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Apollo contributions remembered

Several veterans of MIT's work on the Apollo project were recognized for their accomplishments and reminisced about their ground-breaking work at a luncheon last Monday, Nov. 20.

On hand to receive certificates of appreciation as members of the MIT Apollo Honor Roll were Richard Battin, Joseph G. Gavin Jr., David G. Hoag, James S. Miller, John Miller and Robert Seamans, professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics and former dean of engineering. Other honorees who were unable to attend were William Widnall and astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Philip Chapman, Charles Duke, Edgar Mitchell, Russell Schweickart and David Scott. Giving the awards was Dr. Laurence R. Young, the first Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics. Dr. Seamans provided the vision and founding gift for the professorship.

During the Apollo project, the honorees were associated with the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, now the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, Inc. (The late Institute Professor Emeritus, who founded the laboratory, was a pioneer in instrumentation and a member of the faculty for more than 30 years. He retired in 1967 and died in 1987.)

Dr. Draper was "an absolutely extraordinary person who touched all of us who worked with him in different ways," Dr. Young said. The massive and ultimately successful effort to put a man on the moon "represented a pinnacle of American technology that excited the imaginations of not just those of us that worked on it, but the entire world's," he added.

Dr. Seamans, former associate and deputy director of NASA who was in Mission Control at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing, had "an enormous influence on making the very existence of the Apollo program a reality," Dr. Young said. Dr. Seamans recalled some proposals of varying feasibility that were discussed for the space effort, including an idea for launching Saturn stages from dirigibles. The space effort got its first major push early in the Kennedy administration when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went into orbit, "and Washington, DC, also went into orbit," he quipped.

When Grumman Corp. was awarded the contract for the lunar module, "we really didn't know what we were getting into," recalled Mr. Gavin, former Grumman president and chief operating officer who was vice president and director of the lunar module program. Reliability-achieved by taking nothing for granted and "turning over every stone on the beach"-was a paramount goal, he said. For example, just to be thorough, an engineer disassembled some historically reliable switches slated for use in space and discovered that many had loose bits of solder inside that could cause failure in zero gravity. "It was that kind of responsibility, curiosity and attention that made the difference," said Mr. Gavin, a Life Member of the Corporation.

Dr. Battin designed the algorithms for various mission phases and programmed guidance computers on board the Apollo command module and lunar excursion module. His students at MIT included Buzz Aldrin, one of the first to walk on the moon, as well as two other moon-mission astronauts.

At the Instrumentation Lab, David Hoag was technical director and later program manager for MIT's Apollo role. One of the problems he worked to resolve was "gimbal lock," in which rocket gimbals (one of which he brought to the luncheon for demonstration) would freeze up in certain spacecraft orientations.

John Miller, retired president and CEO of Intermetrics, Inc., and current aero/astro research affiliate, was a technical director for the guidance, navigation and control system at the Instrumentation Lab, which he joined in 1959. He and his colleagues followed a dictum that "there would be no unexplained failures," he said. "We learned more about the systems and where things went wrong and needed fixing by never having failures unexplained."

Dr. James Miller (ScD '61) led the team that developed a full-scale simulation of the Apollo spacecraft, guidance computer and navigation system for testing the on-board computer's flight software. The vast effort by everyone involved in the Apollo project "seemed to bring out the best in every one of them," he said. "A lot of people worked very hard."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 29, 1995.

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