A Half Century of Space Center Voices Speak

Jerry Woodfill

Today, October 22, 2012,  is my 70th birthday.   I haven’t retired from NASA.  My career here, Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas, has spanned nearly a half century (47+ years). One of my jobs is serving as a technical contract monitor.  So rather than celebrating the day in the Caribbean, I sat in a two hour contracts course on “avoiding fraud and corruption.”   The Teague Auditorium was my celebratory venue along with several hundred NASA contracting colleagues. 

Pausing a moment in the Teague Lobby before returning to my office, I was drawn to the History of Johnson Space Center  exhibit of past issues of the ROUNDUP employee newspaper.   Alone in the lobby, I experienced  a strange meandering stream of thoughts flowing  into my mind.  They were almost audible voices  coincident with each picture I studied.  Having my Iphone, I captured the photos below.  Beneath each, I’ve recorded those telepathic-like whispers which accompanied each.

What an exciting day for the Gus Grissom family!  And Gus’s star would rise brightly as he became America’s second man in space aboard Liberty Bell 7.  But, then, how very sad for Mrs. Grissom and son, Mark, that January 27th of 1967 when Gus perished.  Who among all those smiling in this photo would have guessed what the future held for them, or, for that matter, any of us.  Gus, rest in peace.

1979 (January – July)

I looked up, above Gus’s picture.  It was the mural painted by space artist Bob McCall in 1979 (Jan.-July).  I remembered watching Bob paint the scene, even talking to him while he worked.

Artist Bob McCall painting Johnson Space Center Mural, 1979.

But I had never noticed which astronauts he had selected to paint among the four  pictured above.  Obviously, the likeness of one was Gus Grissom, .  My eyes are not so keen, at 70 years, so after squinting I recognized  the suit’s name tag. It  confirmed the face as “Grissom’s.”    And the voice said, I did that to remember Gus’s sacrifice. 

“But who was behind Gus?”  I wondered.  The astronaut’s façade didn’t register.  After a half minute more of squinting, I finally made out the letters, “Shepard.”   My thought was, “Yes, Shepard was a predictable choice as first American in space, but why was not John Glenn chosen as second in line instead of Gus?”  Because of Gus’s sacrifice,”  was the answer which spoke to me  quietly.

Leading the four-naut inline file of McCall’s spacemen was John Young.  Again, I wondered, “Why Young? Perhaps, because he commanded the first shuttle flight?   But did  John not fly that first Shuttle maiden flight until 1981 and McCall did this in 1979..  Had Young already been designated as such in 1979?  Maybe that was the case and why he was painted as the one to represent the space  shuttle program.  Well, that program has just concluded forevermore 43 years after Bob’s brush affixed John’s likeness above me. 

And who was the faceless astronaut behind Young?  What did McCall intend to say?  The voice spoke, “He is every American astronaut who ever wore a NASA space suit from the beginning until the end of time.

And I looked to the left at the scene below.  Of course, it is the historic Building 30 Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) that Bob McCall crafted three decades ago.

Obviously, I recognized Dr. Gilruth, Chris Kraft, George Abby, and Deke Slayton.   And to George's left was a profile of Glynn Lunney who in my mind was the most handsome of the Apollo chief flight controllers. There were other “lesser lights”who I had worked with whose faces appeared familiar as well.  The crowd to the far left must have been akin to what Scripture calls, “the great cloud of witnesses” who not only observed but participated in those missions as unseen but essential contributors to their success.  “Funny,” I thought, that Gene Kranz was not included while other much less notables were.  Was that because, Chris Kraft was sort of the “place-holder” for the flight controllers?  “Probably so,” I thought.     Likewise, Deke Slayton would be the icon for the astronauts, the capcom’s so essential to each mission. 

Though the  lobby was mostly empty of floor displays,  all its walls as well as the side corridor walls  had posted pictures, paintings, plaques, display cases, and medals displayed.  Many awards from foreign nations and dignitaries were included.  None of these has ever been of much interest for me.  So I ignored most of them.  But among them I found  the above display, special to me because I was included among those receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom as a member of the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team in April of 1970.   I’d seen it before in what I hope is not to be its final resting place.  It deserves better. 

