The Loftus family is in the process of inventorying and cataloging the artifacts that will be on display in the mobile museum. You are always welcome to stop by our office at 633 N. Third Ave. Stayton, Oregon and get a mini tour in a 1898 Queen Anne Victorian and enjoy a cup of coffee in the cafe
ORAL HISTORY TRANSCRIPT
JOSEPH P. LOFTUS INTERVIEWED BY DOYLE MCDONALD
[This oral history with Joseph P. Loftus was conducted by Doyle McDonald for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.]
LOFTUS: How do you want to begin?
MCDONALD: I'd really like to start with people that might possibly be at risk for being older, might be missing before we can get to them, that had important parts of the program, maybe well known to you or well known inside the industry, but are not well known for historical purposes.
LOFTUS: There are a fair number of people in the area who have been with the program since the beginning. Bob [Robert F.] Thompson, who, in Mercury, ran the recovery division, later was the program manager for Skylab, and then was the program manager for shuttle, has sort of a unique perspective on having seen all these things go on.
Another fellow around who is up in the Woodlands teaching is Bob [Robert O.] Piland. Bob played a number of different roles throughout things. He was, at one time, the Apollo Program manager and [then] took on all the development of experiments for the lunar missions. He developed our Earth Resources Program and ran that rather effectively for a long time. He's teaching now. He has a lot of good perspectives. When he became the Apollo Program manager, he got us all out into what is now, or was the auditorium at Ellington [Field, Houston, Texas] before it was torn down, and sort of said, "I don't want to hear about problems. In a program this size, if you can't find a problem, you are really incompetent." [Laughter] That gives you a little flavor on him.
There are a couple of people here. Brian Erb, who is the Canadian Space Agency representative over in the International Space Station office, was one of the fellows that we picked up when the Canadian Government decided to go out of the war-plane business. Canada at that time had in development an AVRO aircraft, the 105, which was the hottest airplane in the world, really a super bird. And the Canadian Government decided they couldn't compete with the U.S. and Europe, so they said, "Don't drive another rivet. Get cutting torches. Get rid of it."
So we and McDonnell and, at that time, North American went up to Canada and hired all those guys. [Laughter] Because we needed good engineers. So there was a large contingent of Brits and Canadians and what have you who worked in Mercury and on through Apollo that came about through that policy decision of the Canadian Government.
MCDONALD: Is that where John [D.] Hodge came from?
LOFTUS: Yes, amongst others. One of the people who had a lot of influence early in Mercury and on through Apollo was Bob [Robert G.] Chilton. Bob was a guidance navigation type and headed our Guidance and Navigation Division for many years…[and] he was also the one who, starting in Mercury and on through Apollo, established the interfaces that we used with the Draper Labs at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] for all of our work. So he has some fairly unique perspectives on things.
MCDONALD: Is he still in this area?
LOFTUS: Yes. Last time I saw Bob was when they had the big Russian exhibit up in Dallas. We were both up there looking at it.
Another fellow who's been with the program and has some fairly unique perspectives is Tom [Thomas U.] McElmurry. Tom lives over here in Nassau Bay. He just retired for the third time from teaching up at Texas A&M. Tom was an instructor at the Air Force Test Pilot School out at Edwards and came here originally with Deke [Donald K.] Slayton, but then he worked a lot of the issues in Skylab for Thompson before he retired from government, having previously retired from the Air Force. So he's had an interesting perspective on a lot of these things, both from outside and inside.
Max [Maxime A.] Faget is still in the area. He, of course, was very fundamental in a lot of our engineering choices [and] was the Director of engineering. Another fellow in the area who had a lot of do with some of our early decisions in both Mercury and Apollo is Caldwell [C.] Johnson, who is also still in the area. One of the people who has a perspective on the early years of the flight medicine thing is [A.] Duane Catterson, C-A-T-T-E-R-S-O-N. He's in the area, and he's at Kelsey- [Seabold]. Last time I talked to him he was running their clinic out at Intercontinental.
MCDONALD: He was in flight medicine all the time he was here.
LOFTUS: One of the people who's got an interesting perspective is Jim McBarron. Jim has been in the suit business from the beginning, and Jim is still here and active in suits and EVA, and he's got sort of an interesting approach because he's also worked closely with Ingmar Skuog and Guy Severin, who are the guys who do European and Russian suits.
MCDONALD: There still a suit business here?
LOFTUS: Yes. Another fellow in the area who's retired but active in many ways is Reginald Machel. Reg worked Gemini, the original EVAs, crew interfaces and what have you, and then moved on to Skylab to do the same kind of things, and he retired early in the Shuttle Program.
One of the names I had put down was Gene Shoemaker, because Gene had worked with us in terms of teaching astronauts how to look out the window and recognize interesting geological phenomena, but Gene was killed last week in an automobile accident in Australia.
Richard [S.] Johnston is around. He lives over in Green Tee [Pearland]. He was one of the guys who we picked up from the Navy early in the program, and he ran our crew and Thermal Systems Division for its first fifteen years or so, and then he went on into a number of special assignments, like putting together a quarantine facilities when we brought stuff back from the moon and what have you. So he's had some interesting perspectives on the program.
Staffing was a problem early in the program, and one of the interesting things that happened is, the Air Force said to NASA, "Here's a roster of 6,000 ROTC graduates this year, and any of them you hire, we'll waive their service requirements." So we picked up about 600 fresh-outs, courtesy of the Air Force. Then there are others like myself who were on active duty who were detailed to NASA.
MCDONALD: When did you come [to NASA]?
LOFTUS: Well, I was on the original Mercury Selection Testing Group, and it turned out that a couple of the people, Charlie [Charles J.] Donlan, in particular, who was the deputy director of Space Task Group, and I had gotten to know each other working on the X-15. So he asked if I could come with NASA, and I didn't want to move my family at the time. We were at Wright Field. So I cut a deal where I was still at Wright Field, but I'd go work wherever they wanted me. So I didn't transfer until the Space Task Group moved down here in '62. …I was one of the first people to arrive in Houston because I came direct from Wright Field in Dayton. At that time, our facilities here were what's now the post office at Gulf Gate, and we were renting space all over the southeast part of town. So I've been with it since the beginning. I flew with guys like Slayton and [Virgil I. “Gus”] Grissom and Ed [Edward H.] White [II] at Wright Field.
MCDONALD: What do you see as the difference between those programs, the Wright Field programs and going into the Space Task Group? Obviously programs have evolved gradually. What do you see as the key differences between those programs and these programs today?
LOFTUS: You're saying Mercury versus shuttle?
MCDONALD: Just the evolution as it went along.
LOFTUS: Well, novelty. Here we were, a bunch of guys, most of us out of the airplane business, who were trying to understand about the space business, and so one of the things that we would do is, in the evenings, we'd have seminars where one of us would teach the rest of us about some subject on which he was expert. I had done a lot of work in the Air Force in terms of various optical illusions and optical phenomena in high-altitude flight. One of the reasons it's hard to see things is that you get what's called "empty field myopia." If there's nothing to see five miles out, your focus comes back inside the canopy, so you don't see things that are out there, even though you could see them if somehow or other you could focus out there. You see this phenomenon in regular experience where you can look through the window, or if the window is dirty, you can look at the window [and not see what is beyond it, similarly]…with a screen door, things of that variety.
So I used to explain all of these various phenomena, and that was of some significance. …When it came time to go to Apollo, one of the significant things about the moon is that it's a retro-reflective surface. That means that if…a line from the point you're looking at to the sun is above you, it's like driving into the fog with high beams on; you don't see anything. That's why we had such a steep approach and why we had to land [further] to the west if we delayed a day, because the approach path had to be above the line to the sun at the landing site or you wouldn't be able to see anything.
Other guys would teach what are cryogens, what are hypergols? So everybody learned orbital mechanics and learned all of these kinds of different things. It was exciting in the sense that you were learning so many different things and people were enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. So it was a pick-up team, and we were all young. There were no old men in the space business. [Laughter] At the time we landed on the moon, the average age was thirty-four.
MCDONALD: In the agency?
LOFTUS: No, in this organization, [the Johnson Space Center, then called the Manned Spacecraft Center].
MCDONALD: That certainly changed.
MCDONALD: Do you think that that's necessary? Has it become so big and so complex that you can't learn fast enough to be [unclear]?
LOFTUS: No. I think that nowadays we can hire youngsters who learned in school what we had to learn on the fly, and they're very bright and they're very good, but we've got a very different problem. I'm not sure, for example, that Rocketdyne could have built the SSME [Space Shuttle Main Engines] had they not built the J-2 and the F-1. You had to have come up that learning curve.
I don't think people realize how much better we do things [today]. We fly eight shuttle flights a year and handle the Mir Program and the space station development with less people than it took us to do two Apollo flights a year. Now, a lot of that is just taking advantage of the state of the art in data processing and what have you. We do thermal analyses on the shuttle which are far more complex than those we did on Apollo, and it would take us a year to do a mission on Apollo. They'll do a much more complex shuttle mission in a matter of a few days, but they've got big UNIX workstations and silicon graphics, what have you, to do it all, computational power and visual graphics engineering. So there's a tremendous increase in productivity that has gone on. And the shuttle is just a marvelous piece of equipment. It's probably the most complex thing we've ever built.
MCDONALD: How do you see the X-33 and X-38 and local fly-back booster, those kind of things? [Telephone interruption]
Do you really think so?
LOFTUS: Well, I guess I don't have a real clear picture of where you guys want to get to.
MCDONALD: Well, what we're trying to do is get the names of the people, and then there's a second piece of that, which is we're looking for topics which we can cover. You were covering several of those when you were discussing how the training was different, computing power. I think both of those are very useful for us because they're not as flashy as SSMEs and F-1s, but approaching the program from the angle that the learning curve is what enabled us to build the SSME will be very useful to us when we're talking to rocket designers, engine designers.
LOFTUS: Well, to continue, then, along that line, software was a big issue for us in Mercury and Gemini and Apollo, because machine capability was limited so we were essentially doing everything in machine language, and that not only was difficult to do, but it made change control very, very difficult as well.
So, out of that, Jack Garman [phonetic] and I started an effort to develop a higher-order language suitable for use in things, and it got labeled "the Houston aerospace language," which was obviously a takeoff on HAL, and HAL, obviously, is IBM minus one. [Laughter] But that's the higher-order language with which we did the shuttle software, and we probably could not have developed a quad redundant asynchronous software suite for the shuttle had we not had a higher order compiler like that. So that was an exceptionally successful effort.
We did some pretty spectacular things in the world of software at the time. For example, the question was, how are you going to do the simulator for Apollo, and how is it going to be animated if you couldn't get a flight computer and you couldn't get the flight software and what have you? So a fellow by the name of Jim Rainey [phonetic] developed an emulation of the MIT [Massachusetts Institue of Technology] software, and we were on the air before they were. I can remember long sessions with Dick [Richard E.] Battin, [J.] Hal Lanning, and the MIT guys about whether that was the right way to go, and we said, "We've got no choice. We've got to have something to train with," and it was an extremely successful effort. Much of what we built for the Apollo mission simulators is the core of what we use for some of the shuttle mission simulators. We bought the optic system that provides a lot of the out- of-the-window views, and it was a good enough system that you could actually do star sightings navigation fixes, just like you would on the way to the moon. So that was a big activity.
One of the things that's been sort of a learning experience for us is that when we started out in Mercury, there was no formal interface between the manned space flight program and science, but we were curious about some things, so we did some experiments, and, of course, the science community sort of said we shouldn't have a bunch of amateur engineers deciding what is and what is not proper science to do in flight. So we began to get into the whole protocol of establishing science groups and peer review and what have you to sort of get good science, if you will. That was sort of a pretty secondary activity through Mercury and Gemini, because those were primarily, (A), in Mercury, can man survive and function in flight, and then in Gemini the question is, can you do the kind of complex maneuvering that's required to do rendezvous. Because we were debating whether or not we should go Earth orbit rendezvous or lunar orbit rendezvous, and it was the success in Gemini that helped us decide to go lunar orbit rendezvous.
That was sort of a gut-wrenching decision, because John [C.] Houbolt at Langley [Research Center] had made that proposal, and we became the advocates for that here, and, of course, the guys who were advocates for Earth orbit rendezvous and space stations were at Marshall [Space Flight Center]. I can remember the day that we sort of had the final round of discussions, and after all-day presentations by JSC [Johnson Space Center] and by the Marshall guys on the pros and cons of the approaches, Wernher [von Braun] said, "We are going to go lunar orbit rendezvous. It's the only way to get there in time." That was sort of a classy act on his part.
MCDONALD: [Unclear] were talking to some people who suggested we talk to Eberhard Rees, and we found that he evidently is not [unclear] support that, and they suggested we talk to Ernst Stulinger instead. Do you have any other people that it would be useful to talk to about the [unclear]?
LOFTUS: Herman Koelle is at the Technical University of Berlin. He will be at the IAF [International Astronautical Federation] in Turin in October. Herman was part of that group. He retired and subsequently was accused of having run prison labor activities at Peenemunde, but he has a lot of insight as to sort of the mentality of that group that came [from Germany].
Another guy you could talk to who has a fair amount of insight into a lot of that is Henry [O.] Pohl, P-O-H-L. Henry was here, ran our Power and Propulsion Division, but he actually started out at Marshall in the Redstone Arsenal before Marshall was created, as the Army enlisted man.
Another guy who's got a lot of insight into some of those things is [Joseph G.] Guy Thibodaux, who lives over here in Nassau Bay. [Telephone interruption]
A fellow you could talk to about some of the Marshall perspectives is a fellow named Dan Germany [phonetic]. Dan is now with Allied Signal as part of the USA [United Space Alliance] team, but he originally came here as a Marshall resident office guy, having been at Huntsville.
LOFTUS: Yes, and then eventually he [Germany] retired here as the orbiter project manager.
MCDONALD: One of the areas we're particularly interested in finding people is the science research side. Most folks we've seen today has been on engineering activities and all this on engineering marvels, and less on the scientific investigation. A lot of that, I know, [unclear]. Who would you suggest that we talk to, [unclear]? [unclear].
