Nearly everyone has seen footage of the early US attempts at putting a rocket into space. Almost every clip was a Hollywood-worthy explosion on the launch pad itself. Watching this old footage, it seemed unlikely they’d ever get those things off the ground. But, of course, they did. They put people on the moon.
So, when I boarded the jet plane to El Paso from LA in early October of 1977, I felt confident all the issues that made rockets blow up on the launch pad had been solved long ago. That this was just another routine launch from White Sands… ho hum.
However, it was anything but routine for me. This was my first launch. Hell, it was my first time ever travelling for business! I was excited and certainly nervous. I was to be the launch controller. I was going to be the guy with his finger on the red button!
Not only that, I had built and laboriously tested the launch control panel that housed the circuitry and wiring that connected the panel to the rocket. And also much of the circuitry in the rocket itself that controlled the payload once it was in space. I even had designed some of the circuitry that was used to program last-minute changes to the payload flight plan.
Yeah, I had a lot riding on this launch.
“You’ll do fine,” my boss, Stu, reassured me. “Besides we can’t afford to screw up.”
His laugh told me that I wasn’t the only one who had a lot tied up in this endeavor.
It had been a little over a year since I’d hired on at Space Vector. I started with learning how to solder to NASA specifications. They’re serious about that stuff. One bad solder joint could result in an Apollo 13. Then I’d upgraded the company’s aging analog computer to use Integrated Circuits. Yes, you heard right. We actually used a true analog computer to simulate flight plans before we committed to live tests. After that, I built and tested a Star Tracker, set up and tested gyros, and conducted land-based flight simulations that put the actual payload through the maneuvers it was to execute in space.
These simulations were the most fun of all. The payload, which could weigh up to 1800 pounds, was effectively rendered weightless by a then-secret process (which I’ll not divulge here). Liquid nitrogen, pressurized to 6000 psi and vented by strategically placed valves, powered the payload as it would pitch, yaw and roll before our eyes in the large experiment chamber. The staccato opening and closing of these valves made a popping, clattering noise that was deafening, but somehow hilarious to my ear.
I guess I was ready.
On the road to Las Cruces and our motel for the next six weeks, the rent-a-car radio was saying something about a family washed off the road by a flash flood after the previous night’s cloudburst. More gully-washers were being predicted. But, we were on I-10. No need to worry.
I spun the dial on the AM radio and landed on the one frequency playing something like rock-n-roll. It was a 5 billion watt station from Juarez that only played top 40 American songs. So be it. This station formed the soundtrack of my New Mexico adventures and I still fondly remember hating The Little River Band’s Reminiscing, and Exile’s Kiss You All Over. Now these songs are welcome should I ever catch them on an oldies station. They bring back the deep emotions I was feeling.
You see, I had just received a Dear John letter. Too late, I’d figured out that I’d been a selfish idiot. Paralyzed by guilt and self-loathing, the idea of getting out of the soul-crushing dungeon known as The Valley seemed to offer some hope of relief. And it did help a little. But I was really one of the walking wounded, just going through the motions in my duties. I can’t remember any of my pre-launch activities, even though I know we unpacked, assembled and tested our equipment.
I do remember the huge vats of liquid nitrogen and helium that were used to keep the space-bound Infra-red detector as close to absolute zero as possible. This million-dollar contraption was built by the Navy and much of their pre-launch activity involved mounting it to the Space Vector rocket and testing the telemetry.
They always cram space flights with telemetry. They want the experiment results relayed back to the ground, of course. But they also want everything they can get from the rocket itself. Back in California, I’d been introduced to the telemetry system that Space Vector used for monitoring its rockets. Looking like a device from a Jules Verne novel, the FM-FM telemetry module was a marvel to behold. I forget how many data channels it supported, but I think it was around 24. A pure analog device, the FM-FM module consisted of a bank of voltage controlled oscillators (VCO) each tuned to a different center frequency. The varying DC voltages from the monitors in the rocket were connected to the control inputs of the VCOs. Then, the outputs of all the VCOs were summed together and fed into the control input of a master VCO which had a center frequency much greater than any of the slaves. This is the signal they’d beam back to earth to be separated into the original monitor signals by a series of appropriately tuned discriminators on the ground.
