Debus Davis Study

The Fleming Committee's final report, 16 June 1961, listed construction of the launch complex as a "crucial item" and recommended that a "contractor immediately be brought aboard to begin design."42 One week later Robert Seamans initiated a joint NASA-Air Force study of "launch requirements, methods, and procedures" for the Fleming Committee's flight program. LOD would concentrate on establishing mission facility criteria; Maj. Gen. Leighton I. Davis's Air Force Missile Test Center would determine support facility criteria.43 In a second letter Seamans stated the study's objectives more precisely. The LOD-AFMTC team was to examine launch site locations, land acquisition requirements, spacecraft and launch vehicle preparation facilities, launch facilities, and launch support facilities.44 The ensuing four-week study produced the Joint Report on Facilities and Resources Required at Launch Site to Support NASA Manned Lunar Landing Program (the Debus-Davis Report). Because of its major recommendation that Merritt Island be the launch site for the Apollo program, the report will be discussed at some length in the next chapter. But the study advanced LOD thinking in regard to the mobile launch concept and must therefore be taken up at this point.

Two of the ground rules governing the Fleming Committee complicated LOD's work on the subsequent Debus-Davis study. One was that intermediate major space missions, such as manned circumlunar flights, were desirable at the earliest possible date to aid in the development of the manned lunar landing program. This envisioned a flight program using two radically different launch vehicles, the C-3 and the Nova, and consequently two distinct launch procedures. The second involved NASA's intention to develop liquid- and solid-propellant rockets on parallel lines. LOD planners would have to calculate costs and requirements for a liquid Saturn C-3, a solid-liquid C-3, a liquid Nova, and a solid-liquid Nova (table 5). The study was further complicated by NASA's decision to examine eight possible launch sites [see Chapter 5-4]. The launch team faced the plight of a dressmaker, called on to outfit a beauty queen a month before she is selected from 50 contestants.45

The men who developed the Apollo launch facilities recall this study as one of the more hectic periods in the program's history. Some planning sessions extended into the early hours of the morning. One participant recalls arriving at his Cocoa Beach motel on a Saturday evening with the Miss Universe contest on TV. To his wife's amazement, his interest in feminine pulchritude gave way to fatigue and he was asleep before the final selection. Work on the study continued right up to the 31 July deadline, and the report was collated on the flight to Washington. Despite some embarrassing errors on the charts prepared for the NASA-Defense Department briefing, the 460-page survey was a real achievement.46

A spirit of competition with the Air Force Missile Test Center spurred on the LOD effort. Air Force personnel caused some friction by offering unsolicited assistance in LOD areas. One such incident involved an Air Force recommendation to build a liquid-hydrogen plant at Cape Canaveral. There was uncertainty at this time as to how long liquid hydrogen could be stored at 20 kelvins (-253 degrees C) and therefore a question as to how much production capacity was needed. LOD officials considered the

Air Force proposal technically infeasible; the proposed plant's electrical power needs would far exceed what the central Florida area could reasonably provide. Instead LOD wanted to purchase liquid hydrogen commercially, and the final report clearly stated that view. Working relations during the study were generally good, but some LOD officials believed that their Air Force counterparts wanted to assume a larger role in the manned lunar landing program.47

Debus appointed Rocco Petrone, Heavy Vehicle Systems Office, to represent LOD on the study's Executive Planning Committee. As a young ordnance officer, Petrone had helped the Director launch the first Redstone in 1953. Impressed by his work, Debus welcomed Petrone's reassignment to the launch team in July 1960. The joint study began Petrone's rise to prominence in the Apollo program. In various positions during the next nine years he would direct the Saturn program, first the facilities planning and construction, later the launch operations. He would acquire influence at the launch center second only to Debus. Tenacity, intellectual honesty, aggressiveness, and ambition were the basic ingredients in Petrone's advancement. A native of Amsterdam, New York, Petrone had been a tackle on the Blanchard-Davis teams at West Point. A determined pursuit of knowledge characterized his tour with the Missile Firing Laboratory in the 1950s. Associates recall that he devoured every piece of Redstone literature. His knowledge of launch operations made him a logical choice for Saturn program management. Petrone could get along well with people and even be charming. He demanded honesty, however, and did not hesitate to brand poor work for what it was. Consequently, some controversy accompanied his success. Described by intimates as basically shy and sensitive, Petrone displayed an aggressive exterior. His drive made workdays of 12-14 hours typical. Perhaps most important, Petrone's high ambition matched the Apollo program's lofty goals.48



(Vehicle characteristics varied during rocket development;

figures represent an approximate average,)

Launch Vehicle

1st stage diameter (meters)

Total length (meters)

Weight at liftoff (kilograms) SA-1-SA-4

Saturn C-3, July 1961 liquid fuel




Saturn C-3, July 1961 solid/liquid fuel




Nova, July 1961 liquid fuel




Nova, July 1961 solid/liquid fuel




Saturn V, Dec. 1961




42. NASA, A Feasible Approach for an Early Manned Lunar Landing (Fleming Committee Report), 16 June 1961, p. 26.

43. Robert C. Seamans, Jr., to Maj. Gen. Leighton I. Davis and Debus, "National Space Program Range Facilities and Resources Planning," 23 June 1961.

44. Seamans to Davis and Debus, "National Space Program Range Facilities and Resources Planning," 30 June 1961.

45. MSFC, LFSEO, Preliminary Concepts of Launch Facilities for Manned Lunar Landing Program, report MIN-LOD-DL-3-61, 1 Aug. 1961, pp. 4-6.

