Enterprise Software

Geek Trivia: One for the money, two for the tow

How much was the "towing bill" presented to NASA contractors by the makers of the Apollo 13 lunar module?

The character of human beings is often measured by how they deal with crisis. Case in point: The Apollo 13 disaster, which saw a trio of American astronauts fighting for their lives aboard a crippled spacecraft tens of thousands of miles away from Earth. NASA administrators and scientists worked tirelessly to get Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert home -- and the manner in which NASA dealt with this daunting task is often viewed as a textbook example of successful crisis management.

For example, NASA didn't dwell on the cause of the oxygen tank rupture, but merely how to deal with it. As soon as Lovell radioed in his famous understatement -- "Houston, we've had a problem" -- every available expert was brought in to solve that problem. This meant establishing available assets, not bemoaning what was lost. Those assets largely comprised an almost entirely undamaged Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), which could serve as a lifeboat once the Command Service Module (CSM) had to be abandoned. More importantly, the explosion had occurred very early in the mission, when the LEM and the CSM had a maximum store of supplies that could be called upon to help the astronauts survive the impending four-day ordeal.

Following the establishment of assets, NASA set about to apply those assets to reach the goal -- three astronauts safely returned home. Despite the fact that the LEM was only intended to keep two men alive on the lunar surface for two days, it had enough oxygen to support a trio for four days, as the cabin would not have to be repressurized after moonwalks. Instead, the astronauts had to jury-rig carbon-dioxide scrubbers to keep the abundant air clean for the extra duration. The LEM's landing thrusters also had to be used to make course corrections, and electrical power had to be conserved, so heating was shut down and communications were kept to a minimum.

These ingenious endeavors saw Lovell, Haise, and Swigert home safely. When the astronauts' return was assured, NASA and its associates actually indulged in another time-honored tradition of successful crisis management: a little post-gallows humor. North American Rockwell, which built the LEM, got a jab in at Grumman, which built the damaged CSM. The former sent the latter a "towing bill" for aid rendered to its craft and passengers, complete with itemized calculations for a final (though not inconsiderable) sum.

HOW MUCH WAS THE "TOWING BILL" PRESENTED TO NASA CONTRACTORS BY THE MAKERS OF THE APOLLO 13 LUNAR MODULE?

Get the answer.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

25 comments
petenz
petenz

Jay - you said "The CSM alone was composed of more than five million separate components, so even if North American Rockwell achieved the vaunted ???five nines??? of quality ??? 99.999 percent success rate in component manufacturing ??? at least 500 parts of the CSM would still fail." Shouldn't the answer be at least 50 parts if one in 100,000 fail? PeteNZ

rsaulpaugh
rsaulpaugh

"The CSM alone was composed of more than five million separate components..." ...all built by the lowest bidder. Did anybody mention the "little people" who were hired to wire the back panels in the capsule?

justice4all76
justice4all76

Wouldn't 1 failure in 100,000 be FIFTY in 5 million??? Still a lot, but not 500.

davetracer
davetracer

Jay, you need to run a factcheck against Wikipedia. North American built the Apollo spacecraft -- remember that horrible fire with Apollo 1? They almost got their contract jerked. Grumman, a company out on Long Island, got the LEM contract. Despite what the movie "Apollo 13" showed, when the Grumman guys heard about the explosion, they went straight back to work for continuous days and supplied NASA with critical information on the LEM, because they knew it up, down, and sideways -- they built it! The reason Apollo 8 did its famous trip around the Moon (with that incredible picture of "Earthrise" from the Moon) was that Grumman was running late and a LEM was not ready. Tom Hank's series "From the Earth to the Moon" has this right, as does Wikipedia. Quoting Wikipedia: "Grumman Aerospace Corporation, the builder of the LM, issued an invoice for $312,421.24 to North American Rockwell,[14] the builder of the CM module, for "towing" the crippled ship most of the way to the Moon and back. The invoice was drawn up as a gag following Apollo 13's successful splashdown by one of the pilots for Grumman, Sam Greenberg. He had earlier helped with the strategy for rerouting power from the LM to the crippled CM. The invoice included a 20% commercial discount, as well as a further 2% discount if North American were to pay in cash. North American politely declined payment, noting that they had ferried Grumman LMs to the Moon on three previous occasions with no such reciprocal charges." While it's nice to say Sam Greenberg help develop the idea to route spare LEM power to the CM to help spin it back up just prior to re-entry, the truth is that John Aaron, whom everyone at Mission Control agrees is the best of the best Engineering people, probably came up with this. Aaron also saved Apollo 12 a few seconds after liftoff when it was hit by lightning and all the master alarms triggered. John's famous on-the-spot-total-trivia-bowl "Tell them to set SCE to AUX" reset the alarms, and the crew was able to re-align the guidance platform later. It was one of the biggest saves under time pressure by anyone ever. -- thanks, Dave Small Space Nerd

mastertexan
mastertexan

Deferred. I can tell you from what I understand from my grandfather who was an airline mechanic since the stone age, most problems are simply put off (deferred) so someone else can fix them.

