Space Pioneers Spring Banquet: Lessons from the Past and Advice for the Future
The Missile, Space, and Range Pioneers, based in Space Coast, Florida, was founded in 1966 by employees and contractors working at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. This spring’s banquet featured an Apollo 11 50th anniversary panel made up of three Cape legends: Lee Solid, John Tribe, and Bob Sieck. These people are examples of who we refer to when we talk generally about genius “rocket scientists” of the space program! The panel was moderated by spaceflight communicator and journalist Jim Banke, who was recently honored with a place on KSC’s Chroniclers Wall.
Lee Solid became an aerospace engineer in 1959, arriving at the Cape in 1960, even before Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961. His specialty of cryogenic rocket engines led him to working on the Saturn V rocket, including the five massive F1 engines powering the first stage, “the big boys,” as he refers to them. Solid also had a managerial role, running the crews who worked on the Saturn, and went on to work other projects like the Shuttle at the executive level with Rockwell and Boeing. When Apollo 11 launched, he was in Firing Room 4 of the Launch Control Center, just 5km (3 mi) from the launchpad.
John Tribe worked on hypergolic rocket engines during the Apollo program, including the CSM’s SPS engine, the LM’s two major engines, and thrusters up and down the Saturn V stack. He jokes that Solid’s engines only had to work for minutes, while his had to work all the way to the Moon and back! After Apollo 17, he transferred to the Shuttle program, arriving in the office while it was just starting, working on Shuttle engines like the hypergolic OMS pods and RCS thrusters. Tribe would later become Chief Engineer of the Orbiter for Boeing. For the launch of Apollo 11, he watched with the automated checkout equipment (ACE) crews inside the O&C at Kennedy Space Center. He remembers watching the launch on a television set while the building was shaking around him.
Bob Sieck arrived in Space Coast in 1964 as a spacecraft systems engineer for the Apollo program. As part of the project engineering office, he was a test conductor for the CSM. Sieck also transferred to the Shuttle program after Apollo, rising through the ranks and becoming one of the most well-respected Launch Directors in the field. Sieck directed over 50 Shuttle launches, and more than one of his successors in the Firing Room claim that he taught them everything they know. Today, Sieck is a consultant for various aerospace firms operating in Space Coast. He watched Apollo 11’s launch with his family in Titusville, across the Indian River, since he was assigned to Apollo 12 at the time. He recalls that the sound of the rocket was almost equalled by the cheers of the spectators.
The panelists recount their days working on Apollo with such clarity and passion, the 50 years between then and now seem to shrink, and in this room, Apollo is no longer the past, but a very real project these people were dedicated to. One aspect they touch upon is the personal dedication that almost all who worked in Apollo felt. Bob Sieck remembers that they worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week; and most remarkably, they were happy to put in those hours. “It wasn’t work. It was fun,” Sieck recalls. He makes clear, though, that “there was no time to hang around the water cooler.”
Lee Solid references this personal dedication also, citing the largest motivating force as the desire to not make mistakes, along with the “end of the decade” deadline. Bob Sieck uses the Apollo 13 explosion to point out that the strong avoidance of mistakes would lead to cultural changes within the organization after a serious error. He straightforwardly states that Apollo 13 was KSC’s responsibility, i.e. KSC is where the mistakes were made, which was quickly determined by revisiting the decision-making chain. These processes and decisions were soon evaluated and changed to prevent that sort of accident from happening again. He stresses the “devils in the details.” The details cannot be examined enough. Sieck and John Tribe also observe that in Apollo, they learned by mistake.
In general, I have observed that the desire for excellence is a character trait of those who succeeded in Apollo. There was a conscious and proactive desire not to be the one who made a mistake; and if a mistake happened, a solution was developed and preventative measures were implemented almost immediately. There was no room for error, and those who weren’t cut out didn’t stay in their position long.
Compared to other endeavors, Apollo thrived in this type of culture; but personal dedication is not the panacea. Lee Solid makes the important point that NASA’s budget in those days was virtually unlimited. Yes, NASA’s budget was just a mere 4% of the federal budget at its height during Apollo, but even this was a generous amount given to accomplish the goal of landing people on the Moon by 1970. Solid remembers that when money was requested, it was allocated without delay. The budget allowed great efficiency and thoroughness.
