Launching the Apollo 11 Spacecraft

By Steve Coester '63

In 1969 I was a twenty-eight year old system engineer working on the Saturn V rocket at Kennedy Space Center.  I had been medically discharged from USN in 1964 after graduating from USNA in 1963. As the years passed I had forgotten what was exactly my involvement in the launch of Apollo 11.   After one hundred and fifteen launches in my career the details had all run together.

Now on the fortieth anniversary of landing on the moon, I've been reminded that I had a leading role in a minor drama that could have resulted in a launch scrub preventing Apollo 11 from lifting off on its epic journey.  It is an interesting footnote to that history.

I realize that most of you were off fighting a war while I was launching  men into space. A very weird time for America.

The Apollo 11 countdown was proceeding normally until about T-3 Hours when suddenly a serious liquid hydrogen leak occurred on the 200 foot level of the Launch Umbilical Tower.   The Saturn third stage (SIV-B) hydrogen replenish valve was spewing flammable gas. Without the ability to maintain proper LH2 propellant levels the mission would be scrubbed.

I received this note from fellow Saturn LH2 engineer Jack Kramer after I told him I was confused that I couldn’t even remember if I was on the prime launch  crew or backup off shift crew for Apollo 11.
From: John Kramer 
 Subject:  Re: Forty Years


Hi Steve,
You were  definitely in the Launch control Center for Apollo 11 launch.  You were C4HU for Apollo 11.  I was CPH1. (these were launch console designators in the Apollo Saturn Firing Room/ Control Center)  You were in charge of the SIVB (the Saturn V third stage) level when we had to  bypass the  replenish valve because of the leaking valve that was cause for a launch  scrub.  I have the Procedure change you wrote so we could do it. Those were long days for all of the crew.   You probably did the walkdown of the system on the launch tower and Saturn V and then came to the firing room to support the final countdown.  It was always the best on night shift being next to that monster rocket in the floodlights with no one  else around.  A spectacular sight. 
Here is an excerpt from the Public Affairs transcript of the launch I found on the NASA webpage.   I highlighted the leaking valve bit.  Wayne Gray and Red Davis, a safety guy and I were on the launcher while you planned and wrote our troubleshooting procedures.  After failing at all traditional fixes we could think of to stop the leak like torquing bolts, etc. we warmed up the valve with the hard hat bucket brigade pouring water to enclose the leaking valve in a sheath of ice which stopped the leak but made the computer  controlled critical valve inoperable.  I came back to the firing room and you and I manually controlled the level by cycling the main fill valve using  the slow fill mode per your procedure.  It worked and launch proceeded on time. No harm no foul.  The rest is history.
Here's the Public Affairs Office transcripts:
PAO (Public Affairs  Officer): This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control; T minus 2 hours, 40  minutes, 40 seconds and counting. At this time, the prime crew for Apollo 11  has boarded the high-speed elevator from inside the A level of the mobile  launcher which is the second level inside the launcher. This is the high-speed  elevator; 600 feet per minute which will carry them to the 320-foot level, the  spacecraft level. Shortly, we'll expect astronauts Neil Armstrong and Michael  Collins to come across Swing Arm 9, the Apollo access arm, and proceed to the  white room and stand by to board the spacecraft. The third member of the crew,  astronaut Edwin Aldrin, will be the last one to board the spacecraft, will  stand by in the elevator seated in a chair while his two comrades first board  the spacecraft. Once Armstrong, who sits in the left-hand seat, and   Collins, who will sit in the right-hand seat during lift-off are aboard,  then Aldrin will be called and he will take his seat, the middle seat in the  spacecraft, The spacecraft Commander Neil Armstrong and the Command Module  Pilot Michael Collins now proceeding across the swing arm into the small white  room that attaches at the spacecraft level. In the meantime, about 100  feet below, we have a technician – a team of technicians working on a leaking  valve which is a part of the Ground Support Equipment, a part of the system  that's used to replenish the fuel supply for the third stage of the Saturn V  rocket. He is proceeding to tighten a series of bolts around this valve in the  hope that this will correct the leak. Once the technicians do depart, the  hydrogen will again be flowed through the system to assure that the leak has  been corrected. The spacecraft Commander Neil Armstrong and CMP, the  Command  Module Pilot Mike Collins, now standing by in the white room. T  minus 2 hours, 38 minutes, 45 seconds and counting; this is Launch Control. 
[MP3 audio file. 1,024 KB.]

