us.
I think that in the end, they looked at all the recommendations, and
so we delayed. That was in January of '67, and we finally had our
first orbital flight. They went to a Block II spacecraft, to change
the configuration, but they still flew a modified Block I, and that
was Apollo 7. I was the back-up commander for that. They reshifted
the crews, then, around, and I became the back-up commander to the
first flight, to Wally [Walter M. Schirra, Jr.], and I had Cernan
and Young with me.
I'm curious. When they were assigning the crews on that, were the
personalities important? Who was assigning the crews and what were
the characteristics they were looking for?
In crew assignment, you assign a commander. It was Deke and Al [Alan
B.] Shepard [Jr.] getting together, really. The commander had his,
I guess, first right of refusal. They wouldn't make anybody fly with
the commander if the commander didn't want.
So they'd give you your choice, or they'd tell you, "These are
the guys we're going to put on," and you'd get veto power?
So then you went on and flew Apollo 10.
Right, after we had 7. Then we thought the Russians had flown just
a free return trajectory around with kind of a Zond spacecraft. So
they wanted to try to push them. So they hurried up, and it was only
the third flight of the Saturn V and the first flight of a Block II
spacecraft. I don't think NASA would do that today. But George [M.]
Low sent Apollo 8 around the Moon, did an orbit of sixty miles for
ten revs, twenty hours, and came back.
Then 9 was an Earth orbit with a lunar module. And then I flew 10
out there. My lunar module was too heavy to land. They gave Grumman
$10,000 a pound for every pound they could cut out of the spacecraft.
Originally I had Lunar Module 5 and Neil [A. Armstrong] had 6. That
one was the first one to land. We knew that we'd take about five crews
and rotated them through, and somebody will land, because there wasn't
any designated crew from the start that would land.
There was no designated crew? Was there any talk about moving Apollo
10 up and that being the landing crew?
They wanted me to—but first we looked at the weight. I had a
heavy weight lunar module, number one, and number two, they also didn't
have the software all worked out for that power descent. So, there's
no way I could have done it.
So it could have been any one of a number of crews that landed on
Right. It could have been me. It could have been Armstrong. It could
have been [Charles C. “Pete”] Conrad [Jr.]. It could have
So when they first assigned them, was that known, that Armstrong would
be the commander?
When did that decision end up being made? When did they make the decision
for 10 that you wouldn't land?
Well, the main thing, they said we'd have these various flights. They
didn't name Neil to that flight until after Apollo 8.
So you went and flew Apollo 10.
Right, in May of '69.
And how did that mission go? How was it?
Good. We flew the first lunar module out there. Interesting little
things, how if you change a process, how it bites you. In the old
days, we would pressurize our suit in the suiting room. We'd suit
up. Then we'd get in the spacecraft. Then they'd pressurize them again.
When you pressurized them, it would loosen up the harness. The booster
that McDivitt had had more payload in that series than what 8 had.
What the people in Huntsville had done, they'd carved 20,000 pounds
of weight out of the structure of the second stage. So under the G
force, it kind of became a balloon.
Anyway, McDivitt [unclear] this huge lunge forward. Well, we shut
down. Gee, it was like a giant train wreck. Also, he complained about
pressuring the suits and how it kind of plugged our ears up and all
this. So on us, we were strapped in. We didn't pressurize the suits
in the spacecraft. And when that first stage shut down, we're out
here. It was like a train wreck. [Demonstrates] Like that. Jesus!
But also, another thing, it amplified. We had a steel bar that was
a ground support attached to the couch, and the last thing the tech
was to do before we shut the hatch was to take that and store it.
He didn't do that, and so here you have this—see, when McDivitt's
harnesses are loose, he just kind of got—what we got was a high
frequency. We got this thing plus it's kind of like a cantilever [unclear]
with that brace there. And then we got the same thing when the second
stage shut down, it was compressed, you know. Not as much.
But also we pioneered—I'd been in space twice before, so all
we had was a black and white TV camera. The first flew on Apollo 8—I
mean Apollo 7, 8, and then 9. I said, "We can do better than
that." So I started the skunk works, got Chris [Christopher C.]
Kraft [Jr.] to back me, George [M.] Low, and we got a low light level
videocom that had been used in Vietnam declassified. We got a rotating
color wheel with an actuated motor off a Minuteman missile and got
three lenses from France. For some reason they also had the dynamic
range, and they hand-built here three color TV cameras. We put them
on board about a week before launch. The first time you ever saw color
TV from space was when we did that on Apollo 10. We had more prime
time on Apollo 10 than we did on 11 or any of the others.
Everything was squared away. We went around the world one and a half
times. Then we started to kick on the third stage over Australia.
We broke out in—you're upside down so you could look out for—
If you're like this and you start to climb, you'll lose the horizon
reference. So we're upside down. As it broke out in sunrise, you could
see the Earth, lots more round than we'd ever saw it before. We started
climbing out in space, but as we neared the end of the burn, the whole
thing started to really shake and rattle. I called over to John, I
says, "Damn, John, it feels like flooding." I had the abort
switch. I mean, it was shaking, the whole thing. I couldn't figure
out what was the forcing function doing this. I'd never seen that
before. The instrument panel was going like that. [Demonstrates] I
had the abort handle here. I figured, you know, hell, we were up around
31,000 feet per second. I said, "I've gone this far. If it blows,
it blows, you know." [Laughter]
So it finally shut down right on time. I said, "Hey, go back."