LOFTUS: Well, let's see [for Apollo]. Mike Duke is retired, but he's still here. He's over at the Planetary Institute. Mike was the original custodian, Lunar Curatorial Facility, a Caltech geologist with a lot of insight into that. [Bob Piland would be appropriate.]
One of our big science activities, a trade-off between science and operations, was site selection. A fellow by the name of Jack [John R] Sevier, who's also over at the Institute, was sort of the executive secretary of the Site Selection Panel, because that was a trade-off between places that were geologically interesting and operationally hazardous and how did you balance those considerations.
I was involved fairly extensively, because I headed up the design team that did the redesign of the command [and] service module…[and] the lunar module for the later missions, where we extended the stay time to seventy-two hours and built a lunar rover and more elaborate packages of experiments and what have you, [and] put a lot of other instruments in the open bay in the service module. I had run the team that did all that design.
Obviously, one of the people you'd want to talk to is Harrison [H. “Jack”] Schmitt. He's living out in Albuquerque [New Mexico], consulting. Joe [Joseph P.] Allen is here in the area. It would be worthwhile to talk to him. It was a very macho pilot-oriented kind of culture that developed in the astronaut corps, because these guys were all out of either Pax [Patuxent] River or Edwards as test pilots. So when we first selected the group of scientist-astronauts, they were known as the XS-Eleven. [Laughter] They had a diverse set of experiences. They were all good scientists. Some of them developed into pretty good pilots. Joe certainly is one in that category. Others had difficulty with the flying. But there's one perspective that you can get from that group.
MCDONALD: Life sciences-type people.
LOFTUS: We didn't do a whole lot of life sciences until we got into the [Skylab and] shuttle era. Largely because flights were short, we didn't have a lot of opportunity to do that. So mostly what we were doing through Apollo was essentially geology.
We have, each spring here, a Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It runs for about four days, and it is the largest gathering of people in planetary science that ever happens. We've been doing that since the first one twenty-seven years ago. Practically all of the people who had a role in that activity attend that conference, because it's a very large exchange. I'd have to sit down and dig out a few names, but the guy who could probably rattle them all off is Mike Duke, [Jim] Head…[at] Brown University, is still active.
Shoemaker was the most active, but unfortunately he's passed away. The reason I think Gene would have been particularly interesting to talk to is that we started using him as a science source in Mercury, in terms of briefing the crew as to how to recognize various geological kind of phenomena from orbit and what have you. So he's the only one I know who was alive at the time who had that kind of continuity through the program. Most of the others came in during the Apollo era.
The reason we didn't do much life sciences is that you couldn't do wet chemistry or that kind of laboratory activity until you got to Skylab. So Skylab was really where we started significant life science. We had done very small things with frog eggs and that kind of thing earlier, but Skylab was the first time we had a real laboratory. So while the primary instrument for Skylab was a solar telescope, because we had the large crew quarters and because we had eighty-day kind of cycles and what have you, we did a fair amount of life science. There are some fairly good reports on--so the best way to deal with that would be simply to go start combing through the list of authors.
Gerry [Gerald R.] Taylor is retired, living up in Colorado, but Judy Robinson here has him on a consulting role. He'd certainly be worth talking to. Howard Schneider is retired. He's living out in Arizona, but he comes in periodically because we have him on contract as a consultant. Jerry [L.] Homick, who is the deputy of our Medical Sciences Division, was one of the major investigators on Skylab and had been one of the major investigators in our earliest terrestrial programs to try and understand the space adaptation syndrome. We have this phenomena that about a third of our people accommodate pretty readily to weightlessness, about a third get nauseous and malaise, and a third get violently ill. [Laughter] Jerry worked in that area. He's very good. Millard [F.] Reschke, who's in his organization, is another one who worked in that area. There was sort of a human factors task and work performance group. Joe Kubis is dead, Ed McLaughlin [phonetic] is dead, and I don't know where any of the others—there were six authors on that. I don't know whether any of the others are still around or active.
Owen [K.] Garriott was a scientist-astronaut, and he is now, I believe, with Teledyne Brown in Huntsville, and would be a worthwhile guy to talk to. John Rummel, who is our acting director, was one of the physiologists who was an investigator on Skylab. Joe [Joseph P.] Kerwin, who is now the president of Wylie life sciences here, was also a scientist-astronaut. He was a test pilot physician in the Navy who came with us and did his thing as an astronaut, and then he was the director of life sciences for a number of years. Then he left ten years ago, or eleven years ago, and went to Lockheed, and Krug hired him away from Lockheed last year. [Krug was acquired by Wylie in October 1997.]
Arnold Nicogosian, who is now the associate administrator for life science and microgravity, was a primary flight surgeon on Skylab. [John Rummel, Deputy Director SISD was a Skylab P.I.] Larry Dietlein [phonetic], who is the assistant director here, was a guy from the Public Health Service who was detailed to us. He retired there and came to work directly for NASA, but Larry has run, practically from the beginning, our Institutional Review Board. Following World War II and the Nuremberg Convention, international and national law requires that you have an Institutional Review Board who reviews any activity which involves human subjects, to be sure that it is ethical and has scientific merit and all of those kinds of things. Larry has been running our Institutional Review Board since time immemorial. So that would get you some of the life sciences stuff.
A good person to talk to about some of the microgravity stuff would be Bonnie Dunbar. That was her training. That's how she got her doctorate, was working on microgravity phenomena. And then there are a couple of guys over in our Medical Sciences Division: Dennis Morrison and Neil [R.] Pellis have done interesting work in that area.
MCDONALD: I know that you know these guys and I don't. What about the institutional side of the house, you know, just working, putting this place together and developing the physical plant and the systems?
LOFTUS: Bob Piland's brother Joe, his older brother. I don't know where Joe is, but our personnel people would be able to help you.
MCDONALD: Well, we're talking to Bob Piland.
LOFTUS: Essentially, when we moved down here, we were scattered all over southeast Houston in various office buildings. Some of us were in what is now Oshman's warehouse at the corner of I-45 and OST. The office complex just to the south of that was occupied. The Lane Wells Building and buildings all over. If you know where there's a K-Mart and a shopping center on the west side of the freeway and the bayou, Simms Bayou there, that whole complex of apartments on the south side of Simms Bayou was all occupied by what is now MOD. We took up every habitable building at Ellington, and we had a pretty liberal definition of "habitable," because some of them didn't have wall-to-wall floors. [Laughter]
In effect, the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers built this place for us, but we had a lot of voice in how to lay out the campus, design the buildings, and see to it that there were enough conference rooms and all these kinds of things. So we didn't get a conventional government campus. And I think the guys who did it did a superb job. It's held up pretty well.
MCDONALD: It must be thirty some-odd years old and its in shape.
LOFTUS: Yes. Unfortunately we're not putting as much into maintenance as we should.
MCDONALD: If we get all these guys interviewed in the next year and a half, I'll be happy. You know you're on our list—you know that, don't you—to be interviewed? That wasn't the purpose of this meeting, but I do have a couple of questions. What is that on there, that rocket?
LOFTUS: That was one of a number of configurations we looked at for building a heavy lift vehicle out of shuttle derived hardware.
MCDONALD: This is shuttle derived hardware—these aren't F-1s. These are SSMEs [Space Shuttle Main Engines]?
LOFTUS: J-2s. They were just cartoons, if you will.
LOFTUS: It was a fairly serious study, but just not exactly the—
MCDONALD: I’m always interested in talking about shuttle replacements. I think Jay Honeycutt puts it well. He says the Shuttle's the DC-3 of the human space flight. It'll be flying forever and ever, basically, until somebody wants something orders of magnitude better.
LOFTUS: Well, the rocket equation is extraordinarily straightforward, and you really, really have to change materials technology if you're going to do anything significantly different. I don't think there's anything wrong in trying to design a single stage to orbit, but God didn't mean launch vehicles to be single stage.
MCDONALD: The physics don't help to support it. What do you think about a fly-back booster? I was just wondering, because you've been around so long.
LOFTUS: Well, fly-back boosters are difficult for the same reason single stage to orbit is difficult. Basically, until we can really get to advanced materials, engineered materials, basically things like polyumate and carbon kinds of composites, you can't really do much. There are two essential problems, and that is, you want to go with hydrogen and oxygen for specific impulse, but metals become brittle in continued exposure to hydrogen [and mechanically stressed by thermal chancges]. So you've got a real problem.
One of the problems with hydrogen and oxygen is when you imbed the tankage inside the airfoil, you've now got the problem of having to build all your electrical harnesses and everything to stand the condensation environment that that cold tank creates. That means your wire harness now begins to look like an underseas cable. So it goes up in weight and complexity and all of these kinds of things. So the key to anything like that is going to have to lie in truly advanced materials, and while we've made a lot of progress in the last twenty years, it's not obvious to me that we're there.
MCDONALD: Thank you very much for your time. [End of Interview]
ORAL HISTORY 2 TRANSCRIPT
JOSEPH P. LOFTUS, JR. INTERVIEWED BY SUMMER CHICK BERGEN
HOUSTON, TEXAS – 27 OCTOBER 2000
BERGEN: Today is October 27, 2000. This oral history with Joe Loftus is being conducted for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project at the offices of the Signal Corporation in Houston, Texas. The interviewer is Summer Chick Bergen, assisted by Carol Butler.
We're so glad you could be with us today, Mr. Loftus.
LOFTUS: You're welcome.
BERGEN: Why don't we start by giving us some background. I'd like to hear about what you did in the Air Force, but even before that, I was wondering how you—what led you to study psychology, that you got your bachelor's and master's degree in.
LOFTUS: Well, I grew up in Washington, D.C., a small suburb of town called Greenbelt [Maryland], and went to Jesuit High School in Washington, D.C., Gonzaga. When I left there, I went in the seminary for three years. There had been several members of my father's family and my mother's family who had been clergy. But I decided, after three years, that that wasn't for me. So I went to Catholic University [of America] in Washington, D.C., then, to complete my undergraduate work.
At that time the Korean War had a draft on, so in order to avoid the draft, I joined the ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps], finished up a bachelor's at Catholic U., and had a fellowship offer at Fordham University [Bronx, New York] and went to Fordham in New York, to pursue graduate work. Since I had only two years of ROTC as an undergraduate, I had to finish the other two years while I was in graduate school.
Then, because I wanted to fly, I had to sort of drop the graduate studies and go on active duty. Went through pilot training at McAllen [Air Force Base] in Texas, and then at Vance Air Force Base up in Enid, Oklahoma. By that time the war was over. When wars end, fighter pilots become a glut on the market, so I was assigned to Dover Air Force Base [Delaware] to be the adjutant in the operations squadron, the squadron that's sort of responsible for all the functions of the base.
I was just going to do that and finish up my Air Force time, but I got a query from the folks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base [Dayton, Ohio]. They had a number of joint projects between the aeromedical laboratory and the avionics laboratory, so they asked me to come out and chat with them, and I did. They said they'd like to offer me a position, so I said, "That's fine. Let's talk about the position." And in the Air Force, everything is doing by a manning document. So a position is not a vague verbal description; it has an explicit number as well as a description.
So I went back to Dover. Since I was a pilot, I could get a T-33 to fly out to Wright Field and fly back to Dover. So eventually a telex message came in that sort of said, "Would you like to take assignment to Wright Field?"
And I responded that I would accept the position, and I spelled it all out for the manning document. The major who was the personnel officer at McGuire [Fort Dix, New Jersey], which was our headquarters, said, "You can't do that. That's only done for general officers." I said, "Well, your suspense date is tomorrow and I'm not going to change." So the thing went through and I got orders, so I went to Wright Field and went into the personnel office to check in, and the fellow that greeted me said, "Am I glad to see you. You're my replacement." And I said, "No, I'm not. Read the orders."
So that was a useful defensive move, and I did get, in fact, the assignment that I had wanted. Basically I was assigned to a group in human factors in the aeromed lab, but I did most of my time working with the avionics laboratory. The reason is that the kind of psychology I studied is probably not what you would envision. Basically what I was doing is looking at kinesthesis. How do you know where your arm is when it's behind your back? How do you know when a car is handling properly?
So most of the work I was doing involved things like applying servo theory from electrical engineering to the way people function at their interface with machines. That was of some considerable interest to people in the avionics lab, because at that time we were still having a lot of trouble with the control systems on jet aircraft.
So I started doing that kind of work at Wright Field, participated in a lot of the test flights that we were doing for developing Category Three landing procedures, which is landing with only 100 feet of elevation for clouds and 100 feet of visibility on the runway, severe weather kind of landing conditions. And we were doing some studies of how would you control spacecraft, or could people control launch vehicles, and things of that variety. Because of that, I got involved on the X-15. The X-15 was typical of the X aircraft of that era, that they were joint projects of the NACA [National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics] , the Navy, and the Air Force, and so through that activity I began to get to know quite a few of the people at the NACA, many of whom were later parts of the Space Task Group. So I worked on the Air Force side of trying to get man in space soonest.
Mr. [Dwight D.] Eisenhower decided that he did not want to export the Cold War into space. He wanted a civil space agency. So he, in effect, gave the assignment to the NACA, which became NASA, and that was a fairly big jolt for them, because it meant they had to have a whole host of new skills and large numbers. So through those interfaces, Charlie [Charles J.] Donlan, who was the Deputy Director for Space Task Group, said he'd like to have me, and that went up through Mr. [Hugh L.] Dryden and across to the Air Force, and in due course I got orders assigning me to Space Task Group.
But I did not want to move my family at the time. We had a couple of new children, and I had a nephew that I was raising. It was not a good time to move the family. So I worked out an arrangement that I would commute from Wright Field until such time as a new home for the Space Task Group, which eventually became the Johnson Space Center [Houston, Texas], was designated.