rsprinkle
rsprinkle

Apollo 10's ascent stage is in heliocentric orbit so presumably was not jettisoned while in earth or lunar orbit. Therefore, it was not "towed" all the way back to earth. Apollo 11 and 12 LEM ascent stages were jettisoned while still in lunar orbit. So while a claim could be made that the CSM "towed" the LEM's to the moon, they were not "towed" back.

JosiahB
JosiahB

"How much was the 'towing bill' presented to Grumman by North American Rockwell after the Apollo 13 disaster" "North American Rockwell 'owed' Grumman $312,421.24 in total" Last time I presented someone with a bill it wasn't for money that I owed them....

Bill Ward
Bill Ward

GREAT post, Jay. However, while you hit one of the trivia questions, it's possible to ask a nearly identical question that was much more serious. During the Apollo 13 emergency, ALL available useful assets at the various relevent contractors, sub-contractors, NASA personel, etc., were mobilized. It was truly a team accomplishment when the Apollo 13 astronauts landed. However, many of those assets would either not have been required, or would have been working at most standard 8 hour or 12 hour shifts, yet many were kept literally around the clock from the moment Mission Control went into crisis mode until the astronauts landed. Over 1000 people were tapped, at various places to poor over technical drawings, manufacturing records, inventory controls, etc. (While you are correct that MC didn't dwell on WHAT caused the accident, they did order the subcontractors to try to find out as quickly as possible in case it meant a wider systemic problem that might impact recovery efforts). For those directly working the problem of returning the astronauts home, the data returned from the "off sites" was instrumental in helping to give them a true sense of what assets were available. So the question is: How much did the actual disaster response cost NASA for Apollo 13?

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

...I wouldn't be writing Trivia for a living. Yeah, I fat-fingered my order of magnitude. At least I didn't forget to convert my feet into meters before programming a multimillion dollar Mars probe. I'm not qualified for that level of oops.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

How many parts are on any of the Enterprise starships? Part of the reason for such huge numbers of sailors on our naval ships is that stuff breaks down all the time. I doubt that even in the Star Trek universe that that problem is much improved; although I can conjecture a point in time where transporter/replicator technology is sophisticated enough to detect part failures, and simultaneously remove the defective part and replace it with a newly manufactured one.

chuckp1066
chuckp1066

This brings to mind (one of) the current brouhaha here in CA. Recently, a Metrolink commuter train blew through 2 red lights and hit a freight train, killing 25. Now, there's a clamor for requiring a positive control system. The topic has come up before and been rejected as too expensive. The most astute comment I've heard in the debate was that in this country, we don't regulate things until the bodies begin to pile up...

64molson
64molson

The beauty of deferred is "yeah, we know there's a problem, but nobody's been killed yet." We'll get around to it - eventually. Eventually means AFTER people have been killed, equipment lost and/or destroyed. NASA spent 3 years & $1B+ to "fix" the problem with the shuttle's external tank. Problem is still not solved. Now the shuttle will be retired without a working spacecraft to take it's place. Orion may not ever fly, but by the time we figure THAT out, we will have poured another umpteen billion into more useless crap, and the shuttles will have been broken into scrap.

Bill Ward
Bill Ward

Apollo 7: LEO, no LEM Apollo 8: Circum-Lunar, no LEM Apollo 9: LEO LEM try out, the Apollo 9 LEM wasn't towed anywhere. Apollo 10: Landing "Dry Run". If Nasa had REALLY wanted to, they could have actually landed during Apollo 10, as the LEM was down to only 6 KM, IIRC, of the Lunar Surface, and the "Descent Stage" actually crashed into the Lunar Surface after it was ejected. The Ascent stage is, as you said, in Heliocentric orbit, as I recall. This was the most dangerous (not accidental) mission, as they fired the Ascent Stage and seperated from the Descent Stage while the Descent stage was in use. Personally, I'd have landed if I was one of the Apollo 10 crew..... Apollo 11: Eagle crashed into the moon after jettison. Apollo 12: Ditto. 3 LEMs were taken to the moon prior to Apollo 13, none were returned. However, it was the Saturn V third stage that actually propelled the craft to the moon, not the CSM. Rockwell doesn't have a case, and should have paid up to Grumman.

read
read

This is basically what I read as being the major point of the entire joke "bill". When I first read this post I was thinking "duh, obviously!", but then there may be people that might look at it more simply and assume the point was that the costs should have all been already accounted for the moment the rocket engines were ignited. I prefer the geekier physics-related "joke" to the accounting one.