So we shut down, go back, and check that telemetry. We had one hell
of a ride, that vibration. We couldn't see the instrument panel. It
was going like that. [Demonstrates] So what they determined was, the
third stage is pressurized by helium bottles, and they had vent valves,
and the vent valves were set too close and they started oscillation,
and that oscillation, the pressure, was feeding into the engine. So
it started this chugging. Then, on top of that, we still had that
bar hooked to our couch. That gave us like a cantilevered thing. So
you look at all that. So you keep running into these unexpected things.
The most impressive sight, I think, that really changed your view
of things is when you first see the Earth. Of course, we shut down
and maneuvered over to an attitude where the sun would be over the
shoulder, and then we switched seats, and John Young got in the left
seat, because he flew the entry and he had to fly the docking. So
we counted down. We had to pressurize the tunnel, pressurize the lunar
module with pressure and then hook up the cables. It took us about
three hours. Of course, you really move out real fast.
We then, at the right time, exploded off the command module, turned
around. We had docked with the lunar module, and finally, at the right
time, we undocked the lunar module and moved to an attitude where
we're ninety degrees to the Earth, Moon, Sun, because then we go into
a barbecue mode for heating. We'd rotate it one rev every twenty minutes.
So you don't fly to the Moon; you barbecue to the Moon. You can stop
for two or three hours to do a star sign. You have super insulation,
but after that one side heats up too much, the other one cools down.
So anyway, we left the third stage and hit the digital autopilot and
started maneuvering over this attitude and looking around, and finally
we saw it. It was awesome. I won't repeat what we said here on tape.
[Laughter] By then, when we saw it, it was about the size of a basketball,
and it was just shrinking and going away. It was a real funny feeling.
But then later you get used to it. At the end of the day, it's down
to the size of a soccer ball. You wake up the next morning, and it's
more like a big grapefruit. Finally, by the time you get out to the
Moon, it's about the size of an orange.
And the Moon was getting bigger in front of you.
That was weird. We were told that because of the trajectory we would
fly, we would not see the Moon until we got there. And that's kind
of weird, looking around. You see the Earth go by every twenty minutes,
see the Sun go by. Where in the hell is the Moon? And the way the
trajectory was and everything, the Moon was eclipsed. Finally, we
got—well, a few hours out from the Moon, you could maybe see
one little rim of it, hardly a rim. But most of the way to the Moon,
we never saw it. Now, we saw it all the way back. Then the Earth started
to be eclipsed, and just before we came back to see the Earth, all
you could see was a little thin blue line of the Earth. So it was
kind of unique.
What was it like when you were going around the back side of the Moon
and the Earth was no longer in sight and you were on the dark side
of the Moon? What was that feeling like as you were doing that?
Well, we'd been out in daylight for three days, and you don't see
any stars with the naked eye until you get about 80 or 90,000 miles
out. There's so much reflected light from the Earth. So you don't
see stars in the daytime ever with the naked eye. You can see it with
optics, but not with the naked eye. Of course, at nighttime you see
far more, just two orders of magnitude more.
So we went to get squared away, and right within a second—BOOM—the
Earth goes down. The Earth disappears. There's this big black void.
Down below the Earth, when it goes nighttime, you always see lights
and cities and gas fires. There's just all kinds of lights around,
and lightning all over. Just a big black void. So we left the Earth.
It disappeared. It was quiet.
Got turned around, and suddenly—couldn't see anything, and suddenly,
about sixty seconds, we were all set, just counting down. Right below
us, here comes the Moon, right out in daylight. So it was a real funny
feeling there. It really looked weird. And to me, the color of the
Moon in early morning and late at night always looked a little reddish
tinge on the top of the mountains. Some people say it's always white
and black. I thought it was reddish, with maybe some charcoal grays
I made the maneuver and then pitched around for the attitude, got
the TV on and everything, and here comes the Earth up. We showed that
on TV, what an Earthrise was. So it was two hours as orbit, velocity,
and period around the Moon. In fact, you think you're going to stall
out, you're going so slow. Orbit's 25,700 feet per second around the
Earth, it's about 5,500 feet per second around the Moon. And 5,500
feet per second versus 25,000, you're just barely creeping compared
to the way you're going.
So we went through the procedures, got a little bit of rest, and then
got squared away. Cernan and I had already checked out some of the
lunar module on the way up, got the rest of it. We got all in there,
all set to go, to undock, and John couldn't vent the tunnel. So we
slipped it, and we could not vent the tunnel. Now, the one thing we
were always concerned about was the docking mechanism on Apollo. You
had these three latches on the end of a drogue that ran into a metal
thing called a probe, and we had more failures of those in tests.
It's unbelievable. So if there's any weak link, it's getting back
together on a rendezvous.