In this post-Vietnam era, I had sworn to myself that I would not work for anyone who made weapons. Because this launch was officially labeled scientific, I felt as if I was keeping my word. But, there were some uniforms with gold braids walking around. Hmmm… Why would the Navy be interested in a space vehicle that could track the infra-red signature of another object in space?
Now, I realize that I’d been part of one of the initial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) efforts, years before Reagan and the SDI concept was introduced to the public. Even then, I knew that I was definitely in the gray area concerning my promise about building weapons. But, there was no actual weapon on this mission. That was good enough for me.
Perhaps because my workload was so light, most of my memories were of New Mexico itself. Every morning we’d drive the 35 miles that started at our motel in Las Cruces, went up over a bluff and across the gully where that family died then down a long desert road that led to the missile range. There wasn’t a trickle of water in sight, but for weeks the bulldozers repaired the section of road the flash flood had eliminated just before we’d arrived.
Although I’d hesitate to call the weather predictable, there was a certain cycle it seemed to follow. At night it would often rain. But to call it just rain would be a disservice. These were bona-fide Grofe-worthy thunderstorms. My motel wall would shake and tremble in the shockwaves produced by the thunder all around as the desert floor and distant mountains were lit up by titanic lightning bolts. If you were in your car, you’d often have to pull over because your wipers couldn’t keep up.
But by morning it would all be over. The sun would be shining and you could barely see the thunderheads far off at the horizon as they traveled elsewhere. Then the heat would come on, sucking the night’s leftover moisture from the sage and ocotillo. And, by late afternoon the onslaught would begin anew. We’d frequently get pelted by the first wave of cumulonimbus behemoths as they raced across the indigo sky; but the drive back to the motel was most often colored by the unbelievable sunsets that are legendary in the southwest.
I also remember the base’s recreational facility, which was a bowling alley straight out of the 40′s. You could get a chili dog for a quarter and a draft beer for 50 cents. There was also a cafeteria which served meals that I don’t remember hating.
Of course I’ve never forgotten the bunker and launch pad. Sensibly situated miles from the base itself, the launch complex consisted of the marvellously re-enforced concrete bunker and the pad upon which sat the Aries rocket and its attendant tower which was usually crawling with technical types from the various agencies involved.
I worked in the bunker, which we entered and exited via a massive steel blast door. There I hooked up my control panel and ran various tests as the pre-launch checklist was narrowed down. The work was fairly dry since there was no creativity involved in this phase. Despite that, there was a sense of excitement and trepidation that only heightened as launch day approached.
But, before launch day arrived, the Space Vector crew had free time to explore the area on weekends. With songs like Hot Blooded and the theme song from Grease on the Mexican radio, we visited White Sands National Monument where it was as hot as hell and the sparlkling gypsum dunes became an endless snowfield in which one could easily get lost. We also drove to the remote southeastern corner of the state to visit one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders, Carlsbad Caverns. Most people have heard of Carlsbad and some have even seen photos or TV documentaries, but the wonder of these caverns cannot be communicated by words or pictures. You must go there and feel the cool underground breezes on your cheek which bring the clean and strange smells of the deep earth itself.
We also visited Mesilla, where I had the best Mexican food I’ve ever had at La Posta de Mesilla. The restaurant is found amid a collection of tropical birds in an ancient adobe building that just exhudes history and character. I had a remarkably delicious fondue-like appetizer called chile con queso that was served with the freshest, tastiest tortillas you can imagine. I also enjoyed a chile relleno unlike any other I’ve tried. It was made from a long fresh anaheim chile stuffed with a melty white cheese blend, cooked to perfection in a crispy golden crust. This was nothing like the mushy omelette-like patties I was accoustomed to. I’ve tried to replicate both those recipes on several occasions to no avail.
