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NASA Space Science

Did an Unnamed MIT Student Save Apollo 13? 258

Posted by samzenpus
from the cut-your-hair-and-get-a-job dept.
lukehopewell1 writes "When the Apollo 13 reported an explosion on board, NASA started a marathon effort to get the three astronauts home. Several options were considered, but history tells how flight director Gene Kranz ordered a slingshot around the moon. The story stayed that way for over 40 years, until this weekend when an ex-NASA press secretary came forward and said that an unnamed MIT grad student came up with the idea to slingshot the spacecraft around the moon. NASA reportedly buried his involvement at the last minute when it was discovered that he was a long-haired, bearded hippie-type.' Now the internet has gone on the hunt to find out who this unnamed hero really is."
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Did an Unnamed MIT Student Save Apollo 13?

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  • GNU/Apollo (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:23AM (#40894399)

    Thanks RMS!

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      heh that was the first thing I thought of too. But I just looked it up, Stallman had just entered Harvard as an undergrad (BA Physics '74). Apollo 13 was in 1970.

      • He saved Apollo 13 as an undergraduate-wannabe? Wow, he sure is God!

        • Loop Around the Moon (Score:5, Interesting)

          by wooferhound (546132) <tim@woo f e rhound.com> on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:03AM (#40894871) Homepage
          I was 14 years old when Apollo 13 flew. I live in Huntsville Alabama and everybody here was keeping a Close Eye on the Apollo missions. But I remember the loop-around-the-moon plan was in place from the very beginning as a way to Bail Out of the mission and return to Earth without a Lunar Landing. After all, what other option is there. The unique part of the plan was to use the Lunar Module as a Lifeboat to get them back alive.
          • Maybe the loop-around-the-moon-backup-plan was a fabrication?
          • by multi io (640409) <olaf.klischat@googlemail.com> on Monday August 06, 2012 @01:03PM (#40896309)
            The other option is -- in theory -- to return immediately by firing the CSM engine against the direction of travel, but no-one considered that seriously because a tank had just exploded inside the CSM and nobody dared to use that for anything anymore. But yeah, it was basically these two options, and they were conceived sometime in 1962 or so as part of the early Apollo development. If you ask me, the idea that some outsider from MIT had to tell NASA about the free-return path option is nonsense, and considering the fact that the guy who claims it now is 97 years old -- well, maybe he's just developing Alzheimer's disease. Or something.
    • Re:GNU/Apollo (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @12:19PM (#40895723)

      I also live in Huntsville, Alabama. My father designed the navigation computer for the Apollo and you could say that the astronauts got the ride but my father did the driving even though he wasn't there. I love this crap coming up about some 14 year old thinking up sling shot. It is just a load of carp. Sling shot was always the option for emergency and in fact was actually tested on Apollo 8. It was just part of the design safety in the system. As to using the LEM for lifeboat, that sort of was invented by the Astronauts at the time. It was after all the only thing still working.

      We see all sorts of rewrite of history crap going on now days and I wish people would quit listening to it.

      Now if Slashdot wants to get its head out of its [you know where] and look into something amazing, they might want to look into the actions of Lewis Sinko who was documentation manager for the project Apollo. He knew that at the end of the project orders might come down having the documentation destroyed as it has happened with the early efforts in the mid 1950's. He literally stole the documentation at the end of the program and kept a room full of it in his house until he died in Huntsville, Alabama. Then as a result the documents were donated to the US Space and Rocket Center and subsequently they are now being preserved for posterity. Orders were sent down from President Nixon and President Ford to destroy the documents. Had Lewis Sinko not stolen the documents they would not exist and one of the greatest treasures in all history would not exist now. He saved what was probably the greatest national treasure of the USA from the 1900-2000 time frame from destruction by his heroic action.

      • by ReverendLoki (663861) on Monday August 06, 2012 @01:44PM (#40896799)

        It is just a load of carp.

        I thought something about this smelled fishy...

      • by cusco (717999)
        Orders were sent down . . .