So I'd pick up an airplane Monday morning and go to work, might be at Kennedy [Space Center, Florida], it might be at Langley [Research Center, Hampton, Virginia], it might be at the Draper Lab [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in Boston or Cambridge, Massachusetts, or it might be at what was then the Lewis Research Center or Glen [Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio], or it might be at McDonnell [Aircraft Corporation] at St. Louis [Missouri], or two or three of those places in the course of a week. So I did a lot of traveling, but it was very exhilarating.
Then when the site was selected here in Houston, at first we were just renting buildings all over the southeast part of Houston, and my first office when I moved down here was what is now Oshman's warehouse at the corner of I-45 and OST [Old Spanish Trail]. So it was a hectic time, but it was fun.
BERGEN: When you first started with the Space Task Group, what were your—what was your original assignment and responsibilities?
LOFTUS: Well, we were a very, very small organization, and I was assigned to what was called the Astronaut and Training Office, and basically worked on such things as the controls and displays and the caution and warning and the development of interface between the crew and the vehicle. We had such things, for example, as how do you decide whether or not to abort. In Mercury we had a launch escape tower which could pull the capsule off of the rocket.
So we spent a lot of time trying to devise the right kind of instrumentation to be able to say that you never abort on a single cue, and preferably what you'd like to have is something that is sensed by an instrument, seconded by something which can be sensed directly by the crewman so that he could confirm that he was not getting an erroneous indication from an instrument. That was a very long and arduous debate, to try and devise the right kind of scheme to do that, but we did it successfully.
BERGEN: Who did you work with to make these decisions?
LOFTUS: Well, there were a whole group of people that would be involved in these kinds of things. Because we were so small, the crew was involved in a great deal of this, and that was not a particularly onerous problem, because I had done a lot of work and flying with Deke [Donald K.] Slayton and [Virgil I.] Gus Grissom when we were at Wright Field.
At Wright Field one of the things I had done was some of the flying in zero-G aircraft, and Slayton on occasion would fly those missions for us. Again, it was partly to understand whether or not in a weightless environment there were significant changes in motor behaviors, but we also did all kinds of other things that were of interest.
One family of experiments I did involved cats, to sort of say to what degree is a cat's reflex for landing on its feet a visual thing and to what degree is it a gravitational thing. So we did experiments with cats that had tails and cats that did not have tails, like the minx cat. My colleagues from those days in the lab have never let me forget that. [Laughter] But it was clearly demonstrated in that family of experiments that it was a visual cue that the cat was using, and cats that had tails could get themselves properly oriented more rapidly than those who did not. So it was an interesting demonstration of the conservation of momentum.
At any rate, this zero-G aircraft was a lot of fun, and we used that then later on for training the crews and eventually we moved the aircraft down here. I guess we're now in the third generation of the aircraft.
I guess one of the other interesting things that I did in the years at Wright Field was a special assignment for General [Bernard A.] Schriever. At that time the economy was good, and when the economy's good and there's no war, it's hard to keep people in the military. So the military was having a great deal of difficulty with that. Over several years there were commissions appointed to advise the Department of Defense [DoD] on what to do and how to do it, to solve this retention problem.
There had been a commission chaired by the chairman of General Motors that had made a report, and when they finished looking at the report, General Schriever said, "It's the lieutenants who don't stay in the Air Force. Why don't we ask the lieutenants." So he recruited a group of sixteen lieutenants. At that time he was the Commander of the Air Research and Development Command, and he was headquartered at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington [D.C]. I was at Wright Field, which was one of his stations, as were other stations such as Electronics Research Center in Cambridge and the laboratories out at Kirtland, New Mexico, and Eglin Air Force Base [Florida] and so on. So in order to have proportional representation, he took one lieutenant from the smallest installations and then proportionally more lieutenants from the larger installations, so that's how, with twelve installations, we wound up with sixteen lieutenants.
His Deputy Chief for Personnel was General Dougherty [phonetic]. So the first day we met, we sat down in the conference room with General Schriever and he explained to us what his concern was, why did people not find the Air Force an attractive career, what could be done about it, and then he told General Dougherty, "Give them anything they want."
So we were then left to ourselves and tried to get ourselves organized. We basically decided that we would look at the problem and several working groups, one on compensation and one on career progression and things of that variety. Then we met with General Dougherty and said, "We don't really understand very much about compensation systems. Have you got somebody who can help us?" And we went through half a dozen subjects on which we needed things. So the following morning he met with us and said, "Okay, we're going to start by giving you guys a series of briefings." So they had some colonels come over from the Pentagon to give us briefings on the future of the Air Force, what was then, and still is, called Air Force doctrine. They had others come over and give us briefings on how was the Air Force budget structured, how was the Air Force as a whole structured, what was going on in research and development. The way they got us people on compensation was General Dougherty ordered to active duty the vice president for personnel of TransWorld Airlines [TWA] and a vice president of General Electric, and a number of other organizations, so they came and did their reserve tour of duty educating this young group of lieutenants on compensation schemes and how were career progressions managed in General Electric and things of this variety.
So it was an interesting experience to have that kind of talent at your command. We decided that we had to do something to sort of quantify a lot of the observations, so we did what we called twin studies. How did two brothers, twin brothers, one going in the Air Force and making a career of the Air Force, and one going into the Air Force, then leaving to go into some other line of work or, in another case, never going in the service, but progressing in his own profession, and that had some revealing insights, because the general belief was that the primary competitor to the uniformed services was the industry.
Turned out the primary competitor was the civil service. So that was an interesting thing, to sit down and, in effect, do a lifetime income stream for somebody in the military. We did an average Joe, above average, below average case, compared them all. It was very instinctive. So we wound up concluding that pay was part of the issue, but the largest part of the issue was that people didn't like the job assignments because mostly what would happen is that people would come out of engineering school and they'd want to go do engineering, but they'd be assigned to some project office where what they'd be working on was configuration control paper and change orders that were going out to contractors to do various modifications to equipment. So they weren't getting any real hands-on engineering experience.
The other thing was, the Air Force, because, like all military organizations at that time and still to some degree at this time, sort of believed that it had to train its professionals so that in the event of a war you could expand the numbers very rapidly, so your core, you wanted to have a broad knowledge of everything that the service did. So that meant they'd give you a new assignment every three years or so. Well, that's disruptive to families and for people who believe they were learning an engineering profession. It was disruptive to developing the kind of skills.
So one of the recommendations was that for your first assignment you ought to be doing hands-on engineering and you ought to do it for at least four or five years before you get another assignment, so that you can take the skills that you learned in school and really develop.
So we went off and prepared a report, and at that time you did all your briefing with flip charts on an easel, and that meant that any organization like General Schriever's had an office which could do very fine lettering and graphics of all sorts for this kind of thing, so we prepared a briefing and it had seventy-nine flip charts. We were told by Schriever's aide that he just didn't have time to sit through that kind of thing. And we said we didn't know what to take out.
So we went in and we were scheduled for two hours, and the meeting lasted about four hours, but General Schriever listened to it all and he said, "Well, this is what I was looking for, is what really is it that we have to do to fix the system." And he turned to General Dougherty and he said, "I want you to take this across the river to General Ferguson [phonetic]," who was the DCS [Deputy Chief of Staff] for Personnel for the entire Air Force.
So the following day, we went across the river—the Pentagon is across the river from Andrews—and briefed General Ferguson, and General Ferguson said, "This is very good. I want the old man to hear it." The old man was Curtis [E.] LeMay.
A word on Ferguson. He was sort of an interesting fellow. When NASA was created, he went over to see Dr. Dryden, who was the [NASA Deputy] Administrator, and he said, "I've got 600 engineering graduates this year with ROTC obligations. Any of them that you want to take, I'll relieve them of their service obligations." That was a tremendous infusion of youngsters into NASA that was sort of a class act by Ferguson.
So at any rate, they decided they couldn't take all sixteen of us to see LeMay because it was going to be done in his office, so they took six of us. We went in to see LeMay and set up our easel, went through all the charts. He sat there, never made a word, never cracked a grin or anything, just sat there and puffed on his big cigar. When I finished the briefing, he said, "That's interesting." And he stood up and he walked over to the easel and he flipped all the charts back to the beginning and then he went through them, making comments. Very interesting. Again, it was one of these things, we'd been on his calendar for like an hour, an hour and a half, and four hours later we marched out of his office and in the anteroom, in the corridor outside were full of all these flag-rank officers who were looking at all these young lieutenants, sort of saying, "What's going on?" So that was a rather interesting experience to get exposed to those kind of people at that point in my career.
So at any rate, that was sort of the background as to how I got to NASA. We worked very closely with the McDonnell folks, because we were a small team and because at that time the community was small. I knew a lot of the NACA people from X-15 times, knew a lot of the McDonnell people from other contacts, so it was very much sort of a team kind of an arrangement.
One of the fellows I worked very closely with at Langley was Al [Alan B.] Kehlet, who was an aerodynamicist who was very involved in this business of trying to figure out how do you do abort criteria and so forth. Another was Dick [Richard R.] Carley, who was involved in a lot of the simulations of the control systems and so forth.
And it was interesting to work with John [F.] Yardley, who was the McDonnell program manager and one of the most impressive individuals I've ever known. When people would be making presentations or talking in meetings about some system or part or what have you, he would say, "Do you mean this?" and he'd give you the drawing number. He had the entire drawing tree committed to memory. Absolutely phenomenal mind. And there were other people that were a big part of the operation—Chuck [Charles W.] Mathews, Chris [Christopher C.] Kraft [Jr.] , Sig [Sigurd A.] Sjoberg. I'm sure you've talked to a lot of these people or heard lots of anecdotes about them.
There was an interesting culture in the NACA, and it was not unlike some of the things in the Air Force, and that is, since the primary product of the NACA was research findings, they had very demanding standards as to how you would put presentations together, what type sizes to use on slides, and how many words could you use on a slide, all of those kinds of things, and they were very demanding in the way they wrote their technical reports in the interest of clarity. So it was an interesting culture in which to work.
They also, like the DoD, had a real premium on being able to make a good presentation. People who made good presentations did well, because it was believed that if you could make a good presentation, it was because you really understood what you were talking about. So it was a way of testing people's knowledge of substance, and it worked. We had lots of interesting things happen. It was interesting to be preparing for a test launch before we were going to fly people, and have the launch escape tower take off all by itself. That put a little of the fear of God in you. [Laughter]
[Alan B.] Shepard's flight was quite exciting. We obviously regretted that Mr. [Yuri] Gagarin had gotten ahead of him, but we were very pleased with the results of Shepard's flight. Then, of course, we had the problem on Gus' [Grissom’s] flight that we lost the hatch and we nearly lost Gus. The reason we nearly lost Gus is that for some reason he had not put up the neck dam in his suit. In the suit, inside the hard cover, we had a rolled-up rubber neck dam, and the notion was that when you're in the suit with the helmet on, you wanted the atmosphere to move freely back and forth between the body area and the helmet.
But when you took the helmet off, particularly if you were in the water, we didn't want to get water in the suit because you couldn't support it. Well, the neck dam was supposed to take care of that, but Gus had not unrolled the neck dam, so when he took off his helmet and the hatch blew, he was taking water into the suit at a great rate. Turns out the helicopter pilot who pulled him out was Dr. Jim [James L.] Lewis, who worked here for many, many years, and just retired recently. So that was a pretty close call.
And I tell you that little story because the next flight, of course, was John [H.] Glenn [Jr.], and after the flight, a number of us were sitting in a conference room, looking at the camera films, and one of the fellows said, "Look. John doesn't have his neck dam up." And about five minutes later, John walked in, and we told him, and he didn't believe us. So we backed the film up and showed him. He just shook his head and walked out of the room. But it's the kind of thing that can happen to you in an operational setting.
When I was at Dover, one of the things we had to do was to check out bogies who were in air defense identification zones. These are zones where civilian aircraft were prohibited. As the case with such things, we'd regularly get intruders and then we'd send somebody out to identify them and chase them out. I went on a flight to do that one night, and I had the nagging feeling that something was wrong and I couldn't remember what it was, but we found a twin- engine Cessna, waved him off, got him out of the area, came back and landed. It was when I undid my seatbelt and harness that I recognized that I had failed to fasten the leg straps on my parachute. I think I lost five pounds right then and there. [Laughter] Just pure cold sweat. So that's why you have checklists and why no matter how often you've done it, you need to follow it.
It was about that time that we had selected Houston [for the site of the Manned Spacecraft Center]. Have you heard all the stories about how that came to be?
BERGEN: I think every time we hear one, we learn something different, so we'd love for you to share that with us.
LOFTUS: Well, at that time the land that is the site and much of the land that is Clear Lake city was all land that was owned by Humble Oil Company, the predecessor of Exxon [Mobil Corporation]. There was a developer who was an imaginative fellow, and he went to Humble and said, "You don't really need the surface of the land. All you want is mineral rights and what have you. So why don't we form a corporation to develop that land." And that became Friendswood Development Corporation. And they then took a large chunk of the land and gave it to Rice University, because Rice, as a 501(C)3 corporation, an [unclear] institution, could give things to the government that a profit-making corporation couldn't do. So that was part of the Houston package as a bid for the new Manned Spacecraft Center, was that they gave a piece of land via Rice to the federal government as the site.
The city council did a gambit that Texas has an extraterritorial jurisdiction law that says you can annex an area equal to 10 percent of your land area each year and you can bank that for three years, so you could, in one year, annex 30 percent of your present land area.
At that time Houston was in its third year, and as part of their activity to capture the Manned Spacecraft Center, they annexed a strip of land ten feet wide and drove straight south down south Main Street till the edge of Harris County, and then east along the margins of Harris County until they just had enough left to get back to the eastern side of Houston and, in effect, put a fence around the whole southeastern part of Harris County.
Well, Webster and little places like that couldn't argue with them, but they captured a tract of land Pasadena [Texas] could have captured, that is now Armand Bayou. So Pasadena took them to court because all the little places like Nassau Bay and El Lago and what have you could not incorporate because they were now within the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Houston.
