Apollo Missions - Earthbound Support Systems Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Apollo Missions - Earthbound Support Systems

0 Conversations

Project Apollo: The Beginnings | Mission Planning | Landing Site Selection | Earthbound Support Systems
Astronaut Selection and Training | The Saturn V | The Saturn 1B | The Apollo Spacecraft
Guidance and Navigation | Command and Service Modules | The Lunar Module
Assembling and Launching | Pathfinders | The Early Missions | Apollo 11, The First Landing
The Intermediate Missions | Apollo 15 Exploration | Apollo 16 Exploration | Apollo 17 Exploration
Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz | Conclusion

Launch of the giant rockets to carry the heavy payloads necessary for lunar missions required a new launch site to accommodate both the size of rocket and the frequency of launches thought to be necessary to meet the 'end of the decade' deadline. In September 1961, NASA began the process of purchasing Merrit Island, a tract of land adjacent to the existing Cape Canaveral missile test site on the eastern seaboard of the Florida peninsula. The site already offered some facilities as well as the advantage of an orbital speed bonus gained from the earth's rotational speed from a near equatorial location on home soil. Also it already had in place a missile tracking network extending 10.000 miles into the Indian Ocean.

Launch Complex 39. Kennedy Space Centre

The site, bounded by the outlets of the Indian and Banana rivers was home to several hundred human inhabitants, as well as pelicans, alligators and mosquitoes. The infestation of mosquitoes was a serious problem whereby millions of the creatures could breed after a period of heavy rainfall. After purchase of the land a systematic campaign was instigated to eradicate the breeding areas and minimise the nuisance.

Clearance of the land began on 31 October, 1962, and construction of Launch Complex 39 (LC39) began on Merrit Island in July 1963 to transform the area into what was to become renamed the John F Kennedy Space Centre, after the death of President Kennedy in November 1963. The largest construction program of its time was overseen by Saturn Project Officer, Rocco Petrone (later to become Director of Launch Operations), who was on loan to NASA from the US Army. The transformation of Merrit Island included a canal and dock to receive the Saturn boosters by sea-going barge from their manufactures, a Vertical Assembly Building (VAB)1 to assemble and test the moonships and plans for four launch pads. The number of launch pads was later reduced to two (39A and 39B) and these were connected to the VAB by a three mile long crawlerway, down which the complete Saturn-Apollo moonships would be transported on mobile crawlers from the VAB. Construction of the launch facility was completed in just under three years and in May 1966 a shake down rehearsal and roll-out to the pad of a non flying Saturn V stack was completed and the complex was open for business

The Vehicle Assembly Building. (VAB)

At the time of its construction the Vehicle Assembly Building encompassed the largest enclosed space in the world and even today dominates the launch site complex LC-39. At the start of the 21st Century the VAB and launch complex is still in use for the assembly and launching of the Space Orbiter. The VAB covers an area equivalent to four American football pitches and stands 525ft high. Popular myth recounts that clouds can form in the roof space if the doors are left open at night. It could contain the components for up to four Saturn/Apollo vehicles in various stages of construction at any one time. Two 250-ton cranes span the VAB's four assembly bays and were used to raise the Saturn stages from horizontal to the vertical and to stack them one on another. Its function was to facilitate the vertical assembly of the Saturn/Apollo stack with a service tower on top of a mobile launch pad. When completed the whole stack would be transferred to the launch site three miles away.

Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB)

Acceptance testing of the Apollo spacecraft was carried out by NASA in the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB) using its own Acceptance and Check-out Equipment (ACE) computers that duplicated each phase of the mission it was to perform. The complete mission was simulated several times in the course of the checkout and on successful completion the LM's ascent and descent stages were mated together for the final time and assembled in its adapter housing prior passing on to the VAB for assembly with the Saturn launch vehicle. Living quarters and facilities for the crewmembers training and suiting up prior to launch were also provided within the MSOB complex.