For the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 13 rescue I sought to resurrect the wonder of that heroic rescue with an online Internet series of articles, “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13.”  (Click the link for the articles on UNIVERSE TODAY  by Nancy Atkinson) But to the credit of those who sentenced our medal to reside among those of awards from Russia, the Kings, Queens, and diplomats of the past, Apollo 13 was given an honored place in the lobby, even exceeding Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 lunar landing. 

Apollo 13 was honored on the opposite lobby wall by a thirty foot mural of phases of the mission. Additionally, there were pictures of Apollo 13 mission control displayed beside the mission-mural.  One called Apollo 13 “NASA’s Finest Hour”  (Actually, it was NASA’s finest 87 hours which ensued after the explosion of the mother ship in April of 1970.)  One picture was especially meaningful. My Iphone captured it below.

What made the above “kludge” work was the duct tape wrapped around that cubicle canister. Had it not been stowed aboard Apollo 13, the outcome might have been fatal.  Now, those pictured had nothing to do with coming up with the solution they are examining.  But, perhaps, the picture explains Bob McCall’s painting.  Notice who is included above: Deke Slayton, Chris Kraft and Dr. Gilruth, and likewise are they in McCall’s mural.  If the images of Gilruth and Kraft are cropped and mirrored, they appear in McCall’s painting in almost the same profiles and orientations.  The inner voice whispered,  Yes, the April 1970 picture served, in part,  as the mural’s genesis.”

Deke Slayton, Dr. Gilruth, Chris Kraft


But  more importantly was the story of the duct tape’s availability.  This was an account that I’d discovered just three days before. Only providence can be credited for the revelation.   A neighbor living several houses down the street had been my boss in the 1980s.  Now in his 80’s, he had retired from NASA years ago.  But each morning as I dressed for work, I’d see him walk his dog past my home before I left for the office.  Occasionally, I’d encounter him as I opened the garage door to leave for work.  Several times, I’d greeted him and paused to talk to him about his involvement with manned space in the 1960s.   George C. Franklin is his name.  Years later, George was the chief of my division at JSC, I had little interaction with him because of my journeyman status.  However, because we were neighbors with similar interest in manned space history we enjoyed reminiscing.


And so, I’d risen early on Friday, October 19,  three days before my birthday,  to fertilize the yard.  Afterwards I planned to  leave for work.  Seeing George, I wanted to thank him for sharing   experiences he’d had with  the original Mercury astronauts.  He had told me of conceiving the idea of flying the lunar lander, without seats, i.e.,  standing upright.  This had saved the program millions of dollars and the lander tens of pounds.  After his boss noticed George’s idea was featured in “Popular Mechanics”, he submitted George’s innovation for an award.  For this contribution, my neighbor once  received a $25 cost savings award. 


Also I was grateful for information about Apollo 13 and the Gemini program George shared..  I commented, “What you shared with me, I’ve communicated to groups I’ve spoken to as educational outreach programs, on and off the job.”   


Recently, Wikipedia, had included an item George gave me, “that duct tape had been stowed onboard NASA spacecraft since early in the Gemini Program.”  The mention of the duct tape led George to explain how and why it was included in the Gemini spacecraft. His explanation had to do with concern about unpacking experiments, food stuffs, and stowed equipment in the confines of the Gemini cabin.


In George’s words: “I told…I think it was (Scott) Carpenter, that any time you come home from the grocery store with two bags of groceries, you have four bags of trash to dispose of after you unpack everything.”  George continued, “They wanted to design and manufacture some kind of a complicated trash compactor to deal with the residual trash.   Well, I said, “Don’t do that just use duct tape to wrap everything up into a compact disposable package.  Plain things solve a problem best.”   Then George said, “I even wrote a memo advocating this solution.  Unfortunately, who knows where it can be found now.  But anyway, I won, and duct tape was put onboard Gemini and every spacecraft since. 


Now, I thought, “Yes, the folks who came up with the above Apollo 13 filter for Slayton,   Kraft and company to approve were heroes.   Yet, without George, they would not have had that duct tape to solve the problem.”  So I’ve wanted to tell the story fully.  In fact, I’ve tried to do that for students using a YouTube video and song I’ve written.  Below is a picture from the video:


Discovering George’s contribution to the whole story really excited me about adding it to future lessons about Apollo 13. 