        This sort of thing always confuses me, as I can't think of any rational reason for it. I was too young to have known about that happening, but I remember Ronnie Raygun ordering the siesmometers on the Moon turned off. Not 'stop monitoring to save money', leaving them for someone else to monitor (I think MIT wanted to do that), but 'turn them off so no one can monitor them.' Shrub ordered the destruction of data from several early missions for no obvious reason. The only re
        • Re:GNU/Apollo (Score:4, Informative)

          by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Monday August 06, 2012 @09:36PM (#40901201) Homepage

          I was too young to have known about that happening, but I remember Ronnie Raygun ordering the siesmometers on the Moon turned off.

          Well, your memory is false - the ALSEP packages were turned off in 1977. (They were dying and practically non functional anyways.)
           

          The only reason that they have a likely solution to the Pioneer Anomaly is that some NASA administrators disobeyed orders and handed the tapes over to the Planetary Society.

          Um, no. NASA provided the tapes for the Planetary Society because NASA didn't have the budget (or the interest) in converting the old tapes. After the conversion, it was JPL (a NASA agency) that performed the analysis.
           

          This sort of thing always confuses me, as I can't think of any rational reason for it.

          You're not "confused", you're "utterly and completely disconnected from reality".

      • What a load of carp. (Score:5, Informative)

        by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Monday August 06, 2012 @03:59PM (#40898465) Homepage

        It is just a load of carp.

        So is your entire post. No orders came from any president to 'destroy the documentation', it all went into archives where engineers and historians have happily mining it ever since. NASA has also put tons of it online in various places. Here's the results of a search for "Apollo Guidance [nasa.gov]" on just one of them... Here's a story [nasa.gov] about NASA using Apollo era documentation for the Constellation program. (And here's a link to some of the experience reports [nasa.gov] mentioned in the story.)
         

        Sling shot was always the option for emergency and in fact was actually tested on Apollo 8.

        Um, no it wasn't. Apollo 8 went into orbit, it did not slingshot.
         

        As to using the LEM for lifeboat, that sort of was invented by the Astronauts at the time.

        No, it wasn't. The LEM Lifeboat scenario was first studied around (IIRC) 1967 and was well documented.
         
        Etc... etc...
         

        We see all sorts of rewrite of history crap going on now days and I wish people would quit listening to it.

        This from the guy who got almost every single claim verifiable against historical references wrong?

    • by timeOday (582209)
      I was thinking maybe Jesus...
  • Hippies... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Fuzzums (250400) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:24AM (#40894405) Homepage

    Always there to save the world.

    • by glassware (195317)

      I would have said that this was funny, but have you seen the guys at JPL? If anything defines hippies today it's them.

      Those guys are beyond awesome. I've never met a crew of people who make space more exciting.

  • If True: Shameful (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ohnocitizen (1951674) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:25AM (#40894415)
    I hope NASA does the right thing and releases the fellow's name. Unless it is a young RMS, who at that time SHOULD have been in undergrad, not goofing around with NASA.
    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:36AM (#40894537) Journal

      No, you've got it all wrong! NASA buried the hippie's involvement to protect him...

      Do you know how awkward it would have been to return to his commune if the others learned that he'd been bailing out the military-industrial complex, man?

    • by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:56AM (#40894785) Homepage

      I hope NASA does the right thing and releases the fellow's name.

      While I always love to hear stories where MIT students are the heroes, I find this story a little odd. The lunar-swingby return trajectory was always the abort option. So I'm not sure what this article is implying-- a MIT student said "say, why doesn't NASA implement their backup plan?" and Gene Kranz said "the backup plan! That's it! We never would have thought of that!" ?

      With that said, it's worth noting that Apollo 13 had already modified their path from the initial free-return trajectory to one that required an engine burn to put them on the lunar-swingby return, in order to target the desired landing site. The important decision wasn't whether to make a burn to do the return; the real question was which engine to use, since it was not known (at the time) whether the explosion had damaged the main engine on the service module (turns out it had; and they made the right choice.)

      It was, of course, actually more complicated than that. IEEE Spectrum has a more detailed timeline and analysis: http://spectrum.ieee.org/aerospace/space-flight/apollo-13-we-have-a-solution-part-2 [ieee.org]

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:02AM (#40894859)

      I worked there at the time. I remember it, like it was yesterday
      It was a young mathematician, his name was Ted Kaczynski.

    • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Monday August 06, 2012 @12:07PM (#40895571) Homepage

      I hope NASA does the right thing and releases the fellow's name.

      What I find dismaying is that you, and Reddit, and probably most of the rest of the 'net have already judged that a junior PR staffer not connected with mission control is telling the truth - and without any evidence or even bothering to ask if this is plausible, are pronouncing NASA guilty.

  • The Book said it (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:25AM (#40894419)

    The way I remember the options at the time, the slingshot was always in The Book of plans. The path to the Moon for all Apollo flights was made in a way which tossed the craft back toward Earth unless the lunar injection burn was performed behind the Moon. I wrote about the main failure modes and options way back then.

    • Yes - I don't think this was a "revolutionalty" idea. If they (pretty much) just left the craft as-is, it would do this. In fact, to NOT do this would be difficult. It would require a huge amount of fuel (possibly more than they had) to make such a drastic change in their trajectory which would allow for an immeidate return. I don't think that would have been even possible.
    • Re:The Book said it (Score:5, Informative)

      by Giant Electronic Bra (1229876) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:35AM (#40894525)

      Exactly, the whole TLI and Lunar transit process was designed to maximize the chances that the spacecraft would return to Earth by default. Nobody had to 'invent' anything. Truthfully the family of orbits that arise naturally out of the low energy Earth/Moon transfer largely have this property. Assuming your TLI burn works at all you're pretty much guaranteed to come back on flip side. Maybe someone from MIT flagged that option Kranz, but it sure wasn't some thing someone pulled out of their ass at the last minute. The question was only which option made sense, direct abort or a swing around the far side.

    • Re:The Book said it (Score:5, Interesting)

      by bwintx (813768) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:36AM (#40894529)
      Yes and no. The slingshot or "free-return" method was taken out of the default mission starting with Apollo 12 because it was believed that they could achieve a more accurate orbital path, and thereby lunar landing, that way. Remember that the Apollo 11 landing occurred roughly four miles off target, but it was the only one of the six eventual landings that didn't land where they'd planned. Getting back on free-return was always considered an option in case of an emergency, as occurred with Apollo 13. Working purely off memory, but I do know that getting on free-return was mentioned early on in the post-explosion hours. Oblig: Get off my lawn.
      • Yeah, one of the things most people don't really understand is how SMALL the difference between these different trajectories is. At the 'top of the hill' (the energetic midpoint between Earth and Moon) the velocity of the stack is VERY low. In other words TLI JUST barely gives Apollo enough energy to coast up to the point where the Moon starts pulling you down the other side. That's why at a certain point direct abort could be accomplished with a fairly small burn, and why a free return could be either arou

    • Re:The Book said it (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Zocalo (252965) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:46AM (#40894641) Homepage
      That was my first thought too, but maybe there is something behind this. The slingshot might have been in the book, but that was before the oxygen tank blew and the possibility that the astronauts might suffocate on their own CO2 before they made it back to Earth became an issue. It's fairly well documented that there was a lot of debate and slide-ruling over whether to proceed with the slingshot or that an abort and a quick return might be the only way to get the astronauts back before they ran out of air. My guess is that the MIT student, if they existed at all, came up with some math that proved that the abort/return approach simply wasn't going to work for some reason (unable to achieve a viable angle for a sucessful reentry, perhaps) and that at least with the slingshot there was a chance.
      • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Monday August 06, 2012 @12:02PM (#40895513) Homepage

        My guess is that the MIT student, if they existed at all, came up with some math that proved that the abort/return approach simply wasn't going to work for some reason (unable to achieve a viable angle for a sucessful reentry, perhaps) and that at least with the slingshot there was a chance.

        NASA analyzed the hell out of every inch of the trajectory pre-flight, *and* had a Mission Control position (RETRO) with a dedicated back room staff who spent the entire flight doing so in real time. If find it not only highly unlikely that NASA wouldn't know that at 'x' position along the trajectory they couldn't execute an abort - but even more unlikely that a MIT student would have the requisite deep understanding of the trajectory and the available computational resources to perform the required calculations within a few hours of the accident.
         
        It is true that MIT was involved in trajectory design and analysis, so it sounds like someone has taken that and expanded it into what amounts as an urban legend. (Also note the individual spreading the story was a junior staffer in NASA's PR department at the time of the accident - not connected with Mission Control at all.)

