Apollo Guidance Computer Activities

AGC: Conference 4 - Now and then - reflections on careers

Apollo Guidance Computer History Project

Fourth conference

September 6, 2002

Now and Then - Reflections on careers.

ALEXANDER BROWN: That's kind of impressive. I guess this is pretty much my last question, and this is sort of an unfair question, but I would love to hear responses. I guess particularly from Mr. Green and from Mr. Martin, people who are still working. How important was the Apollo experience. I mean is this the place in which you learned what has sort of stayed with you during your professional lives? I'm just interested to get a sense of how important Apollo was both from a personal level and on a professional level to your careers and to your lives?

JOHN GREEN: I would say that the work I did on Apollo, which was down in the bottom end of the engineering business was very definitely something that has stayed with me through the years. I was a detail person worrying about the fine points. I still work sort of in that mode.

FRED MARTIN The question is an interesting question because I would have to say that, technology aside, it was definitely a defining time in my life. So that if you look back on a career, it was in that period of time, that I felt I was making the most significant contribution that I could make. I mean that's a long time ago so in the sense as you go forward, the next things that you did were somewhat less in that sense. But it was a very significant thing for me.

DAN LICKLY: A very close dear friend, Ray Martin, we worked for and died and in the ski accident. A number of times I heard him say--he was unemployed in his '50's, a terrific engineer. But when you're 55, it's not so easy finding engineering jobs. He didn't want to be management or--he said, "You know, I've spent the last 20 years looking for another Apollo, and I never could find one. Why isn't there anything like that again?" It just was a unique experience, and there aren't projects like that that come along. There are little things and there are other things, but they aren't the same.

ALEX KOSMALA: I think Ed really hit it earlier or Fred was it you? Characterizing Apollo as a program, a huge complex program with a very singular simple objective, that kind of tied everybody on it together. You were all working for the same objective and some of the things that really grind people into pulp these days just were absent, like the lack of money. It had support from the highest level of the U.S. government, the program. It was really as Fred says, "A defining moment." Looking back, it's the proudest moment of my life was working, the most satisfying. We worked our butts off, the hardest I've ever worked. I've never worked that hard again.

ALEXANDER BROWN: On a professional and intellectual level, it was satisfying work?

DAN LICKLY: Oh, yes!

ALEX KOSMALA: Oh, very. I personally don't know whether I learned something that then benefited my later career, because my later involvement never made as many demands on me as Apollo did.

ED COPPS: I think the thing that disappointed me about the state of the world that I interacted with, the state of engineering, as I grew older--first of all, I knew when I left Apollo, that there couldn't be probably in my lifetime--that nothing would match the sense of satisfaction that that program offered. It just seemed to me likely that that wouldn't occur.

But what bothers me most is that I think that the intellectual state of technology is much worse today, than it was was. It got worse rather than better because of the--it seems like it takes too many people to do simple things now. There's too many people and it makes it harder to do it, that we were fortunate to be at a point where the gap was so--there weren't enough people. You couldn't find enough people, and the lack of people, first of all, made--created an environment where the individuals who were there could really be effective, and take much more satisfaction.

ALEXANDER BROWN: So the leadership doesn't exist anymore.

ED COPPS: The bureaucracy has gotten worse and worse and worse. So that simple things become harder. More people insert themselves into the work and less gets done.

FRED MARTIN I don't want to knock computer science, but there was none then, and so what you did is you went out and you hired smart people who had engineering degrees, physics degrees, chemistry or math or something like that. If they didn't know it already, they had to sort of learn the physics of what you were doing. And I always felt that that made for a very strong individual contributor because he knew what this whole thing was about, had a good feel for it--as opposed to--and I think maybe I'm being ... (inaudible) about this, as opposed to somebody who has been in computer science and dealing with those kinds of problems, cubes and things of that nature, and didn't have the good grounding at all in the physics of aerospace for example.

DAN LICKLY: The country has changed and some of it's due to computer science, but engineering doesn't have the appeal it used to. The country is turning out less than half of the electrical engineers that it did 15, 20 years ago. I was on an advisory group at Tufts and the people in the real industry came around and said, "I can't get anybody who wants to study servo and design that type of design." And they say at Tufts, the students don't want anything to do with it. They say it's too hard. There's an interest going elsewhere from kids. I don't know why. I don't understand how they would know or what's happening, but engineering in not in its same heyday, at least the hard part of engineering.

JOHN MILLER I think if you talk to anybody--I shouldn't say anybody--but the vast majority of people that worked on the Apollo program, not just those at the Instrumentation Lab, but people at Rockwell and Grumman and NASA and so on, working on Apollo was the high point in their career. And there are probably a lot of reasons for it.

Ed has expounded several of them that are very good. But you want to remember that at the time that Kennedy announced that they wanted to go to the moon, there was no structure for any of this to deal with it. And so--I mean even in the first couple of years the Johnson Space Center was run out of a whole bunch of office buildings around Houston. They were all building everything at the same time. There was so much pressure on schedule and getting things done that decisions were made and were left up to anybody that would really make them.

And if you looked at the character of the Apollo program and compared it to the character of the shuttle program or the current space station program, the layers of bureaucracy have grown by ten times with each step up. And so there weren't many layers of bureaucracy in the Apollo program. I mean I could talk to the Apollo program manager by picking up the telephone and calling. I mean we were layers and layers down, but that was the way that program was run.

FRED MARTIN Also if you wanted to solve a problem let's say, if something came up, so you'd get two or three people in a room. You had a blackboard. You'd draw some things and you'd all write the solution. "Okay. That's the way we'll do it." Period.

DAN LICKLY: And here we are engineers over here in Cambridge doing stuff and when an Apollo flight was going or something happened, we'd say, "Gee. We ought to look at that. Get me an erasable dump." Thirty seconds later, you'd hear them communicating with the astronaut "MIT wants an erasable dump." There's no questions or second guessing. Here it was! So you were right there. What you said happened.

JOHN MILLER You had immeasurable control. I remember sitting down at Kennedy Center and looking at a bunch of data during one of the test runs, countdown demonstration or something like that, and looking at it, and saying, "This just isn't right. Something is wrong here. We've got to abort this whole thing." And man it stopped. I mean it stopped. You had to be careful, though, what you said, because it would stop.

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