How I Became Apollo’s Spacecraft Caution and Warning Engineer
Jerry Woodfill: The Apollo Program Spacecraft Warning System Engineer
Jerry Woodfill’s role in the American Lunar Landing Program was unique in the sense that he, alone, held the position and responsibility of Apollo Spacecraft Warning System Engineer. This job evolved by virtue of necessity, management decisions, and employee opportunities resulting in transfers out of NASA or to other NASA groups. Initially, Jerry’s assignment was simply the project engineer for Apollo’s switches, gauges, and display and control panels. However, included was the command ship’s warning system. At the onset (pre-1966), another engineer was responsible for the lander’s warning system.
As a result of a reassignment of NASA employees to the command module and lunar module’s display and control hardware, Jerry lost that responsibility and was left with simply the Apollo mother-ship’s caution and warning system. Then, the lander’s warning system engineer chose to leave NASA for a better paying job with a private aerospace company. This led to Jerry receiving the lander’s caution and warning system so that he, in all of NASA, was the responsible project engineer/manager for the entire assemblage of Apollo Spacecraft warning system hardware.
Because the mother-ship was in its early engineering stages (Block One), Jerry became responsible for fixing, redesigning, and analyzing warning system performance during testing and early flights. Likewise, he served in this role with regard to the lander’s alarm system. While there were many astronauts, flight controllers, and engineers dealing with countless Apollo issues, only one engineer had the Apollo Spacecraft Caution and Warning leadership, management, and technical responsibility throughout the program’s early and ensuing years.
The task became especially formidable subsequent to the tragic Apollo One fire, January 27th, 1967. The lander’s alarm system needed thorough review and re-design to assure post Apollo One systems were safely upgraded to avoid just the kind of failure which killed the Apollo One crew. Apollo spacecraft failure was not an option. To this end, Jerry became the chief manager/design lead for Apollo warning system engineering changes. These assured astronauts would have alerts for potential failures both in space and in ground testing.
Because of the uniqueness of Jerry’s experience, program managers, astronauts, flight controllers and system engineers regularly consulted Jerry about the warning system’s workings. This required Woodfill’s review and editing of system schematics and crew procedures. Failure criteria were Jerry’s responsibility. So that he authored astronaut instructions for their in-flight operational “check-list”. These warning system procedures served the crew well in the event of spacecraft failures. Though Jerry never achieved supervisory-management status in the NASA organization, he always remained a respected expert on spacecraft malfunctions and corrective actions. This led to being regularly consulted on Moon missions as the “expert” on spacecraft failures. Predictably, he monitored Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 at his station adjacent to Apollo Mission Control in the engineering evaluation room. On both missions, he was consulted from his station supporting Mission Control, the Apollo Mission Evaluation Room (MER) of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC). For this effort, he shared in the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team. Indeed, his warning system was the first alert of the explosion that might have taken the astronauts' lives in April of 1970.
At the conclusion of the Apollo Moon program, Jerry was assigned the role of authoring the Apollo Experience Report dealing with the Eagle’s Caution and Warning System. Based on his knowledge and experience with its history, design, operation, and management, Jerry captured the exciting story of designing a warning system to protect the Apollo astronauts. (NASA Technical Note: TN D-6845, June 1972, LUNAR MODULE CAUTION AND WARNING SYSTEM CHARACTERISTICS AND NUISANCE ALARMS)