        • by Zocalo (252965)
          Yeah, I'm skeptical too and find it somewhat hard to believe the story hasn't come out before now. Still, MIT was responsible for the trajectories, which was why I suggested it as a possibilty for there being some truth behind what is quite likely an urban myth. Basic orbital mechanics would dictate a lot of the flight path options, so unless there was something specific to do with the explosion and its aftermath, I can't see much room for MIT to actually do anything so significant in that area.
          • Well, it did have something to do with the explosion and it's aftermath... they had deep doubts about the condition of the service module's engine and control systems - and to use it, they'd have to power up the command module anyhow. Which actually makes the story even more dubious, as it's unlikely some MIT student knew the details and condition of the spacecraft's guts (at a time when Mission Control was still figuring it out). From the explosion to the first course correction (which put them back on

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:27AM (#40894431)

    Wondered where he'd gone off to...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:28AM (#40894439)

    0) Oh look, an opportunity to get hits while everyone's talking about the Mars landing;

    1) Every academic was a "long-haired, beared hippie-type" in the '60s, the following decade being essentially the '60s until the rise of neoliberalism and the resultant Oil Crisis. And all the decent academics (there are a lot more academics today, but most of them are shit) still are;

    2) The slingshot effect was well-known back then;

    3) Why turn this into a conspiracy? It's more likely that some MIT guy commented on the idea, but NASA did the hard work of getting the slingshot to work. Ideas are easy - workable implementations of ideas are hard;

    4) Thank goodness NASA is still around to do the scientific research. I was getting bored with stories about SpaceX doing a Boeing but giving the first hit for free.

    • by Sponge Bath (413667) on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:09AM (#40894933)

      ...the rise of neoliberalism and the resultant Oil Crisis.

      WTF are you blabbering about?

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:17AM (#40895017)

        Shhh, he is pretending to be old enough to remember.

      • by houghi (78078)

        ...the rise of neoliberalism and the resultant Oil Crisis.

        WTF are you blabbering about?

        Perhaps his way of saying that the hippies of then are the bankers of now.

      • by TubeSteak (669689)

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoliberalism [wikipedia.org]
        Neoliberalism is more or less the equivalent of modern right-wing capitalist ideology.
        Don't be confused by the "liberalism," it means "economic liberalism" which means "deregulate everything"

        I assume the GP is talking about the 70s Oil Crisis and neoliberalism did *not* cause that.
        If anything, the 70s Oil Crisis caused neoliberalism to become popular and accepted in mainstream economic thinking.

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        he's implying that the oil crisis were results of liberating economics to hands of idiots who managed to create a crisis out of a resource that was(still is) plentiful.

    • by hey! (33014)

      Every academic was a "long-haired, beared hippie-type" in the '60s, the following decade being essentially the '60s until the rise of neoliberalism and the resultant Oil Crisis. ... And all the decent academics still are

      You are mixing up being a hippy and having genius (i.e. *bad*) hair. When you've got too much brains, the hairs on your head get inspired then develop a mind of their own.

  • OMG (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rik Sweeney (471717) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:28AM (#40894445) Homepage

    It was Bill Gates.

    Think about it: They needed to cover it up, so he was made (against his will) to shave his beard and start wearing suits.

    Gates vowed revenge for this, and what better way than to take over the world with computers and make the Curiosity rover run off a modified version of Windows Vista.

    • by feranick (858651)
      Gates was a undergrad (drop-out) at Harvard, not MIT.
      • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

        by Sulphur (1548251)

        Gates was a undergrad (drop-out) at Harvard, not MIT.

        He could have been a double agent for MIT.

    • And Curiosity is running on a modified Mac - PowerPC G3/750

      • And Curiosity is running on a modified Mac - PowerPC G3/750

        PPC just happens to be the preferred platform for VxWorks in the defense/airborne embedded world.

        It has nothing to do with the Mac association - this happened as a natural transition from the Motorola 68000-series to Motorola's investments in PPC.

        And just like Macs, the embedded world is SLOWLY moving to Intel. But with 10-year concept-to-launch mission timetables, the transition is very slow.

