First of all
I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to demonstrate Eagle Lander 3D (EL3D) for Gene Cernan. A veteran astronaut of Gemini IX and Apollo 10, Gene Cernan was the last man on the moon and commander of Apollo 17. I had the honor and privilege of meeting Gene while on a family vacation (of course I had my trusty Alienware laptop and EL3D which always travel with me!)
For those unfamiliar with the history and exploits of Gene Cernan, I heartily recommend his autobiography The Last Man on the Moon. In addition to being a fascinating narrative of a famous space pioneer, the book holds great insight about the inner workings of the NASA manned space program during its most innovative and aggressive period.
“I stood on the shoulders of giants.”
Since releasing the first version of EL3D back in 2002, I have held hope for a real Apollo astronaut to fly it. To have had Gene Cernan be the first Apollo astronaut to fly EL3D was a true honor. Gene is widely known as one of the most approachable of the Apollo astronauts, and 32 years after his last spaceflight is still filled with unbridled enthusiasm for his experiences. We talked a little about the magnitude of the achievement and how he felt to be one of just twelve men to walk on the face of another world. He remembered looking back at the earth from 250,000 miles away knowing that the will of a nation and 400,000 people had put him there. He summarized by saying, “I stood on the shoulders of giants.”
I started EL3D and brought up the long flight scenario of Apollo 11 (this starts the flight at about 8000’ with a forward velocity of about 500fps). I settled into the Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) slot on Gene’s right to handle the DSKY and keyboard. For the first few approaches I was also a flight instructor – not for the LM – but for EL3D. One must remember that a PC flight simulator is a long way from the real thing in terms of visuals. A PC compresses a large field of view onto a small screen. EL3D has the ability to bring up various instrument displays, but these displays are not in the ‘real’ positions that Gene had rehearsed a zillion times. I watched him struggle a bit to quickly close the 32 year LM piloting gap while he re-familiarized himself with the scan, instruments and controls. He immediately complained about not having his left hand on the TTCA (Thrust Translation Controller Assembly) near where the rate of descent (ROD) switch was located. I then showed him he had ROD capability, but it was located on the joystick buttons. The ROD switch requests the computer to make a 1fps adjustment in descent rate up or down depending on the direction of the click. Since there was a little ambiguity in the data I had available about that switch and the ability for the computer to accumulate clicks, I asked Gene about the rate at which the ROD switch could be clicked. He said that he remembered being able to click very fast to change the descent rate with no regard to a computer limitation.
“Get rid of that 1201 alarm.”
Gene's first few approaches were a little rocky - understandable, because he was familiarizing himself with the instruments / scan while I was jabbering in his ear with all sorts of advice. A short time later he smoothed out, and on one approach the position of ‘Commander’ was reaffirmed when he told me to, “Get rid of that 1201 alarm” after I let it linger on the DSKY a bit too long. Historical note: The Apollo 11 landing was plagued with a series of program alarms in the final few minutes of flight because the rendezvous radar was trying to track the CSM, stealing vital processing power from the landing program. Luckily a controller in Houston recognized that this was a recoverable overflow and not a critical alarm. As long as it was cleared and the computer restarted, the mission could continue. EL3D simulates that alarm for Apollo 11.
Observations and memories
Those proficient at landing the LM in EL3D should be very proud. The actual Apollo astronauts trained on simulators, helicopters and a very dangerous contraption called the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV). Gene commented that the terminal landing phase was an extremely intense period with a very high workload and a tremendous amount of visual / audio / sensory information to be processed. During a cacophony of noise and vibration, and the help of the LMP with information readouts, the commander had to fly the LM through various computer/manual flight modes - all while looking for a safe landing spot .
One of Gene’s most vivid Apollo 17 memories occurred just after touchdown. He passionately described moments of indescribable silence following the descent engine shut down. He didn't know if it was fractions of seconds, or seconds - but it seemed the world had stopped. I wish I could think of a way to 'simulate' that experience in EL3D – but, that kind of kinesthetic experience is probably a little outside the capability of a PC simulator…..
After working the landing approaches for a little while, we headed upstairs into orbit. I selected the ascent scenario for rendezvous and docking (this scenario begins with the LM ascent stage about a mile from the CSM and closing at about 15fps). We were using the keyboard for translation, and Gene complained about not having the TTCA assembly in his left hand to handle translation. Looking back, I could kick myself because I had another joystick – just sitting in my suitcase - that I should have rigged for the TTCA as I do at home. We closed on the CSM, stopped, and then Gene maneuvered the LM around to the side of the CSM. He then explained and proceeded to demonstrate a fly-around of the CSM using just pitch and translation. The maneuver is really a (non-instrument) visual skill but he got a little worried as he noticed the FDAI ball operating near gimbal lock. EL3D will realistically complain about gimbal lock (display light), but it does not actually happen, so I told him not to worry. Note: if you are lost about what I am talking about check this link.
We then came back to the front and pitched over for docking. Because of the unfamiliarity with the keyboard translation controls – for me as well since I usually use a joystick - we had a dickens of a time lining up. Nevertheless Gene immediately remembered the interaction between attitude and translation. This is a skill developed with practice (perhaps some innate piloting genes too...) and includes noticing the alignment of the docking target and the body of the CSM, simultaneously aligning the LM in attitude (pitch, roll, yaw), while properly translating the LM to the correct position. Gene instinctively reacted to those visual queues as if he had just stepped out of the NASA LM simulator.
The only way to make it more real is to include the noise, shaking and vibration.
What do you think?
During and after the flying I asked Gene questions about sound accuracy, the realism of feel, and various other kinesthetic impressions he had about EL3D. He basically said the only way to make it more real is to include the noise and vibration.
I also showed him the outside views and asked him what he thought of the exhaust plumes for the reaction control system (RCS). He commented that he did not recall seeing them, but thought I should leave them as they were.
I then asked him about ideas for improving EL3D. Gene felt I should include more ‘landable emergencies’ – failures that while are serious could still be managed to accomplish a landing. A real life example he mentioned was the landing radar failure on Apollo 14. Gene is convinced that even if it had not been corrected, Alan Shepard would have landed anyway.
“WOW! THE MOON!”
Gene is probably one of the best of the Apollo astronauts at articulating the visceral sense of what it meant to stand on the moon, look back at the earth, and contemplate the effort and people that put him there. Gene flew Apollo 17 with a geologist named Harrison Schmidt who was just nuts about rocks – in fact they all called him Dr. Rock. At one point Gene jokingly told me that when Schmidt stepped on the moon, he looked down, buried his face into the nearest rock and said, “Wow, the moon!” Gene looked up at the earth, at the mountains around him framed by the blackness of space and said, “WOW! THE MOON!”