'Intense satisfaction:' Purdue alumni to share stories of work on Apollo 11 mission

Tim Harmon, Chesterfield Janes and Ron Larsen will speak on a panel, “Industry’s Crucial Role in the Apollo 11 Mission,” at 5 p.m. July 20 at Loeb Playhouse in the Stewart Center.
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Tim Harmon, Chesterfield Janes and Ron Larsen will share their stories about the Apollo 11 mission on July 20 during Purdue University’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. They’ll speak on a panel, “Industry’s Crucial Role in the Apollo 11 Mission,” at 5 p.m. at Loeb Playhouse in the Stewart Center.

Sleep was a luxury.

Family time was intermittent.

Pressure was a lifestyle.

Urgency was the culture.

For those working behind the scenes in the weeks leading up to the Apollo 11 mission, whether as a mechanical systems manager responsible for all ground support equipment in the Saturn V Instrument Unit, as a project engineer in charge of combustion stability testing on the lunar module ascent engine or a programmer computing trajectories and sending them to the tracking network, July 1969 was intense.

By then, NASA already had launched humans into space as part of the Apollo program four times — basically every three months, starting with Apollo 7 in October 1968. By Apollo 11, everyone associated with the mission knew the importance: It would land humans on the moon for the first time.

Tim Harmon, Chesterfield Janes and Ron Larsen worked as diligently as they always would, even under the amplified schedules, a high demand for excellence and with historic implications looming.

After the successful launch of Saturn V on July 16, after the lunar module land on the Moon on July 20 and AAE alumnus Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on the lunar surface, after the lunar module ascent engine successfully ignited to lift the astronauts off the moon, after the astronauts safely landed on July 26, Harmon, Janes and Larsen could finally relax. The mission was a success — thanks, in part, to each of them, the teams they worked on and thousands of others.

Purdue alumni Harmon, Janes and Larsen will share their stories about that special mission on July 20 during Purdue University’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing. They’ll speak on a panel, “Industry’s Crucial Role in the Apollo 11 Mission,” at 5 p.m. at Loeb Playhouse in the Stewart Center. Tickets are required and can be reserved online.

“I feel really kind of honored,” Janes (BSAE ’57) said about participating in the panel. “I wouldn’t pass this up for the world.”

Each alumnus worked on a different aspect of the mission.

Harmon (BSAAE ’63) was a project engineer for Rocketdyne, which NASA tasked to determine why Bell Aerospace’s ascent engine for the lunar module was experiencing combustion instability. Harmon’s team used a novel approach to solve the issue: Inserting acoustic cavities to dampen combustion instability frequencies and prevent the engine from literally exploding. Harmon ran the test stand at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana, California, test facility. Typically, it’d take years to qualify an engine, Harmon said, but with Bell’s instability issues and Rocketdyne’s late insertion into the project, the schedule was intensified. Harmon ran a 24-7 operation, and, ultimately, Rocketdyne’s engine ready in about only nine months.

And it had to work: There was no backup engine on the lunar module.

“If this thing didn’t work, they were not coming off the Moon,” Harmon said.

But Harmon was confident in he and his team’s work. They’d run hundreds of combustion stability tests, even identified and fixed a weld cracking problem during testing, and also managed to lessen the weight of the engine late in the process to allow more samples to be stored on the module.

Harmon didn’t have a television at home, so he and his wife took their two kids to a hotel room to watch the landing.

“It was an intense satisfaction,” Harmon said of the watching history. “Apollo 13 demonstrated redundancy, but Apollo 11 demonstrated it was a job well done. I am extremely proud of what I contributed and what the team contributed. It was a very high honor to be even chosen to work on the program — the people they picked were very competent engineers — so we had one of the finest teams assembled. I did not have that much experience at that time, was a young engineer, and that was a lot of responsibility. But I wasn’t the only young engineer. Everybody pitched in and got the job done.

“The whole thing was challenging, exhausting, satisfying and fun. That’s what I can say for all the people who worked on that engine.”

Janes was in the thick of the chaos in July, working on the launch crew as a mechanical systems manager for IBM at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. IBM manufactured the Saturn V Instrument Unit, a ring-shaped structure fitted to the top of the rocket’s second and third stages that contained electronics. Janes and 10-member crew were responsible for the ground support equipment, specifically keeping the electronics cool and the air pressure system up and running. In the two weeks prior to launch, IBM required a management representative from each function to be present on site 24-7, and Janes was part of the rotation.

On July 20, he watched Armstrong walk on the moon from the firing room at Kennedy.

“I guess it was a little surreal,” Janes said, knowing he was intimately involved with the mission. “It’s something I’m very proud of.”

In 1969, Larsen was only one year removed from Purdue, where he’d received a bachelor’s in engineering sciences. He started immediately at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, working on the Goddard Real Time System. The system essentially tracked spacecraft and generated the acquisition data for the tracking network.

Larsen, a programmer, was in a group of about 10 people who were responsible for operating the system that analyzed tracking data and generated acquisition data. He worked with a team of flight dynamics analysts to compute the spacecraft trajectory, generate acquisition data for the tracking stations and analyze returned tracking data to update the spacecraft trajectory. The updated trajectory was then used to drive mission control displays in Goddard’s operations center.

Their group provided 24-7 support for each Apollo mission, Larsen said, and Apollo 11 wasn’t unique in that sense. But that mission certainly did have its moments: Like when Larsen witnessed landing from Goddard’s mission operation center, a smaller version of the one in the well-known Houston facility.

“It was an exciting time to work for NASA,” Larsen said. “That’s one of the highlights of the history of the agency. It would be hard to imagine a better first job than going to do something like that.”

Apollo 11 anniversary events

July 18: "Go or No Go: The Untold Story of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing," Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz panel (Sold out)

July 19: Apollo in the Archives: Selections from the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, 10-4:30 p.m., Stewart Center 

July 20: "ARMSTRONG" documentary, 10 a.m., Loeb Playhouse (No tickets required)

July 20: Book signing/sales and author meet and greet, Noon, Loeb Playhouse

July 20: "Past, Present, Future" NASA Flight Directors panel, 1 p.m., Loeb Playhouse (Tickets available)

July 20: Lunar module landing celebration, 3:30 p.m., Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering

July 20: "Industry's Crucial Role in the Apollo 11 Mission," 5 p.m., Loeb Playhouse (Tickets available)

July 20: "ARMSTRONG" documentary, 7 p.m.  (No tickets required)