Jay Garmon
Jay Garmon

..it's fixed now. Sorry about that.

JohnWarfin
JohnWarfin

Here on Long Island we run across all sorts of reminders the LEM was Grumman's product. The disaster and recovery had some huge percentage of the LI workforce sweating and celebrating for the record books.

mlleeder
mlleeder

Mixup in writing/editing, or is there more to this?

nwoodson
nwoodson

As a retired career soldier I can say one thing wih certainty: As long as we know where to point a finger we'll do everything we can to solve a problem. Systematic failure analysis during a crisis is a necessary luxury. Luxury because it's horribly resource intensive and necessary because failure (however probable) is not an option. Even the government is capable (though you wouldn't know it in recent times) of solving incredibly complex problems with alacrity and professionalism. The sad part is that government engineers (in general) have departed from that notion of "solve the problem at all costs" because we're more interested in the bottom line. In this era of renewed interest in manned space flight an even scarier question would be, 'What would happen if the same thing happened in today's environment?' Between the number of foreign companies and the liability issues that would be involved, it would be difficult at best to get all of the contractors on the same page. The finger-pointing would be horrendous and the outcome would be uncertian. All one has to do is look at the Morton-Thiokol investigation. [Realizing that battle was a catostrophic loss from the outset.] In the end we can only hope that cost-containment isn't a motivation and the 'quality and success at all cost' mantra is readopted.

64molson
64molson

Is the mantra for today's engineering??? The problem with o-rings on the shuttle's SRBs was a well documented issue. NASA was trying to fulfill its promise of 10 shuttle flights/year. Challenger Costs: 2 SRBs = few $M 1 Space Shuttle = $3B 7 Astronauts = ?? Can you really put worth on these lives, especially to the families? We're not even talking about millions $ & lifetimes spent training for their one shot. Blow to NASA's 'can do' ego = priceless The problem of insulating foam breaking away from the external tank was well documented. Columbia Costs: 1 Space Shuttle = $3B 7 Astronauts = see above Blow to NASA's ego = we'll try harder NASA is NOT AVIS. What happens if we ever go to Mars? The vehicle will have to work FLAWLESSLY for 2-3 years, just to get there & back. Space travel will never be completely safe, to many parts, manufacturers & variables to cover them all.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

The key to making the deferred maintenance concept work is a two step process. First, you evaluate the safety aspect of the problem at the time of the report, as well as during daily monitoring checks by the operators, until the next time the equipment, vehicle, craft, whatever, comes in for periodic scheduled maintenance. Second, when it does come in for its 1,000,000 Km maintenance, it doesn't leave until EVERYTHING is fixed. If you re-defer past these checkpoints, your chance for catastrophic failure goes hyperbolic. It's always cheaper to cancel (or postpone) the mission than it is to lose the craft and everything and everyone on board.

YoTeach
YoTeach

North American Rockwell built the CSM Grumman built the LEM Thus Grumman presented North American Rockwell with a "towing" bill for services rendered by the LEM. Not the other way around as it was written in the initial question portion of the article.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

They knew the shuttle suffered some sort of damage during the launch. Did they go all out to ascertain exactly how much? No. Did they set up an alternative to use until they could be sure Columbia was OK? No. What they hell happened to failsafe in the space program - the bottom line of we can't afford to launch another shuttle unless it's proven we need to. History shows they needed to but no one could prove that without a very close examination of the damage, something that was NOT done while in orbit and it should have been. Seven people died because someone thought more about money than safety.

mark.johnson
mark.johnson

Actually, a space vehicle doesn't have to work perfectly. Apollo 7 (the 'back to space' mission following the Apollo 1 pad fire) was hailed as one of the most productive development missions of the Apollo program - yet there were over 500 failures, some of them mission-critical (like an annoying tendency for the nav computer to crash at inopportune times) in the eleven days of the flight. Perfection isn't required - but failures need to be capable of being recognized and either corrected or avoided before 'mission-critical' turns into 'mission-ending.' I agree, however, that NASA is not a rental-car company. Space travel, as far as I can see, is always going to be an inherently dangerous activity. Every pilot is a test pilot, and despite the rhetoric, there is no such thing as a routine mission.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

