Ken Mattingly makes notes in his flight checklist while undergoing spacesuit pressure checks for the Countdown Demonstration Test.

Meeting Astronaut Ken Mattingly – The Spirit and Triumph of Apollo 13

Today, I met Apollo and Space Shuttle astronaut Ken Mattingly and listen to his lecture The Spirit and Triumph of Apollo 13.  The significance of the date is not lost on me, today is April 12.  On this day in 1961, Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space.  On this day In 1981, the first Space Shuttle mission is launched.  On This day in 1970, Apollo 13 is in space.

Ken Mattingly and Nick Cook
Ken Mattingly and Nick Cook

A quick summary.  Ken Mattingly’s first assignment was the Command Module Pilot on Apollo 13.  However three days prior to launch, he was replaced with Jack Swigert from the back up crew as it was feared he had been exposed to measles shortly before.  Never having contracted measles before, flight surgeons thought the measles would be at the worst when he would he have been solo orbiting the moon while Jim Lovell and Fred Haise would have been on the lunar surface. Having been removed from the mission, Mattingly missed the resulting oxygen tank explosion, near crippling the spacecraft, but was able to help with the successful safe return of the astronauts.

On Apollo 16, he was the Command Module Pilot spending 126 hours and 64 revolutions in lunar orbit making him one of only 24 people to have flown to the moon.  During the return journey, he completed an EVA spacewalk to retrieve film and data packages from the science bay on the service module.  It was during this EVA that the famous wedding ring story emerges.  He was Commander of STS-4 on Space Shuttle Columbia completing the final orbital test flight for the Space Shuttle and finally on STS-51-C on Space Shuttle Discovery deploying a classified payload.

Rear Admiral Ken Mattingly, Apollo 16, STS-4, STS-51-C
Rear Admiral Ken Mattingly, Apollo 16, STS-4, STS-51-C

Starting with a photo with Ken, I walk in to shake his hand.  Without an ounce of shame, I stand there grinning like some celebrity space stalker (I’m not – for reference).  Apollo astronaut events are rare, Ken Mattingly at an event is even rarer.   Into the lecture theatre and I’ve got a cracking seat on the second row.  In he walks to a rapturous standing and long applause.  TK (as he prefers to be known) Mattingly has asked for the lights to remain on, it feels as if he’s looking straight at me – perhaps it’s that celebrity space stalker look I’ve got, either way its hypnotic.  I’ve done my best to record the transcript as below.

The Russians are quite pragmatic people and for a lot of reasons, they had some fairly large rockets. So they built this satellite to go on their rockets. So one day we woke up to the sound of this beeping from Sputnik and it scared the living daylights out of people living in the United States.  The Russians had put a satellite in orbit right over our heads, looking down at us, they can throw things at us… and the country was terrified.  So what do you do as a way of recovering. Well, we’re talking about putting a man in space, so we start building the Mercury system to do that.  But before we got there, there was a Russian orbiting near us and the panic was palpable.  President Kennedy was given a set of choices on what to do and how to do it, I don’t know what story they gave but it was on how to outstrip the Russians who appeared to have a head a start on us, by sending people to the moon and returning them to Earth by the end of the decade.  That gave ’em nine years and we had just put a human in orbit barely.

Russian Space Program Propaganda
Russian Space Program Propaganda

So the next nine years were total chaos, people working 24/7, the largest peacetime program that has ever been put together and they just recruited people.  The good thing is, is that people thought this was kind of cool.  So we were able to recruit people from all over the country, people were building parts for us, and we designed these things but it was a long and arduous product.  The most visible is the rocket, Saturn V, it weighs about 7 million pounds when you light the fire.  It’s about 360 feet tall and the only thing that is going to go anywhere is the little piece at the top with the lunar module which docks with the Command Service Module.  The Command Module is where people go and its about 12 feet in diameter. You go put 3 people in pressurized space suits and all the gear they need to go land and survive on the moon.  Go look in a museum to see a Command Module, it doesn’t look that small because its empty.  Let me tell you, you really get to know each other, two weeks in that little bathtub.