So we talked to the ground. We finally decided that, well, here he
couldn't vent the tunnel, so we decided, well, we'll give it a try
and undock, because that may screw us up, too much pressure. There's
a lot of pressure on that at 5 psi. So he undocked and extended it,
and the pressure bent it, you know. Then we held and we cut loose,
and we showed live TV a picture of the command module. He showed us
back and forth. So it was kind of unique.
We got all squared away and started our maneuver to go down to about
nine miles above the mountains and do two low passes, check out the
landing radar, because if the landing radar doesn't work to update
your state vector, you couldn't land. And it turned out the radar
locked on to the lunar surface way in excess of spec, which was good.
So as to what we did, we undocked and went way up high above him and
came down low to get phasing behind him in case we had to abort to
come up. So we did that, went down.
What always amazed me was the size of the boulders. They were awesome,
these big ones, you know, huge things. Some of them are pure white
with black striations up on the side of these gigantic craters. I
said, oh, they'd have to be as big as a two- or three-story building.
It's hard to judge distance. Here on the Earth, even from space, you
can still see some roads and you can see cities. You can kind of judge
some distance. No roads up there. No section lines. So anyway, it
turns out those things are bigger than the Astrodome, those boulders.
I mean, they were awesome pieces of mass.
[Chuckles] What I didn't know, I remember we came by this great crater
Sinserinus [phonetic]. This really is a—white [unclear] and
all this, these giant boulders. After I got back, Jack Schmidt, who
flew on 17, was a geologist, he says, "Hey, do you know what
you said, Tom, when you went past Sinserinus?"
I says, "No. What?"
He said, "'Hey, look at that. There's Sinserinus, bigger than
So the people said, "What did Stafford say?"
Jack Schmidt said, "There's Sinserinus, bigger than Schmidt."
[Laughter] So there was all kinds of jokes like that.
Did the second little pass, came back around. All set to stage off,
and I notice the thrusters started to fire. I looked down and I could
see I had a yaw rate, but I could tell by the eight ball I wasn't
yawing. So I talked to Cernan, and started firing again. We were all
buttoned up, and I started troubleshooting, went to the AGS [phonetic]
position and all that, but the first thing you know—BOOM—the
whole damned spacecraft started to tumble and tried to rotate like
that. And real fast, I just reached over and just blew off the descent
stage, because all the thrusters were on the ascent stage, get better
torque-to-inertia ratio, because we're heading over towards gimble
lock on the main platform. See, it was designed—we had two separate
types of platforms. We had a three-gimble platform. We'll never have
three-gimble platforms again, you know.
So I got it around there, and we got it squared away in about twenty
seconds and got ready and lined up, but during that period of time
we forgot we were on hot mike, and Apollo 10 became X-rated. [Vantine
laughs] But we did the burn down close, because the lunar gravity
is so low, when you're down like that, you want to make sure, if you
make a few-feet-per-second maneuver, you want to make it in the right
direction or else you're going to be going the wrong way in a hurry.
And we did that and came back up, did a perfect rendezvous and got
all squared away, and we decided because the lunar module, at least
the ascent stage, is so light, the command module has more inertia
and he has a tighter deadband, we'd come up line it in place, then
let the command module dock, and that's what we did.
We got all squared away, hooked up, pressurized, did the garbage—you
know, put all the stuff back there. Then we got the hatches all sealed
up, couldn't vent it again, but then we had to put on our pressure
suits, all buttoned up, then we fired explosive bolts. That took off
like a bat out of hell because you had 5 psi in there plus the explosive
thing. Snoopy was the lunar module. And then later the ground commanded
it off in a propulsion test. Did it leave the Earth-Moon system? Anyway,
it's going around the sun.
And after we got back, we found out, as they examined the part of
the command module, it shows that for the vent it had a valve here,
it had a non-propulsive vent, just a line that went up that had a
nut on top of it, and it had these dash holes where a tech was supposed
to drill the holes. Didn't drill them. So that's why they couldn't
Small little things.
When you got back, would you debrief the next crew? I mean, would
you debrief 11? And what were some of the lessons that you passed
on to them?
Lessons learned. The way we could streamline the procedures, what
to expect on the rendezvous, the descent, everything. We concentrated
on that. So really Neil and Buzz [Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.] concentrated
on the power descent down on the EVA on the surface, and the ascent,
because we did everything else. We had all the procedures worked out.
Come back and tell them about it, what you learned, etc.
So two months later they went the last nine miles we didn't go. Then
after that, after Apollo 10, I replaced Al Shepard as head of the
So then you were in charge of selecting the next crews?
Yes. See, by then they'd already selected through 14 or 15, so I was
in charge of 16 and 17, and starting the first Skylab group. Then
after Shepard flew, he wanted to come back to the astronaut group.
We never filled the slot of deputy director flight crew operations,
so I moved up there.
And then you went on, obviously, afterwards and after Apollo was over,
and we went on to the Apollo-Soyuz Program.
How were you selected? How were you named the commander of the Apollo-Soyuz
Well, that was, I think, primarily Chris Kraft. Chris Kraft was by
then center director, was Chris Kraft.
