Apollos First Contract

Chilton's visit to the IL was fortuitous, for one month later, in May 1961, President Kennedy made his famous speech. By igniting the race to the moon, Kennedy unknowingly raised the stakes for what had been an obscure, preliminary IL study. The IL engineers completed their analysis a month later. It would be feasible, they showed, to take the existing Polaris system, modify it for a moon flight, and put it quickly into production. Yet the new system had one major difference: it would have to be operated by a human being. Chilton recalled that integrating an astronaut into these automated control systems presented ''one of the biggest, toughest problems we had.''30 What would the person in the loop do?

Now the IL engineers had to face the astronaut's role for real, and actually build a system. Things really got going in the summer of 1961. Ralph Ragan, who had been director of the Polaris program, was called back from his summer vacation to work on a proposal for Apollo. How would you do this? How much would it cost? The IL proposed an ambitious project, ranging from basic research in guidance methods to actually building flight hardware.

David ''Davey'' Hoag, another of the IL's guidance gurus, had been technical director on Polaris and became program director on Apollo. Hoag recalled NASA's clear instructions: ''Anything that the crew could do, you should have the crew do it and not have this system automated to the extent that it would do something that the crew could do. So if the crew could do it, then you weren't supposed to. This was the early philosophy and that did color the way we've made decisions.''31

IL engineers interpreted the requirement in their scientific mode, linking it to the question of accuracy. Just to put a probe on the moon, in any random location, would not require a human operator. Indeed, an unmanned lunar lander, called Surveyor, was already in development and would precede Apollo to the moon. Landing with pinpoint accuracy, however, in some predetermined spot, was a difficult problem that challenged the engineers and called for human intervention. The IL translated NASA's requirement for active human involvement into a specification for their accurate guidance. ''The observation of star occultations by the moon and earth,'' ran the IL's first progress report in 1961, ''is an extremely accurate measurement which can best be made by a human.''32

The engineers saw the astronauts as calibrators of their delicate inertial equipment; were such calibration not required, a fully automated trip might be possible. The gyroscopes that held the inertial platform stable tended to drift and required periodic reca-libration (inertial navigation is essentially a very fancy form of dead reckoning). It was basically the Mars navigation scheme, which had been completely automatic, adapted to a human operator. For a lunar landing, the proposal indicated the astronauts would be taking landmark sightings for navigation, but that the computer would control the precise landing.

To this scheme, IL engineers added the characteristics of their Mars computer: high reliability, low power consumption, reasonably high speed, versatility, and direct control of the guidance system through hardware interfaces. They proposed a computer that varied the speed of its processing to save power, another idea from the Mars probe project. In addition to controlling midcourse guidance, the computer would direct most of the flight including lunar landing, lunar takeoff, orbiting, reentry, and rendezvous. Interestingly, they also proposed that the Apollo computer would control ''launch vehicle guidance''—it would fly the rocket off the pad, the very task that von Braun had rejected for human control (indeed the final configuration did allow some manual or automatic steering during the later boost phase if the main computer in the Saturn V failed).

IL called the system to be built ''AGE'' for Apollo guidance equipment, and proposed building two different generations. The first would be quickly put together from off-the-shelf components and would fly on test missions and help study performance for later optimizing. These AGE I models would be prototypes built in parallel with a research program intended to advance the state of the art in components and techniques.33 AGE II would then be built for lunar missions, optimized for weight, power, and reliability (later these became known as Block I and Block II).