So when Pasadena won the lawsuit, Nassau Bay and El Lago and all these places incorporated the following day, because they were now outside Houston's extraterritorial jurisdiction. The only ones who didn't escape were Clear Lake City, because they still were within reach. So it's been an interesting gambit to watch that kind of thing go on.
Houston was very proud of having won the Manned Spacecraft Center, and they had big doings for us down at the coliseum and the Astrodome. The night they opened the Astrodome was a disaster. They had offered free admission to all Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts and what have you. Of course, most of us had kids who were in the Scouts. I started driving towards the Astrodome, and pretty soon all the radio stations were saying, "Everybody please stop, turn around and go home. We've got gridlock." [Laughter] And literally it took maybe three hours to get untangled and get back home because there was such a horde of people all headed for the Astrodome, because nobody had ever seen it, and it was interesting.
Well, while we were at Langley, after Glenn's flight, a number of us were put to work to go look at how would you go to the Moon. I was part of that group that was looking at how would you go to the Moon. There was a fellow at Langley, John [C.] Houbolt, who was an advocate for lunar orbit rendezvous. I got to know John while we were at Langley. It was an interesting scheme. John's lunar module didn't look at all like the one we wound up building, but that wasn't the point. The point is that he was pursuing the strategy of staging to its logical conclusions. So that was an interesting introduction.
We started laying out something that was very, very similar to the command module we eventually used, and as is always the case, we had advisory committees. I can remember sort of a difficult afternoon with an advisory committee that says, "Why are you selecting a three-man crew? Three is a bad number, because two of them will gang up on one of them, and that's sociologically not a good arrangement."
We said, "Two's not enough and we don't have room for four." [Laughter] It was that kind of thing that sort of made you wonder about the value of advisory committees, but part of it is they made you work and made you think things through and recognized that that was the situation that could develop and that you'd better think about that in the way you trained and organized things.
We began moving down here. I came down just after Christmas in 1961, brought my family down, and we bought a house up in Overbrook, lived there until the site got built down here, then I moved down to Nassau Bay. We were spread out in lots of places around Houston, and, of course, that's where we were when [President John F.] Kennedy came through. He visited a number of our facilities, looked at some of the mockups and things that we were doing. That was my first encounter with the Secret Service contingents and the press. The press have no regard for anything. The photographers are particularly bad. They'll knock things over, including you, to get at the picture.
Then, of course, the following day, he [Kennedy] was assassinated in Dallas, so that was a pretty memorable event.
BERGEN: What do you remember about when he first made the commitment to go to the Moon?
LOFTUS: Well, we knew that it could be done, that it was a question of did you have the right kind of resources. You have to remember that World War II really changed the structure of the world. By the end of the war, we were flying bombing raids at 36—38,000 feet in unpressurized aircraft, which meant that you had to develop breathing systems for crewmen and what have you. So that sort of all of the things that you would need to sustain a human being in space, you had learned to do.
The second thing is, is that the military is a training machine. Amateurs think that wars are won by tactics. Professionals know that wars are won by logistics and training. So one of the things that was done is we trained literally tens of thousands of people to be pilots and tens of thousands of people to be mechanics and tens of thousands of people to do scheduling and route management and what have you. So before World War II, there was essentially an embryonic civil aviation, but out of World War II was this tremendous endowment of equipment and people that literally, within years, two years, created the aircraft industry as we know it.
During the war, there were 12,000 DC-3s built. There's still some of them flying in South America. But that meant that after the war, you could get a group of pilots and a group of mechanics and a group of schedulers, and you could set up an airline. And they did. Dozens of them, most of them gone, now embedded in much, much larger airlines, but there must have been, in 1947, maybe fifty airlines in the United States because of this endowment of equipment and people. So that changed the way transportation was done, both air cargo and air passengers. In effect, that led to the Chicago Convention of 1947, which is the International Civil [Aviation] Organization [ICAO]. It's now part of the United Nations. But that is the forum in which people agree as to what will be the rules of airport operations, flight operations, traffiicmanagement, lighting schemes for airports, what have you, and that's where English became the
language of aviation worldwide. And that's still how it's done.
So literally every nation in the world belongs, because whether they have an airline or not, they want other airlines to service their country, and that means they have to meet specifications about bearing strengths of runways, what are the heights of the passenger exit doors, and all of the accoutrements that interface the terminal to the airplane. So that was an interesting development out of all of that. And it works well. Nobody tells anybody else what to do; everybody gets together and decides what's in the common interest. That's sort of a diversion, but I had gotten into some of that when I was doing the research at Wright Field on the CAT-3 landings and was very interested in all of that.
So at any rate, we knew how to sustain human life. We had learned how to build pressurized cabins so we could build them for spacecraft. Two-thirds of the atmosphere is below you when you're at 30,000 feet. Half of it's below you when you're at 8,000 feet. So going the last 10 percent out of the atmosphere to go into space was not a particularly significant thing in terms of a lot of the design parameters of the vehicle. The biggest issue was going to be how heavy were you going to be and could you build a launch vehicle big enough to do it.
Well, of course, after World War II, the U.S. has succeeded in capturing most of the German V-2 team from Peenemünde and put them out in Fort Bliss out at El Paso [Texas], but then they wanted to build some Army launched vehicles, so they brought them up to Huntsville, Alabama, to the [Redstone] Army Arsenal there. Wernher [von Braun] had the notion of some really big launch vehicles. I'm not sure whether he and [Sergei Pavlovich] Korolev had ever had any contact with each other, but they both had the notion of multi-engines in the first stage. So Wernher said he could deliver a big launch vehicle, and they did a marvelous job.
We kept trying to get the weight down, and that led to a number of significant things. One of the big debates, of course, that prevailed during those years in Apollo were, should you go Earth orbit rendezvous and build a space station and depart from the space station to go to the Moon, or should you go lunar orbit rendezvous and not spend any time in Earth orbit? That was a very profound kind of decision that had to be made, and the fellows at Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama] were developing the Saturn, and we were trying to develop the command and service module and lunar module. All of our weight targets were being exceeded, which meant that he had to keep building a bigger and bigger vehicle or he wouldn't be able to lift everything we had. So there were lots of fairly acrimonious discussions and lots of real learning experiences.
BERGEN: Were you involved in any of that decision-making process?
LOFTUS: I was going to tell you a few stories about that.
LOFTUS: One of the things that happens after there's a big competition is that some company wins the competition and then it has to staff up to actually do the job. So one of the things that happens is people who are working for the losing corporations may go to work for the government agency that's going to supervise the program or they may go to work for the contractor who won the award. And that's where a lot of the NASA people came from. They came from the [Glen L.] Martin Company in Baltimore [Maryland], which had bid for Apollo and lost to North American [Rockwell Corporation], or they had worked for General Dynamics [Corporation] in San Diego, lost to North American, and rather than go to work for North American, they came to work for NASA. So we had lots of that kind of infusion of people. But that was sort of the second major infusion.
The first major infusion of people for NASA was the Canadians. Shortly after Mercury was started, the Canadian government, under Mr. [Prime Minister John] Diefenbaker, decided that they were too small a nation to compete in building front-line fighter aircraft. At that time they had a company by the name of AVRO, which is a truncation of A.V. Roe [Ltd.], who was one of the early developers of aircraft. They had an aircraft called the [CF-]105, which was undoubtedly at that time the hottest fighter in the world. They had, I think, five airframes, and they had just started their testing when the government said, "No more. Cut them up. Get rid of them. We're out of the business."
So we promptly went up to Canada and hired as many of them as we could, and McDonnell hired a group. So there was a big infusion of Canadians into both NASA and McDonnell and Rockwell. That was sort of an interesting thing because it had some echoes of the development of the jet engine, because Frank Whipple was a young Brit who wanted to develop a jet engine, but the establishment really didn't think there was much in his proposal, so they didn't want to give him any of the good young British engineers, so they gave him a group of these young colonials from Canada. Of course, Whipple was successful in developing the jet engine.
Part of the consequence of that is that those young Canadians went back to Canada and established the Orenda Engine Company with what they had learned. So they became a fairly significant player in the jet engine business.
So in the space business it was much the same way. We got this young bunch of colonials. Of course, many of them became U.S. citizens, though many did not. But they were an interesting group.
Then, of course, when the contractors lost the Apollo bids, again the winners picked up a lot of those folks and so did we. So there's a lot of that kind of cross-fertilization within the community because of the nature of the business.
We started out on the lunar module, and everybody started out with what looked like a sphere, because everybody knows that that's the most efficient shape for containing volume with minimum weight. I can remember numerous sessions where we'd be trying to figure out how we were going to build this sphere and at the same time have fields of view that we would need to do the landing, need to be able to see down, so you'd have to have windows on the bottom. You'd have to dock, you've have to have windows in the top. Pretty soon the whole front half of the thing was windows and window frames.
It was just getting more and more complicated, and so we kept modifying the design. I think before we were finished, we had done something like nineteen different configuration designs. What's impressive about that is that if you go over to Space Center Houston and look at the ascent stage of the lunar module and you've learned how to look at it, you will recognize that it's a replication of the human skull, that it's got two triangular windows and an eyebrow, it's got a nose, it's got a mouth, it's got a hatch in the top. Turned out that all the same considerations that make the skull the way it is were the right way to make a minimum weight, smallest possible window, symmetrically balanced vehicle. So the crew's in front, the equipment's in back, the fuel tanks are on the side so that everything is balanced. Very efficient design structurally and thermally. Small as possible windows so you don't have a big heat load. It took us a long time to get there when the answer had been sitting across the table from us from the beginning. So that was a real learning experience for a lot of us.
We got into all kinds of things. I had a lot of responsibility for the controls and displays in both vehicles, and had a group in the program office that did that. I can remember very carefully writing the language that said, "You shall not design any instrument so that it fails in place." If you have a needle and the needle is supposed to indicate something if the instrument fails, you fail it off-scale so it's out of sight, so that the crewman knows he doesn't have it. We had worked very hard to get all of that language into the specifications.
I can remember discovering, about two years after we started to build the lunar module, that Grumman's instruments all failed in place. I went ballistic. But it was too late to do anything about it, so we had to try and find ways to deal with that.
The evolution of the lunar module is, I think, one of the most interesting stories. I can remember being in Cambridge for some meetings with the Draper Lab people, listening to a radio show in the morning while I was getting dressed and ready. One of the critics was saying that it was demonstrable that NASA really didn't know what they were doing and we really couldn't afford to go to the Moon because they couldn't even afford to provide seats for the crewmen who were going to land on the Moon. [Laughter] So it's interesting, the kinds of perceptions that you have to deal with.
Probably the two biggest system-wide decisions that had to be taken into the program, at least from the prospective that I was involved in, were who is going to be primary for navigation. Were you going to rely on onboard navigation, and would that be primary? Or were you going to rely on ground navigation, and would that be primary and the onboard system would be a backup?
A group of people up at MIT Draper Lab, [J. Halcombe] Hal Laning and Dick [Richard H.] Battin, had developed a scheme for doing onboard navigation, and we had done a lot of work with the Draper Lab people, so we tended to be in favor of an onboard solution. But there was another group of people who felt that with proper Doppler ranging in the S-band signals, that they could do the navigation from the ground and do it more precisely. They felt that by not having to do that on board, you could substantially offload the crew from work that was involved in that task that could be better done, so that you could distribute the workload between the ground and the flight crew more efficiently.
That was a major exercise for several years before we finally resolved that we would make the ground primary and onboard secondary, but we kept working on the onboard system so that if for any reason we lost communication, we could do everything on board. That was an interesting development.
At that time, computing power was very limited, and that was one of the arguments that helped the advocates for a ground-based system prevail, because it didn't matter how big the computer on the ground had to be, you could make it. In those days, the computers on board were small and you had to do all the programming in machine language, which was very cumbersome to do, very cumbersome to check out, and even more cumbersome to change. But the onboard computers that we had had less power than your hand calculators do today. So it was an interesting exercise to develop those controls and displays and the sextants. I spent an awful lot of time working on that with the Draper Lab people, and we had a very good system.
We also had some fairly well-trained crews. On one of the flights, Jim [James A.] Lovell [Jr.] was the navigator, and there was an error in procedure, and he dumped the whole computer, and he had to rebuild it in real time in order to get on with the mission, and he did. That's how well trained he was, very successfully. So that was a big decision.
Another one of the big decisions was, what kind of engines were you going to use in the service module to go to the Moon. We had a whole team of people working on that, but in the end, the fellow who presented the case and won the day was a fellow by the name of Larry [Lawrence G.] Williams, passed away a couple of years ago now. Larry was interesting because he and Caldwell [C.] Johnson were two of the NACA people who came into the program, neither of whom had an engineering degree or a college degree. They had both come through the apprentice program at Langley, and yet they were two of the best engineers we had.
So Larry, in effect, put together the story that said what you want is a pressure-fed engine and a single engine, because that's the most reliable system we can build. That, in effect, dictated the kind of service module we were going to have. It was a major decision, and every virtue that Larry had claimed for it was proven true. Very reliable and it worked very, very well.
So that meant that when we built the service module, it was, in a sense, a cylindrical structure and it was in six segments. Four of the six segments were occupied by propellant tanks, two fuel tanks and two oxidizer tanks, and that left us then with two open bays in which we could put other equipment. And amongst the equipment we put in those bays were the fuel cells and cryogen tanks to produce the electricity.
The Apollo fuel cells were sort of third generation baking cells. Second generation is what we flew in Gemini, and the first generation were just laboratory units. Basically a fuel cell is a membrane which acts as a catalyst so that you put in hydrogen and oxygen, and as they react with the catalyst, you produce electricity and water. They worked very, very well for us.
But, of course, on Apollo 13 we did have the accident, and that's another one of those cases where people and procedural errors caused the problem. We had done what we call a Countdown Demonstration Test where we had gone through all the procedures of loading all the consumables such as the cryogens and propellants and everything, as a dress rehearsal for the mission. Then, of course, when we finished that, we had to de-tank everything in order to get back to an empty configuration, if you will. In order to do that, we had to heat the cryogens to remove them from the tank. The technician left the heater on after all the cryogens were gone, and so the tank kept getting hotter and hotter until eventually somebody did turn off the heater. But by that time all the insulation had been charred and fallen off. So then when we tanked for the mission, everything was all right because the wires were separated.