And because you had had rendezvous experience, or what was he looking
Well, I'd had three missions before me, you know, and had more rendezvous
What was it like as you prepared? How much time did you have to spend
in Russia? What was the preparation like?
First I went on a negotiating trip before I was named to a crew, for
two weeks, and then we spent five periods of time for a month to six
weeks at a time in Russia, and the cosmonauts spent about an equal
number of times here in Houston, training.
Did you receive intensive Russian language training?
Well, what happened, we started out, when we first got named, the
Russians didn't want to name the crews until six months before the
mission. We said, "Hey, this isn't going to hack it." We
insisted a minimum of two years. We even jumped them on that, so we
named our crews in February of '73, and the Russians didn't name their
until the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget in June of '73, and then they
came over right away and started training. We needed every bit of
that, but originally we'd have a lady come down from the State Department—that
was in their language training—and teach us Russian.
So we kind of leaped ahead of them, because all the Russians of that
vintage had never studied English in school. But in the old days,
you know, Stalin just hated the British, he hated Americans, so the
only English taught was in the universities, and not much of it then.
But within a couple of years after the death of Stalin, English started
to be the major language taught in the schools, so the very youngest
cosmonauts could speak it very good, had a pretty good background.
So we started out ahead of them, and then by Christmas we were over
there, of '73. Each one of them had a private English professor with
them all the time, and they were skunking us, and I knew that I had
to speak Russian as well as he spoke English when we opened that hatch.
So I called back to Chris Kraft, put a call, says, "Chris, we
got a real problem here." And I talked to Glynn [S.] Lunney,
who was also the program director. I said, "I need at least four
professors full time. We need them from early morning till late at
night, no union rules, Saturday, Sunday, if I'm going to make this
He says, "We'll do it, Tom." So we got four profs in here
in the office, and they were with us just about day and night.
We were at the height of the Cold War then. When you would go over
there, how would you be treated?
We got VIP treatment then. In fact, at times they wouldn't let other
people off the airplane until we got off the plane. We never went
through Immigration. We'd just be up in the VIP lounge, and we'd have
to have drinks of vodka with them, all that. We always got personal
escorts. We lived in the Rossea [phonetic] the first time, that old
hotel. They say it's the biggest hotel in the world. They're so proud
of it. It's right next to the Kremlin. I complained about it, so they
put us up in the Intouriste [phonetic] next time.
But every morning we'd go out to Star City to train. We'd have a bus.
It was about half as big as a big touring bus, and we'd have a American
and Soviet flag, and we'd have two police cars, kind of like Volkswagens.
Here we'd get out the bullhorn, yelling the peasants off the road.
We'd have police escorts out in back.
So we stayed there at the Intouriste a couple of times, and finally
in July of '74—we saw in '73, when we were over there, they
were building this hotel by a little lake. It was built in Star City.
So we were the first ones in this hotel. It was about a two- or three-story
hotel. That's where the crews stayed for quarantine now before or
afterwards, all that.
Would they follow you? Did they monitor you, the KGB?
You mean the KGB?
Oh, sure. Yes. And I had this professor, [unclear]. He was a Russian,
but his father and grandfather were in a prison camp, but he was up
in the northern [unclear]. When he got out, the Germans brought him
back—the British brought him back, and so, unfortunately, he
was in a British cell, and so when [Franklin D.] Roosevelt repatriated,
had the people go back who were prisoners, and Stalin, you know, killed
most of them or put them in labor camps. So he finally got to the
States. But he had a lot of relatives back there. There were some
kind of liberals, and they called them refuseniks and those
people back there, and he wanted to go by and see them occasionally.
So we'd always hang out in the Marine bar in the embassy, and they'd
always give me a car and a driver, and I'd have him with me. One time
we'd been drinking up at the embassy, having a social hour. [Chuckles]
Okay. So he wanted to go someplace [unclear], so we looked back, and
we noticed this car was behind us that had one headlight out. Obviously
they didn't know they had one headlight. I told Anatoly, I said, "Look,
tell this driver [unclear] fast!" He'd turn and here this one-eyed
car kept after us. Ah! Okay. So he stopped and talked to [unclear].
We were feeling pretty good then, so "Let's have some fun with
these guys." Don't worry about the language, okay?
So we got in this Moscow ring called the Garden Ring. So we were giving
him maneuvers. There were a lot of cars back and forth. Pretty soon
we got them boxed in, and they had to slide up alongside of us. So
I pulled right up alongside, you know, and here was a guy. It looked
like the cops. They all had topcoats on and hats. There was two guys
in the front and a man and a woman in the back. I reached over and
knocked on their window, like that. I says, "[Russian phrase]!"
which means, in a polite sense, "Comrade, fuck you." [Laughter]
They had their coats up like that. We were always being trailed.
They were always—
Oh, yes. But in a way, I think—well, for their reporting, but
also to be sure that nothing happened to us, too.
Yes. Then you and [Alexei A.] Leonov became quite good friends.
Oh, very close friends.
Did you hit it off right away?
Well, we started to, yes. He's a very outgoing guy, and he's like
a brother to me now. You know, they were supposed to be atheists.
