Friday, May 12, 2006

Airspeed in Brief - Steely-Eyed Missile Man John Aaron

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[Following is a pretty close approximation of the vergiage from the episode entitled "Steely-Eyed Missile Man - John Aaron" that appeared on Airspeed in Brief beginning on May 8. You can subscribe to the podcast using the links at]

This time on Airspeed, we begin our salutes to Steely-Eyed Missile Men (and Women) – those players on the grand stage of aeronautics and space travel who, in moments of heroism or flashes of brilliance, or in having the right things happen after working doggedly to be in the right place at the right time, stood and delivered.

We’re going to focus for the time being on flashes of brilliance, greatness, and heroism that, although revered in their respective circles, are little known to most, whether because of the passage of time or because few understand the importance of the person or the event.

Today’s Steely-Eyed Missile Man: John Aaron, the Gold Team and Apollo 12 EECOM who uttered the greatest call in all of manned spaceflight control. This is the story of John Aaron and what has become known as “SCE to Aux.”

At 11:22 AM Eastern Standard Time on November 14, 1969, mission Commander Pete Conrad, Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean, and Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon sat 360 feet up atop a steaming, creaking, and popping stack of high explosives as the countdown wound out and the 6.7 million pound Saturn V stack rose majestically on a tower of fire.

In Houston, flight director Gerry Griffin looked out over the “trench” of flight controllers, including John Aaron, the Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager (or “EECOM”).

When NASA tested the first Saturn V during Apollo 4, two years prior, there was substantial question about whether the rocket rose or the state of Florida sank – and this time was no different. Crowds gathered for miles around were treated to the sound and the fury of the largest spacecraft type ever launched by the United States.

It was a gray and partially overcast day and. Although there were thunderstorms elsewhere in the region, the launch went ahead.

36 seconds after liftoff, the spacecraft had climbed several thousand feet and was accelerating for orbit. What few realized was that the trail of ionized gas left behind in the rocket exhaust was an excellent conductor of electricity and that the outbound rocket was not essentially the tip of the tallest lighting rod on the planet.

Although flight controllers wouldn’t know for sure until later, the Apollo 12 stack was hit by lightning – not once but twice. The first time at 36 seconds and the second 16 seconds later.

Pete Conrad later said, “I was aware of a white light. I knew that we were in the clouds; and although I was watching the gauges I was aware of a white light. The next thing I noted was that I heard the master alarm ringing in my ears and I glanced over to the caution and warning panel and it was a sight to behold.”

Back in the trench, all the telemetry showed the same thing – or nothing. Commander Pete Conrad began calling off all of the things that were showing as wrong on the panel in front of him.

Down in the trench, John Aaron thought fast. He called up the backroom of flight controllers and technicians. He remembered a simulation about a year ago. One that the sim operations team had thought about substituting out because it was just too unlikely. During that simulation, Aaron had seen a condition where problems with the Signal Control Equipment might be resolved by switching to the Auxiliary mode. The sim had not resulted in anything that had made it into the flight control loop, so none of the other flight controllers, or the flight director, knew anything about it. But Aaron had been the EECOM during that SIM and made a snap decision under pressure. He hung up with his back room, punched into the flight control loop, and said, “Flight, try SCE to Aux.”

Griffin had never heard of the call and had no idea what it meant. “Say again. SCE to off?”

“Aux,” said Aaron.

Flight director Griffin knew Gold Team well and he trusted every member to make the right calls. Although he had already half-decided to order an abort – and would almost certainly have called the abort within a few more seconds, Griffin gave the nod to CAPCOM Gerry Carr.

Carr keyed his microphone and uttered the immortal call to the Apollo 12 command module.

So obscure was the call that neither Conrad nor Gordon could quickly locate the switch. But Al Bean, the lunar module pilot, knew where to find the switch and he flipped it. Instantly, the alarm went silent and the spacecraft’s signal control and other systems came back under control. Conrad, Bean, and Gordon set about restarting the fuel cells and bringing the systems back online.

Looking at his screen, Aaron saw the data come back up on his screen – all within limits and all a “go” for continuation of the mission.

Make no mistake, a lot of people had to do the right things in order to make Apollo 12’s pinpoint landing at Surveyor Crater in the Ocean of Storms and safe return possible. Flight director Gerry Griffin had to make the call to believe what he heard from his EECOM and risk losing the chance to abort. Commander Pete Conrad, who had his hand on the abort switch the whole time, was rock solid and focused under pressure in working the situation and giving flight controllers and his crew the best possible opportunity to save the mission if it could be saved. Heck, thousands of people, from the ground support equipment crews to the caterers to the simulation teams, all in fair measure, contributed to the success.

But when it actually hit the fan under enormous pressure and with lives on the line, it came down to one man at a console thinking fast and coming up with the right answer.

And that’s why Gold Team and Apollo 12 EECOM John Aaron is a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.

For Airspeed, I’m Stephen Force. For most of us, the day may never come to perform like a Steely-eyed Missile Man. But that’s no reason not to be ready, each according to one’s own skills, and each in one’s own way.


[Audio in the podcast is used under the NASA policy entitled Using NASA Imagery and Linking to NASA Web Sites - 10.13.05 - Still Images, Audio Files and Video available at No use of any NASA material in this podcast should or does express or imply any endorsement of this podcast or any person or business that helps out with this podcast by NASA or any person whose voice is contained in the audio material.]

[Thanks, NASA, for having such a great policy. On to Mars!]

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