PAO: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control; T minus 2 hours, 34  minutes, 44 seconds and counting. The spacecraft Commander Neil Armstrong now  aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft at the 320-foot level at the pad. We had it  logged having the commander go over the sill into the cabin at 6:54am Eastern  Daylight. Since that time, the commander has now been tied into the system and  has checked in over the communication lines. He was wished a 'Good morning' by  the spacecraft test conductor Skip Chauvin and Armstrong in return said it  looks like a good morning. In the meantime, 120 feet below him, the  technicians continuing to work to tighten bolts around a leaking valve  associated with the system that replenishes hydrogen fuel for the third stage.  To repeat once again, this is not a problem on the launch  vehicle  itself, but on the ground support equipment associated with it. T  minus 2 hours, 33 minutes, 45 seconds and counting; this is Kennedy Launch  Control.
[MP3 audio file. 1,031 KB.]

PAO: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control; T minus 2 hours, 30  minutes, 55 seconds and counting. Right on the hour, the Command Module Pilot,  astronaut Michael Collins, who'll be sitting on the right-hand side of the  spacecraft during lift-off, boarded the spacecraft. We had it logged at 7am  Eastern Daylight Time. The third member of the crew, astronaut Buzz Aldrin,  standing by in the elevator around the corner along the swing arm from the  White Room and the spacecraft at the 320-foot level. 120 feet below,  technicians still working on some bolts that surround a leaking valve that is  associated with a system that replenishes the hydrogen fuel supply to the  third stage of the Saturn V rocket. Our countdown proceeding at this  time; coming up toward the 2 minute and 30 minute ma... 30 second...  the  2 hour and 30 minute mark in the count. This is Kennedy Launch Control. 
[MP3 audio file. 1,632 KB.]

PAO: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control; T minus 2 hours, 23  minutes, 46 seconds and counting. The third member of the Apollo 11 prime crew  now aboard the spacecraft. We had it logged at 7:07am Eastern Daylight Time  when astronaut Buzz Aldrin boarded the spacecraft. He'll sit in the middle  seat during lift-off. As Lunar Module Pilot, his normal position would be on  the right-hand side. However, due to crew preference, we have the Commander of  course, Neil Armstrong, sitting on the left-hand side. The Lunar Module Pilot  for the overall flight, Buzz Aldrin, sitting in the middle seat, and the  Command Module Pilot Mike Collins sitting in the right-hand seat at lift-off.  Down below, at the 200-foot level, our technicians still hard at work  still tightening bolts around a valve associated with the  system that  replenishes the hydrogen fuel for the third stage of the Saturn V launch  vehicle. This is ground support equipment located on the tower at the pad at  the 200-foot level. He continues to work at the 200-foot level as  the crew in the White Room does the same with the three astronauts aboard. We  actually have a fourth astronaut still aboard the spacecraft at this time,  astronaut Fred Haise, who is the back-up Command Module Pilot. He is in the  Lower Equipment Bay of the spacecraft, giving a helping hand to the three  prime crewmen as they start to perform some of their preliminary checks here  as we head down over the final 2 hours – 21Ž2 hours of the countdown. We're at  T minus 2 hours, 22 minutes, 11  seconds and counting; this is Kennedy  Launch Control.
[In fact, Fred Haise is the back-up Lunar Module  Pilot. The other back-up crew members are Commander Jim Lovell and Command  Module Pilot Bill Anders.]
[MP3 audio file. 1,231  KB.]

