When Apollo 11 launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida 50 years ago this week, the astronauts on board were prepared to abort the mission in the event of a catastrophic malfunction shortly after launch.
The emergency plan was devised in part by Kenneth Garren, the current president of the University of Lynchburg who once worked on the Apollo program.
The plan describes how the astronauts piloting the craft could eject the command module from the rest of the powerful Saturn V rocket and steer the craft toward Earth to ensure its heat shield provided protection during the descent.
For the astronauts, the plan could have meant life or death.
“Glad we didn’t need to use this,” astronaut Buzz Aldrin wrote on Garren’s copy of the typed-up plan, just above his signature.
The lessons Garren learned from his five-year career with the space agency have always stuck with the engineer-turned-academic and now, as the nation prepares to celebrate the anniversary of the moon landing on Saturday, he is retracing his time at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton.
Garren, now 79, began working for NASA in 1961 after graduating from Roanoke College with a degree in mathematics, he said in an interview. He was among more than 200 engineers hired to work at Langley that summer just before work on the Apollo program began in earnest.
“It was an exciting time,” he said.
Soon after his arrival, he found himself working in the lunar landing project office. His research helped contribute to the development of the ground-breaking lunar-orbit rendezvous concept, which allowed astronauts to efficiently travel to the moon compared with more expensive and resource intensive options.
He also developed techniques astronauts can use to detect distant objects in space, a research project that won him a special NASA award and a one-time bonus.
But it is the 38-page report outlining the emergency landing procedure that Garren is most proud of from his time at NASA.
The plan, which he developed alongside two other NASA Langley officials, was crucial in ensuring the safety of the astronauts.
The work was stressful and led one NASA official to resign from the team. Garren, however, immersed himself in the job.
Apollo spacecrafts were designed to automatically orientate for descent if a launch was aborted at low-and-mid-altitudes. But at altitudes above 120,000 feet, where the air is less dense, the vehicle is unable to automatically reorientate itself using small wings at the tip of the aircraft.
Instead, astronauts are forced to manually engage the command module’s thrusters and use visual cues to orientate the craft. Engineers were working under the assumption that the ship’s instrument panel would be unusable during an emergency, requiring them to work out a way to use the Earth’s horizon visible through a small window as a way to properly realign the module.
Engineers calculated astronauts had between just 18 and 200 seconds to reorientation the ship’s heat shield towards the Earth, lest they be burned up during reentry.
The time frame was short but experiment and after experiment proved it was possible.
“The results of over a thousand simulation runs show that manual orientation is possible but can be critical for certain abort conditions when control-system failures are present,” Garren and his colleagues wrote in the report.
Garren left NASA in 1967 to pursue a doctorate in mathematics and by the time Apollo 11 took flight he was working as a professor at Roanoke College. He recalled the prideful emotion he felt as he watched the U.S. Flag fly on the Moon, the blurry images beamed to his television from more than 200,000 miles away.
Garren’s role in the Apollo program had profound impacts on the young mathematician. He said the risks NASA’s astronauts and engineers took has long inspired him during his career as a professor and administrator.
“Life requires you to take risks,” Garren, who plans to retire next summer, said. “And you want them to be prudent risks because you do it for a reason. The turtle only advances by sticking his neck out.”