Once after we got to know each other, we were speaking without an
interpreter, we were having dinner one night in a restaurant in Moscow,
I think the Orugby [phonetic]. That's a famous Georgian restaurant.
He told me about when he did his first space walk in space—that
was the only flight he'd flown before that—and how the suit
had ballooned. He hardly didn't make it back in. He says, "[Russian
phrase]," "Thank God I got in." But he's supposed to
be an atheist.
So we had some wonderful experiences there, traveled in a lot of the
western part of the Soviet Union and Russia on weekends.
Do you still keep in touch with him?
Oh, yes. Sure do. I and him and [Vladimir G.] Titov, [unclear], we
had a rehab of the Space Hall at the Air and Space Museum when they
reopened it in May, and afterwards I had him come down to Florida.
Leonov brought Titov with us, and we spent four days. Had him fishing
and out snorkeling.
So as you got ready for the Apollo-Soyuz docking there, what were
some of the highlights of that mission?
Each crew would speak his own language, and the other one would have
to understand. They continued to have these little parties for us
called "[Russian term]." Sometimes they're called "[Russian
term]," usually a U-shaped table with water, vodka, cognac, crab,
caviar, bread, fish. I was talking with the back-up commander, Anatoliy
[V.] Filipchenko. He'd been a Soviet test pilot and flown once. We
were trying to converse, and it just wasn't—we just weren't—it
was like ESP [Extrasensory Perception] that came to us both at the
same time. I said, "Look, I'll speak Russian to you, and you
speak English to me. Maybe we can understand it better." So we
started, and, boy, it worked slick as a whistle. So we had a couple
more drinks, and it even started working better. [Chuckles] So we
said next day at the negotiating table we'd see about practicing this
way, because if you are not extremely fluent in a foreign language,
you'll always speak it more distinctly and you'll speak it slower,
and that's what I did in space. All the things to them I spoke in
Russian. They spoke English to me.
Interesting. Interesting. So then when you docked in space and you
went for the mission, that was quite an historic mission.
Was there any apprehension at all about working with the Russians
from your perspective or from the JSC [Johnson Space Center] perspective
at that time, or were we very excited about it, about the opportunity
to work with the Russians? Any concern about technology transfer?
I think it was a natural follow-on. We'd flown Apollo. That was finished.
Skylab had been terminated. And the next thing coming was the Shuttle,
but you could tell the Shuttle was going to be a long ways off, and
the Russians were still going. So it was a natural extension. It was
started by initial conversation between Bob [Robert C.] Seamans [Jr.],
the deputy administrator of NASA back then, later Secretary of the
Air Force, and also [Mstislav V.] Keldysh, who replaced [Sergei P.]
Korolev as head of their space exploration, and he was then head of
the Academy of Science. So that's how it came about.
Was it after that mission that you retired, or what did you do after
Well, before that mission, I knew General Sam Phillips so well, you
know, who headed Apollo, close friends. I'd stop off to see him, going
back and forth to Russia occasionally. He was by then commanding general
of Systems Command, National Security Agency Systems Command. I was
a one-star general. So we talked. So he called me, said, "Say,
I've got a great slot for you. I'd like to have you come back to the
Air Force. I'd like you to take over the Flight Test Center."
Of course, that's where I left, you know, except for my few days at
Harvard. So I said, "Sure." So I went back to the Flight
Test Center at Edwards in November of '75.
But afterwards, right after the mission, we came back, we had a tour
with our families. I insisted we take our families there, because
we'd spent so much time away from them on training on this. So we
did and had a tour. We went there in an Air Force plane, a 135. Went
to Moscow, all around, meeting with all the people, and we went to
St. Petersburg, then down to Kiev, and then out to Novosibirsk, Odessa,
____sochi and Tbilisi. So we had a great time.
Then the cosmonauts came here to Washington [DC] and met with the
President just like we met with [Leonid] Brezhnev, and I gave Brezhnev
a letter from [President Gerald R.] Ford. Went to Washington, went
to Omaha, went to Salt Lake [City, Utah], went to L.A., Disneyland,
went to Reno [Nevada]. We were going to go to Las Vegas, but the Russians
thought it would be "[Russian phrase.]" It would be anti-revolutionary
to have those guys showing that they were in Las Vegas. [Vantine laughs]
So we had to go to Reno and Lake Tahoe. So that was all right. Then
we went to San Francisco and then back to Washington. It was a great
You want to take a break? [Tape recorder turned off.]
It was run by a very small group of people. If you had a problem,
you could just go right to the main decision-maker. [James A.] Chamberlin
got it started, I think, but he got relieved. Oftentimes you see a
big program like that, the initial program manager runs into a problem,
you always end up with a second one. So, Chuck Mathews took it over
and he did a wonderful job, and he finished it.
You know we had just a small group at McDonnell Aircraft running it,
and at the launch pad you had Lieutenant Colonel Jack Albert, and
then you had a Colonel Otto Ledford [phonetic] out on the West Coast
as his boss. It was very small. In fact, I think the whole launch
pad complex had fifty-five people. So you got to know most of the
sergeants, NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers]. That included Martin
and the Air Force and the Mac-Dac [McDonnell-Douglas] people. So it
was such a small group that you really got to know all the people.