The world’s largest rockets engines, 5 of them at the bottom, creating a total amount of thrust of 7 1/2 million pounds. That’s not much more thrust than it weighs, so when a Saturn V takes off, it just barely comes up.  You can see a flame on a rocket go off, see the rocket start to move, birds flying off and then there’s a  noticeable time delay and all of a sudden your whole body is shaking and it’s the loudest sound you’ve ever heard, you feel it more than you can hear it, it’s a spectacular thing.  So that little sucker goes up, it takes you into Earth orbit, where you fly around the Earth for lap and a half, about 2 1/2 hours flight time where you check out all the systems and you light the upper stage one more time and it accelerates you out of Earth orbit on a trajectory that takes you to the moon.  The moon is about 220,000 miles away.  So it’s a long trip, speed doesn’t mean an awful lot.  What I want to do is tell you how we got this little moon critter to work and what its like.

Ken Mattingly during his talk on The Triumph and Spirit of Apollo 13.
Ken Mattingly during his talk on The Triumph and Spirit of Apollo 13.

When you get to fly in this thing, its kind of interesting, people have worked really hard to put this thing together.  When it takes off, its huge and shaking but inside its much more than that.  You hang on and as Frank Borman said, he thought he was the commander, when he lifted off and took him about 1 second to realise he wasn’t in charge of anything (audience laughs). When the second stage starts its like they turned on an electric motor, because it has hydrogen and oxygen as propellants and the nature of that is chemistry is that its smooth, you feel the thrust and feel the acceleration but there’s no shaking, it just kind of goes along.  You can see the indications on instrument panel, that changes, that’s a good sign.  When it stoops and that third stage takes over, its got just one engine and it just puts you in orbit.  The ground goes through and check out all the system in the vehicle, all the telemetry, everything has to be done by a check list.  There are mission rules that state you can’t go unless you have filled in all these squares, so they take time.

Charlie Duke, Ken Mattingly, and John Young pose in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building during the second rollout of Apollo 16
Charlie Duke, Ken Mattingly, and John Young pose in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building during the second rollout of Apollo 16

I remember I was sitting in the centre seat on launch, that was my position and I was the one that was supposed to get out of the couch and float over and do some reconfiguration and Id heard about people getting sick in space, and I thought, oh man, what if the first thing I do is throw up?  This is not a good start.  So I float out of the couch and all of a sudden its ‘I’ve been here forever, its perfect!’  It’s easy to go floating around get where you want to go.  I thought if I throw something will I miss ‘cos I’m compensating for gravity.  No, it takes one shot and by golly it goes straight.  You can have a ball, entertain  yourself for days just throwing.

So we went off and did our chores and were waiting for some ground results so had a chance to go over one of the side windows and look out.  As soon as I looked out, I said this going to the moon is really neat, I want to go there but I want to come back and see the Earth.  Its beautiful, its breathtaking.  Every time you go around you get to see a sunset and a sunrise, brilliant colours of red and purple.  You can see thunderstorms, as an aviator if you see a thunderstorm, you go the other way.  When you fly over in orbit, you think that’s cute, its like lights on a  Christmas tree, they go, sparkle, sparkle, sparkle.  When you fly over places like Australia and you look out over the plains, it was night-time and there was something that looked like a fire.  So you call the ground and ask where are we and what is that.  That’s a bunch of tribes out in the desert surviving.  We’re up here floating around and they’re down there surviving next to a fire.  Crazy.

Earth from Apollo 16
Earth from Apollo 16

You get to Africa, see the tops of clouds and there’s lightning. You’ll See a thunderstorm go off here and it triggers off another one and sets off a chain that can go for a thousand miles. So we get back to work and head off an a trajectory for the moon.  We dock with the lunar module and we’re on our way.  Put the spacecraft into an orientation so that the sun will shine on it and rotate it, our thermal control systems couldn’t handle hot spots so we would barbecue the spacecraft by having us rotate and spread the heat.  So now you spend 2 and a 1/2 days, the novelty of floating with somebody in your face all the time, but that’s what the transit is like.

The intention is that when you get to the moon, you will fire your engine again to slow down.  If you don’t slow down, you’ll come around in a big loop and go back to Earth.  If you want to orbit the moon, you have to slow down to stay in orbit and you do that on the backside of the moon.  For the landing, the lunar crew will then separate, land, come back up and rendezvous with the Command Service Module, then jettison that, fire your engine again and head for home.  Piece of cake, very simple.

Ken Mattingly makes notes in his flight checklist while undergoing spacesuit pressure checks for the Countdown Demonstration Test.
Ken Mattingly makes notes in his flight checklist while undergoing spacesuit pressure checks for the Countdown Demonstration Test.

