Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"The Last 300,000 Miles Are On Us"

I was born and raised in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, CA, which put me in one of the major epicenters of the Lunar landing program. To say that interest in that effort was high around here in those days was putting it mildly. The triumph of Apollo 11 was sweet validation to the people in this region, as I'm sure it was to the folks on Long Island, NY, where the Lunar Module was built in Grumman's Bethpage facility.

But the flight of Apollo 13 was unique on many levels, and as powerful and dramatic as that episode was, it was the aftermath of their journey that would provide my personal link to the Lunar program, one that has resurfaced time and again since that fateful voyage.

I originally wrote this piece for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission. As we have just commemorated the 44th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar landing last weekend (July 20), and with the passing a few months ago of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, I thought it appropriate to post this now in remembrance of those amazing times. I hope you enjoy it.

This article originally appeared in the Northrop Grumman Engineering Department's in-house magazine VelocitE, vol. 2, number 7, April 2010. It is posted here with permission and has approved for public release case number 12-1506.

One note of correction: In the caption on the Lunar Excursion Module Descent Engine, I say there is a model of the engine in the lobby of the E-2 Building at Northrop Grumman's Space Park facility. It is more than that. It is actually a full-size engineering mockup of the LEMDE.

“The Last 300,000 Miles Are On Us”

By Tony Chong

Forty years ago, in April of 1970, Apollo 13 and its crew were en-route to the Moon, intent on making the third successful American manned landing on the lunar surface in less than a year.  The target site was the highlands around the Fra Mauro crater, near the center of the visible face of the full Moon.  The initial stage of the voyage seemed “routine;” so much so that the major television networks did not carry the astronauts’ live broadcast beamed back to Earth from the spacecraft.

But that all changed in an instant, as that routine, un-newsworthy transit turned into a desperate fight for survival that gripped the world’s attention as the collective skill and ingenuity of the crew, mission control and the engineers of both NASA and its contractors were tested to the limit.  What could have resulted in the catastrophic loss of three astronauts in deep space became instead what many consider to be NASA’s finest hour.

On April 13, 1970, a wiring short-circuit started a fire inside the number 2 oxygen tank in Bay Four of Apollo 13’s Service Module.  The tank ruptured, blowing off the bay’s exterior panel and damaging the high-gain antenna.  The number 1 oxygen tank in Bay Four sustained damage as well and slowly vented it contents into space.

Vacating the crippled Command Module, aptly named Odyssey, Commander James Lovell, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise occupied the hastily powered-up Lunar Module, turning the two-man lander into a three-man lifeboat.

Ungainly looking and too frail to operate in Earth’s gravity, the LM is still the only manned vehicle to land on another planetary body.  Built by heritage-Grumman in Bethpage, NY, the Lunar Module, named Aquarius by the crew, sustained the three men for 86+ hours, over double the designated mission plan of 36 hours for two men.

Pressed into a situation that was only remotely perceived as ever becoming necessary, Aquarius performed its new role magnificently.  Even so, the crew faced numerous hardships and obstacles on their long voyage home. 

Running on minimal power and life support to preserve precious energy and consumables, the lander became a cold, dark and barely hospitable refuge.  Survival was possible only by the crew’s steady performance in the emergency and by the hard work and desperate innovation displayed by flight operations, astronauts and engineers on the ground.  In one memorable example they modified the Odyssey’s square carbon dioxide scrubbers, using available materials on hand in the spacecraft, so those scrubbers could be used in Aquarius once that vehicle’s round cartridges became saturated. 

But in such a time-critical event, a lifeboat is no good without a motor.  Fearing damage to the Service Module’s main engine – a fear confirmed once Odyssey separated for re-entry – the direct abort option was closed.  The free return trajectory was not an option either due to the altered path taken for the Fra Mauro landing site.  The LM needed to use its landing motor to get Apollo 13 back on the proper return track for home.

Once again, the product of another Northrop Grumman-heritage company came to the rescue with a flawless performance.  The TRW-built Lunar Excursion Module Descent Engine (LEMDE), with a maximum thrust of about 9,900 lbs, executed two mid-course bursts and a 4.5 minute burn on the far side of the Moon that corrected Apollo 13’s trajectory and boosted its velocity, shaving off a critical half-day’s time in transit.  An impressed and thankful crew told an assembly of TRW employees after the mission that they should change the company’s LEMDE advertising slogan from “the last 10 miles are on us” to “the last 300,000 miles are on us.”

In retrospect it was fortunate the explosion occurred two days into the outward bound portion of the journey.  If it happened after Aquarius landed on the Moon, or after it was jettisoned prior to the journey home, the Lunar Module would not have been available for use.  In a mission gone horribly wrong it was one of the few things that stayed right.  Combined with the perseverance of the crew and the dedication of all on the ground, Apollo 13’s successful conclusion became a symbol for the triumph of the human spirit.


When Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise addressed that TRW audience on May 6, 1970, three weeks after their Pacific splash-down, employees and the media weren’t the only people in attendance that day.  The Aviation High School Falcon Orchestra Band, whose campus was then adjacent to the TRW Space Park facility, was there providing musical entertainment before and after the appearance of the astronauts.

This writer was a sophomore trumpet player in that band, and while the memory of what was said or played that day has disappeared in the mists of the past, the impressions and energy of the event remain vivid.  The sense of relief and thankfulness felt by everyone there was palpable, but so was the employee exhilaration and pride in the performance of the LEMDE, noticeable even to a young teenage boy. 

A child of the space age – one of my strongest memories is of my mother waking me up early in the morning to watch John Glenn’s “Friendship 7” launch when he became the first American to orbit the Earth – the awe of seeing real live astronauts in person, especially the Apollo 13 crew, made a definite impression on me. 

But what impressed me the most about that crew was their graciousness and kindness toward one of our band members.  In the middle of a hectic and tiring whirlwind tour that would take them around the world, they stopped to say a few private words to our blind cymbal player when asked to by our director, Richard Power.  It was a thrill for her and for the rest of us.

No other astronauts, save John Glenn and the Apollo 11 crew, have generated that same level of response from the American public or the world.  The epic voyage of Apollo 13 connected with the average person on a visceral, primal level beyond simple description.  As they struggled and endured and overcame impossible odds to survive, their strength and character in the midst of disaster endeared them to all.  It made them heroes in the purest sense of the word.


In conjunction with the 1995 Hawthorne Air Faire, Eugene Kranz was awarded the City of Hawthorne Chamber of Commerce “Cradle of Aviation” Award.  The award was made in the Northrop Grumman Display Model Shop, where I had just become lead. 

Kranz was the White Team Lead Flight Director on Apollo 13.  Fred Haise attended the event in support of Kranz.  Haise retired from NASA in 1979 and joined heritage-Grumman that year.  He retired from Northrop Grumman in 1996.

I also attended that award banquet and had the chance to meet and briefly chat with Fred Haise and Gene Kranz, making the Apollo 13 saga even more personal than it was before.

In 2005 the circle became complete when I found a picture in the official TRW 100 year history book of the astronauts’ visit to Space Park.  A query to the photo department at Space Park yielded several shots of the event with me clearly visible in the band.  These were the first photos I had ever seen of that day.

My thanks to: Suzanne Fuentes, Karen Holmbeck, Paul Morgan and all the other good folks who were in the Space Park photo department in 2005.

Photo Captions: 

1.   The Apollo 13 crew: Jim Lovell (left), Jack Swigert (center) and Fred Haise (right).  Swigert and Haize were civilian astronauts.  Lovell was a US Navy Captain.  Ken Mattingly, a US Navy Lt Commander, was the original Command Module Pilot, but was scrubbed at the last minute due to exposure to the measles.  Photo credit: NASA 


2.   A view of the damaged Service Module after separation prior to re-entry.  Aquarius is still attached to Odyssey.  The service panel on Bay Four is gone and extensive debris is seen hanging out of the interior. Damage to the bell nozzle on the SM main engine was confirmed by the crew after visual inspection.  Fortunately the heat shield on Odyssey was not damaged.  Photo credit: NASA (Apollo 13 crew) 

3.   A view of Aquarius after separation prior to re-entry.  Odyssey was re-activated at the last minute as battery power in the CM was low, especially for the parachutes.  One of the three batteries was projected to fail at main chute release.  Photo credit: NASA (Apollo 13 crew) 

4.  Odyssey splashes down in the Pacific Ocean.  A third Northrop Grumman-heritage company product – Northrop Ventura Division (ex-Radioplane) – designed and produced the three-parachute recovery system.  Photo credit: NASA 

5.  A photo of the square-shaped CM carbon dioxide scrubbers attached to the round fitting on Aquarius.  Duct tape was involved, validating all men’s affinity for the product.  The crew called the jury-rigged arrangement the “mail box.”  Photo credit: NASA (Apollo 13 crew) 

6.  A staged photo showing engineers and technicians hoisting a Lunar Excursion Module Descent Engine.  A full-size model of the LEMDE is in the lobby of the E-2 building, AS Sector Headquarters, in Space Park, Redondo Beach.  Photo credit: Northrop Grumman (legacy TRW) 

7.  A shot of the famous TRW ad that Jim Lovell modified in his tribute to TRW employees.  As a side note, Grumman sent North America Rockwell, the builders of the Command Module, a gag bill for $312,421.24 for “towing charges.”  Photo credit: Northrop Grumman (legacy TRW) 

