Usually in Beyond Apollo I devote most of my attention to technical documents and their historical context. I do not normally focus on press conference transcripts. The 26 January 1967 NASA Headquarters press conference led by George Mueller, Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, and Charles Mathews, Director of the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), is, however, significant enough to be given its own post.
AAP was mainly about modifying Apollo spacecraft and Saturn rockets to do things other than put men on the moon, though the program also promised to expand U.S. lunar capabilities. The program’s stated aim was to gather scientific knowledge in space for the benefit people on Earth.
Mueller did not say as much, but AAP’s roots went back nearly to the Apollo Program’s birth. In April 1963, for example, less than two years after President John F. Kennedy made a man on the moon a national priority, NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston contracted with Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft prime contractor North American Aviation (NAA) to study turning the CSM into a six-man cargo ship for Earth-orbital space station crew rotation and logistics resupply. The 1963 MSC study was not a part of AAP – the program would not be created for another two years – but it demonstrates that enthusiasm for reapplying Apollo lunar program hardware to new missions was not a new thing.
The press conference followed NASA’s Fiscal Year (FY) 1968 budget briefing on 23 January, during which NASA Administrator James Webb and Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans told reporters that President Lyndon Baines Johnson had authorized NASA to seek a total of $454.7 million for AAP in FY 1968. Most reporters present at the budget briefing knew little of the program, so they prevailed upon the space agency to provide more information. The 26 January press conference was NASA’s response.
Among space-savvy members of the press corps, the Johnson Administration’s evident enthusiasm for the program might have kindled interest. It had, after all, sought $270 million for AAP in FY 1967, only to see Congress appropriate just $80 million. Leaders in Congress had cited the escalating cost of war in Indochina when they slashed the President’s AAP request. That the White House would expend political capital on the program for a second year in a row – and ask for almost double the sum it had been refused the previous year – indicated strong Executive Branch support for AAP.
When reporters arrived for the press conference late in the afternoon on 26 January, they found on their seats a 10-page packet of detailed information on AAP. In this post, I will flesh out Mueller’s generalities by referring to the AAP packet.
Mueller told the reporters that the time was ripe for starting AAP. “By the end of this year,” he said, “we will have flown men on at least two of the Saturn V launch vehicles, and we will have tested both the [LM] and the [CSM].” He did not have to mention that the 14-day Earth-orbital AS-204 mission, the first piloted flight of the Apollo Program and the CSM, was scheduled for launch on 21 February, a little more than three weeks after the press conference.
He reminded his audience that NASA had ordered 12 Saturn IB rockets and 15 Saturn Vs for the Apollo lunar program. He expected that fewer than that would be needed to meet the goal of a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s decade. It was from the surplus early achievement of Apollo’s goal would create that the two-stage Saturn IB rockets needed for the first AAP missions would be drawn. As soon as Apollo was finished with the Earth-orbital tests the Saturn IB would make possible, AAP missions could begin.
“Assuming that everything goes perfectly well on the Apollo program,” Mueller stated, by late 1968 or early 1969 NASA would have in 275-nautical-mile-high Earth orbit “an embryonic space station or the first step toward a space station. . .with the capability of reuse and resupply.” The station would last for more than three years before Earth’s thin upper atmosphere dragged it down from orbit. NASA did not have firm plans for using the station throughout that period, Mueller admitted. He declared, however, that the four missions required to establish this initial capability constituted “a program that is firm, and is proceeding.”
The first of the four “firm” missions, designated AAP-1, would begin with the launch of a Saturn IB rocket with a modified, piloted Apollo CSM on top. Upon attaining orbit, the three-man crew would turn their craft end-for-end and dock with a prototype Mapping & Survey System (M&SS) stored in the streamlined shroud that linked the bottom of their spacecraft with the top of the Saturn IB’s S-IVB second stage. During an independent flight period lasting about a week, they would record data on features of Earth’s oceans, continents, and atmosphere that would benefit people on Earth. The M&SS would, it was planned, eventually operate in lunar orbit during a piloted lunar-orbital mapping mission.