But we had a rocket to launch and when the last day before lift-off finally arrived, we were ready and all business. The drive from the motel was particularly long that day. There was little conversation in the car that morning. Today was the full practice launch, where every detail would be simulated. Not only would all of the various crews be working in synchronism for the first time, the top brass would all be there too, observing the whole event right next to me in the bunker.
The morning’s pre-launch activities sped by and the next thing I knew the countdown had commenced. From what I understood, the dress-rehersal launch would follow the exact same checklist that the real one would, except that the engines would not be ignited. Although I don’t remember the details, my part of the process was fairly simple and clearly labeled on the checklist. Most of the functions of the rocket were automatically controlled by the coundown timer circuitry. But I think I remember some switches on the panel I flipped along the way, including one that armed the stage separator squibs.
The rocket was essentially the top two stages of a Minuteman missile. These stages were programmed to separate after the main engines had burned their fuel and the vehicle was in near-space. Squibs are the piston-like devices that push the stages apart via small explosions. Like all other incindiary elements of the rocket, squibs must be armed before they can be fired.
So, the countdown hit zero on the led display of the control panel and those famous words: we have liftoff were uttered by the launch commander. Even though the rocket sat cold and still on the pad, everyone breathed a sigh of relief to have made it this far through practice without an incident.
Now the countdown timer was displaying positive numbers. As the flight seconds added up, I imagined how it would be the next day when the rocket would rumble and belch fire as it streaked skyward. The launch commander announced the imminence of stage separation and started counting the seconds until it was supposed to happen.
And, to everyone’s horror and complete surprise, separation did occur. Right there on the launch pad. In the bunker, we only found out when a pad worker shouted over the intercom, “We have separation!”
To me, it didn’t immediately sink in just what was happening. People were racing in all directions, or perhaps it was just my mind. I rushed over to my boss, Stu, who always knew what to do. For a moment we just stared at each other. Then, with an urgency I couldn’t mistake, he said, “The second stage rockets are going to be armed. Abort the launch!”
Of course. Abort. I ran back to the control panel and flipped the large launch abort toggle switch and stopped the counter. Just three seconds before the second stage engines were set to be armed. I felt like James Bond, disarming the nuke at the last moment. But, that elation was short lived. We waited in eerie silence behind the blast door until the all clear signal was issued.
It turned out the squibs had fired causing the rocket to separate on the pad. By some miracle, the second stage didn’t fall to the ground in a giant fireball, but merely popped up a couple of inches, then came down on the first stage more or less upright, but seriously damaging the coupling in the process.
I think there were around twenty people on the pad at the time, some of them high atop the scaffolding. To a man, they all said that when the rocket came apart with a boom and a crash, they felt fire on their backs as they tumbled down the tower or across the pad and headed for any object they could find that might offer a shield against the explosion happening in their minds. Luckily, the explosion never came and the fire was only adrenaline, because the cars and boxes they crouched behind wouldn’t have offered any protection against an explosion of that magnitude. Recall the film clips mentioned at the beginning of this tale.
After the confusion settled and the rocket was secured it was time to head back to the motel. The morning’s ride was a real gab-fest compared to the ride back that evening. Our faces were longer than the gift exchange lines at K-Mart the day after Xmas. We’d been informed that the damage to the rocket was too extensive to repair, that this launch was scrubbed and a review was pending to determine fault.
The remaining days of packing and cleanup were filled with a common sense of loss. Like a friend who unexpectedly died, this launch was gone and there was nothing we could do to bring it back. Despite knowing that I really couldn’t have been expected to prevent this calamity, I still was tortured by feelings of guilt. Why didn’t I notice the squibs were armed but not subsequently dis-armed?
I was later told the official report noted that the agency who wrote the practice countdown had left out that vital step and that Space Vector was found blameless. Somehow this acquittal left me with a twinge of of guilt, even to this day. I should’ve paid more attention and thought more about just what was going on, despite being overwhelmed by the wonder of White Sands and the desparate lonliness of a young fool who lost in love.
It was that desparation and lonliness that caused me to quit the best job a guy could have to embark on a year-long sojourn of self discovery across California and Oregon in a 1966 VW Westphalia van. But that, as they say, is another story.