Launch Control Centre (LCC)

The Launch Control Centre (LCC), a separate building adjacent to the VAB, handled the checkout of the stack while on the launch pad, through the countdown to launch. Four separate firing control rooms with their own launch computer complex could handle the testing and progress of up to four Saturn/Apollo spacecraft in their various states of preparation. Blast proof shutters on the LCC protected the firing room staff from the effects of a catastrophic explosion on the pad. These were probably keenly appreciated by the press and invited guests who were given an unrestricted view of the launch from the bleachers just outside the building and its shutters.

Communication and Tracking

Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN)

With its origins in the ICBM tracking network which extended into the Indian ocean, NASA established and developed throughout the Mercury and Gemini flights, a sophisticated global tracking network to communicate with its spacecraft in earth orbit. Extending around the earth the Manned Space Flight Network (MSFN) provided reliable and almost continuous communication with the spacecraft in low earth orbit. Communication with orbiting spacecraft was only possible while the spacecraft was passing over an earth station between its horizons. Up to fourteen ground stations placed in a belt under the proposed orbital ground-track and supplemented by instrument ships and four Apollo Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA) to fill the gaps where the spacecraft crossed the earth's major oceans. The ARIA aircraft also tracked the Apollo spacecraft during the critical Trans Lunar Injection (TLI) and re-entry manoeuvres in the missions. Both ground stations and ships were equipped with 30 foot communication dishes while the ARIA contained 7ft parabolic antennas housed in the aircraft's nose.

For lunar operations and while in cislunar space, three 85 foot diameter communication antennas were placed at stations equidistant around the globe at Goldstone California, Madrid, Spain and Honeysuckle Creek, Australia. At any one time. at least one of these dishes would always have a direct line of sight with the moon and the spacecraft. Two other dishes, the giant 210 foot 'Mars' antenna at Goldstone and the 210 foot Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) at Parkes, New South Wales, Australia was brought in to support television transmission during Apollo 11's activities in cislunar space and on the lunar surface.

NASA Communication Network (NASCOM)

To link these tracking stations NASA developed its own global Communication Network (NASCOM). Centred at the Goddard Space Flight Centre, Greenbelt Maryland, data to and from the spacecraft was relayed to the mission control centre at Houston. Consisting of a combination of landlines, submarine cables, microwave links and three Intelstat communication satellites in geostationary orbit, NASCOM covered over three million miles.

To improve the quality of transmissions for the Apollo flights all television, tracking, remote commands and voice transmissions to and from the spacecraft were handled by a single radio carrier wave through a new 'Unified S-Band System'. Downlink data from the spacecraft to MCC, monitoring several hundred measurements such as astronaut heart rate, cabin pressure and temperature was transmitted automatically in 'real time' at 51,200 bits per second. Picked up by a ground station the data was transmitted through the NASCOM web to the Goddard Space Flight Centre at Maryland to be processed and passed on at 2400 bits per second to MCC computers at Houston. Uplink data, from MCC to the spacecraft, such as orbital guidance commands and go/no-go command decisions were passed at 1200 bits per second via NASCOM and the command tracking stations.

Manned Spacecraft Centre, Houston. (MSC)

In 1961 the STG was re-designated the 'Manned Spacecraft Centre' (MSC), and relocated to Houston, Texas, later to be called 'The Johnson Space Centre' after the death of Kennedy's successor as President of the United States, Lyndon B Johnson. A new permanent complex was constructed on a site 22 miles outside the city on land donated by the Humble Oil Company (later Exxon), obtained through a deal with Rice University. The Mission Control Centre (MCC), Houston, was housed in building 30 and incorporated two Mission Operations Control Rooms (MOCR). Almost all Apollo missions were conducted from the third floor operations room which has now been designated as a national historic site.

Flight Operations

Teams of flight controllers under a flight director were developed throughout the Mercury and Gemini program. Christopher Columbus Kraft, head of flight operations at MCC 'wrote the book' on flight operations. He had in his responsibility within the Flight Operations Directorate four divisions, Flight Control, Landing and Recovery, Mission Planning and Analysis, and Mission Support. By the time of Apollo 11, Kraft had developed four main flight control teams to provide round-the-clock mission surveillance. The teams were allocated colour references and directed by Eugene Kranz, (White) who also doubled up as head of the Flight Control Division, Glynn Lunney (Black), Cliff Charlesworth (Green) and Milt Windler (Maroon). When a controller retired his colour retired with him and that colour was not used again.