Four or five days after the AAP-1 CSM began its independent program of Earth studies, NASA would launch the unmanned AAP-2 Saturn IB with a short aerodynamic shroud on top (see the image at the top of this post). The shroud would cover an airlock bolted to the 21.7-foot-diameter, 10,000-cubic-foot fuel tank that would make up about two-thirds of the length of the S-IVB stage, along with a docking adapter with five ports attached to the front of the airlock. Charles Mathews, who had headed up MSC’s Gemini Program Office before becoming AAP director at NASA Headquarters, noted that the airlock would include a Gemini spacecraft hatch for spacewalks.
The AAP-2 S-IVB stage would inject itself, the airlock, and the docking adapter into their operational orbit using a single J-2 engine, then flight controllers would command it to “passivate” itself. The spent stage would open vents in its tanks and engine to exhaust liquid hydrogen (LH) fuel and liquid oxygen (LO) oxidizer remaining on board into space. In answer to a reporter’s question, Mueller added that small spherical helium tanks inside the LH tank would also be vented – the inert helium was on board to pressurize the LH tank, driving propellants to the J-2 engine – and that the stage would automatically “disconnect the various electrical things that might cause a problem.”
The spent-stage station would also deploy electricity-generating solar arrays from its four folded-back shroud segments and a meteoroid shield that would stand several inches off the stage skin. The shield, a thin layer of metal, would break up any micrometeoroids that hit it, preventing them from penetrating the stage skin and the LH tank.
The AAP-1 CSM would rendezvous with the AAP-2 station and dock the M&SS to one of the docking adapter’s four radial (“side”) ports. It would then undock from the M&SS and dock with the AAP-2 station’s axial (“front” or “top”) docking port.
The AAP-1 astronauts would then enter the 65-inch-diameter, 1000-cubic-foot docking module, where would be stored furnishings for the interior of the AAP-2 S-IVB LH tank. Before they could deploy the furnishings (a process that would need three or four days), they would need to close vents in the LH tank and fill it with a mixture of three-fifths oxygen and two-fifths nitrogen at five pounds per square inch of pressure. Gaseous oxygen and nitrogen for pressurizing the LH tank would reach orbit in tanks in the airlock module.
Mueller likened putting furnishings into the LH tank to “building a ship in a bottle.” The astronauts would open a 43-inch-diameter hatch leading into the LH tank. The tank’s interior would be modified to include tie-downs and attachment points for installing galley, hygiene, exercise, sleep, and experiment equipment transferred from the docking adapter, along with lighting and ventilation ducts and fans.
Though illustrations he displayed during the press conference showed grillwork floors and pre-installed walls, Mueller told a reporter that “I don’t know that we will want to put additional things [besides the tie-downs and attachment points] inside” the tank. If the decision were taken to minimize LH tank modifications, then the astronauts would “string” fabric floors and walls within it, he explained. A “rope” running the length of the LH tank would aid mobility. He added that he was “sure that we will use liberal amounts of velcro.”
Experiment packages during the AAP-1/AAP-2 mission – which was scheduled to last about 28 days, or twice as long as Gemini 7, at the time of the 26 January press conference the world record-holder for space endurance – would, among many other things, seek to “find out what happens to the flammability of materials, how they actually burn when you have a combination of oxygen and nitrogen and. . .zero gravity,” Mueller explained. In addition, the M&SS would continue to be used for Earth observations, and the astronauts would test a combination sleep/space suit-donning station.
Mueller was quick to add that few experiments had been officially manifested for any AAP flight; some of the $454.7 million the White House had requested for AAP in FY 1968 would go to new experiment development. There were, for example, no biology experiments yet approved, though seven medical experiments were on track for flight. NASA also expected to include Department of Defense experiments that would focus on “how to work in space” and a “jet shoes” technology experiment that Mueller likened to “roller skates with gas jets on them.”
As AAP-1/AAP-2 drew to a close, the crew would shut down station systems and undock in their CSM. They would then ignite the CSM’s Service Propulsion System main engine to deorbit, cast off the Service Module (SM), deploy parachutes, and splash down at sea in the Command Module (CM).
Between three and six months later – during early-to-mid 1969 – NASA would launch AAP-3, a piloted Saturn IB with a CSM loaded up with supplies. Mueller told his audience that he favored putting supplies in a special module that would ride in the adapter between the CSM and the S-IVB stage, much as had the M&SS; however, the illustrations he showed the press did not include such a module.