8.  Apollo 13 astronauts address TRW employees on 6 May, 1970.  Standing at the podium is Jim Lovell.  Jack Swigert is to the audience’s left; Fred Haise is to the right.   The Aviation High School band is to the left of the stage.  The Apollo 13 mission badge, seen on the podium, was retrieved by us after the event and mounted in a place of honor in the band room.  It was still there when I graduated in 1972; I assume it was still there when the high school was closed and torn down in 1982.  I have no idea what happened to it after that.   Photo credit: Northrop Grumman (legacy TRW) 

9.  Richard Power (back to photo) directs the Falcon Orchestra Band.  I am in the white circle near the back row.  Photo credit: Northrop Grumman (legacy TRW) 

10. Jim Lovell stops to talk to senior Jeanette Galbreath.  Totally blind at an early age she was determined to do everything sighted kids could.  She became a cymbalist in the marching and orchestra bands and, with a classmate guiding her by the elbow, did all the marching and halftime routines like everyone else.  She never missed a cue and was one of the nicest, bravest and most competent people I’ve ever known.  Photo credit: Northrop Grumman (legacy TRW)

Northrop Grumman approved for public release case number 12-1506

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Airborne Laser Uncoiled

This was perhaps the most frustrating program to try and write an article about, even for an in-house publication. Two or three times over the past six years Diane, my editor, and I tried to see about doing a piece on this system without success. The problem was more the multiple jurisdictions involved than anything else. While it was a Northrop Grumman laser, it was a Boeing aircraft with a large Lockheed Martin contribution, all done for the Air Force via the Missile Defense Agency on a very sensitive subject. As a result, getting all the responsible parties to agree on a special press junket for our limited-reach publication proved impossible. Ironically it took cancellation of the program to open the door to an article.

When we found out the aircraft was going to be displayed at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base open house in 2012, with the possibility of it being cut up shortly thereafter, we knew we had to act fast if we wanted to do anything on the vehicle. The result was Diane successfully sponsored Craig Kaston and me into the official media contingent and we got to see the ABL up-close and personal for the first time. Hopefully it will not the last time.

The additional bonuses to the trip were two additional articles I wrote on the Balad walls and on a Thunderbird pilot. I will post those later as they were quite interesting and fun to write about. Plus, it was a nice, unexpected vacation for me (PTO is wonderful). I got to play with airplanes and photography - what could be better?

Sometimes the stars are in alignment and things work out. This trip was definitely one of those times.

One note: a couple of the links cited below no longer work a year after the article was written. Specifically the Missile Defense Agency site no longer carries ABL/ABLT information about the program. The Northrop Grumman link does not work, either, but this address should work for ABL/ABLT company-approved information:

This article was originally published in Northrop Grumman Engineering Department's in-house, on-line magazine Airspace, Vol. 3, number 17, April 2012. It is reposted here with permission and has approved for public release case number 12-1705. 
 The Airborne Laser Uncoiled
By Tony Chong

The decades-long quest to field a directed-energy weapons system saw one avenue close when the YAL-1A Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB), formerly known as the Airborne Laser (ABL), made its retirement flight from Edwards AFB, Calif. to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz. on Valentine’s Day 2012.

A multi-contractor effort, the ALTB was a modified Boeing 747-400F freighter that carried a Boeing-built battle management system, a Lockheed Martin nose-turret and fire-control system and a heritage TRW, now Northrop Grumman, six-module megawatt-class, high-energy Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL).

The COIL is an infrared laser created by mixing together gaseous chlorine, molecular iodine, and an aqueous mixture of hydrogen peroxide and potassium hydroxide.  The aqueous mixture reacts to the chlorine creating heat, potassium chloride and excited-state oxygen known as singlet delta oxygen.  When molecular iodine is injected into the gas stream the energy in the oxygen is transferred to the iodine which produces a stimulated emission that lases.

Building on the successful tests of the Boeing NKC-135A Airborne Laser Laboratory (ALL) in the 1980s with its gas-dynamic high-energy laser, the Air Force initiated the ABL Program Definition and Risk Reduction (PDRR) phase in 1996.  The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) took over management of the program in 2001 and began the acquisition and integration of hardware for the next phase shortly thereafter.

The first of a proposed fleet of nine ABL aircraft (two prototypes and seven operational vehicles), designated the YAL-1A by the Air Force, rolled off the line at the Boeing Wichita, KS modification center in 2002.  First flight of the aircraft was on July 18 of that same year.

The YAL-1A was flown to Edwards AFB for instrumentation check-out.  At the same time the COIL began initial tests in a ground based Simulation Integration Lab (SIL) located at the Birk Flight Test Center on Edward’s South Base complex.

The next few years saw the integration and testing of the various targeting and tracking components, including the solid-state Track Illuminator Laser (TILL) and Beam Illuminator Laser (BILL), and the firing of a Surrogate High Energy Laser (SHEL) to validate the onboard systems leading up to the COIL installation in the YAL-1A in 2008.