The first functional AGE I was to be delivered to NASA by July 1963 for a flight that October. The final model II hardware would be delivered in 1964 for flights that year. NASA was hoping to fly within two or three years, in hindsight an impossibly optimistic schedule. Still the schedule's basic form did outline how Apollo would proceed. The IL would seek industrial support for any production runs beyond the prototype stage. The projected cost of the IL project was $4.375 million, estimated to support two hundred people by the end of six months, and three hundred steady-state after one year.34 From 1962 on, Apollo constituted one-third to one-half of all IL funding. By 1969 the lab would spend upwards of $100 million;Apollo would be twice as large as any other IL project.35

Years later, this vague, hurried proposal would be blamed as the program exceeded its budget and had trouble meeting schedules. There was never any clear performance requirement for the inertial system (how accurate did the system need to be?), it simply evolved as the project developed (violating a basic tenet of systems engineering). ''Nobody ever said you have got to be so accurate on entry or so accurate on launch into earth orbit,'' John Miller said, ''A great deal of it was judgment and much of this judgment ended up with me.''36 Trageser similarly felt the system probably was more accurate than necessary, but in the absence of a compelling specification, even that was difficult to confirm.37 What did accuracy even mean when landing on the moon—hitting a set of coordinates, or landing close to a feature of interest? Such questions would dog the program.

The IL submitted its proposal on August 4, 1961. Within days it was awarded the contract to develop the guidance and navigation system for Apollo, the first of the entire project. Chilton modeled the Apollo contract—wherein MIT had the design responsibility and the separate pieces were parceled out to companies for production—

on the way the navy had managed the Polaris project.38 Of the prime contracts on Apollo, it was the only one given to a university, awarded with no competitive bidding. The proposals for the Apollo spacecraft themselves were not even submitted to NASA until months later, in October 1961.39 No technical sideshow, NASA recognized that the guidance system would be central to Apollo's success.

Such an early award of the guidance contract gave the IL engineers a head start, by as much as a year in comparison with some of the other major subsystems. ''I think Bob Chilton was really the one who saw that the contract was let early,'' remembered Aaron Cohen, who would later manage the program for NASA. ''He had the foresight'' to recognize that the guidance system was the most complex of the Apollo subsys-tems.40 Chilton himself pointed upward for the early impetus: ''Bob Gilruth said, 'Go ahead,' and I started writing sole-source justifications and stuff like that, and MIT got this overall job as an extension [of the earlier studies] ...we expanded the contract, but without any competition. So it was a natural controversy.''41

Indeed, a clamor arose from industrial contractors. If a competition had been held, it might have attracted a dozen or so bidders. One engineer from G.E. expressed his ''keen disappointment and surprise'' that the contract was given to MIT with no com-petition.42 Guidance contractors said they had been led to expect a call for proposals by NASA, and were ''seriously disturbed'' by the choice of a nonprofit organization in a sole-source contract with no competitive bidding. Company presidents wrote to their representatives in Congress who wrote to President Kennedy of this ''economically unsound decision of NASA.'' Yet the award was legal, so the challenges went nowhere. NASA simply responded that it was a ''very difficult problem and one that required and extremely high level of competence and imagination'' on the part of the contractor, on a tight schedule.43

A famous anecdote captures some of the factors that led to the sole-source contract, and the Apollo computer's implications for the professional identity of its users. Doc Draper proposed to NASA Administrator James Webb that at least one of the Apollo astronauts be scientifically trained, arguing it would be easier to train a scientist to perform a pilot's function than vice versa. Draper volunteered himself to go along and ensure the system would work. ''I fully realize my limitations as a test pilot,'' he wrote to Robert Seamans, his protege and now NASA's top technical manager, ''but I feel my qualifications in science and engineering fields should be considered as worthy background for a crew member'' to run the equipment. Seamans gracefully wrote back to his former mentor that he would forward the request to the appropriate authorities.44 Participants often retell the story, in various forms, of Draper volunteering to go to the moon;it serves as a kind of origin story for the Apollo guidance project. They argue that the IL was simply the obvious place to build the Apollo computer. But others, particularly in industry, were equally or more familiar with inertial guidance, digital computing, and flight controls. Draper had many personal connections within NASA—

Seamans and an old relationship with Webb. Seamans wanted to see some Apollo contracts in New England and announced the guidance contract early, so when they went out for bids on the prime contracts for the spacecraft itself, it would be clear that they did not include guidance.45 And, of course, the president was from the same state as the IL.

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