And it wasn't until we were in flight and had to do what we called stirring, because the problem is, is with the cryogen, is that it separates into phases and it stratifies, and you don't want to do that, so we had a fan that you could use to stir up the cryogens. And it was when the fan turned on to stir up the cryogens that it created enough motion to bring those wires together and create a spark. At 900 pounds per square inch in pure oxygen, stainless steel burns like a candle, and that's what caused the problem.
Interestingly enough, as part of the training we had done, we had done a simulation, we hadn't postulated why, we just sort of said, "You've got to get home. You've got no power. How are you going to do it?" And we had actually run the simulation of going around the Moon and navigating back to the Earth and what have you. What we hadn't done in the simulation is we hadn't had to deal with the consequences of no power, but we had in the simulation used the lunar module as a lifeboat. We had not anticipated how cold it was going to get. But because of that, we were able to, I think, pull off something close to a miracle.
Turns out I was not here at the time. I had gone off to a school. I was in the program office, and the fuel cells and cryogens were one of my responsibilities. But we had a large General Electric group working for us, and General Electric, as a company, is very, very big on training. Up at Crotonville [phonetic], New York, they have, in effect, a university campus of their own, where they run people through all kinds of training courses. You can literally get a doctorate in engineering or business or many other subjects in that kind of environment.
But in addition to that, the office of the chief engineer ran a special course twice a year up at Saratoga Springs, New York, and the notion of the course was that they would bring in the
chief engineers from various facilities throughout the G.E. system and they would bring in one or two customers along with these chief engineers. So they took over the Gideon Putnam, a resort hotel, for the six weeks before the season opened and the six weeks after the season, and would bring in their people, about thirty-five or forty.
During this six weeks, they would bring in people who were truly experts, and the notion was that here you had a group of engineers who'd been out of school twenty, twenty-five years, who were the senior engineers for various facilities or functions, and what you wanted to do was to bring them up to date. You wanted to get them trained in the same way that this year's graduates are being trained so that they would know how to make use of those skills. It was very intense. They sent you programmed instruction texts to read before you got there, and they sent you a basic manual so you could produce programming in BASIC. Then you assembled.
I was one of the guests. The other fellow was from the Navy, a Navy commander from the Polaris Program. So you'd go to class six days a week, and the regimen was, class started at 8:30 every morning and went until about 3:00 in the afternoon, and then you took a couple of hours for exercise and PT [physical training], supper, and then after supper, special lectures. Essentially, a lot of the special lectures were a fellow who was an expert in making computer chips would give a two-hour course on how did he do what he do. So everybody taught at least one evening to the rest of the class.
It was while I was at that course that the Apollo 13 event took place, and so one of the things I did every evening was to give a status report, because we were obviously very interesting. I was talking to our people back here to find out what was going on. I did not sleep very well that week.
But that was truly very educational. Just as an example, one of the courses was polymer chemistry. How do you make nylon, [unclear], things of that variety. The fellow who taught the course was Hans Mark, not the Hans Mark who was with NASA, his father. [Laughter] Who was at Brooklyn Poly [Polytechnic University of New York] and who was a marvelous teacher. And the guy who taught metals was the chief metallurgist for U.S. Steel [Group]. The fellow who taught math was the chairman of the math department at Cal-Berkeley [University of California at Berkley]. In forty hours with him, we went through set theory through tensor analysis, which is like four years' worth of math. [Laughter] But he was really good. You know, most of us, a lot of it was review, but it was quite a challenge.
Had a course called transport theory, which really is essentially all forms of conversions of energy, and that was taught by a fellow by the name of Rasmussan [phonetic], who was the dean of engineering at Rensselaer [Polytechnic Institute (RPI)]. That, of course, was the time when campuses were having a lot of trouble. This fellow had played tackle in college, and they were in the midst of a student riot when he was getting ready to come teach us, and he went through them just like he went through the other line. He just knocked people end over end. [Laughter] Big bull of a man.
One of the courses was decision theory, so they brought Ron Howard in from UCLA to teach that. It was an interesting experience to get exposed to all of these academic stars in this very intense kind of environment.
Of course, at that time computers were not as prolific as they are now, but there was a terminal assigned, an old TTY terminal, as a matter of fact, to every student, and you had to do your homework on the terminal. So that was a fairly useful experience.
When I got back, I immediately became one of the guinea pigs for our folks who wanted to introduce PCs to everybody. Back when I was in graduate school, I couldn't afford a computer, but we had card-sorting machines, so I literally did a forty-by-forty analysis of variance just by sorting card decks over and over and over again. I'd spend nights doing that. And it worked, but it was labor-intensive, to say the least.
At any rate, that was a most interesting course. The other thing you came away with was a brand-new set of textbooks, and it was like a six-foot shelf. So that was good. Enjoyed that.
When I got back from that, I was asked to go and look at what are we going to do—well, back up. Before I had gone there, I had been asked to head up a task force to say, what are we going to do after we land on the Moon successfully the first time? So I spent a couple of years with a team of people, sort of saying, what are we going to do after the first landing?
Basically we came up with a scheme that we called plateaus, where you would A, B, C, D, E, and what have you. Effectively, A were the first test missions in low Earth orbit, and then E was the first successful landing on the Moon, and E2, E3 would be different versions of that because you wouldn't have time to change any of the equipment. But then we would have the F Series, where you would be able to modify things.
So we developed a set of experiments to be carried in the service module to do remote sensing and deploy sub-satellites in lunar orbit, and we developed capability for the lunar module to stay on the surface for seventy-two hours rather than twenty-four, and to land a great deal more weight so that we could carry more complex instruments in a rover vehicle, so that we could cover a larger area around where we landed.
So I worked that definition problem. One of the things we did was to go in and modify the descent stage of the lunar module. When we started out as engineers or want to be, we were all too optimistic, but that meant that the basic lunar module descent design had originally been spherical tanks. When the weight of the vehicle grew and we needed more propellant, cut the spheres in half and put in the cylindrical section. So that was the configuration in which we landed on the Moon.
Well, now we had a box structure that was the descent stage, so we had a fixed volume in which to work. So how were we going to get more propellant? So we went in and we took off those hemisphere end domes and put in elliptical end domes, and that way we could carry more propellant. So we stretched the cylinder a little bit till we took up all the possible space and changed the end dome from a spherical section to an elliptical section, and got the additional propellant to land the additional supplies, the batteries, the rover, and everything else, so that we could stay on the Moon for seventy-two hours. That was a fun exercise.
BERGEN: If we could pause for a moment and let Carol change out our tape.
LOFTUS: Sure. [Tape change]
BERGEN: Okay. Would you like to continue telling us about your extending the mission, what was necessary to extend the missions?
LOFTUS: Well, to increase the landed weight capacity, we had gone to elliptical end domes on the propellant tank in order to increase the capacity. That was successful. That was the configuration in which we did the last three landings on the Moon.
But let's back up a little bit. We talked about the fact that there was this debate about lunar orbit rendezvous versus Earth orbit rendezvous. JSC [Johnson Space Center], both by choice and assignment, was the advocate for the lunar orbit rendezvous. Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama], both by choice and by assignment, were the advocates for Earth orbit rendezvous. There were many, many working groups and studies and what have you.
The denouement came at a meeting in Huntsville which was sort of an all-day meeting in their big conference room up on the tenth floor. Marshall presented the case for Earth orbit rendezvous, and JSC presented the case for lunar orbit rendezvous. Then there was a small hiatus. Then Wernher von Braun said, "We're going to go lunar orbit rendezvous. We don't have time to do it any other way." And the Marshall guys were crushed.
I guess at the time I thought Wernher was making a decision in real time, as a consequence of what he had heard in that meeting and over several earlier meetings. I later discovered that he had already written out that speech two days before. [Laughter] So you never quite know how these things are going to get done. I think I may have located a copy of it and I may be able to get that. I'm trying to get a copy of that because that was a memorable event.
It really was the only way to go, because we wouldn't have time to build anything bigger than a Saturn V. That was already a challenge. It had another profound effect, which I don't think we had really paid enough attention to when we were doing these studies, and that is, it meant that you could have a single very, very clean interface. So we literally wound up with a single umbilical. I don't have in my head right now the exact number of wires, but it was maybe like 600 wires that went between the command and service module and lunar module and the Saturn V.
That was a complex enough interface, but it was so much simpler than anything else would have been, that it really made many, many great efficiencies because it meant then that Marshall could make changes to the elements of the Saturn V, we could make changes to the elements of our part of the stack, and they would not domino back and forth between the two organizations. So that was a profoundly significant decision. It has lots of interesting corollaries.
I'm sure you've seen the Saturn V over on the grounds, and when you look at those big F-1 engines, you wouldn't realize that there's about 50 pounds of gold in each one of them. Actually, it was used to solder the recirculation tubes to the engine bell, and the reason you use gold is, (A), it doesn't corrode, and, (B), it is the most efficient thermal transfer medium that you could use. There were several other parts that were made out of gold because of those properties. I can remember one occasion some newspaperman asked Dr. von Braun why he made it out of gold, and he said, "Well, it's the best way I can do it, and performance is the object and it doesn't really cost that much." And he was right, because essentially we were getting it from Fort Knox [Kentucky]. So it worked well.
It was a major decision and it also set up one of the neater kinds of orbital mechanics problems, because essentially what that meant is that we had to back everything up from where we wanted to land on the Moon, and that was a fairly significant point because that set the time and day of the launch, because you'd go into orbit and you'd go around the Earth, and then when you were on the opposite side of the Earth from the Moon, where the Moon would be three days later, that's when you began your burn to go to the Moon. So the Moon was a moving target and you had to lead it by three days. Once you had made that translunar injection, you were pretty much committed.
So for the next two and a half days, basically we just rolled the vehicle to keep the thermal balance, because thermal considerations are to spacecraft what aerodynamic considerations are to airplanes; they design everything. When you're in orbit around the Earth, the part that's looking at the Earth is 70 degrees. The part that's looking at the sun is +250 degrees, and the part that's looking at deep space is -250 degrees. So thermal balance is a major design consideration in any spacecraft, and that was how we handled it going out to the Moon, was barbecue.
Site selection for landings was a really major issue. The operators and safety people, of course, wanted a place that was big and flat, and the geologists, of course, wanted something that was much more interesting than that. So there was lots and lots of debate about where do you land. We were doing all kinds of planning. One of the things was, is that if you couldn't go on the planned launch date, could you recycle and go two days later or three days later and what have you.
In the midst of all of those debates, I created a bit of a riot because I said, "If you don't go at the planned landing time, you can't go to that same place. You have to go somewhere further east on the Moon, because the lunar surface is retro reflective." If the sunline is below you as you're approaching a point on the Moon, you get good definition; you can see clearly. If the sunline to the point you're going on the Moon is above you, it's like driving into a heavy fog with your high beams on; you can't see anything. So if you pick a point on the Moon, there is one day every twenty-eight days when you can go. Otherwise, you have to go someplace further east.
Well, that, of course, created a real riot, because that meant you'd have to train for multiple landing sites, you'd have to do all kinds of things to assure that you could go at the time you had to go, and what have you. So people were very reluctant to accept that. I spent one of the most strenuous afternoons of my life in front of the CCB [Change Control Board] with George [M.] Low, explaining why this was so. And eventually he said, "Okay. That's the way it is, that's the way it is."
BERGEN: How did you come upon that information? Was that something you had been assigned to look at?
LOFTUS: No, but in some of my Air Force work I had done a lot of work in optics. One of the problems you have in high-altitude aviation is what's called empty-field myopia. Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is to sort of say if you look at something outside, you can look through the screen or through the window and it doesn't show in your field of view because you focus on the object and the distance that you want to look at. But you can also look at the window or the screen and lose the object that's in the far field. That's one of the problems that happens to pilots at high altitude, particularly when you're on a fighter sortie and you're looking for enemy airplanes; you've looking into an empty field. So, quite unconsciously, your eyes can come back and focus on the wind screen or what have you so that even if there is a bogie out there, you won't see it, because you're not focused property. You're suffering from empty-field myopia.
So I had been interested in all of these kinds of phenomena. During Mercury we had done a lot of study of the various astronomical phenomena that you might be able to see when you were out of the Earth's atmosphere, things like gaganshine [phonetic], which is the portion of the dust in the solar system that when you don't have all of the glow from the sky, you can see. So I knew from the studies that our folks had been doing, that the lunar surface had been bombarded for years by the solar wind and by various other phenomenon, and so that the surface was powdery. When we landed Surveyor on the Moon, I went out and spent a couple of weeks at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California], studying all of the views from that camera, and ye verily, it was retro reflective as you would anticipate from that kind of a surface.
So, yes, it was part of my job in the sense that I was to sort of worry about the crew's interface to the system, and obviously that meant such things as what's he going to see when he looks out the window and what cues is he going to need and how can he deal with that. So it was a combination of all those things that did it. But it had a major effect on the way we plan missions.
LOFTUS: It also had a major effect on how steep the landing approach had to be, because a typical aircraft landing approach is about two and a half degrees, maybe a little less, and the lunar landing approach to the landing site was fourteen degrees. If you were in the cockpit and watching that landing, it would feel like you were going straight down. One of the hardest things to learn when you're a fighter pilot is how steep you have to dive to deliver bombs. You're going down at 60 degrees and it feels like you're going down at 90. It's a very difficult kind of a perception.
So part of the problem was, is you didn't want to make the crew have to deal with a steeper approach than was necessary, and we said it can't be steeper than 20 degrees because it distorts the perception and it gives you too little time to react to things. On the other hand, you've got to be above the sunline, so we've decided that ideally I would like to have the sunline and the landing site be nine degrees. That was high enough that I could begin to get some good definition, see rocks and terrain features and so on, and low enough that I could still be above it and not have too steep an approach. So that was a major consideration.