The next day, NASA would launch the unmanned AAP-4 Saturn IB bearing beneath its short shroud the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). The ATM was envisioned as a modified Apollo LM with solar arrays, control panels, and solar observatory instruments in place of its descent stage.
The AAP-3 CSM would dock with the ATM and transport it to the AAP-2 station. An astronaut would board the ATM, undock from the CSM, and pilot it to a docking at one of the docking module radial ports using the ascent stage attitude control thruster quads. The CSM would then dock at the axial port.
Mueller explained that the ATM was scheduled for launch in 1969 because the Sun’s 11-year cycle of activity would peak in that year – though of course any problems in the Apollo Program might delay it. The ATM would, he added, carry “the most comprehensive array of instruments that has ever been assembled for observing the Sun.” An astronaut at the ATM control panels in the modified LM ascent stage would keep a constant vigil on the Sun, and would rapidly direct the instruments toward interesting phenomena as they appeared. The ATM might operate at the end of a tether attached to the station in order to minimize the effects of astronauts movements on the quality of the data it collected.
Of course, the chief benefit of the ATM would be vitally important but essentially abstract knowledge about the structure and behavior of the Sun. AAP was, however, meant to bring benefits of space to people on Earth, so Mueller opined that a better understanding of the Sun would “have marked benefits on our own understanding of how to generate and control energy here on Earth.”
The AAP-3 crew would seek to double the AAP-1 crew’s stay in space, so would live on board the AAP-2 station for 56 days. During that period they would continue many of the experiments begun during the AAP-1/AAP-2 flight.
Mueller then described APP payloads, missions, and capabilities that could be if Congress voted to provide the funding for AAP that the White House had requested for FY 1968. In answer to a reporter’s question, he said that the AAP-2 spent-stage station would remain the hub of AAP’s Earth-orbital activity “until something fails,” at which time NASA would launch a fresh spent-stage station. Reusability would be a hallmark of AAP, he explained.
The term “reusability” had at least two meanings in AAP. On the one hand, it meant that for as long as they could function, the AAP stations would host successive crews and instrument payloads. On the other, it meant that certain hardware elements – in particular the Apollo CM – would be redesigned for multiple flights. Both approaches to reusability aimed to cut costs.
Mueller described a six-man CM for later AAP station flights. The capsule, which he described as “one of the most expensive elements of the space vehicle,” would be designed for landing on land, not in water. “Since we don’t dunk it in salt water at the end of the flight,” he continued, “we don’t then have quite the same corrosion problem. . .that we do with those [CM]s that are water landed.” This would facilitate CM refurbishment.
Land landing would, Mueller noted, also help NASA to double the normal Apollo CSM crew complement. Steerable parachutes and view screens would enable the crew to pilot the capsule to a predetermined landing zone; then, five or 10 feet above the ground, retrorockets behind the heat shield would ignite, slowing the CM to a touchdown speed of three or four feet per second. Normal Apollo splashdown speed was, he said, about 10 or 20 feet per second; reducing that speed meant that shock-absorbing struts supporting the CM crew couches would not need to compress very much. This in turn meant that NASA could “stack people up in the module.” That is, NAA contractor engineers could install a new row of three couches underneath the top row. The latter would be in the normal Apollo CM couch positions.
Mueller then described a trio of “payload packages” that might be added to AAP stations if funding allowed. AAP-A was a “Meteorology Payload Package” with 14 experiments which would, it was hoped, reach orbit on a Saturn IB with a short launch shroud in mid 1969. AAP-B, the “Earth Resources Payload Package” with 12 experiments would follow in mid 1970. By then, Mueller told his audience, a crew might live on board an AAP mission for an entire year.
The “Manned Photographic Telescope,” an ultraviolet telescope with a meter-wide aperture, might be docked with an AAP station in a high Earth orbit, Mueller explained, in order to permit observation periods longer than were possible in the AAP-2 station’s 275-nautical-mile-high Earth orbit. A station high over the Earth would need more time to complete an orbit, thereby permitting continuous observation of an astronomical target over the space of hours; the AAP-2 station would circle Earth in about 90 minutes, limiting observations to 45 minutes or less before the target dropped out of sight below Earth’s horizon.
