OMEGA Moonwatch Heroes IILead Flight Director Gerry D. Griffin
Gerald D. Griffin is the former Director of the NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. His career in the United States space program began in 1960 and included senior positions in government and industry. During NASA’s Apollo Program, he was a Flight Director in Mission Control and served in this capacity for all of the Apollo manned missions. He was Lead Flight Director for three lunar landing missions: Apollo 11, 15 and 17.
During the flight of Apollo 13, Mr. Griffin was scheduled to lead the lunar landing team in Mission Control. When the landing was cancelled as a result of the oxygen tank explosion, he led one of the teams of flight controllers who were responsible for the safe return of the astronauts.
When President Kennedy announced the goal of landing an astronaut on the Moon and bringing him safely home by the end of the sixties, were you and your NASA colleagues already thinking about the possibility of a lunar mission or were you caught by surprise by the President’s challenge?
It was a surprise because it was such a bold move. To put it in perspective: I got out of college in 1956 and my degree was in aero engineering – that was aeronautical engineering. In those days it didn’t have «space» at the end of it. It became so big so quickly. And nobody had even thought about it very seriously until Sputnik. All of a sudden there was this thing in orbit. I mean, what’s an orbit? And so there were no space people to speak of in 1960. Most of us were aviation types or electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, all kinds of engineers and scientists. But in the early going, space knowledge was virtually non-existent. But we thought we could do it. It’s just that everybody I remember in the space business – contractors, the work force, the government – all kind of looked at each other and said, ’We’re going to go to the Moon? Well, okay, we’d better get after it.» So it was a surprise but a surprise with a good solid basis to build on and a lot of young people that set about to make it happen. To embark on this kind of exploration takes a confluence of three factors: there has to be a perceived threat, and in those days we were actively involved in a space race with the Soviet Union. There has to be bold leadership, and President Kennedy and the U. S. Congress provided that. And there have to be resources. When those factors are in sync – and by the way, this is not unique with me, the first person I heard discuss this was Neil Armstrong – anything can happen.
NASA describes Apollo 13 as a «successful failure». How would you characterize the Apollo 13 mission? What lessons did we learn from it?
You know, I worked on the Apollo 13 movie as a technical advisor, and there was a time when I had to go back and look at some things that, frankly, I hadn’t looked at very closely after the flight, because we moved on to Apollos 14, 15, 16, and 17. But when I was working on the movie, I was able to take time and really go back and figure out what we did. I can say now that although Apollo 13 missed the point of landing on the Moon, in a way, it’s a good thing it happened like it did. We could easily have lost those guys at the Moon and we could have lost them on a later flight under a similar situation and never known what caused it. It could have gone around the back side of the Moon and had an explosion – maybe worse than what we had; it’s possible that they never would have come out of it from the back side so in a way, maybe it was serendipity that it worked out the way it did. We got the spacecraft back home and we could see enough of the service module that we knew what happened and figured out why it happened and we’ll never do that again. And it was what we were trained to do. When missions go well, your training is good and it’s important. But when I think back about Apollo 13, what it really showed was that we were trained and disciplined enough that we handled something we had never envisioned. We had written a thing called Mission Rules, and it said, «If this fails, this is what we’ll do.» But we didn’t have a mission rule for this one, because it was too big. It was something we had never thought about. And yet the team was able to pull together and get ’em back. It was a way that I think we proved that we could handle just about anything thrown at us. The other thing I would add is thank god for the LM, the lunar module! Because that little puppy got us home, and it did things it was not designed to do. It was a shame to have to throw it away and let it burn up and not get home! Because it was an amazing little piece of machinery. All of us who were there thought, «What a neat guy we had riding with us there called the lunar module.»
What is the legacy of the space program through the Apollo missions?
I think what we had reached at the end is that we had taken the first step to get off this planet. We did it in baby steps, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, and we were learning all the way. We made some mistakes, but by and large we pulled it off. We lost the three astronauts who perished in the Apollo I, a tragedy which affected all of us but generally, we moved slowly and steadily towards the goal. Apollo was a great first step. It was not an end in itself. I think that we did exactly what we needed to do in Apollo. And I think we learned enough from it that we can take some much bigger steps than we’ve taken since then. The Space Station is a good thing too. But it’s lower Earth orbit, it’s close to home, it didn’t stretch the team nearly as much as we were stretched. The young people of today are every bit as good as we were, probably smarter! And they could take us to another place very well.
In addition to your long, much-documented career as a flight director, you also served as Director of the Johnson Space Center. What was more satisfying for you: being directly involved in flight operations or working in senior management?