We flew a number of these missions and people talk about it a tremendous success record, Apollo 13 was a failure.  I’m gonna tell you today, two things: Apollo 13 was not a failure, it was the only example of why we succeeded.  I’m gonna tell you why they came home, because if it wasn’t for those techniques, we wouldn’t have made it.  It’s not done by astronauts, we were the passengers who get to look out the window, we get the good deal.  All that’s down to people like you to make it happen.  How did we get so we could do this thing?

The Command Service Module Casper in orbit around the Moon. Image credit: NASA
The Command Service Module Casper in orbit around the Moon. Image credit: NASA

Some people built the spacecraft, some built the rockets, there are other organisation that worry about how to recover people, its spread all over.  It’s a countrywide endeavour that includes everybody.  What you see when you watch television is generally a scene of Mission Control Centre, there a huge engineering team that has built, designed and tested these things.  There are contractor plants all over the country that support that.  There are periods when you get bored of floating around but there are moments that capture your attention, they don’t last long, but they are indelible, you’ll never forget them. So we started out with Apollo 13, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and me were supposed to be the crew that was going to take 13.

Couple of weeks before launch, through a crazy chain of events, we had one last weekend where we could go home to Texas and we came back to the cape.  Somebody picked up, went to a picnic with a family and when I got back to the cape I got phone call that one of the kids at the picnic had come down with the measles. The doctors said if you’ve been exposed to the measles, you’re immune, don’t worry about it.  After all, what adult hasn’t been exposed to the measles…….  How can you get through life not being exposed to measles.  So they said we’ll take your blood and see if you’re showing any signs of getting sick. So twice a day you in and give blood, I was afraid that if they launched me I was gonna be anaemic and not have any blood.  Finally a couple of days before flight, they couldn’t take the pressure and they said we just can’t take a chance, if you get sick it’ll be while you’re solo around the moon.

The original Apollo 13 crew of Lovell, Mattingly, Haise.
The original Apollo 13 crew of Lovell, Mattingly, Haise.

So, how many of you have seen Apollo 13 (the film)?  Some of you like me probably think Gary Sinise is a really good actor.  Let me tell you, his portrayal of someone feeling sorry for themselves is pure amateur.  I’d have gotten an Oscar in any film, I felt sorry for myself 24 hours a day.  Well there wasn’t any place for me in the Control Centre so I went and sat on the floor between the Flight Director and CapCom.  I sat there, no one asked me anything, who are and what are you doing here.  Things were going along just fine and Jack Swigert my replacement, I had done my very best to cheat him out of any simulator time.

One of the things that Freddo (Haise) had done, he wrote in his checklist to go into the Lunar Module with the TV camera and take pictures for the purpose of documenting the condition of the lunar module, give a tour so people in the control centre can see what we’re doing.  I thought that while this plays, I’ll go in the VIP lounge behind the control centre. There was only one other person in there.  He said to me you look like you need a beer, I said I sure do.  So he goes off to fetch and I’m sitting there waiting and all of a sudden I hear this voice that says “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Apollo 13 Service Module after separation showing the damage from the oxygen tank explosion.
Apollo 13 Service Module after separation showing the damage from the oxygen tank explosion.

And the whole world changed.  From that instant on, the magic power that NASA had built, and its contractors involved and this whole team coalesced in a matter of minutes.  They went to their stations in the buildings, you could have looked in the middle of the night and there are heads in every office, lights are on and we hadn’t even made up an emergency drill to cover this.  It was announced on the radio that there was a problem and people just came to work and many of them didn’t go home for the next four to five days.

The Control Centre was made up of a group of consoles.  We divided the spacecraft up into its different constituent parts, systems, communications, propulsion, some is responsible for environmental controls, all of those things that are necessary for the spaceflight to work.  A console for each one – a console chief.  The Flight Director is the coach that orchestrates all this and they work in shifts so we can run around the clock.  Generally there are three shifts and it would be handled from one group to the next. When the accident occurred, they had trained and said don’t ever be fooled by false instrumentation, it can lead to do some really bad things.

mattingly-apollo-13

The first thought process was to look through all the instrumentation, is there something going on.  The console operator from environmental systems told the Flight Director “I think this is an instrumentation problem.”  Each of these console operators has a back room, staffed with contractors and engineering people because there’s too much data for one person.  The Flight Director turned round and said when was the last time instrumentation made a cloud of stuff that was coming out the side.

