Moderator: Jeffrey Hoffman
June 11, 2009
In this first of three symposium events to mark the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, an extraordinary cast of luminaries recount the parts they played in the Apollo program, and celebrate MIT’s unique role in getting humans to the moon.
Theodore Sorensen believes President Kennedy chose him to oversee the U.S. response to the Soviet’s first space flight because he was “a skeptic … a Unitarian raised asking questions.” The U.S. space program had been lagging, “a joke with late night TV comics,” so the Kennedy administration figured only the “the drama of a moon landing” would spur an improved space effort. When Kennedy announced the plan to Congress, the reaction was “stunned disbelief,” so he deviated from the official text, reminding congressmen that “all of us will be on that trip to the moon.” Today, Kennedy would be disturbed by the militarization of space, Sorensen believes. The next great scientific breakthrough Sorensen would like to see involves “the abolition of weapons of mass destruction.”
Richard Battin describes the work of MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory, headed by Charles “Doc” Draper, to develop a Mars probe in 1957 following the Sputnik launch. The device had solar panels, a thruster, an attitude control system with gyros, and an onboard digital computer designed to survive a three-year roundtrip to Mars. NASA declined to support the entire project, but liked the computer. In 1961, NASA chief Jim Webb asked his good friend “Doc” Draper to develop guidance navigation and control for Apollo. Battin believes this relationship, and the need for a functioning onboard navigation system (in case the Soviets jammed communication links from Earth) landed MIT the contract.
Aaron Cohen remembers how rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun was puzzled by Cohen’s Apollo assignment, which was “to define and resolve interfaces between all elements of the Apollo program.” He also describes the tragic fire on the launch pad in January 1967, which killed three crew members. This episode triggered months of self-examination, leading to a safer command service module, and a series of reliable flights leading to the moon landing. “When I look back on Apollo 11, I go through each subsystem and marvel at how we managed to form the mission.”
Joseph Gavin, Jr. started as a graduate student in “Doc” Draper’s lab, but ended up leading the development of the lunar module, which “worked every time. I’ll say that again. It worked every time.” His long association with the program left him with some insights: there’s no such thing as random failure; one should take absolutely nothing for granted; and do not change anything that works. He recalls NASA bugging him about overtime, but the young men working for him were under great pressure, so Gavin pushed back, allowing “group leaders to take care of their people.”
Harrison “Jack” Schmitt takes the audience through the history of the Apollo program, including his own historic trip to the moon. “That’s not bad, leaving footprints in the sands of time for a million, might be two million years.” He believes the keys to the mission’s success included having a sufficient base of technology and a reservoir of young engineers and skilled workers; the “pervasive environment of national unease” due to the Cold War, Sputnik and the missile gap; a persuasive president who unleashed adequate funding; and “tough, competent and disciplined management to let people do their jobs.”
In flight control, says Christopher Kraft, Jr., “you have to fly what you’ve got. There’s not time to stop and fix something.” This legend of the early days of space flight recalls chimpanzee testing and concerns about human adaptation to zero gravity. When Kennedy announced the moon mission, “I thought he’d lost his mind.” As flight director, Kraft suddenly “had to come up with the orbital mechanics of going back and forth to the moon. That to me was a hell of a challenge.” Kraft witnessed the entire nation get behind the Apollo effort, which convinced him “we could do anything we set our mind to in this country, if we know what we want to do, where we want to go and have the commitment to get it done.”
About the Speakers
Moderator: Jeffrey Hoffman
Professor of the Practice, Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT
Former NASA astronaut
Jeffrey Hoffman is an astrophysicist and a veteran of five space missions. He was the first astronaut to log 1000 hours aboard the Space Shuttle. During his fourth flight, he was one of four crew members who captured the Hubble Space Telescope, serviced it, and restored it to full capacity. He is engaged in several research projects using the International Space Station and teaches courses on space operations and design.
Prior to joining NASA, Hoffman was a scientist with the MIT Center for Space Research in charge of the orbiting HEAO-1 A4 hard x-ray and gamma ray experiment. He is currently the Director of the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium.