Placing an AAP station in high-Earth orbit would demand a more powerful launcher than the Saturn IB, so might mark the first use of the Saturn V rocket in an AAP mission. The S-IVB second stage that formed the basis of the Saturn IB-launched AAP station was also the Saturn V third stage, so could be put to use in high-Earth orbit with only modest modifications.
The Manned Photographic Telescope was scheduled for launch in 1971-972, so there was a chance that it might not be the first Saturn V-launched AAP mission. AAP planners expected that, after a series of early Apollo lunar landing missions starting in 1968, AAP lunar missions would take over. Early Apollo missions would last up to 36 hours and enable thousand-foot moonwalks; AAP lunar missions might last 14 days and support traverses up to 15 miles from base camp.
Mueller expected that AAP lunar flights would need two Saturn Vs; one to launch a CSM/LM Shelter combination and one to launch a CSM/LM Taxi combination. The Shelter, which would land at the candidate landing site without a crew, would house the astronauts who arrived in the Taxi and carry a heavy load of equipment. This could include a “jeep” for surface mobility, a drill for boring 300-foot-deep holes, an astronaut-carried “survey system” for stereo imaging and precise post-flight location of sampling sites, an instrumented “subsurface probe” for lowering down the bore hole, and an elaborate set of automated science instruments that would continue to operate long after the AAP lunar mission crew returned to Earth.
The AAP lunar landing missions, which would occur about a year apart, might be preceded by one or more lunar mapping missions. These would see a CSM with an M&SS on its nose operate in lunar polar orbit for at least 14 days. They would map the moon in much greater detail than could the automated Lunar Orbiter series, which was on-going at the time of the AAP press conference. This would enable improved landing site selection and traverse planning. The advanced lunar missions would probably rely on Saturn V rockets built specifically for AAP; that is, not part of the original 15 rocket “buy” for the Apollo moon program.
Both Mueller and the assembled reporters seemed to downplay AAP lunar missions, however, as if all realized that they were the least likely to receive funding from Congress. Though they would be fascinating and forward-looking missions, they ran against the grain of AAP, which emphasized benefits for people on Earth. The people who would benefit most from the AAP lunar missions were, it seemed, the people who built the hardware. In general, the reporters assembled for the 26 January press conference seemed to look with suspicion upon aspects of AAP that seemed mainly to mean continued pork for certain states and congressional districts.
When time came for questions, the reporters focused on the first few AAP missions and, paradoxically, whether AAP was truly “post-Apollo.” They had, after all, been conditioned for several years to expect that, beyond Apollo, NASA would dive into another Apollo-like big program, such as a large purpose-built space station, a manned Mars fly or landing mission, or a lunar surface base. AAP seemed to many to be part of none of these things.
Interestingly, it was Charles Mathews, former MSC Gemini director, who was most successful in explaining the potential role of AAP in NASA’s post-Apollo program. He told the reporters that
between Mercury and Apollo. . .we had a program called Gemini, where we learned to do many of the things. . .that we are going to [do] in [AAP] and in the Apollo Program. When we go on to planetary operations or space station operations we need to develop experience in these long-duration operations. . . So [AAP] is a rather logical approach. . .I think.
The 26 January press conference drew to a close at 5:30 pm Eastern time. Twenty-four hours later, at Cape Kennedy, Florida, astronaut Gus Grissom, commander of the Apollo 1 mission, was growing frustrated. He had been strapped on his back inside Apollo CSM 012, atop Saturn IB AS-204, for several hours with his Apollo 1 crewmates Roger Chaffee, a spaceflight rookie, and Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Grissom had for some time worried that CSM 012 suffered from more than its share of technical problems, and the pre-flight test he was part of late in the afternoon on 27 January 1967 – a major milestone ahead of Apollo 1′s planned 21 February launch – seemed to prove him right.
A big problem was “ratty” radio communications between flight control and the spacecraft. It meant crackly static and voice drop-outs, so that much of the time the crew was effectively out of contact with the rest of the world.
An hour later, at 6:31 pm Eastern time, flight controllers heard the word “fire!” spoken over their crackling headsets. A spark in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the CSM 012 cabin had triggered an inferno. Almost before they could react, Grissom’s crew was asphyxiated as flames burned up their air hoses and consumed the oxygen inside their capsule. The fire caused pressure to build up inside the CM until it burst.