That took the wind out of everybody’s sail and the last chance for a simple solution. At that point we did a shift hand over to Glynn Lunney and his team from Gene Kranz’s team.  They decided to break into two teams.  Glynn would come on and handle the real-time situation step by step and the make safe while Gene would look at assumptions if the spacecraft was made safe.  They split their forces and started working the problem.  One of the most amazing pieces of leadership I have ever watched was Glynn Lunney, we’ve just had this unthinkable catastrophe, when you lose electrical power in that CSM, you are out of everything.  We had two batteries in there, little tiny batteries and used only for re-entry, last about an hour just flying the command module to give you electricity while you are coming through the atmosphere.

Glynn Lunney, seated nearest camera.
Glynn Lunney, seated nearest camera.

There was pandemonium and confusion, Glynn Lunney walks in and started at one end of the console and everybody got a specific task and in a few minutes had covered the entire control system, issued requests for specific information from specific people.  Because we had done so many simulations, some so bizarre that people criticised us because they said they would never happen, our future right now depended on those simulation we were criticised for.  We had never created this system, this problem, but in solving other unrealistic challenging problems we had built a toolkit of things you can patch together to get you home.

While we were sorting that out, somebody remembered we had a simulation where we had to evacuate the Command Module, called the LM lifeboat.  Turns out out that Fred Haise was already doing it, he’d started activating the Lunar Module because the CSM was going to die.  within an hour, he’d gotten the LM powered up and Jack was able to switch of the last switch in Command Module to save its re-entry batteries and they all moved into the “Lunar Motel.”  Now there’s three people in a place that hardly holds two.  That’s OK because there’s no electricity so the extra bodies create warmth.  The command module within hours, you could see frost all over the inside of the cabin.  All the electronics behind those panels are below freezing.

Ken Mattingly - The Spirit and Triumph of Apollo 13 - April 12 2014
Ken Mattingly – The Spirit and Triumph of Apollo 13

We didn’t qualify those things for that, they were supposed to be in a pressurised environment where we control the atmosphere. Gene Kranz and all his other system guys are trying to figure out what to do.  The first question is how to get home.  When you lose power in the service module, its the engine that’s supposed to put you in lunar orbit and its the one that burns you out.  Well, that’s gone, we can’t use any of that or the systems in the service module.

Somebody said we can turn this vehicle around, burn all the fuel in the lunar module and that’s just enough for what we call a direct return.  Takes all the propellant you can get your hands on and entirely intolerant of any error.  And it lands who knows where, but its on the planet.  That didn’t take a great deal of discussion.  We know we don’t have enough consumables to go all the way round the moon with all this stuff running but surely there’s a way we can patch together life support and just go around the moon. They would then shut down all the computers and go around the moon.

Then we got worried about alignment so that they could come home after they came round the moon.  They came up with a low-cost, low propellant way of getting back home except it put them landing in the Atlantic ocean and our recovery forces were in the Pacific.  So, they’re making progress in going to the right planet.  And so they made a maneuver that used all their propellant they had left that out them into the Pacific ocean, then it was lights out.  Went into survival mode, miserably cold, nothing works.  the guys on the ground were running round the clock mission planning meetings.  Each of these control systems and contractors on the phone, pick up the phone to any contractor that worked for the company for NASA, call and probably get the president of that company. Everybody was there.

Ken Mattingly (red stripe) during his EVA on Apollo 16.
Ken Mattingly (red stripe) during his EVA on Apollo 16.

One of the big problems we had on coming home was we had no data on the inertial platform that was used for stabilising the spacecraft, it was designed to work at a specific temperature.  Now its below freezing.  Will it work, should we count on it, what’ll we do?  We got a phone call from one of the contractors, it turns out this platform was built in the northern part of the US and they’d had a big ice storm and shut the plant down, told everybody to get home before the roads clogged.  This young technician was supposed to take this platform from one building to another building, when they said everybody go home, he parked his wagon and went home.

He came back after the weather cleared and remembered he’d left it in the back of the wagon.  So he went and set it on the table where he was supposed to take it and left. They asked him, weren’t you worried?  He said, yeah but I didn’t wanna tell ’em what I’d done but I did go back and ask the testers if they had used it.  They said yes, why?  Was there anything unusual about it?  They said no.  He said that’s OK I can sleep now.  That guy when he heard about the problem, he went and told his boss, who went and told his boss.  We had one data point that told us it was probably going to work.  You can’t believe what a  sense of relief it was to get that. You have to imagine the courage it took to go tell your boss, you’ve done something that dumb and covered it up.