You could solve the problems.
Then going to Apollo was like trying to kick a giant sponge. You hit
as hard as you could, and maybe something might pop out on the other
side. It was awesome. And also you found that people didn't want to
listen in Apollo to what you'd learned in Gemini. They said, "This
is all different. We're going to the Moon." Now, some people
were anxious to, but some of the leadership at the time was not anxious
to hear about the lessons learned in Gemini.
Were they well captured, the lessons learned from Gemini? Could they
have been better captured in the Apollo?
Well, I think so. A bunch of us felt very strong—like the outward-opening
hatch and about the orbrate ball so you know where you are in orbit.
There's just a whole series of things. There's a lot of things, I'm
sure there was, down in the—but also just a very, "That's
Gemini. We're going to the Moon." So the main thing right now
that you need to do is to be sure the lessons learned from Phase 1
on the Shuttle-Mir gets fed over to Phase 2.
Is there a strong analogy between Gemini and Apollo and Shuttle-Mir
and space station?
Sure is. Sure is.
You were involved in the Shuttle-Mir Program when it was first getting
started. Help us understand, perhaps, how that got started. All of
a sudden we were doing Space Station Freedom. That got canceled and
we entered into [Shuttle-Mir]
Well, we started around 1992 when [Boris] Yeltsin came over and had
his summit meeting with [George] Bush, President Bush. There was some
talk about it maybe a little bit with [Mikhail] Gorbachev, but not
much really went on. And then when Yeltsin was there, they talked
about doing a rendezvous up to the Mir, you know, something to repeat,
like Apollo-Soyuz was nearly twenty years before that.
So, after that, then [Daniel S.] Goldin went to a trip to Russia,
his first trip ever, and so he asked me to go with him. I was the
only non-government person to go with him, and all the rest were federal
employees from different agencies, mostly NASA. So they just kept
asking me to volunteer, as you know, for all types of work concerning
the Russians and other things that I've been glad to do.
Whose idea was it to do the Shuttle-Mir Program? How did that get
started? Was it any one person's idea? Where was that idea conceived?
Probably the people who talked about it before it came along was George
[W. S.] Abbey and myself. Of course, I'm sure probably other people
had, but the ones as far as the decision-makers that could—because,
see, Abbey was on that airplane with me, that met with Goldin on that
flight. I know we ran into [Valeri] Ryumin. So I told Goldin later
on he should insist they kick him out of that job as far as the Progress,
manager of it, because originally Ryumin didn't want a Russian cosmonaut
to fly on this, to do a rendezvous. He didn't want—we said,
first of all, have a Russian cosmonaut fly on the shuttle so we'd
get used to working with the Russian language and get all the procedures
and all that, and Ryumin didn't want that. [Unclear]. I says, "Remember,"
I said, "We're in the position now, it's the golden rule. We've
got the gold so we make the rules." So I think O'Conner was a
little taken in by Ryumin's ranting and raving, but I says, "Don't
give him any slack. Just say this is what we're going to do."
Simonov [phonetic], he wanted to sign the document with Goldin along
with Koptev [phonetic]. I says, "No. You just sign it with Koptev."
Then it was decided, you know, what we'd do is do a series of rendezvous
and really work out the work-up for the long-duration mission.
What changes did you see between the time that you had been over there
previously with Apollo-Soyuz and then later with the Shuttle-Mir and
the Goldin trip, not only within the culture, but within the space
Okay. Now, once the top political leadership, the Russians, said,
"Let's do it," I mean, everybody fell in line back in Apollo-Soyuz,
but now, you know, it's a new democratic leadership, and like Ryumin
and Simonov, they don't like Yeltsin. They weren't too happy, I think,
to work with the Americans. The main thing they liked was the money.
The way the Shuttle-Mir was set up was exactly like Apollo-Soyuz with
the various working groups, Working Group Zero, Working Group 1, 2,
3, 4, 5, just like we set up Apollo-Soyuz, worked on the same principle.
Were there changes? Did you witness changes in the Russian space program
between then and today?
Well, of course, they're still using the same booster and spacecraft.
They've upgraded their spacecraft a little bit, electronics, but the
Mir was a whole new thing they hadn't done before. They had
their little Salyut starting to fly, something like this,
the core of the Mir, but that's all they had. But they've
done a good job putting together this whole thing, but you could see
that their infrastructure was really hurting compared to the old days.
There's been a lot of talk that the Russians have taken from us and
we haven't gotten much from them, but earlier you alluded to the rendezvous
technique, for example, was something that we learned from the Russians.
Are there other examples of things that we've gained?
The rendezvous, the way we did rendezvous, that came from the Russians.
That was written by some Russian author on a piece of paper, even
though they never used it a lot directly. Well, the data we got from
them on long-duration missions. The main thing they could have gotten
from us, if we go back to the Apollo-Soyuz, see, Russia was such a
closed society. Like the amount of wheat they produced in a year was
a state secret. The amount of oil they produced was a state secret.
