Friday, September 10, 2010

Who's On First?

There's an old saying that no plan ever survives contact with reality intact. The crew rotation plan used in Project Apollo is a good object lesson.

The crew rotation was something that had been used throughout the American space program, at least up to the Shuttle. If there was ever a crew rotation for the Shuttle, I've never been able to figure out how it worked. The basic idea is, the backup crew for Mission 1 would be the prime crew three missions later. It gave the pilots a better idea of where they stood, and cut a lot of the drama out of what was already a fairly tense environment. More specifically, for Apollo, the Command Module Pilot would be the Commander of the backup crew three missions later, which means that he would be Commander himself, six missions later.

And it worked. More or less. But, it was a very bumpy road.

By way of illustration, we're going to look at the original prime and backup crews for the first three Apollo missions. We'll skip ahead to mid-1968, since it's pretty obvious how Apollo 1 altered the rotation.

This is how it looked in mid-1968. (Note: the real crew assignments don't completely line up.)

Apollo 7 Prime Crew: Wally Schirra (CDR), Donn Eisele (CMP), Walter Cunningham (LMP)
Apollo 7 Backup Crew: Tom Stafford (CDR), John Young (CMP), Eugene Cernan (LMP)
Apollo 8 Prime Crew: Frank Borman (CDR), Michael Collins (CMP), William Anders (LMP)
Apollo 8 Backup Crew: Neil Armstrong (CDR), Jim Lovell (CMP), Buzz Aldrin (LMP)
Apollo 9 Prime Crew: James McDivitt (CDR), David Scott (CMP), Russell Schweickart (LMP)
Apollo 9 Backup Crew: Charles Conrad (CDR), Richard Gordon (CMP), Alan Bean (LMP)

Now, from the rotation, we can guess the crew assignments for Apollo 10:

Apollo 10 Prime Crew: Tom Stafford (CDR), John Young (CMP), Eugene Cernan (LMP)
Apollo 10 Backup Crew: Donn Eisele (CDR), Walter Cunningham (LMP), Edgar Mitchell (LMP)

It's a nice theory ... except that this is what really happened:

Apollo 10 Prime Crew: Tom Stafford (CDR), John Young (CMP), Eugene Cernan (LMP)
Apollo 10 Backup Crew: Gordon Cooper (CDR), Donn Eisele (CMP), Edgar Mitchell (LMP)

Well, that's nice... What in the world happened here? Apollo 7 happened, that's what. Wally Schirra had a nasty cold for pretty much the entire flight, and was in a foul mood. This carried over into his relationship with Mission Control, and since the Commander sets the tone for his crew, it spilled over into their ability to work with Mission Control as well. It's not well-publicized, but Mission Control does exercise a kind of veto over crew assignments. If Mission Control decides that this is a man they can't work with ... well, that man never flies again. Eisele was being given a rotation as Command Module Pilot, to see if he'd be able to cut it. This was also the case with Cooper. Ordinarily, you'd expect Cooper to draw an early Commander's slot, being the only other Mercury veteran still on flight status. But, Cooper had developed a rather lax attitude towards training during Gemini, and was being given a backup slot to prove himself.

Now, let's look at what we expect Apollo 11 to look like:

Apollo 11 Prime Crew: Neil Armstrong (CDR), Jim Lovell (CMP), Buzz Aldrin (LMP)
Apollo 11 Backup Crew: Michael Collins (CDR), William Anders (CMP), Fred Haise (LMP)

You may be thinking that doesn't look quite right. Here is what really happened:

Apollo 11 Prime Crew: Neil Armstrong (CDR), Michael Collins (CMP), Buzz Aldrin (LMP)
Apollo 11 Backup Crew: Jim Lovell (CDR), William Anders (CMP), Fred Haise (LMP)

Here, it wasn't a performance issue with Collins, it was a medical problem. After the original assignments had been made in 1968, Collins needed shoulder surgery, and had to swap seats with Lovell. Which meant that Collins ended up on the backup crew for all intents and purposes, and thus the prime crew on Apollo 11.

Nothing especially interesting happened to Apollo 12 as far as crew rotations went. But for Apollo 13 and Apollo 14, things got ... interesting.

Apollo 13 was originally going to be Cooper/Eisele/Mitchell, and Apollo 14 was going to be Lovell/Anders/Haise. First off, Bill Anders took a job with the National Space Council, and had to be replaced on the crew of Apollo 14. He was replaced by Ken Mattingly. The crew for Apollo 13 went through an almost complete re-shuffle. Cooper didn't do well enough to impress Deke Slayton, and neither did Eisele, so they both had to be replaced. Eisele was replaced by Stu Roosa. It was more or less at this point that Alan Shepard, another Mercury veteran, returned to flight status after a lengthy medical problem. This was a Godsend for Slayton, who was otherwise going to have a hard time filling that seat ... but Shepard would need extra time to train. So, he swapped the crews for Apollo 13 and Apollo 14. Apollo 13 would be Lovell/Mattingly/Haise, and Apollo 14 would be Shepard/Roosa/Mitchell.

Except, of course, that Mattingly was exposed to German measles a week before flight, and had to be replaced with his backup, Jack Swigert. Although it didn't feel like it on the day, it ended up being a good deal for Mattingly. Apollo 13, as you might remember, wasn't exactly a fun ride.

Now, one last example: let's see if we can figure out the backup crew for Apollo 14:

Apollo 14 Backup Crew: Michael Collins (CDR), Buzz Aldrin (CMP), Joe Engle (LMP)

This would have been the prime crew for Apollo 17. Which, of course, had a completely different crew:

Apollo 17 Prime Crew: Eugene Cernan (CDR), Ron Evans (CMP), Jack Schmitt (LMP)

As it turns out, the post-mission publicity pegged the fun-meters for Collins and Aldrin, and they lit out for greener pastures. Slayton would ordinarily have picked a veteran CMP to promote to Commander ... but there weren't any to be had. The Apollo 9 CMP was already training for Apollo 15, and the Apollo 12 crew was also deep into their new assignments. Conrad and Bean would command the first two Skylab missions. Slayton's crew rotation was now officially in an inverted spin with all engines on fire. So, it developed that Cernan was promoted directly from LMP to CDR, without having had a turn at CMP first. Ron Evans was assigned as the CMP. Engle ... well, he drew short straw after Apollo 18 was cancelled. The LMP for Apollo 18 was to have been Jack Schmitt, a trained geologist. It was considered intolerable that the Apollo program should end without a scientist ever touching the lunar surface. So, Engle got bumped. At the time, he said that the hardest thing about that was having to tell his young son that his Dad wouldn't be going to the Moon.

But he ended up all right. Joe Engle went on to command the second flight of the Space Shuttle, in 1981.

[Personal Note: I actually met Joe Engle in 1986, and got his autograph. It's the only one I own.]

At the end of the day, this points up the fact that history isn't a study of things or even events, but of people. And people ... well, they can be pretty weird. Weird, but always interesting.

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