Apollo 13 Successful Failure
Apollo 13 Successful Failure

But it was that kind of communication that brought ’em home and that integrity – don’t ever blow smoke on any of your friends, we’re in this together. Perseverance under pressure and you know how the outcome came.  It is a tremendous story.  So this team that did it, the average age of the people in the control centre was mid twenties.  All the codgers, leaders were 30 or more. Sometimes the social interactions were not entirely…smooth.  There were many arguments but everybody in that program was dedicated to success and that’s why Apollo 13 came back.  That’s why I got to go…and I’ve stopped feeling sorry about missing 13.  Flying to the moon is cool.

Apollo 16 Mission Patch
Apollo 16 Mission Patch

TK Mattingly is ready to answer questions after another standing thunderous applause.  He’s had the audience hooked, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a lecture theatre so quiet and with the lights on seemingly making it more personal.


A few questions from the audience are answered…

We learn that you never tire looking at the Earth, its beautiful.  The moon is not beautiful. Seeing the Earth rise over the moon is…erotic, beautiful.  But the craters, they all look the same.  You finally get to see where you can see some differences.  But as a place to go for a summer weekend, I’d go to California. We learn its very a comfortable ride on the Shuttle compared to the Saturn V, it doesn’t slam you into the back of the seat.  One of them is described as sheer terror.

Ken Mattingly (right) in the Command Module
Ken Mattingly (right) in the Command Module

Impressions of Chris Kraft.  Chris Kraft, one of the original members of the Space Task Group that started back with Mercury and started developing all the manned space flight activities.  Started out as an electrical engineer and through a chain of events became in charge of flight operations and those ground team that I was describing to you earlier was his baby, his solution.  It came from Mercury where they had flown these missions, they didn’t know what to expect.  They had a case on John Glen’s flight where they couldn’t tell from the instrumentation whether the heat shield had fallen off or not and it was a terrifying thought.  Chris enforced discipline and promised himself they would never again be caught without knowing what to do.  He set up a course of events that is the signature of flight operations in the NASA arena.  Engineers will talk to you all day about how things are supposed to work, but what happens when it doesn’t work. Everyone of those people on console had a big book of what if procedures and where they could share with each other.  Chris was the guy that created the Flight Control concept, the positions and the techniques.  Flight Controller is a very stressful job, its not for everybody.

Chris Kraft seated at centre.
Chris Kraft seated at centre.

Gimbal Engine Problem.  While in lunar orbit on the far side of the moon, he had to contemplate a near abort when there was a problem with gimbal angles on set of actuators that controlled the engine bell.  Thanked god he had a period of boredom before flight, had taken all the mission rules and written them down,  He called John and told them the gimbal test had failed, I had so much confidence in the hardware I was convinced I had done something wrong.  How many times can you rethink what you had done, what could I have done, I was going crazy.  The only people I could talk to were John and Charlie….they weren’t very sympathetic.  In fact that’s an understatement.  Turns out that there was problem with the electrical cable and pins were not connecting properly.

What’s you favorite space food?………(silence)  In Space, your taste for food actually changes, you lose the sensitivity, it’s just food, it’s not something you look forward to.

Ken Mattingly checks his wristwatch during suit-up for launch
Ken Mattingly checks his wristwatch during suit-up for launch

Did the ‘Spam in a can’ accusation ever bother you or your colleagues?  Aviators are an unusual community, their own vernacular and customs.  Most of us wanted to be in flight testing.  The people, that were the ‘real test pilots’ would sit around and make fun of people who were in the space program and call them ‘spam in a can.’  They’d have nothing to fly, what good are they. That attitude prevailed for quite a while.  Some of them had learned that pulling G’s was a lot of fun, flying zero G is even more fun.

Fantastically organised by the team at www.space-lectures.com, I’m in the queue for him waiting to sign his autograph on my print, already excited at the thought of the next lecture.  Another great day.

You can read about the Alan Bean event I attended previously here.

Nick Cook

Amateur astronomer, space, history, nerd, extreme dog walker, cat slave, doorstep daytripper, severe tinnitus sufferer. 13.7 billion years in the making - not that much better for it. Knows more about swords than is probably healthy for a man.

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