Individual teams were able to handle any aspect or stage of the mission during their watch, but each team specialised in particular phase of the mission. Charlesworth, who was Apollo 11 lead flight director would handle the launch and EVA, Kranz, the lunar landing, Lunney, the lunar take-off and Windler the earth re-entry. Voice communication with the spacecraft crew would always be via one designated communicator, usually another astronaut and was referred to as the 'Capcom'. This term had its origins in the Mercury program when one of the astronaut corps was designated to communicate with the Mercury capsule as the 'Capsule Communicator'. Spacecraft were not referred to as capsules after the Mercury program but the epithet lived on through Gemini and Apollo.

Two computers at MCC, running simultaneous programs compared data from the spacecraft and warned of any malfunction or deviation from the flight plan. The processed information was also displayed at the flight controllers' consoles and used to update the mission status board. Console positions within the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) monitored all aspects of the mission and were broadly divided into 3 main groups: Mission command and control, systems operations and flight dynamics.

Command and Control

  • Mission Director. Responsible for overall mission conduct.

  • Flight Director (Callsign: 'Flight') and Assistant Flight Director. Operational decisions in the MOCR.

  • Flight Activities Officer. Co-ordinates the flight plan.

  • Department of Defense Representative. Co-ordinates US military support.

  • Network Controller. Co-ordinates MSFN and NASCOM.

  • Surgeon. Monitors crew health.

  • Spacecraft Communicator (Capcom) Voice contact with crew.

  • Experiments Officer. Co-ordinates in flight science experiments.

  • Public Affairs Officer. (PAO) Relays mission status to general public and press.

Systems Operations

  • Environmental, Electrical and Communications Engineer (EECOM) Monitors CSM systems.

  • Guidance, Navigation and Control Engineer (GNC) Monitors CSM systems.

  • Lunar Module Environmental and Electrical Engineer (TELCOM) Monitors LM systems.

  • Lunar Module Guidance, Navigation and Control Engineer (Control). Monitors LM systems.

  • Booster Systems Engineer (Booster). Monitors launch vehicle systems. One position for each stage.

  • Apollo Communications Engineer (ACE) Monitors CSM and LM communication systems.

  • Operations and Procedures Officer (O&P) Co-ordinates CSM and LM communication with MSFN.

Flight Dynamics

  • Flight Dynamics Officer (FIDO) Monitors powered spacecraft manoeuvres.

  • Retrofire Officer (Retro). Plans and monitors Trans Earth and Re-entry manoeuvres.

  • Guidance Officer (Guido). Monitors CSM and LM guidance systems.

Lunar Receiving Laboratory

Anticipating a successful return of lunar samples NASA included in its plans a facility to store and examine the returned moon rocks at the MSC complex. Initially named the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL), it was intended as small laboratory and storage facility that was to oversee the examination and distribution of the samples and was to be located adjacent to the MCC at Houston. However a major concern of scientists was that of back contamination, or moon-bugs being brought into an earthly environment and wreaking havoc on the worlds population. Despite assurances by its designers that '...if you wanted to design a sterile environment you would design the moon's surface', NASA played safe and incorporated at much greater expense, a quarantine facility into which would be placed rocks, astronauts and spacecraft immediately after the flight, where they could be incarcerated for up to three weeks until given a clean bill of health and certified free of contamination.

The dedication of the Manned Spacecraft Centre by President Kennedy took place on 12 September, 1962, at Rice University football stadium. In his address to the 50,000 strong audience he said:

Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask. Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?... Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard! Because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our abilities and skills. Because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.
1Later became known as the Vehicle Assembly Building. The two names became interchangeable

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

There are no Conversations for this Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more