We're the first ones ever—I insisted, when I saw the Control
Center, I wouldn't fly it. We saw the Control Center and the launch
site, and I had to pry it open. But we learned more about where they
were than they learned about where we were. What they could have learned
from us was management, because they're so vertically separated.
They do a lot of good things. Like you look at the redundancy of oxygen
generation now, all the electrons work, and they've got five levels
of redundancy of oxygen on that Space Station, more than we've got.
So we can learn something from them.
Going back before the Shuttle-Mir, going back to shuttle for a little
bit there, on the shuttle, when you were flying the Apollo-Soyuz and
the shuttle was slipping out and slipping out, what was the general
notion on when the shuttle would fly? Was it perceived as a good vehicle
that was about to fly? What was the feeling on the shuttle, when it
would become the real dominant program that it became later in the
manned space program?
Well, you mean back in Apollo-Soyuz days?
Right around Apollo-Soyuz, about '75, the shuttle was—
Yes. See, I was on the back-up crew of the first Gemini. I was the
back-up crew of the first Apollo. So I'd had a little experience about
the development of the vehicle and when they'd fly. Originally it
was supposed to fly in '78. I said, "No way." I remember
that morning I walked out to the gantry on Apollo-Soyuz, looked down
at the [unclear], said, "I bet this is the last manned launch
we're going to have for five years." Supposed to launch in three
years. Well, it turned out it was nearly six years, because it was
March '81 when it finally flew.
And that was just the size of the development program?
I mean, just the sheer complexity of it?
Even though it was scheduled in '78, I said, "There's no way."
That was just based on experience, from being on the first mission
of Gemini and Apollo.
And then when we did shuttle and then we had the Challenger accident,
were there any differences between Challenger versus the Apollo 1
fire at that time when Challenger—
Well, Apollo was first off the pad, and there were a lot of mistakes
made, but where Challenger had been a series of flights all before
that and then you had a failure and there was a series of these things
that caused that failure had been identified, it had been wavered
and swept aside, where it was not so much on Apollo.
What was the cause of the Challenger? Was there a cause of the Challenger?
Besides the O-rings, I mean. We can talk about that. But if somebody
would ask you in your expert opinion what the cause of the Challenger
Not the proper engineering disciplines and quality control and follow-up
of discrepancy reports. In Apollo, it was pretty much, if there was
a problem, I mean, it was widely disseminated, and there wasn't any
wavering or trying to follow up or anything. These people down in
Huntsville just kept just shoving it under the table.
What was the ultimate consequence of Apollo? NASA then sat on the
ground for two years and got ready and—
We changed the management and changed the management structure a little
bit. Now, what happened on Apollo, and I was involved a little bit
on the Rogers Commission, the presidential commission. Gene Culver
[phonetic] is a dear friend of mine, Dr. Gene Culver. There was Don
Cotina [phonetic] and there was Bud Whalen [phonetic], chairman of
Hughes. I knew all three of them very well. What I determined is the
astronaut inputs had been smothered, and there had been a—you
see, in the old days, the astronauts had an awesome amount of power.
I mean super power. There were just a few of us and great publicity.
And a lot of other managers around the center were very jealous of
After [Dr. Robert R.] Gilruth left, there was a concentrated effort
to put the astronauts down to a lower and lower level with more levels
over them. So I told both those people, and later I gave congressional
testimony that the head of flight crew operations should report directly
to the Center director. And that's what they wrote in their report,
and that's what's in the congressional language, and that's what happened.
I went on my own vendetta to get that squared away, and they changed
a lot of ways they did business.
Later, when you were working the synthesis group—you went on
to work the synthesis group, Dick [Richard H.] Truly gave you a call
on that, to do that, how did that come about and what was Truly looking
Well, on the twentieth anniversary of the first lunar landing in July
of 1989, the White House hosted a reception for the Apollo astronauts
and Apollo management still around, and that's when Bush said, that
after the turn of the century we ought to look at returning to the
Moon this time and staying, eventually having an expedition to Mars.
I was sitting out in the audience there with my wife, and I says,
"Gee," I said, "where's the money coming from, Mr.
President?" That was in July, and by November the Berlin Wall
came down, and so I said the amount that the DoD [Department of Defense]
would go down would be far more than we'd ever need to go to Mars.
Now, of course, right away the liberals in Congress started taking
shots at it because it was a Republican President, and right away
he reactivated the Space Council, put the Vice President in charge,
just like [President] Jack Kennedy had LBJ in charge. Then Lyndon
Johnson had Hubert Humphrey in charge of the Space Council. Hubert
didn't do a lot with it. You know, he was a big space buff. But LBJ
really worked it. And then the Space Council was there under [Spiro]
Agnew, under [Richard M.] Nixon, then it got done away with in the
But anyway, Bush reactivated the Space Council, and they had Aaron
Cohen head a study for ninety days to determine how they could go
about it. Well, they had some data, but they put every gold watch
on the table and kept it on the table. Every time you'd go to the
Moon, you'd have four or five shuttle launches up to the station and
transfer fuel from the station to another thing that would take you
So it turns out that I was on the Aeronautics and Space Engineering
Board of the National Research Council, the operational arm of the
Academy of Science and Engineering. This was November. So after the
results of this, [Dan] Quayle and some of the people, Mark Albrecht
over at the Space Council wasn't too happy with it, and they pulled
together a team of thirteen people headed by a former scientist from
MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] named Guy Stevier [phonetic],
and we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner served every day at the Academy
of Science over on Constitution Avenue, and we just really churned
At the end, we said the NASA study was not imaginative, and his idea
was to go faster. After that, he said, "We need to go out there
faster, better, safer, cheaper." And we said that they had completely
ignored nuclear thermal rockets. We asked them why. They said, "Well,
we just politically can't do it."