They were both satisfying and gratifying but I think my Apollo years were more fun. One reason is that I had this enormous responsibility in an operations environment. I didn’t have the responsibility of dealing with the Congress. I didn’t have the responsibility of dealing with other centers and NASA Headquarters. We were focused on getting people to the Moon and getting them back safely. So at a very young age I had this tremendous responsibility. I could, almost with a wave of an arm, move a carrier from one ocean to another because we changed a landing point. The combination of adrenalin, close calls and excitement made it fun. As a Center Director you’re in charge not only of the control center but also the funding and people problems. When I was there we had about 3’300 civil servants and another 10’000 contractors and a multi-billion dollar budget. I have to say it had its fun times because it had some challenges but its nothing like lighting a fire on a rocket and sending that guy into space at 17,000 miles an hour. There was just a thrill and a satisfaction in doing something extremely difficult and doing it right. Of course, if you do that, you will have some setbacks like the fire which was no fun at all. Or like Apollo 13, which started out no fun at all but probably turned out to be one of the better exhibitions of what we could do when called on. Two different jobs and two different sets of challenges! But I have to say that if somebody asked me tomorrow which one would I rather do again if I could, I’d go back to that control center in a minute.
What would have to happen to rekindle the planet’s enthusiasm for space exploration?
To rekindle this idea of exploration you have to have the resources and then you’ve got to have some reason to do it. I think right now the resources are too thin for this kind of endeavor. But I think to ever get back to «this is something we’ve got to do», we’ve got to have the same things we had in Apollo: bold leadership, a threat, and the resources. And I think if you can get those three things then that will take us to the next step. Is there a chance of that? Yeah, I think there is. Right now, the whole economy is kind of on its rear end but I think it could get better and hopefully we’ll be ready, along with the Europeans and our other friends. I really think it will be an international effort the next time we go back to the Moon and then on to Mars or maybe one day to go to a distant star.
In your days at NASA, could you switch the job off when your shift was over?
It was hard to turn off. Let me tell you what the environment was like. When I first got out of college and entered the Air Force, which I had a commitment to do, and I spent four years on active duty in a fighter squadron. In a fighter squadron, you had to be devoted to it because you were doing dangerous and risky things and you were flying with weapons and all kinds of things so you always had to be ready. It was a way of life. You’re thrown together. You’re together professionally. Your families are close. You work together and you play together. When I got to NASA, in the control center environment, in Mission Ops, in Mission Control, there was a very similar environment: high-risk, we had to be careful, we worked hard, and we seldom were able to turn it off, especially during the Apollo years. Now after we had landed on the Moon three or four times, the last couple of missions were a little easier. Still, we were very much up on the edge of our seats. In those last three missions particularly – 15, 16, and 17 – we were pretty much in the groove. We changed in that period from a transportation focus to a more scientific focus. By that I mean, on Apollo 8 through probably 12, we were worried about getting them up there and getting them back more than anything. Thirteen was a hiccup; 14 we did okay. With 15, 16 and 17, where we had the Rover, my own focus shifted – I got to know the geologists on the ground. I went with other flight directors on field trips with the astronauts when we went to geology training. We didn’t do that until Apollo 15. We thought, «Let’s get ’em up there and let the scientists worry about recovering everything and let them work on that.» We weren’t purists but we weren’t too focused on getting science returns that we did later. So our focus shifted a little toward the end. We had a better space craft, we had rovers and so forth and we could stay on the Moon a lot longer. And that focus really did change. But it never got out of the 24 / 7. Particularly during the mission, as you know, you could look at that control room and there were a lot more people in that control room than there were seats. You couldn’t stay away – you’d end up sitting on the steps or being anyplace you could get a headset so you could listen. So it was a fun time but it took a toll on families. As I say, we missed a lot of our kids’ growing up and there were certainly a lot of domestic splits and divorces and all kinds of things going on. But… I’ve been married 51 years now so I got a good one! It’s lasted.
Congratulations! I think the families are among the unsung heroes of the era.
I couldn’t agree with you more. All of them really bore the brunt of a lot of what we did. And they got very little credit for it, of course.
Finally, what will be space exploration’s next frontier?
NASA’s working on a thing called Constellation, which has a nice tie to Omega. And it’s to get us back to the Moon and onto Mars after that, using essentially the same hardware. The challenge is going to be funding, and whether we can hold the resolve well enough together to get enough money to make it happen. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we can make it happen. Most of the flight hardware is derived from either the Shuttle or Apollo so there are no new things we’re trying to break through to make it happen. So I think we have to take it step by step. And I think – I’ve heard it said and I agree with it – that it’s probably not as important «when» but rather «Keep going and make it happen as soon as you can.»