The pad crew fought to open the balky inward-opening hatch, suffering burns and smoke inhalation. They had difficulty finding fire extinguishers, breathing masks, and tools. All the while, they were conscious of the mortal danger surrounding them; CSM 012′s SM contained propellants that might explode, the Launch Escape Tower atop the capsule contained solid-propellant rockets that might ignite, and the AS-204 Saturn IB rocket was fully loaded with enough propellants to consume the entire Launch Complex 34 pad and gantry tower if the fire spread and it exploded. They gave no thought, however, to abandoning their efforts to save Grissom, Chaffee, and White.
NASA and Congress quickly went to work to investigate the fire and revise Apollo hardware and procedures. An AS-204 Review Board found many faults and evidence of rocky relations between CSM contractor NAA and NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight spanning years. Congress became angry because NASA had not shared its concerns regarding NAA with oversight committees.
Congress could not “punish” NASA by cutting the Apollo budget; to do so would imperil achievement of the national goal of a man on the moon by 1970. It could, however, express its disquiet by attacking AAP. For a time in the summer of 1967, it appeared that AAP’s FY 1968 budget might be cut to $300 million; a figure that would, NASA officials declare, permit a good start on the new program. In the end, though, the FY 1968 AAP budget was slashed to only $122 million.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson was expected to fight for AAP; however, he instead acquiesced to the cuts, declaring that “some hard choices must be made between the necessary and the desirable. . .We dare not eliminate the necessary. Our task is to pare the desirable.” It appeared to some that NASA had lost its future.
Looks could be deceiving, however. In a late November 1967 presentation to the American Astronautical Society’s Astronautics International Symposium in New York City, Charles Mathews outlined an AAP program only a little different than the one Mueller had described the day before The Fire. In fact, it included two new missions: a CSM/M&SS mission called AAP-1A that would ease NASA into AAP-1/AAP-2, and an AAP-5 mission that would deliver a payload package to the AAP-1 station and extend orbital stay time past 56 days. It also made mention of two undesignated missions; these would see a CSM plus payload package launch and launch of a new spent-stage AAP station.
It soon became clear that AAP retained high-level support; the Johnson White House requested $439 million for the program in FY 1969. This was about half what NASA had hoped for in FY 1969 before The Fire, but still was sufficient to begin serious work on AAP.
The 30 January 1968 Tet Offensive, in which Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces attacked U.S. and South Vietnamese bases, was the largest campaign of the Vietnam War. The widespread simultaneous attacks put the U.S. on the defensive and drove up the cost of waging war in Indochina. AAP had been on shaky ground with Congress even before the Tet escalation; by the time it completed its deliberations, the Legislative Branch cut Johnson’s FY 1969 request to $277 million.
It is interesting to speculate how AAP might have unfolded had the Apollo 1 fire not followed close on the heels of the 26 January 1967 press conference. It seems likely that, had NAA delivered a better-quality CSM 012 spacecraft, a successful Apollo 1 mission would have boosted support for AAP.
Assuming that other Apollo progress occurred as in our timeline, AAP, along with the nation as a whole, would still have run head-long into the catastrophe of Tet. Also, the LM would likely still have been delayed. In our world, it first reached Earth orbit unmanned on Apollo 5, atop the AS-204 Saturn IB that had been intended for Apollo 1 (the image at the top of this post shows Apollo 5 as it neared readiness for launch on 23 January 1968). AAP’s budget would likely have been trimmed, along with NASA’s budget as a whole; however, AAP would have been further along in its development, and thus less vulnerable.
It seems likely that AAP could have scheduled its first piloted mission for mid-1968, so that when an astronaut – perhaps Grissom – became the first person to set foot on the moon late in the year, three astronauts might have watched his first footstep on a small flickering monitor on board the first AAP workshop.
Apollo Applications Briefing, NASA News, NASA Headquarters, 26 January 1967.
Apollo Applications – A Progress Report, Charles Mathews; presentation at the American Astronautical Society Astronautics International Symposium, 27-29 November 1969.
Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab, NASA SP-4298, W. David Compton & Charles Benson, NASA, 1983.
“White House Stand Blocks NASA Budget Restoration,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 28 August 1967, p. 32.