    • Gates vowed revenge for this, and what better way than to take over the world with computers and make the Curiosity rover run off a modified version of Windows Vista.

      Thankfully no... VxWorks may not be great at a lot of things, but it's got a proven track record [wikipedia.org] with the rovers...

    • No, read Year Zero by Rob Reid for the real story on Bill Gates. (Saying any more would be a spoiler.) Ok, Gates just makes a small cameo, but it's a hilarious book and Reid's take on Bill Gates makes total sense.

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:29AM (#40894455)

    said that an unnamed MIT grad student came up with the idea to slingshot the spacecraft around the moon

    Now just wait here. The abort plan drawn up in '66 might or might not have been invented by a long haired hippy. Its hard to describe something that obvious as being "invented". The insinuation is the hippy invented it on the fly in '70 during the mission after the O2 tank blew, which is not entirely realistic. By the time the tank blew, the long haired hippy probably got a haircut and a job and a chevvy and maybe even a wife and kid (or two).

    Or they may be massively misinterpreting the concept of "inventing". So the tank blows and they're all freaking the F out as you'd imagine, just barely on the sober edge of panic. Visiting hippy who's too stoned to panic says "wow man, just be cool, its early enough in the mission that a AOA is still cool and cosmic, man" plus or minus some weed consumption. Now thats making a valuable observation under severe pressure, not "inventing".

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:33AM (#40894495)

    I call bullshit on the "hippy thought it up" story.

    A slingshot around the moon for earth return trajectory was a well known and well-studied tactic long before the first unmanned probe was ever even sent to the moon. Slingshots are an elementary part of Orbital Mechanics, the formulas are published in college textbooks of the 1950's and the topic is well-discussed even in sci-fi books of the 30's and 40's.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
    • It would not be the first time some establishment guys were steered in the right direction by some clear thinking individual, or an individual that was enough removed from the politics and dirty details to see that the current thinking was leading nowhere. Some minds get locked into grooves and need to be sling-shoted out of them
      to get on a better track. This of course is not a new idea. Many mathematical minima heuristics will add a data jump to make sure the algorithm is not stuck in a local minima. These

    • by DrEnter (600510) *
      I completely agree with you, but I don't think he (the 97 year-old guy) did this intentionally. I think he was just blurring a couple of technical problems together: The Apollo 13 return trajectory problem and the Apollo 14 LEM computer problem. The Apollo 14 LEM computer started to malfunction during Lunar descent and required emergency reprogramming, which required the help of some MIT folks. This is documented. I'm not sure any of those MIT folks were ever recognized, and I could easily see somethin
    • You know what Buzz Aldrin was doing while Neil was footstompin on the moon? Yep, he was doing practice slingshot runs, in case, you know, "shit happens, or the Mangalores come gunnin'."

  • by dietdew7 (1171613) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:34AM (#40894499)
    Continue the path and slingshot back or fire the rockets and turn around, were there any other choices? I'm not sure for what they want to credit the smelly hippie. There is nothing marvelous about the solution, it was the decision that was risky.
  • every famous person in history has had lots of people working for him/her. Lots of da vinci's and Michelangelo's work was done by their students

  • One of the comments in the post this links to claims that it's an urban legend and I think that maybe correct. I remember those times and was an avid follower. Even the earliest Apollo missions had a "go round" bailout if they aborted a landing. Not sure you would call that a "sling shot" but they did know full well the trajectories.

  • by thomas.kane (2515292) on Monday August 06, 2012 @10:40AM (#40894589)
    Every Apollo mission up to 13 that went to the moon was already on a trajectory to return it to Earth via slingshot if there was an issue (i.e. SPS engine failed to fire for LOI). Shortly after TLI for Apollo 13, a burn was made to take Apollo 13 off this trajectory in order to reach Frau Mora (their landing site) at a specific time of the lunar cycle to provide good visibility for landing. The Apollo 13 loop around decision was very probably already on the books prior to the flight for just such an eventuality, and while any number of engineers (or hippies) could have initially developed such a burn, it is the flight director's (in this case Gene Kranz and others) who would ultimately review the procedure and make the final decision to perform the burn to return them to their free-return trajectory. To say that an MIT student "saved" Apollo 13 doesn't meet with the facts of the mission.
  • That sounds unlikely.