Hoffman earned his B.A. at Amherst College, an M.S. from Rice University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Special Counsel and Advisor, President John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Theodore Sorensen served as President Kennedy's primary speechwriter, as well as special advisor. His book of memoirs, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, a best-seller, was published in 2008, and he is also the author of the 1965 best-seller, Kennedy, as well as seven other books on the presidency, politics or foreign policy. Sorensen practiced international law for 36 years as a senior partner at the U.S. law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP where he represented U.S. and multinational corporations in negotiations with governments all over the world. He has assisted and advised many governments and governmental leaders, ranging from the late President Sadat of Egypt to former president Mandela of South Africa.
Richard Battin SB '45, Ph.D. '51
Senior Lecturer, MIT
Former Director, Apollo Guidance, Navigation and Control System
Richard Battin was responsible for creating the guidance and navigation concepts for the Apollo spacecraft's on-board flight computers. He was an associate director of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory when it was selected by NASA in 1961 to develop the spacecraft's guidance and navigation system. Subsequently, he was director of mission development for the MIT Apollo program. He organized and led a large team of analysts and computer specialists charged with providing the navigation, guidance, and control software for each of the Apollo flights.
Battin is an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a Fellow of the American Astronautical Society, a Member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a Member of the International Academy of Astronautics. Battin received an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT in 1945, and a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics, also from MIT, in 1951.
Former Manager, Apollo Command and Service Module
Former Director of NASA/Johnson Space Center Professor Emeritus Texas A&M University
Aaron Cohen was the manager of the command and service module in the Apollo spacecraft program office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. He later was named Space Shuttle project manager, and director of research and engineering at the Space Center. In 1986, he became the director of the Center and its 3,600 employees and 14,000 support contractors. In addition, Cohen served for a year as acting deputy administrator of NASA.
Joseph Gavin ‘41, SM’42
Former Director, Lunar Module Program
Retired President, Grumman Corporation
A lifelong engineer and officer at the Grumman Corporation, Joseph Gavin, Jr. directed the development of the lunar module used in the Apollo program. The module, or lander portion of the Apollo spacecraft, would play a role in saving the lives of three Apollo 13 astronauts after an oxygen tank in the service module exploded. The astronauts used the lunar module, built by Gavin's team at Grumman Aircraft Engineering, as a refuge during a return to Earth and a safe splashdown. Gavin later served the parent company, Grumman Corp., as president, chief operating officer, and director, retiring in 1985.
Gavin earned his master’s degree in 1942 in aerospace from MIT. He served as an officer in the Naval Reserve, working with the Bureau of Aeronautics until 1946.
Gavin is a recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Medal, member of the International Academy of Astronautics, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
Harrison H. Schmitt
Adjunct Professor of Engineering Physics, College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison Consultant, Fusion Technology Institute
Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt possesses a remarkably diverse biography. He studied at Caltech, as a Fulbright Scholar at Oslo, and at Harvard, receiving his Ph.D. in geology in 1964. Schmitt trained as an Air Force jet pilot in 1965 and received Navy helicopter wings in 1967. Selected for the Scientist-Astronaut program in 1965, Schmitt organized the lunar science training for the Apollo Astronauts and served as lunar module pilot for Apollo 17. In 1972, he was the only scientist and the last of the 12 men to walk on the Moon. In 1975, Schmitt became a U.S. Senator for his home state of New Mexico, a position he held through 1982. He later served on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Committee and the President's Commission on Ethics Law Reform.
Today, Harrison Schmitt consults, speaks, and writes on business, public, and governmental initiatives, particularly in the fields of space, risk, geology, energy, technology, and policy issues of the future. He also contributes nonfiction articles on space and the American Southwest to numerous books and magazines. He is a member of the Independent Strategic Assessment Group for the U.S. Air Force Phillips Laboratory. Schmitt's corporate board memberships include Orbital Sciences Corporation and the Draper Laboratory.
Christopher C. Kraft Jr.
First NASA Flight Director and Former Director, Johnson Space Center
Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. received a B.S. in aeronautical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic University in 1944 and joined the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) the next year. In 1958, still at Langley, he became a member of the Space Task Group developing Project Mercury and moved with the Group to Houston in 1962. He was flight director for all of the Mercury and many of the Gemini missions and directed the design of Mission Control at what became the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in 1973. He was director of the JSC from 1975 until his retirement in 1982. Since then he has remained active as an aerospace consultant.