I said, "Hey, you're not supposed to be a politician. You're
supposed to understand the technical terms." So there were just
all types of things.
So he told Truly to canvass the United States and NASA for all ideas.
He told him that in February. By May, nothing had been done, really.
[Chuckles] And Quayle got really perturbed. So did some of the other
people. So then they activated the American Institute of Aeronautics
and Astronautics to ask all their people, have panels and all this
for ideas. They asked Rand Corporation to set up a 900 number to call
in for ideas, to screen ideas from universities and all that.
Then I got a call from Truly, said that him and J. R. Thompson had
talked to the Vice President and they wanted somebody to volunteer
to put this whole thing together and would I do it. That was in June
of 1990. In fact, I remember Gorbachev was in town, coming to town.
So I thought for a minute, said, "Yes, I'll do it, but with the
proviso that I sit on a lot of boards. I'm not going to give those
boards up for this. I advise a lot of people, and I just will not
advise them on the Moon and Mars in this period of time, and I want
a no-conflict-of-interest letter."
So they got that, and then they said the Vice President wanted to
meet with me. Also, Gorbachev had his meeting over there in the White
House. We had an early summit meeting over in the White House, and
he hosted a special luncheon at the Soviet Embassy which I was invited
to. So I went to the Soviet Embassy for lunch, then had to leave a
little early, and got a cab over to the White House and met with Quayle.
It was Quayle and Mark Albrecht and Truly and myself. I told him I'd
do it, gave him my criteria—I wanted no conflicts of interest.
I'd volunteer half my time and I'd put together the group and would
work that. [Phone rings. Tape recorder turned off.]
So anyway, my criteria from him was to put together the technology
priorities that would be required to go back to the Moon and on to
Mars in two or more different architectures of how you would approach
it. I was riding back in a taxicab to Old Town Alexandria and thought,
well, from what I'd done before, looking at the previous data that
Aaron had done and what we'd done at the National Research Council,
I says, putting together technology priorities, it'll take work, but
that will fall in place. The architecture is going to take a lot of
work and [unclear].
Truly thought I ought to go out to somewhere like Sandia, out in the
mountains. I says, "Nuh-uh. Every decision this country's made
inside this beltway. I'm going to do it right here inside the beltway
so I can call on people and have all that available."
So then he called me, and I said, "I'm going to need a lot of
help from NASA."
He said, "You'll have it." So then that's when he called
me and wanted to know if I wanted George Abbey. So I got George on
board, and we needed to recruit a lot of people. So we ended up with
about forty people full time and a bunch part time, about 150 people
part time, had a senior advisory council. I had General Don Cromer
[phonetic], who I'd known for years. He headed Space Division for
the Air Force, a three-star general. He was the DoD coordinator. Before
that, it goes back years ago, he was the assistant launch tech conductor
on Gemini VI as a captain, and then he was my launch test conductor
on Gemini IX. So we'd known each other, rubbed shoulders, for years.
He did a great job putting it together.
We had people from the Department of Energy working with us, NASA.
John O'Neil came up here about half time. We had just a lot of people,
very talented people. Had Arnold Nicagosian [phonetic], had Minnie
Mott [Mike Mott], Dee Lee [phonetic], Sam Armstrong. So, a lot of
key people. Doug Cook. It was a real fun time.
So we started that and then finally wrapped it up. On June 11, 1991,
the Vice President and I had a joint press conference in the White
House and outlined "America at the Threshold." And that
was it. Which is still, I think, pretty much the architectures. I
think some of the technology was very good, too. You know, electronics
has moved forward and some of the materials.
So the architecture is still good today for what we would do, still
outlines the game plan?
You've witnessed Dan Goldin since he's been in place and kicked off
the Shuttle-Mir with the "better, faster, cheaper," and
been actively involved in some of that.
What are some of your observations on perhaps where we're going?
Well, I think the success you've seen on Mars has just been exactly
what he's tried to talk about, and a lot of the other things he's
done, instead of building these Taj Mahals in the sky. But when you
have a Mars mission, just by nature you've got to have a big mass,
you know, for human exploration of Mars. You need to get that heavy
lift launch vehicle to get things going.
How long do you think before they'll go to Mars and go back to the
Political decision. With this budget crunch, the Balanced Budget Initiative,
Minnie's got a way to look at it and so has George. They wanted me
to get briefed. I don't know when I'll get a chance to, but I'd like
Okay. Thank you. That's it.