    a) NASA and the Lunar program had some pretty smart people thinking about every option and outcome (Duh.). Given the way they maneuvered to and around the moon and other celestial bodies before, the 'slingshot' seems quite obvious actually. You might need an engineer with strong math skills to work out the orbit corrections to save fuel for later and come up with some ideas for the details, but the idea itself is quite straight forward. In fact I'm sure they didn't even consider any *ot

  • Some one faced a problem and thought of using a sling as the solution. His name must be David.
  • What is this? Slashdot blogging Gizmodo blogging a weakly verified Reddit AMA? Get real. It's like information laundering. If enough hands touch the information everyone will have to believe it and they'll have forgotten the source anyway!

    • by Dyinobal (1427207)
      Completely unverified you mean. It really is depressing that people are buying into this. I guess it appeals to some people but the notion that some MIT grad thought up the sling shot maneuver is just stupid. Slashdot you disappoint me today!
    • Now all we need is for Wikipedia to include it, citing Slashdot, so a blog can reference Wikipedia and then Reddit can reference that blog as proof that their initial article was true.

  • by paulfjeld (641367) on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:08AM (#40894925)
    The linked story is a great example of why you should never listen to what old men remember about great events and their (often "heroic") part in them. At no time did NASA need some graduate student from MIT to help them with a Guidance 101 type problem on Apollo 13. The difficulty was in getting the Lunar Module prepped quickly enough to make a small burn that would get them on a free return trajectory, the same type used on the previous four Apollo missions to the moon. Apollo 13 was the first to use a less safe trajectory so they could visit a more interesting place, Fra Mauro. There were always many ways out of a pickle and abort guidelines had been carefully developed for different phases of the mission. At the point of Apollo 13's explosion, a direct abort going straight back was never possible, not least because their big engine was in the now dead Service Module. Free return was the only option. There *was* a very famous "hippy" type guy at the MIT Instrumentation Lab, Don Eyles, who was responsible for much of the Lunar Module's landing program. On Apollo 14 he was instrumental in solving a problem that would have prevented that landing and he did get official recognition for it and there are pictures of him with his long hair and mustache. So that's another part of the Gizmodo crap article that is wrong. As far as the photos of the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon go, there were about three pictures taken by Aldrin with Armstrong only incidentally in the frame. The shot with the flag is definitely of Aldrin, as you can see Armstrong taking the picture in the 16mm film taken from the Lunar Module window. Aldrin, unconsciously or deliberately, never took a proper picture of his fellow crew member and commander. It was only after Apollo 12 that a photo specialist at the Houston space center suggested red armbands for the commander to distinguish him in the photos and Jim Lovell, the Apollo 13 commander, never got to show them off, alas.
    • At no time did NASA need some graduate student from MIT to help them with a Guidance 101 type problem on Apollo 13.

      There *was* a very famous "hippy" type guy at the MIT Instrumentation Lab, Don Eyles, who was responsible for much of the Lunar Module's landing program. On Apollo 14 he was instrumental in solving a problem that would have prevented that landing and he did get official recognition for it and there are pictures of him with his long hair and mustache. So that's another part of the Gizmodo crap article that is wrong.

      I have read every argument in this story so far, ready to believe this old man. But your informed comment clinches it for me that the story is probably bogus. Then pops the question: why is this story, a controversy soiling NASA's reputation, coming up today, on the day the world celebrates the successful landing of Curiosity? Why the appeal to crowd-sourcing to locate this guy and make as much fuss as possible down in the tubes? Who has interest in doing that? Those who have might get a little surprise, as

  • by yesterdaystomorrow (1766850) on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:18AM (#40895043)

    There was certainly a lot of discussion of this among us at the time. I recall we wondered whether NASA would go for free return or be more radical and use more delta-V in cislunar space to get the astronauts home sooner.

    But call up NASA? Be serious. Which of the 100,000 phone numbers would you call? The critical people were busy: they weren't going to talk to some random student. This was all elementary orbital mechanics, somewhat difficult to calculate and execute accurately, but not conceptually difficult at all. The flight team certainly knew this stuff. The real question was what the damaged systems could still accomplish, and that required information well beyond what we had access to. So it never occurred to anybody I know to try being a back seat driver.