John Tribe shares a unique anecdote on one specific accident. Apollo had a particular issue with reading data, since all components required some sort of physical connection to determine their status in the 1960s. On the launchpad, for instance, ground instrumentation was needed to know the condition of certain hardware dozens of meters above them. While Apollo 16’s Saturn V was being readied for launch, a bladder in the vehicle was burst, causing a one-month delay. Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke had come down with an illness around the original launch date, and the postponement allowed him to recover and fly the mission a month later. When Duke was the Pioneers guest speaker a few years ago, he personally thanked Tribe for his opportunity to walk on the Moon!
The panel also talked about the current space industry. The audience Q&A and moderator Jim Banke were interested in what these experienced engineers and managers thought of the current players, goals, and technology in aerospace. The discussion on these points was pertinent, insightful, and inspiring. The starting point was the question of what each panelist had learned in their multi-disciplinary careers and combined decades of aerospace experience.
Bob Sieck shares the idea of setting up for success, asking his team the question: “what do you need to accomplish this goal?” Afterwards, he would ask, “what did management not give you?” sorting out the root cause for the success or failure. He cements this philosophy with a compelling concept - each time a technician bonded a tile to the Orbiter’s heat shield, they gave a GO for launch. Each decision, not just the final call in the Firing Room before launch, is a GO/NO GO moment that thousands of people make. He states that human spaceflight should be a concern in the near-future - that astronauts aren’t just parts of the machine, they are national assets and human lives. Sieck appreciates when SpaceX listens to former NASA contractors, and the culture of consulting with those who are experienced. He remembers that in Apollo, safety was number one. The priority, which they never forgot, was that it was getting people on the Moon and back safely.
Lee Solid stresses that success must be evaluated just as much as failure. Even if a project or mission goes by the book, there are still ways to improve and strengthen procedures. He mentions an example from his own career - insisting that the engine handover and checkout procedure from Apollo was also used in Shuttle, which he says contributed to the Shuttle engines’ consistent success. He suggests that the intensity of evaluation and checkout should never be lost, regardless of a perceived confidence or success rate. “We didn’t cut corners,” Solid says, despite the fact that there were times when doing so seemed to be acceptable. With regards to the current field, he gives them credit for their accomplishments and is interested in the new technology.
John Tribe brings up contractor continuity. He and Bob Sieck both remember having to learn computer and software technology while starting work on Shuttle, since that program was far ahead of Apollo in computer capability. In Apollo, Tribe says, hardware was the focus of attention. In Shuttle, it was software. Regardless, while transferring between these two programs, the contractors stayed-on and hit the ground running. There was a defined plan on what was going to happen next, involving largely the same players from before. This is unlike the transfer from Shuttle to commercial-based applications, when the contractors were put on hold and the workforce changed significantly. When asked about the recent SpaceX Dragon explosion, which the company gave a noticeably vague report on, Tribe believes the lack of communication is concerning, particularly since this vehicle is supposed to be rated for human spaceflight, and a significant proportion of SpaceX’s funding is taxpayer dollars. Tribe interprets SpaceX’s language on the explosion, using the word “anomaly” even though the vehicle was catastrophically destroyed, as something of a farce, and that it leaves a negative impression.
When it comes to the current NASA budget, they agree that NASA, headed by Jim Bridenstine, should soon come up with a figure that will get humans on the Moon by 2024, as the Vice President charged NASA and the space industry to accomplish. Chances are, this will be a larger figure, certainly more than NASA’s current funding of less than 1% of the federal budget. If the funding can’t be supplied, a more realistic goal may be 10 years instead of 5, placing the deadline in 2029. Sieck makes the important point that the budget and the goal should transcend administrations. The industry is ready to go. It just needs money and direction.
The panel went for 90 minutes, coming to a conclusion at 9pm. Our table was upset it had to end! Listening to such intelligent, experienced, and well-spoken people relate their experiences had me on the edge of my seat.
The Pioneers hold biannual banquets and monthly meetings. Members of the public are welcome to attend, and those who are or have been involved in spaceflight in Space Coast can become members as well. If you want to connect with the OG rocket scientists, this is a fantastic opportunity! For more information, visit their website or contact the organization’s president, Chelsea Partridge, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images and videos courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise.
Cover image - Missile, Space, and Range Pioneers logo
Banke, Jim, Bob Sieck, Lee Solid, and John Tribe. “Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Panel.” Lecture, Missile, Space, and Range Pioneers Celebrate Apollo!, Courtyard by Marriott Cocoa Beach, Cocoa Beach, Florida, May 10, 2019.