This time on airspeed, we continue our salutes to Steely- Eyed Missile Men. Today’s Steely-Eyed Missile Man: Captain REFSMMAT.
Maybe that’s a little unfair, because Captain REFSMMAT isn’t actually a human being. He’s the Kilroy-style character that became the mascot of NASA Flight Control during the Apollo and Skylab years – The ideal flight controller.
REFSMMAT is actually an acronym that means “Reference to Stable Member Matrix” or a reference to a fixed orientation in space that is usually identified in terms of relatively immobile points, such as stars. Spacecraft need very accurate three-dimensional navigation, especially when traveling far from the normal references of our home planet, such as during the Apollo program. All spacecraft have a gimbal-mounted or similar platform that serves as a stable point from which the orientation of the spacecraft is determined. That platform of navigational instruments is oriented to the REFSMMAT. A given mission might have several REFSMMATs, such as a set of stars, the solar ecliptic, the lunar ecliptic, and so on. But, once a REFSMMAT is determined for a particular operation, that REFSMMAT is the absolute reference for the entire duration of that phase.
Why is the REFSMMAT so important? Bear in mind that rocket burns like the one for translunar injection, course corrections, lunar orbit insertion, and so on require great precision. Think about lunar orbit insertion. The Apollo spacecraft basically aimed for a spot where the moon would be in a few days. The spacecraft had to just miss the leading edge of the moon as the moon hurtled through space at something like 2,300 miles per hour and then had to do an orbit insertion burn behind the moon and out of contact with ground controllers. When you’re making burns that precise, you want a stable platform from which to do them.
Gene Kranz, NASA flight controller for the Apollo 11 landing and other missions, came from a military background and he wanted to do something to improve the esprit de corps of his fabled White Team of flight controllers. The captain was born in discussions between Kranz and John S. Llewellyn, Jr., Retrofire Officer in the Retro Officer Section of the Flight Dynamics Branch. A rookie member of the flight dynamics staff standing by the coffee machine asked which flight controller had placed an IOU in the cup next to the pot instead of the usual coins. Llewellyn looked up and, without skipping a beat, said “Sheeet, man, that’s Captain REFSMMAT, the ideal flight controller He’s the best we’ve ever had in the trench.”
Gemini-era Flight Dynamics Officer (FIDO) Edward Pavelka heard of the conversation and came up with several drawings of the captain. Shortly thereafter, a two-foot-tall cartoon of the captain hung in Pavelka’s office. The word got out and the captain began to be fitted with the tools of his trade. A pot helmet with a top that flipped open to reveal a radar antenna, glasses with a line on them that inscribed the proper deorbit attitude, and a series of RESFMMATs on his belt. We wore a limitary jacket with captain’s bars, khaki shorts, and tennis shoes.
Pavelka hung the picture on a locker in the hall in Building 30 at the Johnson Space Center and the captain began to collect graffiti. Llewellyn himself added the comment “Viva Buster!” in praise of a buffalo resident at a saloon in Alvin, Texas.
In all, there were six Captain REFSMMATs and the captain even had an arch nemesis, Victor Vector. He stayed at NASA through the Apollo and Skylab years.
Through his tenure at NASA, Captain REFSMMAT served as a collector of memories, sentiment, frustration, and pride. He united flight controllers and others in a common enterprise and reminded them of the heavy responsibility of any mission control team. He symbolized Kranz’s central tenets of Discipline, Competence, Confidence, Responsibility, Toughness, and Teamwork.
So today we salute Captain REFSMMAT, the ideal flight controller and a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.