    • by mbone (558574)

      I bet the student worked at the MIT Instrumentation Labs (now Draper Labs), which designed the Apollo (and space shuttle) guidance systems. In that case, he knew who to call. Heck, since I started working there (but not for them, for MIT) in 1975, I might even know him.

  • by Ellis D. Tripp (755736) on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:23AM (#40895117) Homepage

    The free return trajectory maneuver ("slingshot") was well known to NASA engineers, and was actually the default trajectory for all lunar missions before 13. The crew had to specifically fire the engines to enter lunar orbit. If the engines somehow failed to fire, the spacecraft was already on the proper trajectory to swing around the moon and return to earth . 13 was the first mission that was on a different initial trajectory, and required a change in order to get ONTO a free-return, but the "lunar slingshot" concept was obvious to all involved.

    The "long-haired hippie at MIT" who saved an Apollo mission was named Don Eyles, and the mission was Apollo 14. Picture of Eyles as he looked in those days here:

    http://pophop.tumblr.com/post/7532929166/m-i-t-programmer-don-eyles-posing-in-the-draper [tumblr.com]

    When a loose ball of solder inside the abort switch threatened to cancel the lunar landing, Eyles was called on to write a software patch that would bypass the switch and allow the landing to continue. Full story at the "LM Tales" section of his website, which is largely devoted to his post-Apollo artwork, photography, and sculpture.

    http://www.doneyles.com/supersymandala.html [doneyles.com]

  • Bullshit (Score:5, Informative)

    by mbone (558574) on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:37AM (#40895255)

    I am sorry, but this is BS as stated. The "Zond" direct return was certainly not unknown to the Apollo scientists. It's called a Zond trajectory because Zond 5 (launched 15 September 1968, returned 21 September) was the first spacecraft to execute it. (This would have been repeated with cosmonauts aboard if NASA hadn't have swapped the Apollo 8 and Apollo 9, putting men in lunar orbit in December, 1968, and thus upstaging a Soviet manned lunar flyby.) That was 2 years before Apollo 13.

    I also remember the Zond trajectory was _planned_ as a failure mode option for Apollo. I am sure there is discussion of that in the Apollo planning. I knew about it, and I was in High School at the time so I would bet serious money that Gene Kranz knew of it. I am not sure what the grad student actually contributed, but it wasn't the idea of the trajectory. (If I had to guess, I would bet he worked at the Instrumentation Lab - now Draper Labs - and calculated the delta-V needed to reenter safely, which is not negligible, but not the same as coming up with the idea.)

    Since many of the Apollo trajectory guys are still alive, if retired, I bet that someone will counter this in a day or so.

  • by TwobyTwo (588727) on Monday August 06, 2012 @11:40AM (#40895287)

    For what it's worth, I was a student at MIT in the early 1970s. I recall in the summer of 1972 hearing a story from other students that is surprisingly similar in general outline, but not in detail. Obviously, my memory from so long ago isn't perfect, what I heard at the time was a rumor anyway, and I haven't really tried to research anything that would corroborate it. That said...

    The story was not about Apollo 13, but about another Apollo mission that had established orbit around the moon. Some sort of faulty sensor reading or stuck switch was preventing the system from preparing the necessary rocket firings to break the astronauts out of lunar orbit and send them home. According to these rumors, NASA identified the author of the control code as an MIT student working at the Charles Stark Draper laboratory, which is affiliated with MIT. An emergency call went out to find him, so that he could patch the code to ignore the faulty switch or sensor.

    The claim is that the call was taken by friends, who were concerned by the fact that the student in question, whether long-haired or not, was either drunk or stoned out of his gourd at the time. Nonetheless, the student was alerted. He supposedly uttered the obvious "oh !$!$!" and stumbled off to Draper Lab, where in his reduced condition he patched the code and saved the astronauts.

    Very much a rumor/urban legend, but suspiciously similar to the new story about Apollo 13. These certainly were the sorts of stories that floated around MIT at the time. I expect that at least a small percentage of them are true.

  • I believe this article requires a reference to Betteridge's Law of Headlines [wikipedia.org] and a "No".

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