46. NASA-DOD, Joint Report on Facilities and Resources Required at Launch Site to Support NASA Manned Lunar Landing Program (hereafter cited as Debus-Davis Report), 31 July 1961, p. 3; Owens interview, 12 Apr. 1972; Petrone interview, 25 May 1972; Clark interview.

47. Petrone interview; Clark interview.

48. Petrone and Leonard Shapiro, "Guideline for Preparation of NASA Manned Lunar Landing Project Report," 7 July 1961; KSC Biographies, in KSC Archives.

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Debus-Davis Report - Launch Concept

Although the mobile launch concept would not reach fruition for another year, by July 1961 its four major features were clear:

• Vertical assembly and basic checkout of the space vehicle on a mobile launcher-umbilical tower, located within an industrial and environmentally controlled building;

• Transfer of the assembled space vehicle and mobile launcher to the pad for final checkout, fueling, and launching;

• Control of operations from a remote launch control center; and

• Automation of vehicle checkout and launch.

The Debus-Davis Report represented considerable progress since the Study Office's May report. All aspects of the Saturn concept were described in greater detail, particularly the automated checkout. The flexibility that would characterize LC-39 was evident. The basic concept assumed a launch rate of 26 Saturns per year, but LOD plans allowed for additional pads and assembly bays to accommodate higher launch rates and special missions involving the launch of several vehicles in a brief period. Expediency dictated that rail be the only form of transfer considered. There was not enough time to prepare good cost estimates for canal and road. Further, LOD officials were confident from their LC-34 experience that a rail system would work.49

One of the initial mobile concepts, the horizontal transfer, had been eliminated by mid-1961 and was not mentioned in the Debus-Davis study. In its May report the Study Office had noted "certain operational limits of the horizontal transfer which might prohibit good reliability."50 The statement reflected Albert Zeiler's concern that inspectors would damage wires and tubing during checkout of a horizontal vehicle. (During a vertical checkout workers would stand on platforms extending around the rocket. With the vehicle in a horizontal position, it would be difficult to keep workers from damaging the rocket's thin skin.) Maintenance of umbilical connections during a horizontal transfer was another problem. Fear of the stresses generated in lifting a large launch vehicle from a horizontal to a vertical position was the third and decisive consideration leading to the concept's demise. Huntsville engineers were aware of the strain placed on the 21-meter Redstone's joints and outer skin during this operation. The stress on the 70-meter Saturn might well be excessive.51

Mobile concept as described in the Debus-Davis report of July 1961.

The Saturn C-3 (liquid) launch complex plan comprised a vertical assembly building (VAB), a launcher-transporter, an arming area, and launch pad. The VAB would consist of assembly bay areas for each of the stages, with a high bay unit approximately 110 meters in height for final assembly and checkout of the vehicle. Buildings adjacent to the VAB would house the Apollo spacecraft and the launch control center. The launcher-transporter would incorporate three major facilities: a pedestal for the space vehicle, an umbilical tower to service the upper reaches of the space vehicle, and a rail transporter. An arming tower would stand about midway between the assembly building and the pads. The Apollo Saturn would carry a number of hazardous explosives: the launch escape system (the tower on top of the vehicle that lifted the spacecraft away from the launch vehicle in case of an emergency), retrorockets to separate the stages, ullage rockets to force fuel to the bottom of tanks, and the launch vehicle's destruct system. Launch officials wanted to install these solid-propellant items in an area apart from the rest of the operation.52

By July 1961 LOD engineers had fixed the requirements for the mobile launch concept's electrical checkout. These were fourfold: first, the electrical ground support equipment was to be designed so that checkouts could be conducted simultaneously on vehicles in the VAB and on the pad; second, the electrical systems of the vehicle and launcher-transporter would remain intact after checkout in the VAB; third, the launch control center would be able to launch rockets at a distant pad and check vehicles in the nearby VAB; and fourth, there would be a minimum of connecting cables between the launch pads and the control center because of the distances involved. The plan required the use of two digital computers, one located on the launcher-transporter and the other in the launch control center. The former would be used for checkout of the launch vehicle both at the VAB and on the pad. The performance of the computer on the launcher-transporter would be remotely controlled by the computer in the launch control center. Two firing rooms were necessary - one for control of checkout procedures in the VAB and the other for launch pad operations.53

The significance of the initial mobile launch studies lay more in the timing than in the content. LOD officials would not agree on a final concept for another year. By mid-1961, however, they were confident that some form of vertical transfer would work. Debus's initiative in February 1961 provided LOD time to examine the concept and make some reasonable judgments. When the Kennedy administration announced the lunar landing program in May 1961, LOD officials had a suitable launch concept in mind. Without the three months gained by the February decision, it is doubtful that LOD would have ventured on a new launch concept. The Apollo facilities might well have resembled a larger LC-37.54

49. Debus-Davis Report, passim; Owens interview, 12 Apr. 1972.

50. MSFC, Interim Report on Future Saturn Launch, p. 16.

51. Zeiler interview, 11 July 1972; von Tiesenhausen interview, 29 Mar. 1972.

52. Debus-Davis Report, pp. B-1 through B-7.

54. The authors are indebted to Rocco Petrone for this idea: interview of 25 May 1972 and remarks delivered by Petrone to Apollo History Workshop, NASA Hq., 19-21 May 1971.

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