Preparing for Apollo at Honeysuckle Creek

1966 – 1968

by Hamish Lindsay



With the station operational
after the departure of Ray Cox and the Collins installation team, and the Telemetry, Computer and Communications equipment passing all the installation tests, John Talbot, the NASA installation engineer announced the station was ready for tracking spacecraft.


We began our tracking experience by using aircraft. Our first aircraft tracks began on Sunday 11 December 1966 to check out the USB and antenna tracking systems. Using a brilliant light on the belly of a C-121 Super Constellation to locate it in the dark, it was the most accurate way of tracking the aircraft using our boresight television.

We began work at 1600 with Jack Kennedy from Collins Radio and Bob Taylor, the NASA Test Conductor, but initially we had a lot of trouble finding the aircraft. Once Roy Benson, our USB Engineer, said triumphantly “I’ve got it!” but it turned out to be one of our own signals on the ground someone had inadvertently forgotten to turn off. After a couple of tracks the aircraft was running low on fuel, so returned back to base in Sydney.

The next day wasn’t much better when cloud came down and we couldn’t see each other at all. When we heard them fly right overhead but their DME and RDF had them 24 kilometres away they decided they were lost and the day’s exercises were scrubbed.

The third day it was raining, so again the tests were scrubbed – but things improved after that.

With our inexperience and troubles trying to find the aircraft at one stage we tried Ian Anderson standing outside the window where we could see him pointing at the aircraft with his arm!!

NASA 421

Bruce Withey took this photo of the Honeysuckle antenna tracking Super Constellation NASA 421


 

It was a time of UFOs and Canberra residents rang us on the telephone in droves querying if this bright light ranging back and forth south of the city was a UFO or flying saucer. The same light and aircraft were seen as flying saucers by the Americans in March 1967 when flying over the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Test and Training Facility in Maryland.

Ops Supervisor John Saxon:

“The first spacecraft we tracked was Lunar Orbiter. Someone called from Goddard early in the New Year of 1967 and asked if we could support. I said we would be happy to do that and we’d look forward to it. I was then roundly criticised by Wes Moon (the Chief Engineer at the time) for accepting the track, as it would “interfere with the preparations for the station opening ceremonies”!

We did try to support, but ran into problems as they sent us predicts for a 9 metre site in the Northern hemisphere.

So after lots of fruitless searching, we sent the intrepid Ian Anderson up the antenna to look along the boresight and direct the servo operator where to move to point at the Moon. I remember lots of “up a bit” and “left, left a bit” etc. followed by Ian’s immortal words, which were to haunt him for years, “It’s soo close it hurts” (has to be said with a strong Scottish accent). I don’t think we managed to find it that day – but once GSFC got the predicts sorted out, we had no trouble tracking at lunar distances.”

Looking forward to our first Apollo mission with Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, we were all stunned by the news of a fire killing all three astronauts on 27 January 1967 during a countdown simulation test at the Cape. We knew this would put the brakes on the project for a long time, and realised it would give us plenty of time to prepare for the first Apollo manned mission, but we did wonder about President Kennedy’s 1969 deadline...

 

On 10 June 1967 we had our first Apollo simulation with the network, beginning at 1900 AEST.

It began as a bit of a shambles but began to settle down as we went through the night. It was a long spell for us, as we didn’t finish until 1500 the following afternoon. The Station Director held a de-briefing in the computer room and I cringed when he said we had been asked to support another simulation the next night. “I told them we would not support it as we had been up all night and we were all too tired.” In those days at Honeysuckle, I had just come from Carnarvon and was the only person with previous experience of MSFN procedures. I knew you NEVER, NEVER told NASA you were too tired to support any of their requests.

On 20 June 1967 we adjusted the antenna sub-reflector focussing using the signal from the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. I operated the X-Y recorder while Jim Kirkpatrick and Ian Anderson went up and down in the cherry picker with spanners to move the sub-reflector up and down. In the end we only moved it 1.6 millimetres!!

The next day, Wednesday 21 June 1967 George Harris and the Goddard Simulation team arrived in the Super Constellation NASA 421 to check our mission procedures out. In the USB area we had Rod Fischer as observer, helped by Jerry Brennan. First of all we did a Phase 1 Site Readiness Test (SRT) which we were to become very familiar with, as we had to perform one before every manned flight pass. There were lots of conferences and discussions between the hierarchy but we troops had little idea of what was really going on, except to know we were not doing very well. This was made very clear to us at a meeting in the crew room.

On Sunday 9 July, the Goddard team’s last day, we tried an H-140 count, beginning with a Phase 1 and 3 SRT before going into a pass. Then we did an H-30 count which was full of drama as the Sim Team observers made Brian Bell, the Servo Operator controlling the antenna, have a sudden attack of appendicitis and Paul Mullen, sitting alongside making notes, had to jump into his place. USB Engineer Mike Evenett replaced Paul.

The Chief Engineer, Wes Moon, was in the chair as the M&O (Maintenance & Operations Supervisor), which Mike Dinn later changed to the simpler titles of Ops 1 and Ops 2, but Wes was having a hard time getting his time hacks on the right time as well as announcing LOS a minute early.