Back in those days it was a race, and money was being poured into NASA. things were built faster, but with care. Today, the rush is out of the way and money constraints are more of an issue. I think DE is more correct though, NASA normally freaks out about minor things and goes into a correction mode, however they never tried to repair or determine the damage. They just looked at the video and said it probably wasnt an issue.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

The problem with the O2 Tank Stirrer was Known from Apollo 6 or something like [i]{Jay would probably know the exact details better than me here}[/b]that but nothing was done to correct the existing problem. Granted they never expected such a Catastrophic Failure as what actually happened but the Stirrer Motor Producing a Spark was a Known Issue. The fact that this was only modified after Apollo 13 tends to show that Money was more of an issue than it's been given credit for. Sure getting the Guys back safe was a feat of Engineering over very Difficult Obstacles but the reality is that the Incident which could have been much worse should never have happed in the first place. Even in the Incident with Apollo 13 if the Heat Shield had of been damaged all of the work extending the life span of the crew would have been for naught and as they had no idea of just how bad the damage actually was it very well could have been a massive waste of money with the same result the crew all dead. The fact that the crew didn't die was more a testament to the God's smiling on them than any [b]Serious Engineering[/b] put in place to prevent things like this from happening. I'm reminded of the Space Shuttle's Solid Rocket Boosters here there was a [b]Known Issue[/b] with the O Ring Seal but again till there was a Catastrophic Failure of that seal no steps where taken to prevent to failure occurring. Fail Safe Engineering would involve redesigning before Failure occur and this should start when a Problem comes to light not after an [b]Incident[/b] occurs. The need to suffer a Catastrophic Failure like in either Apollo 13 or the Space Shuttle should never have happened in the first place. These problems where known to begin with or came to light during routine use of the project. Redesigning O Ring Seals, Foam Covering or Heat Shield Tiles after a Catastrophic Failure like those that did occur should never have happened. The fact that there was no procedure in place to do On The Spot Heat Shield Repairs while in Flight also shows a short coming of the program where the Known Issues where never dealt with. The reality is that NASA has been extremely lucky in having so few die on their watch but this is more down to [b]Good Luck[/b] not [b]Good Management.[/b] Even then when all is said and done it wasn't NASA's decision not to redesign these problem it fell to the people overseeing the expenditure of funds to allow the required redesigns to occur after things have gone wrong not to prevent Nasty Things from happening. Space Exploration is Dangerous but it is unnecessary to make it even more dangerous when you fail to fix problems as they arise before they become Major Issues that endanger lives. Any Good Design Team fix problems as they arise to make the product better than it already is but right from the word Go in Maned Space Flight this has not happened they design a Good Device within their Available Knowledge and then wait for Catastrophic Failure to occur before starting the redesign that should occur as soon as a problem raises it's head. And this isn't done for any other reason than to [b]Save Money[/b] which is unacceptable to any thinking person. The problem here is that it encourages others who do not have as stringent Safety procedures in place to do the same thing and accept Close Enough is Good Enough till something goes seriously wrong and people are injured or killed needlessly. Then they start to look at the Mechanical Problem and never address the real problem which is what allowed the Mechanical Problem to kill in the first place. When you allow outside Agencies to dictate Procedures or Missions Objectives from the agency that maintains the people and craft you have a problem waiting to happen as these Outside Agencies see a acceptable outcome and then expect this to continue without change while they insist that they get more out of the craft and push them beyond their Design Limits and all the time stop any development that could prevent these things failures from occurring. NASA does an excellent Job of attempting to keep it's people alive and safe but they are hamstrung by not being allowed to actually run the show as it should be to Promote Safety and Improve the Design to make it even safer and possibly perfect the Design so it becomes safe and maybe even a [b]Everyday Event.[/b] Disasters like the Apollo 13 Mission shouldn't happen and needing them to occur to get the necessary funds to do the job right this time to solve that issue and then do nothing/be prevented from solving the next that arises till another Disaster occurs shouldn't be happening these days. Sure NASA is out there on the [b]Bleeding Edge[/b] but they are there as a Research Agency who should be constantly improving their devices as they go from Mission to Mission and learn from even the Successful Missions to make it even safer. Not accept the Good Outcomes and then have Fingers Pointed at them when things don't go quite right. Till places like NASA can continually improve their tools Space Travel will be a Nice Dream but never a Every Day Reality. When they can produce an Inherently Safe Space Ship with a Known Mission Life well beyond it's Design Life it will then be possible to turn a Design to a Static Design but till that happens it should be a Learning Experience when Continual Development without the Need of Political Interest Groups to tell them what to do when to do it. They are still in the [b]Very Early Stages of Development[/b] and need to be constantly improving their existing designs so that it is really as safe as possible for these Missions to Continue. Col [/Climbs off soap box]