• Philip Kitchens

Take Me to the Moon: Boy-dreamers and a Mega-rocket

Two space engineers, a common passion, and a date with history

In the U.S. a “rocket scientist” is a term occasionally improperly intended to be a complimentary jest. In this article the author presents the story of himself as a then-future rocket scientist and shows how curiosity has played roles for him. I relate how a very famous rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun - also a very curious person - came into my life and served as a powerful inspiration for me. The reader will see that we had similar life paths for a number of years.

My youngest years

As a youth my long-standing fascination with aerospace began with a very early interest in astronomy when I acquired a small telescope, around the years 1952-1953. I viewed Jupiter and its satellites, Saturn and its rings, and some galaxies. The moon must have deeply stoked my curiosity about the universe and what it might be like to travel there (in the mind). I kept a personal-observation log with crude sketches. Gradually, my interest in astronomy expanded to include aviation. I made a trip to the nearby Air Force base and may have taken a flight in an aircraft there. As a very young student, I was fascinated with, and probably inspired by, my fourth grade science teacher. I remember asking her about electricity: “Does voltage or current kill a person?”, her response likely fanned my interest in sciences. I also had curiosity in watching fireflies and capturing chameleons.

First interest in aviation

As a youngster I became interested in model aircraft made of balsa. My airplanes had rubber-powered propellers, as opposed to gasoline engines, some being ready-to-fly but most requiring careful assembly with glue and tissue paper. Some flew reasonably well, but others didn’t! It was also fun flying kites - - except when one found its way into a tree! Did fascination with kites precede aviation, or just the reverse? I can’t be sure.

Reading local newspaper articles enabled me to stay informed about American developments in balloons, aeronautics, and experimental rocket-planes. Libraries very early played a key role for me, even if I wasn’t fully aware of their significance until much later. Each summer I regularly visited the nearby “bookmobile” to find new books to read. In the local public library, I thumbed through the card catalog there, searching for “space books”, one being German spaceflight enthusiast Willy Ley’s. There were occasional articles about man’s future travel into space and these escalated my interest accordingly. It was about then that I first became familiar with von Braun’s name and his work. He rapidly became my idol.

Who was von Braun?

Who was Wernher von Braun? Most informed persons would likely place von Braun above almost all other rocket pioneers, except perhaps the American, Robert H. Goddard. Much has been written about von Braun and his life. Born in Wirsitz, Germany, in 1912, von Braun early on showed very strong curiosity, primarily in astronomy, ignited by his mother’s gift of a small telescope. He doubtless imagined other worlds, but viewing the moon and some planets, especially Mars, likely fired an emerging passion not only for knowing about those bodies, but someday traveling to them.

Von Braun headed a large German army rocket development organization at Peenemunde, near Denmark, from 1937 to April 1945. After the war many of von Braun’s “team” worked on American-government missiles in New Mexico before relocating to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950. After NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was established in 1958 von Braun and his team transferred to the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) closeby. When President Kennedy so dramatically declared in 1962: “We choose to go to the moon... not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” von Braun then applied his leadership toward putting man on the moon.

As director of MSFC, von Braun was an amazing manager. He regularly challenged his staff with personal “action notes” for them. He was not only an incredible technical genius, but also a strong advocate for his workers’ success. Off the job, von Braun was versatile: pilot, scuba diver, author, and musician. His spoken English was of good quality, but kept a somewhat thick accent.

The coming of spaceflight

Temporarily von Braun remained on the edge of my life. In junior high school I entered a science fair with a plastic model rocket. But new drama came October 4, 1957, when, on the playground, someone said that Russia had launched its “Sputnik” artificial satellite. My interest in aeronautics, now including spaceflight, was then fired even more. My courses in high school included a healthy “dose” of math and science, including chemistry. Nearing graduation, I pondered what to study in college. With no aerospace curriculum available locally, I chose chemical engineering (Ch. E.) instead.

College days and the growing flame in me

Entering Louisiana Tech University, I now had a burning passion for an aerospace future. As a student I wrote an article about Saturn launch vehicles for the engineering college’s magazine. On January 27, 1967, I was shocked and deeply saddened to hear that my heroes, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, had died in ground-testing a new spacecraft and had become symbolic of my spaceflight passion. Nonetheless, I didn’t lose my zeal to be part of Apollo. In my senior year I interviewed with a NASA representative. I didn’t realize that my application for work at MSFC would be approved shortly. Before that, however, something else, just as wonderful, was coming - an opportunity to meet Dr. von Braun in person!

von Braun mesmerises his audience

My father could see my evolving interest. He acquired tickets for me to attend a dinner in February 1967 featuring my idol, von Braun, as speaker. I became quite excited about the prospect, yet I could not adequately anticipate the exhilaration forthcoming. At the dinner, I found von Braun to be outwardly robust and physically somewhat heavyset. At age 55, with immaculate business-suit dress, his eyes and dark hair commandeered one’s attention. One might have thought that he was a person of royalty somewhere! He held a very prestigious NASA position and had made many pioneering contributions to rocketry. Now he was going to describe his work and its meaningfulness!

von Braun addressed Apollo, NASA’s national program to land men on the moon. Immediately capturing our attention, he kept us fixated on him as he progressed. He first outlined Apollo, assuming that we knew rather little of it. As he unfolded details about this unprecedented NASA project, I and others could easily detect his natural personal passion for it.

