On Joe Gavin, Jr., director of the Apollo 11 lunar lander program
November 4, 2010 2:22 AM   Subscribe

“There’s a certain exuberance that comes from being out there on the edge of technology, where things are not certain, where there is some risk, and where you make something work.” Joseph Gavin Jr., an MIT-trained engineer and director of the Apollo 11 lunar module program for Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, died on Saturday. A few quotes from Joe about the program's complexity via an old Popular Mechanics article are nice, but this more complete interview providing some fascinating insights on the process and the culture and just how much went into the lunar lander program, from an engineer's perspective, is fantastic.
posted by disillusioned (17 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
posted by fairmettle at 2:25 AM on November 4, 2010

posted by bouvin at 2:27 AM on November 4, 2010

"the state of the art at the time for commercial guidance systems and military aircraft in terms of reliability was about 15 hours mean time between failure"
"So we made a very basic assumption ... And that was there is no such thing as a random failure. If you start out on that premise, you go at your design quite differently."

Amazing when you look at things now, that in the avionics industry of the time 'random' failures were acceptable! As he says, there is (almost) no such thing as a random failure... Everything has a cause, and in a safety critical system (or one-shot system like this), every failure cause has to be designed out...
posted by nielm at 3:56 AM on November 4, 2010

The book by Tom Kelly he mentions is Moon Lander, and it is most excellent.
posted by LVdB at 4:04 AM on November 4, 2010

I went to Space Camp way back in 1997, to the camp in Alabama. The cool thing about Space Camp in Alabama is it takes place in Huntsville, at the US Space and Rocket Center, which has a huge garden of rockets, including a Saturn V on it's side, in sections and one of the Space Shuttle test vehicles.

Inside the museum, they have a ring from the command module of one of the canceled Apollo missions. It's huge. I remember it being twenty feet tall, the inside of the thick with heavy-looking electronics, wires, enclosed, sealed away from space. Our guide, Jeff, took us to it, pointed to the ring and said, "This ring holds the computing system of the command module. It has less computing power than your standard digital watch."

And they went to the moon with it.

posted by gc at 4:14 AM on November 4, 2010

Pretty much the only place you see this kind of design anymore is in some medical devices, and even then it's not "design out failure" it's "design failure safe". I mourn the loss of this kind of thinking and the mental discipline it entails.

posted by seanmpuckett at 4:36 AM on November 4, 2010

My grandfather was one of the guys who ran the assembly team (the blue collar guys putting it together, not the engineers) for the first LEM. We have some absolutely awesome pictures of him climbing around it checking things out. He retired after they completed the F-14 prototype. Quite a way to go out.
posted by JPD at 4:36 AM on November 4, 2010

I can't be the the only one who has looked through Lunar Lander specs and then just sat back with awe at the ingenuity of it, of something that then worked perfectly with no real-world test and few precedents.

I am pretty sure I have seen lists out there that rank the Lunar Lander as one of the greatest engineering achievements of mankind.
posted by vacapinta at 4:42 AM on November 4, 2010

posted by eriko at 7:44 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was thinking the other day that what with calculators and YouTube and whatever else that it's probably fifteen years until there's nobody left that knows how to build a spaceship.

I mourn the loss of this kind of thinking and the mental discipline it entails.

HEY. Engineering didn't stop after Apollo, you know. Human ingenuity didn't dry up and blow away. I'm an MIT aero-astro student, so I'm obviously biased, but I'd like to believe my generation doesn't have any less intelligence and discipline than those that came before us. And we've got the benefit of the lessons learned in past programs, and more advanced technology too. What's missing is the commitment from the higher levels. Sure, presidents still give speeches with grandiose visions of space exploration, but they don't back it up with the resources any more. If you want to talk in terms of money alone - NASA was getting about 4% of the U.S. federal budget during Apollo. Today, they're clawing to keep about 0.6%. And that's not even taking culture into account - the space race created a pretty unique atmosphere of urgency, and there were lots of intangibles beyond money that drove people to apply themselves to the problem. Things just aren't the same any more; to put it in terms of the cost-schedule-performance trade (which is sometimes called the Iron Triangle of systems engineering), I think we could deliver the performance, but people aren't willing to pick up the cost any more, so the schedule is stretching out to a delivery date that might as well be infinity.

Feels kind of petty to be defending my own honor in an obit thread. I met Joe Gavin just a few months ago, and now I feel doubly fortunate to have had the experience. I was displaying hardware from my research project at the time, and we ended up swapping stories about running tests and tracking down the cause of failures. It was awe-inspiring and humbling - nothing illuminates how modest your problems are quite like talking to the guy who was responsible in a major way for landing men on the moon and bringing them back, and yet he took the time to have a serious conversation with me. And that's how I'll remember him, as both a great engineer and a very classy human being.

posted by sigmagalator at 8:22 AM on November 4, 2010 [9 favorites]

It doesn't get into the computer specifically, but the episode Spider, from the HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon is an excellent account of the development of the LEM. The whole series is excellent but that episode in particular is amazing.
posted by bondcliff at 8:46 AM on November 4, 2010

I was thinking the other day that what with calculators and YouTube and whatever else that it's probably fifteen years until there's nobody left that knows how to build a spaceship.

Why, is there a patent out on engineering education and innovation?
posted by The Lady is a designer at 9:52 AM on November 4, 2010

gc, I was just at the Huntsville museum and saw that very ring. It's 260 inches in diameter and was not from the Command Module; it sat atop the third stage just below the adapter panels that hid the LEM during flight. It was responsible for inertial guidance for the first three stages only, and it's a good thing it was separate from the CM and LEM guidance because that's why Apollo 12 was able to recover after a lightning strike reset the CM flight controls during ascent. Not far from that ring today they have a little exhibit containing a few dissected bits of what's in that ring, one of which is the "main memory." It's an extremely finely machined magnetic drum assembly about a foot in diameter. You can see it cost many thousands of dollars to produce for what could have been at most a few hundred bytes of memory with access times in the multiple-millisecond range.

Today, of course, we have greatly innovated since those primitive times. Now the idea that you can build a computer that will Just Work and not randomly fail if you put enough care into the engineering seems rather quaint and innocent, like the misguided souls who think there ever really was a society like the one depicted in Leave it to Beaver.
posted by localroger at 10:51 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

My grandfather was director of quality and reliability for Apollo at NASA, and almost certainly must have worked with Joe Gavin. He passed away just a few months ago as well. He was a very quiet guy; never really talked about his work at all when I was young, and by the time I was older the Alzheimer's had taken away most of his memories. So this interview is a priceless look for me into the work grandpa did. Thanks.
posted by louie at 4:46 PM on November 4, 2010

Hrm, and Grandpa is mentioned in the index of the Thomas Kelly book mentioned in the Gavin interview. I'll have to get that.
posted by louie at 4:50 PM on November 4, 2010

Amazing that from '41 to '69 they went from still learning the mechanics of biplanes to landing on the moon. That's a lot in 28 years. And today we're still using the same launch vehicle we were 28 years ago. Imagine what we'd be launching if the Shuttle were our biplane--what would be the lunar lander in comparison?
posted by rikschell at 6:30 PM on November 4, 2010

I sent this post to my Dad (he's got a Metafilter account, but doesn't use it much), hoping he might add something. Dad started on the LM, before ending up on the E-2C.

I added Tom Kelly's book to my wish list.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 6:13 AM on November 5, 2010

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