Then, of course, it backs into sort of saying, okay now, what does the shape of the window have to be so that you can see the right things when those are the geometry of what you're doing.
BERGEN: We have just a couple of minutes left. I wanted to ask you what did you think when you saw the first videos of the first lunar landing.
LOFTUS: Well, I thought it was pretty spectacular. That was a pretty thrilling event. As Neil [A. Armstrong] was going in, everybody was distracted by the fact that we were getting computer alarms, and everybody was sort of saying, "Can we proceed? Do we have to abort?" And there was a boulder field that hadn't showed up in the imagery we had. So Neil was extending the landing and fuel was going down.
There was a young man, Steve [Stephen G.] Bales, who said, "Don't worry about the computer alarm. I know exactly what's going on. It's not a problem. Proceed with the landing." That was a guts call. [Laughter]
Neil did get it down. There wasn't a lot of fuel left. I had been sweating, like everybody else. So it was an event and, ye verily, in all the photographs they brought back, you can see the retro reflectivity. [Laughter] So I was pleased to be vindicated. It was a real thrill.
But I think, in a sense, the Apollo 8, I think, was a more daring event for me. That was one of those decisions that you could never get a committee to make. George Low, in effect, said, "Why don't we do that," and he was saying it in such way that said, "We're going to do that unless you can prove to me there's some reason we shouldn't." And he talked with a number of people, and I was in some of those conversations, and we made the decision to go do it.
It was a real event to go into orbit around the Moon the first time. To give you some sense of it, imagine you're going down the highway at 80 miles an hour and you can see a train begin to cross the highway, and you keep going 80 miles an hour and the train keeps crossing the highway. You wonder, is the train going to be gone when I get there, or am I going to hit it? Well, going into orbit around the Moon means that you're going to pass just five feet behind the train. [Laughter] So you can't flinch. That was a fairly profound one.
I guess another one of the Apollo things that comes to mind is we decided that we had to have EVA activities to be able to get to the lunar module from the outside if we couldn't go through the tunnel. I had designed a set of handrails to mount on the various places, and Max [Maxime A.] Faget and I had a dog fight because Max didn't want those handrails on the command module because he was afraid they were going to foul the shroud lines on the parachute. So we had to run a whole series of tests to satisfy Max that we had designed them with all the proper angularity to keep the lines from fouling, and it worked. I've still got one of the original handholds that we used for those tests.
BERGEN: It is 3:30, so we don't want to keep you any longer. That's the time you allotted us. We thank you so much for sharing with us today. We appreciated it.
[End of Interview]
ORAL HISTORY 3 TRANSCRIPT
JOSEPH P. LOFTUS, JR. INTERVIEWED BY SUMMER CHICK BERGEN
HOUSTON, TEXAS – 8 NOVEMBER 2000
BERGEN: Today is November 8, 2000. This oral history with Joe Loftus is being conducted for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project at the offices of the Signal Corporation in Houston, Texas. The interviewer is Summer Chick Bergen, assisted by Kevin Rusnak.
We’re glad you came back to speak with us again. We talked up through Apollo last time, and this session I think we wanted to look at your work in long-range planning. So why don’t you start by telling us how you got involved in that area and what were sort of the first things that you worked on.
LOFTUS: I guess there’s one thing I’d like to mention about Apollo before we leave that. One of the real challenges was building the simulators that we were going to use for the command and service module [CSM] and for the lunar module [LM]. It was right at the time when we were transitioning from analog to digital computers. I had the assignment to acquire the simulators, and I went to Wright Field [Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio] to get a guy I had worked with there by the name of Bill Geckler [phonetic]. He’s still in the area, and he might be worth talking to. We held a competition, and we had a protest. I had to go mop my notebooks and go up and see George M. Low to deal with the protest, and that went away. But the big significant thing is that we were building the simulators essentially on the same schedule we were building the flight software and the flight computers, and so it was a very difficult question. Normally what you would do is you would buy a flight computer and you would imbed it in a simulator and simulate its environment, but we couldn’t do that because there wouldn’t be any flight computers.
So a young man by the name of Jim [James L.] Raney built an emulator of the flight computer and its software, and that was the most significant accomplishment because it really allowed us to do the training and to train well. The reason we had gone digital was that we had such a scale factor when you’re dealing with going from Earth to orbit and to the Moon, you have to be able to deal with distances that are orders of magnitude. That’s quite different from an aircraft simulator. I just thought after our conversation last time, that Raney’s accomplishment was not widely understood, not even widely known, but was most significant.
When we were landing on the Moon, I had the assignment to go look at what we would do for the F series missions and then the J series. So when we had laid out the plans for those missions and made the modifications to the vehicle, I was sort of already doing advanced mission planning. At that time it was desired to look more formally at what we were going to do as we went ahead, because the things that we had currently on the books were Skylab and ASTP [Apollo Soyuz Test Project]. And then the question would be, what followed that?
One of the things we looked at was doing a Skylab recovery mission with the [Space] Shuttle, because we had abandoned Skylab without a full appreciation of what that meant. We were very fortunate that when it reentered, it mostly landed in the Indian Ocean and the outback in Australia. But to give you some idea of the hazard, we recovered 26 metric tons. That’s why one of the reasons that I’m embarked on right now is the reentry of Mir, because that’s 135 metric tons. So we want to very carefully put that in the South Pacific. We’ve been working with the Russians to do that. I’ve been working with a number of the DoD [Department of Defense] people to do an observation campaign so that we can better understand how these things break up and where the pieces really go.
We just finished doing that for the Gamma Ray Observatory [GRO]. That was the heaviest payload we ever flew in the Shuttle, and it was 14 metric tons. We brought it down the night of June 4th , and five and a half metric tons made it to the surface. So that was a controlled entry, and it was probably the best observation campaign I’ve ever run. Everything worked. We got good telescopic views from Maui [Hawaii]. We got good radar
data from Maui. We had an aircraft on station, and all of its instruments worked, everything went tickety-boo, and we got really good data.
But at any rate, we were looking at things like what do you do about Skylab, and we looked at a follow-on with ASTP where we would maybe take a Shuttle to Salyut so we had some predecessors for what later became the Phase 1 [International] Space Station program which we called Shuttle-Mir.
We were looking at station, and, as a matter of fact, all of the momentum was in station. We had contracts at both Marshall [Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama] and JSC [Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas] with the contractors doing Phase B studies, but the more we studied the station, the more we came to realize that you can’t have an effective station if you don’t have effective transportation. We also began to realize that things like “Big Gemini” and “Big Dumb Boosters” and other fashionable concepts all had serious shortcomings. We started out trying to look at a fully reusable system, and it just proved beyond what we had in the way of technology.
One observation is fairly significant. We couldn’t have built the Shuttle had we not had the experience and the technology base of Apollo. Building the Shuttle main engines would have just been too big a stretch if we hadn’t built the F-1s for Saturn V. And there were similar things. We had started using fuel cells in Gemini. These were vacant cells. They use a catalytic membrane to mix hydrogen and oxygen and create electricity and water. The fuel cells we developed for the Shuttle had five times the power, five times the life, and one-third the weight. So there were those kinds of significant technology developments that went into making the Shuttle feasible.
The Shuttle tiles were an interesting development. They had originally been developed as a material to make a radar transparent window in an aircraft. They were very light and they were thermally very efficient. We decided that that was the way to go, that it was the only way we could make the weight. If we had gone with a metallic TPS [thermal protection system], it would have been too heavy. We knew that we had a problem in terms of learning how to match this brittle ceramic with a flexible aluminum airplane. We had actually bought and refurbished a DC-3 to use as a test article to train ourselves how to do that.
That’s when the first of the major budget crunches came in [James E.] Carter’s administration due to the war in Southeast Asia. So the only major subcontract that we did not have let at that time was the contract with Lockheed [Aircraft Corporation] for the thermal protection system. So while we knew it was a long pole in the tent and one of the major technology obstacles we had to overcome, we weren’t able to work on that part of the program for several years.
That showed up, of course, then in ’81 when we were ferrying the [orbiter] vehicle from California to Florida, and we were losing tiles and the tiling job was incomplete. It wasn’t because we were dumb; it was because that was the only contract we hadn’t let, so it was the obvious place to conserve resources.
The development of the Shuttle was sort of interesting. One of the things that we had started doing in advanced studies was to look at some of the things that had been significant constraints in Apollo. In Apollo we had done all the programming in machine language. That made it very, very difficult to verify and it made it very, very difficult to change.
So one of the things we embarked upon, Jack [John R.] Garman and I and a couple of others from Draper Lab [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts], was the development of a higher-order language that could be used for programming. We called it HAL, and we said that stood for Houston Aerospace Language. But if you’re familiar with [Arthur C. Clarke’s] "2001," you know that’s IBM minus 1. So it’s one of the standing jokes in the community. But that turned out to be a very, very successful effort. It enabled us to do the programming for the Shuttle in a most efficient way.
The other thing we did that made things possible is that we made special modifications to the computers so that we could run them one cycle at a time, so if we’re having trouble with bugs in the code or what have you, we had very powerful diagnostic instruments to go in and clean up that kind of problem. That was probably one of the major accomplishments in that area.
What it brings to my mind is the fact that there are two things that characterize JSC as a space center. You go to Langley [Research Center, Hampton, Virginia] or to Ames [Research Center, Mountain View, California], you see all these big wind tunnel buildings, and wind tunnels are what aerodynamics is all about. Here what you find are all sorts of vacuum chambers. The reason you find all the vacuum chambers is that thermal balance is to spacecraft design what aerodynamics is to aircraft design.
The other thing is that our flights are rare and short, so what you find is that we do an enormous amount of analysis. If you really think about it, JSC is a very large software factory. We do all the software to animate all the displays and controls of the Mission Control Center. We do all the software to animate the simulators. We do all kinds of software in order to do all the thermal analyses for all the various attitudes and orientations of the Shuttle and all the various configurations of the payload. So it’s a very large analytic effort, and most people don’t think of JSC of being that kind of a software factory.
But it was for that reason, for example, that when the DoD was developing ADA [phonetic], which was a software code, we were one of the beta sites for that kind of testing. So it’s, I think, a fairly important thing to recognize how much we do.
It turns out a few years ago we had to build a second heating, ventilating, and air- conditioning plant and put it on the eastside of the campus. The original one’s on the westside of the campus. The reason we had to do that is because of all the computers that we had brought on site, and every one of those things sits there and generates as much heat as a person does.
To put that in perspective for you, we have more computers than we have people, because, in several cases, people not only have their personal [computer,] PC for routine work, but they have workstations which are Silicon Graphics [Inc.] or Hewlett-Packard [Company] or others kinds of more powerful machines because of the kind of analytic work they do. I think that’s a facet of the Center that is not widely appreciated.
It was sort of interesting to sort of say what were we doing when we were doing two or three Apollo flights a year and we were doing it all with card decks and big central processors. It turns out we couldn’t do the Shuttle missions if we were doing them the way we did Apollo, because in some ways it’s more complex to fly an orbital mission in Earth orbit than it is to fly to the Moon.
Mission planning for a flight to the Moon is fairly straightforward because you’ve got the trajectory and it acts like a clothesline and you just hang everything in its proper place. When you’re trying to do things in Earth orbit, you have a much more complex situation in terms of scheduling activities. So all this computational power is what makes it possible for us to do three or four times as many flights as we could do in Apollo because we can do with one or two engineers in a couple of weeks what it took us several months and a whole roomful of engineers to do during Apollo.
So a lot of the things we were doing in the advanced mission planning was recognizing that this computer revolution was upon us and trying to figure out how to exploit that so that we could do all the things we're doing today.
BERGEN: When I was looking at some of our research, I noticed somewhere it stated that you helped to transition JSC from a research and development phase in Shuttle to the operational mode. What was involved in that?
LOFTUS: Well, we call the Shuttle operational, but that’s capricious, maybe. The question was is what would you really have to do in terms of instrumentation and flight execution in the early flights of the Shuttle to, in effect, explore your performance envelope and define that you had in fact demonstrated the adequacy of your design so that you could go on to more productive activities.
So the original vehicles had large amounts of instrumentation. Some of it was straightforward kinds of things, but it took a lot of weight. My recollection is that we had about 15,000 pounds of instrumentation in [OV-]101 [Enterprise]. These were all the things you’d expect to measure. You’d expect to measure structural vibrations, you’d expect to measure temperatures. In order to verify that the vents in the payload bay were working, you’d want to be able to measure flows.
One of the modifications we made was to put a special nose cap on the vehicle, which acted like a cue ball, an instrument that we had used on the X-15 and other experimental aircraft, where you could study the aerodynamic flow as it approached the vehicle. So by measuring the stagnation point on the nose, you could understand what the thermal flows were going to be and what the airflow was going to be over the vehicle. There were a number of significant questions that we had. One of the questions was would the finish that we had on the tiles, which is a boro-silicate glass called a reaction cured glass, was whether it would have a catalytic reaction, and that would greatly influence the kind of heating loads that we would have to look at.
Another major question was, how laminar would the flow be over the vehicle, because that made a lot of difference in the event that you lost a tile. If the flow was laminar, then it would flow over the opening and you would not have a problem. If it were turbulent, you could get heating and maybe burn through the structure. It turned out to be neither catalytic nor turbulent, so the vehicle tolerates the loss of a tile pretty well.
As part of that, we equipped the airplane with a special set of instruments to complement the qualification instrumentations that were called the orbit experiments, in which case we configured it the way we would an experimental airplane. One of the things we did was, up on top of the vertical stabilizer we had imagers and cameras that could look down at the wing and the rest of the vehicle and observe the aerodynamic flows and the corona during entry, things of that variety.
It had been a long time since we had had an airplane-type thing to qualify, and that was a fairly significant point, because in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, we, in effect, flew the vehicle unmanned before we flew it manned, and that meant that we had scars in the vehicles that made a lot of us uncomfortable because they had failure modes that, had we not had to fly unmanned to do the qualification, we wouldn’t have had those junctures in the various subsystems. So the decision was made to fly the Shuttle manned the first time. So that was a very significant kind of a decision.