Sharing on YouTube the Apollo 13 Square Filter/Round Hole Solultion


“George,” I said, “Sometime, I’d like to come over and visit with you about this kind of thing.”  But I thought about it.  Maybe it would be better just to let it happen whenever George was walking his dog, and I happened to be leaving for work?


Months before, in appreciation for George sharing his anecdotes, I printed up his NASA oral history, binding it into a coffee table book for him to share with friends and family.   But I hadn’t really read what he’d recorded in his oral history interview.   So later that day,  I opened the .pdf file and searched for the word, “duct tape.  ” What I read revealed  just how essential George was to building that configuration that made the square filter work in the round barrel using duct tape.  Actually, George was, arguably, most responsible for the solution though he was never credited for it.


As the Apollo Display and Control project engineer in the mid 1960s, I was aware of a unique astronaut support  group.   They were constructing a mock up of the crew quarters for the lunar lander and the Apollo mother ship Command Module.  Because I was responsible for testing spacecraft displays,  meters, gauges, and switches   I would receive calls and memos from the Flight Crew Support Division requesting transfer of non-flight test articles for use in mock-ups.  These items were an inexpensive way of building sort of an astronaut full size kind of “spaceship” doll house. The facility could  validate ergonomic issues about the crew cabin.   After switches and gauges were stress tested, they had no operational value.   They might end up at a government auction along with discarded military surplus items.    What I didn’t know was that the concept and execution of the aerospace astronaut “playhouse” was largely George’s idea.  Reading his oral history explained his involvement in detail.  Here it is.  I won’t have to interview George in the company of his dog for this.  I’ll be at work on time.


3 October 2001 8-22Johnson Space Center Oral History Project George C. Franklin


We did all the cabin integration then for the lunar module. It turned out very successful. I was going to get in, when I got into the mockups, to talk about Apollo 13, but let me talk about Apollo 13. We always had big mockups for Gemini and Mercury, and we got into Apollo, the cost of the mockups furnished by North American [Aviation, Inc.] and by Grumman were high, and the program office was short of money and didn't want to really produce those. But they produced some.


We finally got them to produce the basics for us down in Houston, and then the mockup group that I had working for me at that time was very innovative and very capable. We had our own little shop, plus we used Tech [Technical] Services [Division]. Tech Services would come in, and if we furnished them the materials and the money and the design, they would hammer it together. Jack [A.] Kinzler worked with us very well on that. He didn't like us having our own shops, but he tolerated us, because we had some excellent machine shops, but he had the better ones. But anyway, the mockups were used for training, engineering evaluations, and mission support, and I guess the best place that that really showed its mettle was in Apollo 13.


I went to see the movie, by the way, and it was very, very good, very well done. As soon as we got word what happened, I had pretty close relationship with the environmental control people that were over in Crew Systems [Division] at that time, and they worked in our mockups a lot. And I hollered at them and I said, "We got a problem with those square canisters and those round canisters." I said, "We're going to have to figure out something quick."



From movie APOLLO 13 – Fitting a Square Peg Into a Round Hole

And sure enough, we got a call real quick from the [Mission Control Center], "Hey, how are you going to figure this out?" Because the lunar module people said, "We're not going to have enough lithium hydroxide." So I got the environmental control people together, I got all my storage people together, and since we put out the storage drawing for everything on the cabin, we knew where everything was, and before the flight we always stow the mockup with everything that they had at launch. So I got those guys together, and I sent them down to the mockup, and I said, "You guys, sit on the floor there till you figure that out." And the same thing with the command module, which was right next to it down on the floor. And they went down there, and they worked and worked, and pretty soon, they hollered back, and they said, "We got it." And I said, "Take it on over there [to Mission Control]. I don't even want to bother seeing it. I know you did it right." And they'd come up with the cardboard covers from the flight plan and the duct tape and spare hoses that were in there and put it together, made a square-peg-in-a-round-hole kind of an operation. They wrote up procedures and sent it up. I don't think that took them more than six, seven hours to come up with that, including the procedures, because I said, "Whatever you come up, make sure you have the procedures when you go over to mission control." And they went over there and they showed Deke Slayton and the mission control people, and [Eugene F.] Kranz said, "Send it up." So we were very happy, you know, that that solved that problem. We couldn't solve all the problems. We'd solved some of the others of wires back and forth for power and storage of things and what have you. But that was where the mockups really came into being. They came into use other times, too.


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