Apollo, he said, would take years to accomplish. The program essentially consisted of the Apollo “spacecraft” per se and the rocket to lift it into space, the enormous Saturn V “launch vehicle.” (For clarification, the spacecraft is the flight hardware in which the astronauts would live and carry out the mission. In aerospace lingo a rocket is traditionally called a “launch vehicle.” It would serve to lift the spacecraft, with crew inside, into orbit.). von Braun was spellbinding with the details. After his introduction, he focused on Saturn V, for which he held a critical responsibility at MSFC. Along the way, von Braun demonstrated his astounding capability for making such a complex technical subject comprehensible to the layman. Indeed he seemed to have a knack for doing so, using comparisons to make his explanations understandable.

Saturn V would have three physical “stages” (sections). For each of these, von Braun first gave the basic facts about it and explaining how it would operate. The rocket, he said, would carry a 100,000-lb. spacecraft with crew of three into orbit around the Earth and then on to the moon. He illustrated his talk with examples in simple numerical terms. But he cautioned that he didn’t expect us to readily comprehend the technical complexity and immensity of the rocket. So he gave us familiar everyday examples to make the otherwise unfathomable rocket easier to appreciate.

As a first illustration, von Braun revealed the staggering size and power of the F-1 engine in the rocket’s first stage (“booster”). The 32,000,000-horsepower (hp) engine, 18.5 feet high and 12 feet in diameter, he said, would produce the equivalent of about 15,000+ hp. per cubic foot of its “envelope” (three-dimensional space) . This, he said, by comparison, would be about 2,300 times the power of a 350-hp. V-8 automobile engine on the same per-cubic-foot basis. Yet there would be FIVE such F-1 engines in the booster, for a total liftoff power of 160,000,000 hp. to lift the 6,477,000-lb. vehicle! Now that was something the layman could relate to! (Each F-1’s pumps could empty a swimming pool 50 ft. x 30 ft. x 8 ft. in 137 seconds!)

When von Braun had finished, we were all dumbfounded and thoroughly impressed. Knowing that I had become enthralled by von Braun’s charisma, my father then led me to the podium where a photographer was snapping away. The photographer kindly made a picture of him, my Dad, and me. Later von Braun wrote to me, enclosing the photo - autographed by him - and thanking me for the opportunity to meet him. The letter and photo would become lifetime treasures!

von Braun pauses to evaluate progress with Apollo XI

launch countdown, July 16, 1969 (Photo from NASA)

von Braun and colleagues

share a lighter moment

in the launch control center at Kennedy Space Center, July 16, 1969,

apparently celebrating the successful launch! (Photo from NASA)

A new engineer reports to MSFC

As an engineer arriving at MSFC in August 1967, I found special meaning in realizing that my life’s path was becoming rather similar to von Braun’s own. I worked first in a chemistry lab, conducting flammability (burning tendency) tests of polymeric materials for spacecraft material safety. Not being familiar with the advanced equipment, I had to make an immediate adjustment. In November 1967 Saturn V was flown for the first time on a test mission. It was spectacular; it even substantially emotionally “rattled” CBS-TV journalist Walter Cronkite in his reporting the liftoff. In a letter to my parents, I said “I felt like running to work today!”

Subsequently I transferred from materials testing to Saturn rocket propulsion to be closer to the activity I’d always wanted. My propulsion engineering assignments related to the awesome F-1 and its use in a five-engine, 160,000,000-hp. “cluster” in the Saturn V’s booster. I learned details of the F-1 and how to evaluate its performance in ground testing and in flight. This meant learning about “turbopumps”, valves, start sequences, exhaust nozzles, and use of certain “propellants.”[1]. It is noteworthy that the state of the art for engineering calculations then was the “slide rule.” Under von Braun, knowing that I was just one of 7,000 MSFC employees and 400,000 persons working to make Apollo successful didn’t bother me; it was too important to tell myself that I was now contributing to a project unprecedented in history!

Experiencing the launch of Apollo XI

The Apollo program reached a dramatic climax in July 1969. Since President Kennedy in 1961 had committed the U. S. to “landing a man on the moon before this decade is out,” Apollo had captured the national focus. Two previous Apollo missions had flown around the moon, but not landed men on the surface. Besides the technical complexity of the landing mission, there was a strong element of daring and boldness! There had been successively greater technical challenges to surmount; indeed, only five preparatory Apollo missions had been flown with the awesome Saturn V! The nature of the landing mission thus meant many potential dangers, one being Saturn V with its huge load of explosive propellants. Apollo XI would thus be a most gripping, attention-getting undertaking because the President had mandated that the U. S. would accomplish its goal by the end of 1969. The American motivation was to achieve prestige in the Cold War with Russia through technological superiority. But NASA had to do so successfully and safely!

At Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on the epic-making day, I was fortunate to eyewitness that history-making liftoff [2]. Having arrived by bus in pitch dark with other MSFC engineers, I waited for the last hours of the countdown to reach zero. Only some crowd murmurs broke the silence, along with occasional loudspeaker announcements from the launch control center (LCC). Regrettably some scrubs partially obscured my view of the vehicle. The countdown clock slowly began to “move” (advance) faster, then accelerated as key milestones were announced by Jack King, NASA Public Affairs officer in the LCC. Propellant loading, or “tanking”, of liquid oxygen and kerosene (fuel roughly like diesel) was completed. Power was transferred to the vehicle, and, in turn, the flight-guidance software. The vehicle went onto automatic sequence (onboard computer control). The crowd murmurs vanished as anticipation rapidly increased. At T-50 seconds, my heart was pounding hard; the countdown clock was now rushing down toward zero! (The “T - ” represents amount of time before liftoff; “T +”, the time after liftoff). I became fiercely intense as my attention focused on the pad (concrete-steel support for the vehicle); I ignored the heat of the very warm sun. King continued, adding to the tension: “...30 seconds and counting...T-9, we have [booster] ignition sequence start...4, 3, 2...” As the F-1’s ignited and reached full power, an eerie total silence yet reigned all around! I could imagine the 363-foot-tall giant’s erupting from a deep slumber in a torrid gush of smoke and flames.

Apollo XI vehicle (AS-506) lifts off, Kennedy Space Center, July 16, 1969

(Photo from NASA)

It was exactly 9:32:00 a. m. E.D.T., July 16, 1969. What follows defies easy description and was soul-stirring for me. Suddenly, without warning, an incredibly ferocious succession of sound waves rolled through, literally beating upon us in the spectator crowd. From 3.75 miles away (safe blast distance), the rocket’s exhaust was the loudest man-made noise ever (except for the atomic bomb)! The vehicle ascended, climbing until lost in clouds. A huge pall of grey smoke hung over the pad. A jubilant group of MSFC engineers, including me, slapped each other on the back. Man would finally walk on another world. Some 500,000 to 1,000,000 people had seen the launch! I and some 600,000,000 other people worldwide watched the astronauts land on the moon, via television July 20.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin photographs astronaut Neil Armstrong at American flag on moon at "Tranquility Base" landing site, 20 July 1969.​ (Photo from NASA)

von Braun was soon transferred to NASA Headquarters; I did not have the opportunity to meet him personally a second time. After Apollo XI, I enrolled in graduate study to become a better rocket engineer. After the program ended, I returned to graduate school, becoming a professional librarian.

The story comes to an end

In retrospect it has been amazing how curiosity has worked in me, triggering new discoveries, which then brought new knowledge and further guided me. Throughout this personal approach to learning, reading has played a huge role, always triggering more curiosity. I thus strongly encourage an active, lifelong reading habit in others.

About the Author:

Mr. Kitchens earned his BSc.Ch.E. (Chemical Engineering) from Louisiana Tech University, MSc.M.E. (Mechanical Engineering) from the University of Alabama, and M.L.S. (Master in Library and Information Science) from Louisiana State University. While at NASA Marshall Mr. Kitchens conducted research on fire safety for the Apollo spacecraft and performance evaluation for Saturn launch vehicles. Elsewhere he has also worked on air and water pollution and solid waste disposal. Mr. Kitchens headed the engineering library at the University of Alabama and served as librarian at Redstone Scientific Information Center (Huntsville, Alabama), publishing articles and some 50 book reviews.

Interested readers are welcome to contact Mr. Kitchens at plibri69@gmail.com for spaceflight questions in general, or request a copy of the author’s 1994 article, “Liftoff to the Moon” as listed in the Selected Readings.

Message from the author to his readers:

By this story of the unprecedented, my objective was not only to enable our readers to advance their knowledge of spaceflight, but also to appreciate von Braun and Apollo and their places in history; how human exploration meshes with curiosity; the value of reading and a solid personal “learning model”; and the importance of “DREAMING BIG” and having a BURNING PASSION. One can follow in von Braun’s footsteps by remembering Robert H. Goddard’s words: “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

Explanatory notes:

[1]Propellants include fuels and oxidizers; turbopumps force the propellants into the combustion chamber to produce power.

[2] The author has written a separate personal account as an eyewitness to this event in Florida for the 25th anniversary (1994) of the launch of the lunar landing mission, Apollo XI, on the AS-506 Saturn V vehicle. Titled: “Liftoff to the Moon.” (Please see selected readings below)

Selected Readings:

Kitchens, Philip H. “Liftoff to the Moon.” The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, Summer 1994, pp.20-21 [author’s personal account of the Apollo XI launch].

Stuhlinger, E. and Ordway, III, Frederick I. Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space: A Biographical Memoir. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1994.

Stuhlinger, E. and Ordway, III, Frederick I. Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space: An Illustrated Memoir. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1994.

Bergaust, Erik. Wernher von Braun. Washington, DC: National Space Institute, 1976.

von Braun, Wernher. Space Frontier. New ed., completely rev. and updated. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.