We did what we could with the ALT, the approach and landing tests, where we used the 747 to carry it [the orbiter] to altitude and then drop it so that it would land. To put that one in perspective for you, what we were copying was a scheme the Germans had used back in World War I. So it wasn’t totally original, but it was effective.
One of the things we did at that time was a small group of us went out and spent a couple of days at Redmond, Washington, with The Boeing [Company] people to understand how they were doing their flight tests, because they were just beginning all of their flight-test program on what is now the 757, 767, 777 family of aircraft.
It was a fairly impressive difference in the sense that we had one vehicle instrumented. They had four different airplanes in each series, all instrumented so that they could do different parts of the flight tests, because, obviously, in their case, time was money. The sooner they got it over and got the vehicle certificated, the sooner they could start selling them. So they had a very sophisticated flight-test operation where they take off out of Renton [Washington] or SeaTac [Seattle Tacoma International Airport] and telemeter all the data back to air flight-test facility in Seattle [Washington] and be able to do all their analysis of the data and turn it all around within about seventy-two hours. So they had a big flight test operation, very useful. It was sort of interesting, because we were sitting at lunch one day and talking about, you know, how much wind tunnel time they had and how much wind tunnel time we had, and they had about 15,000 hours on their airframe, and we had something close to 100,000 hours at that point. But that’s the kind of thing we were forced to do because of the limited opportunities to do flight experiments.
At any rate, the instrumentation worked pretty well. The vehicle design proved to be even more conservative than we thought. So after four flights, we satisfied ourselves that we had most of the data we needed, and we took the instrumentation out and began to do more operational flying in terms of trying to take care of various classes of payloads.
One of the things that had led us to go to the Shuttle and back away from the Station was a recognition that we could do two things with the Shuttle. One, we could fly something like Spacelab and in a sortie have a short-term temporary space station. The second thing we realized is that, typical of an aircraft, we had more capability going uphill than we did coming down. This is fairly typical. If you think about an airplane on a runway with a full fuel load, it’s got a lot of stress in it, but it’s going from zero to 160 to get to takeoff speed. So the stresses are not too bad.
On the other hand, you can’t land with a full fuel load because now you’re coming in at 180 knots and you’re touching down, and that puts a great deal of stress on the vehicle, so you’ve got to get rid of all that weight before you can land. Well, the Shuttle has the same thing. So the notion that were trying to foster was to find a combination of sortie payloads and deliverable payloads, so that you would make best use of the vehicle’s capability. You could take off and you could launch the deliverable payload, and then you could spend the remainder of the time working on the sortie payload. That way, you’d make the best use of your resources.
That turned out to be extremely difficult to do, difficult largely because of organizational interfaces, not because of the physics of the problem. But you got into the situation that the Spacelab people, being European, wanted to have a vehicle of their own that was fully capable, so they didn’t want to depend on Shuttle computers and other Shuttle capabilities. They wanted to develop those capabilities for the benefit of their own experience. That made a very complex set of interfaces and made it very difficult to do this optimal scheduling, because you found that they had captured all of the interfaces and so there were none left for the deliverable payload. So it’s a perfect illustration of how your organizational structure can dictate what you physically wind up with. So that was an interesting set of studies.
It was along about that time that we really began to get serious about some of the orbital debris things. I had gone off to school in ’75-’76, sort of in the middle of the Shuttle development activity. They had sent me to Stanford [University, Palo Alto, California] as a Sloan Fellow in the graduate school of business, and that really came out of the fact that I had been asked to go off and look at how would you set up a pricing scheme for the use of the Shuttle. I got rather interested in that as a business problem and had given several briefings to the administrator and the deputies on how you would go about approaching that problem. So I wound up going to school for a year, a good school year, really enjoyed it. When I came back, I picked up the advanced studies again. During my absence, Jerry
C. Bostick had done that. A young man came to see me by the name of Don [Donald J.] Kessler. He was a young flight controller and he had been working with an analyst up at Cheyenne Mountain [North American Aerospace Defense Command, Colorado Springs, Colorado] by the name of John Gabbard [phonetic]. They had observed that we were having explosions of upper stages, and these created large amounts of debris, and this was going on in altitudes above where the Shuttle would be flying, which meant that you would have debris raining down on the Shuttle. So we got interested in that problem.
I was active in the AIAA [American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics]. I was on the Space Systems Technical Committee. Then when we decided that we needed to have a Space Transportation Technical Committee, I was the original chair of that committee. So we began to work with the various launch vehicles. The first one was Delta, because we observed that the Delta upper stage was exploding with some considerable regularity, sometimes thirty days after launch, sometimes three years, in one case, twenty-seven years. We couldn’t understand that, so we spent some time with the Delta people out at Huntington Beach [California] sort of saying, you know, what can cause this? We concluded that there were a number of mechanisms by which you could have either oxidizer or fuel migrate into a vent line where it could mix with its component part, or you could have failure of the common bulkhead.
We decided that probably the best was to fix that was after you had delivered the payload and done a contact avoidance maneuver so that you didn’t have the stage bumping into the payload subsequently, then you could turn it and burn it to depletion. So we adopted a policy and a practice of getting rid of all stored energy at end of mission. Since we’ve been doing that, we’ve no further explosions of Delta stages.
We continue to have a number of explosions of various stages, largely from new designs or new operators. In one case, we’ve got a continuing problem. The Russians, in their TM stage that’s operated by Energia, it is often used as the upper stage on Proton as a multiple burn capability. They can burn it as many as ten times. It’s a LOX [liquid oxygen]- kerosene system. So they have to have some kind of an ullage motor, so they have a small motor called Saas [phonetic]. It’s about the size of a fifty-gallon drum, and basically it’s a very simple mechanism. It has an engine in one end, and it has two bladders in the middle, and then you’ve got your M204 and your MMH. The nitrogen tank pressurizes between the two bladders to expel the propellants. When they have finished their last LH [liquid hydrogen] burn, they jettison. Well, obviously you have a potential for explosion because you’ve got this highly stressed membrane between these two hyperbolic components, and so they explode with great regularity.
It went on for years before we detected it, because the Russians used this thing originally for their Molniya orbit. Well, that meant that they were low in the southern hemisphere and high in the northern hemisphere, and we can’t see small things that are high in the northern hemisphere, and we have no observation assets in the southern hemisphere. So it was years before we understood this. Then once we knew how to look for it, we could find it, and once we found it, we had conversations with the Russians, and they were going to set out to fix it. But by the time they were getting around to it, the Russian economy collapsed, so they're just using up those that they have but they aren’t building any more.
At any rate, we started out after the Delta experience trying to do some consciousness-raising. I went to a meeting in Taiwan to talk about launch vehicles. On the way, I decided to stop in Japan and visit with the Japanese NASDA [National Space Development Agency (of Japan)] folks because the N-1 vehicle, which they were then operating, was a Delta vehicle built on license from the United States from McDonnell- Douglas [Corporation]. So we explained to them what we had done and why and how, and they made the same modifications to their practices and ceased having explosions.
We, working in the AIAA, wrote a position paper that sort of said, you know, “We have to protect space as an environment if we’re going to operate there.” That led to reviews by the NASA Advisory Committee and the Defense Science Board, and eventually we directed by the National Security Council at what was called the Interagency Group Space to develop a position paper for the United States. We did that in ’88. It was published in ’89.
The Security Council directed us to go talk to all the spacefaring nations, so we went to Europe and talked with the ESA [European Space Agency] folks. In November of ’86, we had a major explosive event. The upper stage of flight 16 of the Ariane exploded. It had been used to launch the original Spot Image spacecraft, which was their Earth-sensing spacecraft—produced like 700 pieces [of debris]. It turned out that I got the word of that in the morning when I knew that the director general of ESA was going to be visiting with Dr. [James C.] Fletcher that afternoon. So I called Dr. Fletcher’s office and explained to him that he might want to tell the DG [Director General] that he had a problem. He did, and I was asked to go work with the ESA folks and the Ariane folks on modifications to the Ariane to eliminate this kind of explosions, and did that. Very competent group of people.
So we were directed to go talk to all the spacefaring nations. So we went to Russia and sat down with the folks there. That was really one of the first things that began to ease up after the earlier hostilities where we had sort of backed away from all the Russian contacts. We spent a week in Moscow at what is now Kralyev [phonetic] at CMCC, the Mission Control Center there, and worked with people from their space surveillance organizations and their vehicle design people, and drafted protocols to document our discussions and what have you.
We’ve been meeting with them regularly ever since. So we wound up starting with bilateral meetings with NASA and ESA, and then NASA and NASDA and then NASA and the Russians. By ’93, this was just eating our lunch. We couldn’t go to so many meetings and get any work done, so we decided to make it a multilateral operation. So our first multilateral was in ’93 at Darmstadt, which is the European Space Operations Center [ESOC] in Germany. We had the Russians and the Japanese and the Europeans and ourselves. We called ourselves the Interagency Debris Coordination Committee. We set ourselves up to have a steering group and four working groups. One of the working groups would be on observations, one would be on data and modeling, one would be on shielding and protection, and the fourth would be on mitigation.
The rules we set up for ourselves in the terms of reference were that everybody had to have a representative on the steering committee and everybody had to have a representative on the mitigation working group, and they could participate in the others depending upon what kinds of assets and resources they had that were pertinent to those kind of problems.
Well, ESA wanted to be the representative for Europe, but the French wanted to have their own representation. So CNESS [Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales (of France)] argued very strongly for that. Of course, that meant that the other major players, the UK [United Kingdom], Germany, and Italy, also wanted to have their own representatives. So somewhat over ESA’s reluctance, those became members.
Then the Soviet Union came apart, and the Ukraine wanted to become a member. So now we have Russia, the Ukraine, Germany, France, Italy, the UK, ESA, the US. The US delegation consists not only of NASA, but of the DoD and the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] and the Department of Transportation [DoT] and the Department of State [DoS].
In Japan, they have multiple space organizations. NASDA is the one we see most often, but that’s in the Science and Technology Administration. The Ministry of Education also has a space agency called the Institute for Space and Aeronautical Sciences.
They have a Postal, Telegraph and Telecommunications Ministry, and it has a space agency called the Communications Research Lab. The Department of Agriculture has a space organization in their Bureau of Fisheries. So the Japanese have multiple participants. Their delegation is normally led by the National Aerospace Lab.
The [Tianamin] Square incident interfered with our going to sit down and talk with the Chinese, so it wasn’t for several years until we did that, but then we went and spent about four weeks in China, visiting all of their various facilities for launch vehicles and spacecraft in Beijing and Xian and Shanghai and Jiuquan. That was a most interesting trip.
At the first the Chinese were very reluctant to modify their launch vehicle upper stages because they were afraid that they’d contaminate their spacecraft and otherwise disturb things, but a year later at a conference in Japan, they came and showed us that they’d made the modifications we had suggested, and they operated just like Delta. Then there were several years of where they did not participate as members but participated as observers, part of that because they had limited numbers of people with linguistic capability. But they have become full members and now participate fully.
The last to join was the Indian Space Research Organization. So the only launch- capable nation that’s not a member is Israel, and they have been invited, but they just said, you know, “We don’t have enough people to be able to do that.” So this group now meets twice a year. We have a meeting of the steering group in conjunction with the International Astronautical Congress, and then we have a plenary session where we sort of get all five working groups together, and what we try to do is to make this an active participatory kind of function. Nobody is allowed to be an observer unless they're in an official observer status. If you’re there, you’re expected to work and contribute.
We also try to avoid making it a paper presentation session like a professional conference. That doesn’t get work done. So we spend normally four and a half days in these working sessions, and we’ve made a lot of progress. We now have a consensus standard for disposition of geostationary spacecraft. Before we had the consensus standard, we, NASA and ESA, had developed a set of position papers. In ’92, I was part of the U.S. delegation to what at that time was called the CCIR, where we took up this question of disposition of geostationary satellites, and I wrote the recommendation for the ITU [International Technology Union] that said boost 300 kilometers above the geostationary arc with another factor to allow for the variations in size and reflectivity of the spacecraft, and that was where the IADC started, was with that recommendation.
But the Russians and the Japanese objected to the 300 kilometers as being too much, so the consensus recommendation is 235 kilometers above the arc with an allowance for the size and surface area of the spacecraft because of solar pressure which causes the orbit to oscillate. So we’ve got that. We have general consensus. All of the members adopt this business of no stored energy at end of mission. We’re engaged right now in a lot of studies and debates about do you require people to bring objects out of lower Earth orbit. We do not use space uniformly. There is a family of orbits that are sun synchronous, that have the attribute that every time you come over a point on the Earth, the lighting condition is the same. There are other orbits which are very useful for certain geodetic measurement properties because they have a stable line of apsides [phonetic]. So you find that we use a relatively small number of inclinations and altitudes. So space is very heavily populated at 900 kilometers and at 1400 kilometers, and in between there’s two or three orders of magnitude difference in the density of population.
So we’ve been saying at end of mission, "Don’t just abandon those things. Lower the perigee of the orbit so that it will be removed from orbit within twenty-five years by aerodynamic forces," and that was based upon a series of studies we had done which said the big thing you want to do is you don’t want to leave something there in a 5,000-year orbit, because they’ll keep accumulating and eventually they'll run into each other.
Just in the last six months, for example, we’ve had four conjunction events for the Space Station where an object in orbit came close enough that we went to great trouble to understand whether or not a collision was imminent, and in three of those occasions, we maneuvered. So the notion was that if you’re gone within twenty-five years, you don’t become a long-term threat. That’s sort of been a raging debate in our working group for the last several years. Is that necessary? Why twenty-five years? Why not fifty? Et cetera. It’s like a lot of these things, it’s a matter of judgment, what’s reasonable, but it’s made a lot of progress in terms of getting people thinking about protecting the environment.