PAO: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control. We've just passed  the 2-hour, 21-minute mark in our countdown and we are proceeding at this  time. At the 320-foot level, all three astronauts now aboard the spacecraft.  Just a few minutes ago, astronaut Buzz Aldrin came in and took the center seat  to join Neil Armstrong on the left and Mike Collins on the right. These are  the positions they will fly at lift-off. During the process of getting the  astronauts checked into the spacecraft, communication cables must be attached  to their suits. They also have to hook into the suit circuit system of the  spacecraft that brings oxygen into their suits. They are helped by a fourth  astronaut on board, the back-up Command Module Pilot, astronaut Fred Haise,  who is in the Lower Equipment Bay, and one of the suit technicians, who's  located behind them to give a  hand as they check in. We've heard from  Neil Armstrong, and now we've also heard from Mike Collins on comm checks, and  we're standing by for further reports as the checkout continues. 120  feet down, the work continues on a leaky valve at the 200-foot level. This is  ground support equipment. The technicians still hard at work tightening bolts  around that valve at this time. 2 hours, 19 minutes, 45 seconds and counting;  this is Kennedy Launch Control.
[MP3 audio  file. 1,582 KB.]

PAO: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control; T minus 2 hours, 10  minutes, 35 seconds and counting. At the 320-foot level, the fourth astronaut  aboard the spacecraft regretfully leaves at this time. Astronaut Fred Haise is  about to come out after giving the three prime crewmen a hand in their  preliminary checkouts aboard. Fred Haise will be coming out shortly. In the  meantime, 120 feet below, where we have that problem with the leaking valve,  the technicians have completed their work and they are in the process now of  departing from the launch pad. In a short while, we'll start flowing hydrogen  again back through the general replenishing system to continue the top-off –  the supply of the hydrogen fuel to the third stage of the Saturn V launch  vehicle. The spacecraft Commander Neil Armstrong has completed a series of  checks called abort  advisory system checks. This is where certain key  crewmen on the ground, members of the launch team, can send signals to the  commander in the spacecraft; light cues that would indicate a difficulty  during the flight in which he could take abort action if he determined that  such action was necessary. These checks have been completed and Neil Armstrong  confirmed that the lights came on in the console in front of him, the panel in  front of him as these lights were operated from the ground here in the Launch  Control Center. All still going well with our count. We will stand by as  we again bring hydrogen back to the third stage. We will see how that  operates. We're now at T minus 2 hours, 9 minutes, 4 seconds and  counting and this is Kennedy Launch  Control.
[MP3 audio file. 1,220 KB.]

PAO: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control; T minus 2 hours, 7  minutes and counting. At this time we're just in the process of closing the  hatch on the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Several of the close-out crew shook hands  with the astronauts and then proceeded to close the hatch on direction from  the Spacecraft Test Conductor Skip Chauvin. We had it logged as the hatch  being closed and tightened – still being tightened right at this time which is  25 minutes past the hour. Once the hatch is closed, we will start a cabin  purge to condition the cabin inside. The three astronauts, of course, are on  pure oxygen in their space suits on the suit circuit. We will produce a cabin  atmosphere in the spacecraft of a 60/40 combination; 60% oxygen and 40%  nitrogen. This is the atmosphere used for lift-off. Once that is accomplished,  the close-out crew will be  ready to put the Boost Protective Cover on  the hatch and continue with their close-out. The hatch being closed at this  time. We are proceeding. We'll stand by to see how our hydrogen  condition is, as far as replenishing the hydrogen fuel supply with the third  stage of the Saturn V. 2 hours, 5 minutes, 50 seconds and counting; this is  Kennedy Launch Control.
[MP3 audio file.  1,411 KB.]

