Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Courage to Make a Decision

Regular readers of the American Thinker know that I was employed by Grumman Aerospace during the summer of 1969 when the corporation’s Lunar Excursion Module Eagle carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Sea of Tranquility and then re-inserted them into lunar orbit to begin the journey home, in JFK’s immortal phrase “return them safely to the Earth”. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I like to watch the original videos of the Apollo 11 mission. I recently found one on YouTube that brilliantly illustrates what we have lost since those days. It only lasts 9 minutes and 50 seconds, but it is a real time record of decision making at its finest.

To get the context of what you will see it is necessary to become familiar with the story of Jack Garmin. Here is the relevant history taken from his Wikipedia page

In 1966 at the age of twenty-one Garman was hired by NASA. He chose to specialize in onboard computing and was assigned to the Apollo Guidance Program Section where he worked with MIT, supervising the design and testing of the Apollo Guidance Computer.
During the Apollo missions Garman worked in a support role, advising flight controllers in Mission Control on the operation of spacecraft computer systems. A few months before the Apollo 11 mission he suggested that simulation supervisors at Mission Control test how flight controllers might react to a computer error code. Guidance officer Steve Bales responded to the simulated error by calling an abort, which was found to be a needless reaction for that particular code. As Garman later recounted, "Gene Kranz, who was the real hero of that whole episode, said, 'No, no, no. I want you all to write down every single possible computer alarm that can possibly go wrong.'" Garman made a handwritten list of every computer alarm code that could occur along with the correct reaction to each of them and put it under the plexiglass on his desk.
An error in procedural protocol went undetected during simulations and during the final descent of Apollo 11. This led to a switch in the lunar landing module (LM) being set to the wrong position. As a result, (and unknown to anyone at the time), the onboard guidance computer was needlessly processing data from the rendezvous radar. Then, as the LM descended, its separate landing radar acquired the lunar surface. Now processing data from two radars instead of only one as intended, the computer's duty cycle grew heavier than expected and a series of "1202" and "1201" alarms began signalling an executive overflow, meaning that the computer did not have enough time to execute all tasks so lower priority tasks were being dropped. Several seconds after the first alarm Neil Armstrong, with some concern apparent in his voice said, "Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm." Meanwhile, given his knowledge of the computer systems, Garman had already advised Steve Bales the computer could be relied upon to function adequately so long as the alarms did not become continuous.[1] Bales, who as guidance officer had to quickly decide whether to abort the mission over these alarms, trusted Garman's judgement and informed flight director Kranz. Within seconds this decision was relayed through CAPCOM to the astronauts, Apollo 11 landed successfully and Garman received an award from NASA for his role in the mission.
Bales later recalled, "Quite frankly, Jack, who had these things memorized said, 'that's okay', before I could even remember which group it was in".[2]

As you watch the video you will get the first hint of an anomaly at 0:45

“We’ve got data dropouts. You’re still looking good.”

The 1202 program alarm appears at 1:58

“Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm.”

Steve Bales gives them the “reading” they need at 2:04!

“We’re go on that alarm.”

The alarm re-appears at 2:24.

“Same alarm and it appears to come up when we have a 1668.”

Having isolated the problem Neil Armstrong tries to go back to automatic control at 3:22.

“Okay, I’m still on slew. So we may tend to lose as we gradually pitch over. Let me try auto again now and see what happens. Okay looks like she’s holding.”

Houston answers at 3:34

“Roger we’ve got good data.”

Contrast that to a President who wants to wait for all the data to come in before he begins to mull over his options and do the polling before making a decision. I know that Tom Brokaw likes to call the World War II generation, “The Greatest Generation”. I’m satisfied being a part of the Apollo Generation, a junior thermodynamicist for Grumman at age 20 during the Summer of ’69. And I am also certain that there is a succeeding generation soon to arrive from the Association of Independent Technological Universities.


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