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Wild West (1966-1979)

In this sample chapter from Wild West to Agile, author Jim Highsmith recounts his adventures through the Wild West (1966-1979), from his work on the Apollo moon landing program, to the broader landscape of technology and software development.

This chapter is from the book

”A Small Step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong, venturing onto the lunar landscape for the first time. Upon college graduation in 1966, I had several electrical engineering job offers—Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York; and Pan American World Airways Aerospace in Coco Beach, Florida, working on the Apollo moon landing program. My selection process was not difficult. Pan Am had a contract with the Air Force to manage the missile flight operations at Cape Canaveral (not at the Kennedy Space Center, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] facility), so I jumped at the chance to be a tiny part of Apollo.


My first assignment was looking over engineering drawings and calculating component and system mean-time-to-failure (MTTF) and mean-time-to-repair (MTTR). One time, I flew to the primary downrange missile tracking station on Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to oversee a computer memory upgrade and test. What I remember most about the trip was the discomfort of flying in an Air Force C-130, losing an engine in-flight, overnighting in Antigua, and the happy hour at the officer’s club on Ascension when drinks were 10 cents.

Figure 2.1

Figure 2.1 Apollo downrange tracking ship.1

In the early 1960s when Apollo was being designed, global communications was iffy, so five ships were retrofitted with radars, telemetry, inertial navigation systems, and a fully functioning, but smaller, mission control center mirroring the one in Houston. These ships were to be deployed to the Pacific Ocean to acquire and track the command module as it returned to Earth. I worked on two of these ships, like the one shown in Figure 2.1.

“Work” was somewhat of a misnomer for my job. In reality, I reviewed and approved others’ work. The number of entities involved in the Apollo mission was startling to a newbie like me. As you would expect, there were multiple contractors for the ships themselves, for everything from anchor chains to computers. What I did not expect was the contract management flotilla—NASA, NASA prime contractors building things, other contractors to monitor the primary contractors, and the Air Force, with the same menagerie of which Pan Am was a part. For a computer test, for example, there might be a contractor running the test and several observers, each of whom supplied their own hierarchy with reports about the success or failure of the test.

Patrick Air Force Base (AFB), near Cocoa Beach, was the primary launch site for the Mercury and Gemini missions (and military vehicles like Titan), while the launch complex for Apollo was being constructed on Merritt Island, north of Patrick AFB. My office was located at Patrick. One morning, as a friend and I walked into work, we saw tourists standing around the life-sized missile display in front of the building (Figure 2.2). We were dressed for the times in white shirts, thin dark ties, and—the sure sign of an engineer—pocket protectors jammed with pens. We walked over to one of the missiles, looking seriously up and down and around, and started yelling, “Ten, nine, eight, ….” as we ran in the other direction. Wow, the tourists took off! We laughed all the way into the office.

By the time I arrived, the Mercury program was completed, Gemini was under way, and Apollo was getting ready for early test launches of the Saturn rocket. My next-door neighbor was an Air Force camera operator, and he invited me to accompany him to watch launches from extremely close up—almost hair-scorchingly close. We were about a mile in front of the news media cameras. I made it to the top of a Saturn rocket on the launch pad and got to look inside the Apollo command module (but unfortunately did not go in). During the first Saturn test flight (at the Patrick site), the ground shook so violently that three separate power feeds to the primary computer facility shut down—they were down for the first 2 to 3 minutes of the flight.

Figure 2.2

Figure 2.2 Missiles outside Patrick Airforce Base.2 (Courtesy of Air Force Space and Missile Museum.)

The ships had C-band and S-band radar, telemetry for data downloads, and inertial navigation (secret at the time, used on nuclear subs, and predating the Global Positioning System [GPS]). The computer was a reduced-size, hardened military computer used on Navy ships. It had a red “battle” button so it could run past its temperature limits (and literally burn up) while a battle was under way. This 8-bit machine had a 32-bit word length and an eye-popping 36K of memory (36K was the maximum at the time). At sea, our programming interface was punched paper tape (on land, punch cards). There was a control panel with 3 or 4 columns across and about 10 to 12 rows down—each intersection was a button that signaled currently unneeded programs to roll out of memory so others could be read in.

Consider trying to program complex orbital mechanics calculations to acquire a tiny command module as it came up over the distant horizon given the memory and processing speed constraints. Besides radar and navigation data, another calculation input was ship flex data.3 The command module acquisition calculation was so sensitive it required ship flexure data in the calculation—all programmed in 36K.

For six months, I was on temporary duty at a shipyard in New Orleans, where two ships were being built. We went out on sea trials—down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico to test the systems by trying to find airplanes. In an actual mission, the command module would enter the atmosphere at 24,000 miles per hour, then slow down by using retro-burn engines to less than 350 miles per hour. Our target planes flew right over the ship at several hundred miles per hour. The first few tests we couldn’t even find the planes.

The entire Apollo program was huge, and its success was a testament to a big vision, creativity, collaboration, learning through failure, engineering expertise, and management talent. It was a fun, but busy time, and it was great for me to play even a small part in this event. Looking back, it was an exciting way to begin my career adventure. However, by the first manned Apollo flight, the ships had been repurposed due to advances in communications.

BEFORE CONTINUING WITH MY CAREER stops, a couple of leading-edge projects, the state of software methods, and establishing a management context for the entire six decades, I first need to set the technology stage for this Wild West era.

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