PAO: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control. We're at T minus 2  hours, 55 seconds and counting. We're approaching the 2-hour mark in our  countdown and we appear to be proceeding satisfactorily at this time. The crew  aboard the spacecraft, the 320-foot level, the hatch is closed and we're  beginning to purge the cabin to bring it to the proper atmosphere for launch  which is a combination of oxygen and nitrogen; 60% oxygen and 40% nitrogen  atmosphere. Of course, the astronauts themselves are breathing pure oxygen  through their space suits. Coming up shortly will be another key test in which  both the launch crew for the – the launch vehicle crew and the spacecraft team  combine together with the Commander Neil Armstrong to make a thorough check of  the Emergency Detection System. This is the system that will signal the  astronauts in the cabin if  anything goes wrong below them. We used a  ground-based computer to accomplish this test. It's rather lengthy as these  tests go, using a computer. It will take some 30 minutes. Neil Armstrong will  be doing most of the work in the spacecraft, responding as different cue  lights, signifying different difficulties, are presented to him. The abort  panel, of course, is across from the commander on the left-hand side, the  left-front of the spacecraft. Our countdown continuing; T minus 1 hour, 59  minutes, 34 seconds and counting; this is Kennedy Launch Control. 
[MP3 audio file. 966 KB.]

PAO: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control; T minus 1 hour, 50  minutes, 55 seconds and counting. We're proceeding with the countdown with the  Apollo 11 mission at this time and it's going satisfactorily. At this point,  the spacecraft Commander Neil Armstrong in the process of working the  Emergency Detection System test. This is a check of the Emergency Detection  System working with the launch crew here in the firing room and also the  spacecraft team in control rooms back at the Manned Spacecraft Operations  building here at the Kennedy Space Center. All going well with these tests at  the present time. We're flowing hydrogen back into the third  stage  of the Saturn V launch vehicle after having difficulty with that leaking  valve. It appears that we are bypassing the use of the valve directly in  loading the hydrogen aboard, but we are getting the hydrogen back in to  replenish the supply. All appears to be going well at this time. Weather is  Go. We're coming up on 1 hour and 50 minutes. This is Kennedy Launch  Control.
PAO (Public Affairs Officer): This is Apollo  Saturn Launch Control; T minus 1 hour, 30 minutes, 55 seconds and counting.  All elements are Go with the countdown at this time, the countdown aimed at  landing two astronauts on the Moon. At this time the Spacecraft Test Conductor  Skip Chauvin going through some checks with astronaut Mike Collins aboard the  spacecraft. We're winding up this important Emergency Detection System test  that Neil Armstrong has been participating in. Meanwhile, at the 320-foot  level, the close-out crew now placing the Boost Protective Cover over the  hatch now that we have completed the cabin purge and have the proper  environment inside the cabin. We have also performed leak checks to assure  ourselves that the cabin atmosphere is valid. This Boost Protective Cover is  used during the early phases of the powered flight and  it is jettisoned  with the escape tower shortly after second stage ignition. Here in the  firing room, the launch vehicle test team's still keeping a close eye on the  status of the propellants aboard the Saturn V launch vehicle. We're back to  100 percent supply with the liquid hydrogen fuel in the third stage. This  problem with the leaking valve is no problem at this time. We've actually  bypassed the valve but we are maintaining our hydrogen supply aboard the  vehicle. All aspects Go. The weather is very satisfactory for launch  this morning. A thin cloud cover about 15,000 feet. Temperature at launch time  expected to be about 85 degrees. T minus 1 hour, 29 minutes, 30 seconds and  counting; this is Kennedy Launch Control.
[MP3  audio file. 956 KB.]

PAO: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control; T minus 1 hour, 20  minutes, 55 seconds and counting. All still Go with the countdown for Apollo  11 at this time. At this point in the countdown, spacecraft Commander Neil  Armstrong once again appears to be the busiest worker in the spacecraft as he  is performing a series of alignment checks associated with the guidance system  in the spacecraft. He's working these checks with the Spacecraft Test  Conductor as the Spacecraft Test Conductor reads out the various procedures  and Armstrong responds to them. The astronauts aboard the spacecraft also were  informed by the spacecraft conductor a short while ago that the launch vehicle  is Go at this time. The hydrogen problem that we did encounter earlier  has been solved. "That's real good news," said Armstrong and  then he  went back to work shortly thereafter. We're now coming up on the 1 hour, 20  minute mark in the countdown; this is Kennedy Launch  Control.

1963 Collection of Stories

Click on cover to open


© 2018 United States Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation 410-295-4000