 

As a result of our poor performance in these simulations we suffered a major staffing shake up, beginning with a new Station Director. Tom Reid was transferred from Orroral Valley to replace Bryan Lowe and Deputy Director Bert Forsythe was replaced by Michael Dinn from Tidbinbilla.

On Monday 7 August 1967 Tom Reid arrived, just as the new road was opened, and we prepared for a second session with George Harris.

On Monday 18 September 1967 George Harris and the Simulation Team arrived from Carnarvon and on Thursday we had an H-140 count, interfacing with the Wing at Tidbinbilla for the first time. After our previous efforts we all had a better idea of what was required but Reid very cunningly requested George Harris to be M&O (Ops 1), assisted by Ken Lee as AM&O (Ops 2). This time we followed the procedures a lot better than before. These simulations were so intense that Eric Stallard in Telemetry was asleep in bed at home and during the dead of night startled his wife by suddenly sitting up and calling out “Decoms in Lock!”

John Saxon remembers, “Later when we got better we used to involve the outside world and places such as Sydney video. We actually managed to tie up most of the communications around the east coast of Australia – often Channel 7 didn’t get their news at the right time because we had all the television feeds tied up.”

After many practice runs NASA 421 and the Sim Team left on Friday 29 September and left us to lick our wounds.

The staff shake out continued with the contractor’s Chief Engineer Wes Moon was replaced by Bill Kempees from Orroral Valley, the company manager John Matthews replaced by Tony Cobden, the USB Engineer Roy Benson by Gordon Carlisle, and Telemetry Engineer Geoff Seymour was brought in from Woomera.

 

Tom Reid and George Harris
Tom Reid and George Harris

Station Director Tom Reid (left) presented Goddard Simulation Team Leader George Harris with a pair of sandals mounted on a plaque with the inscription, ‘To Mr G. Harris Jr, in the hope that his feet will be dry when walking on the water. Station Director and Staff, Honeysuckle.’

The station’s mascot at the time, a pet kangaroo, helps hold the plaque up for the photograph. The kangaroo became so lazy that when food was brought to it, it wouldn’t bother getting up, but just ate lying down.

Photos by Hamish Lindsay.

(Second photo with thanks to George Harris.)


Tom Reid and George Harris

The inscription.


We now felt responsible enough to face a real manned Apollo mission.

But first NASA had to try out the Saturn V rocket.

On Thursday 9 November 1967 Apollo 4 rattled the brand new Launch Control Center at Cape Kennedy and the roof of the Press Center collapsed with the pressure waves when it lifted off from Pad 39A. It put a Command and Service Module (CSM), at the time a record 126,500 kilograms, into orbit. The CSM was kicked out to 17,300 kilometres to fire its rocket to hurl itself back into the atmosphere at 40,000 kilometres per hour, to simulate a spacecraft returning back from the Moon. It was hoisted aboard the USS Bennington where the engineers found everything had worked perfectly.

On Monday 22 January 1968 the Saturn 1B that was to have launched Gus Grissom and his crew sent an early version of the Lunar Module (LM) into orbit as Apollo 5. The LM’s rocket engines were fired but when the descent engine was fired it only lasted 4 seconds due to a computer programming error, and shut down. When the ascent stage separated from the descent stage it went into a wild dance, again due to a computer error.

Despite these anomalies the LM was passed as spaceworthy as it melted into a fireball on the sixth orbit.

On Thursday 4 April 1968 Apollo 6 tested the Saturn V again for its navigation systems and the engines themselves, with a final test of the Command Module’s heat shield. At Honeysuckle Creek we started the day at our normal time of 0830 and went into a CADFISS (Computation and Data Flow Integrated Subsystem). Our computers were in trouble for a while when the 1218 went RED cannot support.

Launch was 1 second late and two engines of the second stage did not fire properly putting the CSM and IU into slightly different orbit, so instead of seeing only one pass for 4 minutes, we tracked two passes – the first of 7 minutes and a 2 minute, low elevation pass only 5 degrees above the horizon. We successfully tried a WPEP (Wing Prime Evaluation Plan) Test, handing over two-way on the CSM to the Wing and back.

Three main problems were found on the Saturn vehicle, so more than a thousand engineers and technicians knuckled down to ferret out the causes, and in a month answers were found.

We tracked all three of these missions, which gave us good experience working with the MSFN network, and lots of practice acquiring and tracking spacecraft, plus a real live handover in Earth orbit. With all the simulations and real spacecraft tracks we felt we knew our equipment and had developed into a confident team.

The Apollo Flight and Ground teams were now ready to send astronauts into space.

TWX from Jim Kennedy

Jim Kennedy, NASA/GSFC Sim Director visited HSK in 1968 and also in 1970.

Prior to the 1968 HSK sim visit his team had been conducting simulations at Carnarvon, and after Honeysuckle, they went on to Guam.

This TWX is dated July 8th (local time) 1968 – prior to Apollo 7 (i.e. NCG-717).

With thanks to Jim Kennedy for the scan.