L Parak [phonetic], a Czech astronomer in the late seventies, was the executive director for the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space [COPUOS]. As an astronomer, he had concerned himself with the geostationary orbit, and being the director, he wanted to get the subject of orbital debris on the committee’s agenda. NASA and Russia,
U.S. and Russia, the U.S. delegation to the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space is chaired by NASA. State Department, Department of Energy [DoE], DoD, are all members of the delegation, but it’s led by NASA. And we vetoed every proposal to put it on the agenda.
Finally, in ’93, after we had been getting this IADC thing going, I went to the National Security Council and said, “It’s time to put this subject on the agenda for the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, but not the Legal Subcommittee.” So we began a five-year program in which the members of the IADC presented to the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of COPUOS, of what we were doing in the world of orbital debris.
The reason we were doing that was because there are 188 members in the U.N. [United Nations]. There are about 98 of them active in COPUOS. Back in the seventies, there was a very bad thing done. The General Assembly passed a resolution that assigned to every one of the members of the U.N. a geosynchronous orbit position and 8 megahertz worth of band loop, and that has been a source of trouble ever since. The reason they did that was that they had been hearing all of this talk about crowding in the geostationary orbit.
To give you some idea, the mean distance between objects at that time was 10,000 kilometers. It wasn’t crowding in a physical sense; it was an RF issue, a radio frequency issue, and it was because the spacecraft were small. So they had small antennas, and when you have small antennas, you have big side lobes. When you have big side lobes, you have potential for a lot of interference, and the only defense against that is physical separation.
But spacecraft nowadays, you know, are enormous. We just launched one this year that is seven and a half tons, and the antenna is forty feet in diameter. So you don’t have side lobe problems anymore. But the point of that was, it was a perfect example of where people became alarmed about a situation because they didn’t understand it, and what they did was foolish, and what it did was it created an arbitrage market for people to buy up those slots and frequency allocations from the people who couldn’t use them, like Sri Lanka. So it has been a source of major mischief. But as you can imagine, there was an entrepreneurial guy with money who took advantage of this situation.
But at any rate, I would sort of say we’ve been very successful. We published the report of the work that we had done for the U.N. in February a year ago. That’s almost twenty months now, and that’s been pretty useful. We now are committed to reporting to COPUOS annually on what the situation is and how things are going on. There’s still a debate about whether or not we should put it on the Legal Subcommittee agenda. At least so far NASA has resisted that, so we’ll see how much longer that goes on.
BERGEN: Do you feel that the progress you’ve made so far is doing its part to ensure that this isn’t going to be a tremendous problem in the future?
LOFTUS: Yes. We don’t have a problem now, but this is one of those situations in which the only real good solution is prevention rather than remediation. It’s much easier to deal with an upper stage when it’s in one piece than when it’s in 10,000 pieces. The issue is not trivial in the sense that we have replaced over 100 windows on the Shuttle over the course of 100 flights. On other flights, we have taken significant damage in the speed break, on the cargo bay door, and things of this variety.
So the way we’ve been operating the Shuttle in order to protect it is we have been controlling what we call the attitude time line. So that normally we fly with the engine down in the ram direction and the cargo bay looking at the Earth, because that way the Earth protects us on that side. The engine compartment is the strongest part of the vehicle, so if it gets hit by a piece of debris, the damage will be minimum.
We’re coming up on the Space Station. If you’ve seen pictures of the Shuttle docked to the Space Station, you know that it’s up front and its belly is in the ram direction, so it’s potentially very vulnerable. So, a couple of years ago we embarked upon a series of studies to say how should we fix the Shuttle so that it’s less vulnerable for these station missions.
What we’ve done is we’ve gone in and underneath the carbon-carbon, which is the leading edge of the wing, we had insulation on the spar, which was designed to deal with the radiant heat load coming off the carbon-carbon. We modified that insulation so that now we can tolerate a hole a half inch to one inch in diameter in the carbon-carbon leading edge, and the plasma can flow through that region and the insulation is now designed to protect the spar against damage from that plasma flow.
We went in and modified the radiators by taking each of the radiators as it was going through the refurbishment cycle out at Palmdale [California], and going in, and the fluid flows through a path that has separations of about an inch or two inches. So we went in and put another piece of aluminum on top of the tube to armor the tube, but we didn’t armor in between the tubes, because we didn’t want the weight and we didn’t want to make the radiator inefficient. Then we modified the fluid flow so that we could isolate various sections of the radiator if we had a penetration. Those have both been effective modifications. Right now we're looking at modifications of the tile to see if we can make the vehicle more robust.
BERGEN: Since we were talking about the [International] Space Station [ISS], I was wondering if, in your time in the long-range planning, how much involvement you had in all the changes that over the course of time that have been made with the Space Station.
LOFTUS: Well, as we mentioned earlier, after Apollo, sort of in the light of Skylab, space station seemed like the next logical step. The thing that was characteristic of the two space station designs we had at the time was that they were monolithic. They were one great big module, the notion being that you would launch them with something like the Saturn V. That turned out to be nice in one sense that it gave you lots of volume. It had the disadvantage that it didn’t necessarily give you the various appurtenances that you would like to have for observation purposes and antennas and things like that.
So at that time we were doing studies of things we call remora. I don’t know if you’re familiar with remora, but they’re a small fish that generally accompany sharks and whales, and they clean the shark or the whale. So they, in effect, perform a service in exchange for which they have a home and transportation. So we had a lot of little satellite vehicles that would fly formation around this big space station in order to help you do all the things you wanted to do.
Well, when we backed away from that space station concept and went off to do the Shuttle, we did the obvious thing and sort of said, “If you build a space station with the Shuttle, it would obviously be very different than launching one big module with the Saturn V.” So we began to look at modular space stations such as the one that we are now building and such as the one that the Russians built on the Mir.
Like anything else, there are virtues and disadvantages to that, but I did a series of studies very early in the space station where what we said what I want in this space station is not necessarily a laboratory, I want a space operations center. I want a node in a transportation network, so that instead of going from Earth to geotransfer orbit directly, I would always go to the space station, and then from the space station, I would go to geostationary orbit or to Mars or wherever it was I wanted to go.
We did quite a thorough study of that kind of a space station, which, in effect, was more like an airport than a life sciences laboratory. The [International] Space Station we're building today is primarily a life sciences and a materials processing laboratory, which was a different concept than the one we were working on at the time. We essentially embarked upon this station in ’84 with President Bush’s direction to do that.
It’s had a difficult history because of the financial period in which it was being formulated and developed and because of the economic difficulties that Russia has experienced. But not just Russia. The fact of the matter is that Japan has had financial difficulties as well, because in ’96, Southeast Asia had a major financial collapse and that had a very adverse effect on the Japanese and their ability to fund their activities. So that has made the history of the program difficult.
It’s obviously also difficult when you have as many interfaces as we have in the station. I think the last time we talked, we said one of the things that made Apollo successful was the simplicity of the interface between the command and service module, lunar module spacecraft and the Saturn V launch vehicle. We don’t have that luxury in the station. We have a very complex set of interfaces.
But I think we have now embarked upon an era where we will never again be without humans in space, a pretty momentous kind of change. It’s also a major cultural change for the [Johnson Space] Center in the sense that previously we had worked 7/24 for a couple of weeks at a time. Now it will be a permanent way of life, and that’s a very difficult and different kind of a working environment.
But I think we’ve got a lot of good things. We’ve got, in the space station, one of the things that I was a strong advocate for, along with others, was a first-class optical window, and in the belly of the U.S. module we have a first-class optical window so that you can do very good Earth observations. That’s not to say that you won’t continue to use automated spacecraft for that, but you can do a lot of work to develop new instruments and new techniques on a manned spacecraft that you can’t do as readily on an unmanned spacecraft.
Sort of a good example of that is on one of the very early Shuttle flights, the crew reported that they were seeing a very funny appearance in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, and they took a lot of photographs of that and what have you. We finally concluded that we were looking at was a major phytoplankton bloom, and that’s very important to all of the ecology of the ocean. We said, “I wonder how long that’s been there.”
So there’s an instrument on the NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association] spacecraft called the very high-resolution radiometers, and that data had been in the telemetry stream from the NOAA spacecraft for the past twenty years, but we never knew how to look for it until we had a human observation. That’s sort of one of the things that humans contribute, is that they are synoptic observers and they can recognize the unexpected. So there’s a complementary relationship between manned and automated systems that one needs to be aware of.
BERGEN: Looking back over your career, I was wondering if you could share with us what may be some of the greatest challenges that you encountered were.
LOFTUS: It’s an interesting question. Let me tell you something unexpected. I think I mentioned earlier that I had gone to Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., and that was a very classical Jesuit high school. I took ten periods of Latin and five periods of Greek every week. And astonishingly, that’s probably the best education I’ve had in terms of preparation for this career, because it’s enabled me to read Russian, to get along in all the European languages, and just have all those benefits that came from being comfortable with other languages. That surprised me when I recognized it, but it really has been beneficial.
I think maybe the biggest challenges have been accommodating to various phases of a program. One of the things that I’ve observed during this period is that quite often the team of people who can put together the proposal and win the contract are not the team of people who can deliver the product. So there’s always a transitional phase that’s one of the more difficult things for both the companies and for the government, and that’s a difficult set of issues to deal with because it occurs gradually over time and because it involves dealing with one of the more difficult aspects of human relations in these kinds of circumstances.
I saw that, for example, in the development of the simulators. We literally had to fire several people because while they had been very good for the early conceptualization, they were not the people who had the skills and the schedule discipline to deliver final products. I think those are probably the most difficult sets of issues that I’ve had to face.
BERGEN: You’ve achieved so many things during your career. What are you most proud of?
LOFTUS: I guess I would say maybe this business of having gotten an international consensus in how to deal with this orbital debris business. It’s taken a lot of work to do that, but I think we have succeeded.
BERGEN: Definitely quite an achievement.
There was one thing that I meant to mention earlier that I overlooked, was your involvement with the Rogers Commission in their investigation of the Challenger accident. Could you share with us how you were involved with that and what you did?
LOFTUS: Okay. The Rogers Commission obviously had a lot of questions, and we had a particular kind of failure. The question was, how many more potential catastrophes might be lurking in the rest of the system and how could we find those and deal with it. We had done all the things that we do during our programs where we go through and we do fault trees and failure modes effects analysis and so forth.
Arnie [Arnold D. Aldrich] was getting a lot of questions from the Rogers Commission, and I was one of the few people available to him who had been through all of the Shuttle Program up to that point from the original conception of the Shuttle through where we were at 51-L, so he asked me to put together a story that said how did we get the Shuttle we’ve got. So I took a team of people who had worked with that period of time, and we wrote a briefing that was the evolution of the Shuttle, how were the decisions made one after another and what have you. I gave you a copy of a paper that I had written on that subject. The purpose of that was to just explain to the Rogers Commission that there was a rational, ordered sequence by which every decision had been made, that led us to an external tank, that led us to solid rocket boosters, and led us to all the various other configuration issues.
Not in the paper, but supporting it, were other analyses that sort of said why did we do the orbit maneuvering system the way we did, where we have two separate pods, one on each side of the vehicle, each of which is autonomous, but which are cross-strapped so that you can transfer propellant from one to the other. Those were notions of redundancy so that you always had more than one way to do something.
We had gone to a great deal of trouble in the way in which we built the vehicle in terms of its plumbing and its wiring because we applied what are called battle damage criteria, which sort of says if you have an A system and a B system, you don’t have them side by side, you put the A system on one side of the vehicle and the B system on the other side of the vehicle.
We went into some detail on how we had done the computer system. The primary avionic software system runs in four computers. The thing that is unique about it is that it is asynchronous. They are not clock-driven. Each computer goes and does its thing, and then they meet at the corner and say, “What answer did you get? What answer did you get?” Everybody agrees, and they go on. But it’s not a clock-driven system, because you wanted to keep them independent in order to have redundancy and have independent solutions. We went to four because of the time criticality of events during ascent and descent. You didn’t want to have a non-voting system if you had a computer failure, so you have four so that one can fail and you can still have three voting, and you can vote the odd man out.
So we had done all of these things, and I think we satisfied most of the commission that we really did have a fairly isolated process error. Turns out that the design of O-ring seals was not a very good design. So when we fixed that, we have had no further indications of that kind of problem.
BERGEN: We’ve talked about so many different things that you’ve done in your career. Is there anything else that you would want to bring up that maybe we haven’t touched on?
LOFTUS: Well, I guess one that was fairly significant was, for quite a few years I was involved in recruiting trips on campuses, particularly in the early years. Subsequently I served on committees that chose people we sent for graduate studies and eventually things like the Sloan programs and what have you. I always thought that was a fairly significant kind of activity. It was interesting that we would get lots of good recruits out of the co-op schools and out of the Midwest. Very rarely could we recruit somebody out of MIT or Stanford or Caltech [California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California]. I think part of that was that they were in such a different economic environment that the salaries they could command were multiples of the kinds of salaries we were offering, while for people from Purdue [University, West Lafayette, Indiana] or [University of] Notre Dame [Indiana], that wasn’t the case. So the thing you will notice is there are relatively few of the East Coast and West Coast premiere schools. Generally, the people who we did get from those schools were astronaut wannabes, and quite a few of them made it.
BERGEN: Personnel can make a big difference in what you do. Speaking of people, I was wondering if there were any individuals who maybe made a significant impact on you during your career.
LOFTUS: Yes. Bob [Robert R.] Gilruth, because he was so consistently a gentleman. Joe [Joseph F.] Shea, who is probably as brilliant on his feet as anybody I’ve ever known. John [F.] Yardley, who had a prodigious memory. There have been a lot of outstanding people in the program: Max [Maxime A.] Faget, Chris [Christopher C.] Kraft [Jr.], George Low. George was probably the most disciplined person I have ever known. So, you know, there have been lots of people.
BERGEN: We have talked to many, many of the people that you have worked with, and they have been an outstanding group of individuals, and we thank you for sharing with us what you did. It’s been a privilege to hear about your history.
[End of Interview]
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