“First Light” of the COIL during ground tests occurred in September 2008.  “First Light in Flight” followed in August of 2009.

Finally, after years of delays and cost overruns, the ABL intercepted and destroyed a solid-fuel ballistic missile target in boost phase on February 3, 2010.  This was followed a week later by the destruction of an in-flight liquid-fueled ballistic missile on February 11.

But while a successful validation of the concept and technology, the program was already in demise.  In April 2009 then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared the ABL a costly, operationally unviable system and all follow-on aircraft were subsequently cancelled.  The YAL-1A was no longer viewed as a prototype for a production system, but as a flying test bed.  In an era of fiscal constraint and dwindling budgets, the ALTB was on borrowed time.

With reality looming, the program pressed on.  Kill range expansion tests were conducted throughout 2011 with several intercepts of missile targets achieved.  However, no further targets were engaged long enough to be destroyed.  The ALTB flew its last test mission on October 11, 2011.

Prior to its arrival at Davis-Monthan the YAL-1A had never before been shown in an open public event.  Ironically that would change upon retirement.  Col. Patrick Kumashiro, commander of the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) decided to place the ALTB on display during the base’s 2012 Open House.

Despite the fact that the aircraft has undergone initial preparation for desert storage and final disposition, it is still an impressive sight.  While this maybe the only official Air Force-sponsored opportunity to see the airplane, negotiations are underway with the adjacent Pima Air and Space Museum to add the YAL-1A to their extensive collection.  If talks are unproductive then the airframe will likely be cut up and scrapped at some point in the not too distant future.

Regardless of its fate, the accomplishments of the ALTB are historic.  As the first aircraft to shoot down ballistic missiles in flight, it has paved the way for future developments in directed energy systems, whether in the air, in space, on land or at sea.  The technical and operational challenges are still huge, but they are less so because of this program.

Craig Kaston and Airman 1st Class Michael Washburn contributed to this article.


An excellent book covering the early NKC-135A ALL program is: Airborne LASER: Bullets of Light by Robert W. Duffner, Plenum Press, 1997.

The MDA maintains a website for its programs, including the ALTB that features a recent timeline of milestone events.  It can be found here:

This pdf. file has some interesting information on the YAL-1A, including cut-away drawings and internal arrangement views.  It can be found here:
Northrop Grumman’s public-accessible website offers downloadable pdf. files describing the program, the aircraft, its components and the COIL.  A video of one of the successful intercepts is there as well:

Additional photos of the ABLT’s departure from Edwards AFB and arrival at Davis-Monthan AFB can be found here:

Tony Chong is a historian, photographer and a contributing editor to airspace. He leads activities in the Aerospace Systems Display Model Shop and works in El Segundo.

Photo Captions

1)                  The YAL-1A banks over Rogers Dry Lake as it initiates a low pass over Edwards AFB at the start of its last flight on February 14, 2012.  Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force / Bobbi Zapka.
2)                    In a somewhat fitting and surreal-looking end, the YAL-1A prepares to touchdown on a rain-slickened Davis-Monthan runway upon completion of its ferry-flight to the boneyard and retirement.  Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Michael Washburn.
3)                    One of the last overall shots of the airplane before processing.  Note the badges on the fuselage just aft of the canopy.  They are the badges for, from left to right, Air Combat Command, Air Material Command and the Missile Defense Agency.  Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Michael Washburn.
4)                    This nose-on shot shows the rotating beam control ball turret in the travel position with the shielded conformal window facing up.  The green and red stripes correlate with the starboard and port sides of the aircraft.  Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Michael Washburn.
5)                  The YAL-1A as it appeared to the media the day before the 2012 Open House.  Processing for final disposition has occurred, with all openings sealed against the environment, including engine inlets and exhaust, gear wells and ball turret.  Photo Credit: Tony Chong, 2012.
6)                  This right front-quarter view shows more clearly the sealed inlets and cocooned ball turret.  The white box at the top of the nose gear is the structure sealing off the gear well.  Photo Credit: Tony Chong, 2012.
7)                  More details of the exhaust cocooning are revealed in this left rear-quarter view.  The protruding belly panel aft of the wing-to-body fairing and forward of the red markings is the PRS Exhaust Fairing.  The non-standard blue in the Star & Bar national marking is of interest as well.  Photo Credit: Tony Chong, 2012.
8)                  Close-up shot of the Pressure Recovery System (PRS) Exhaust Fairing which is comprised of six units of six exhausts each, corresponding to the six COIL modules inside the fuselage.  The PRS removes the laser exhaust from the aircraft.  Photo Credit: Tony Chong, 2012.
9)                  A close-up of one of two emergency chemical dump masts flanking the PRS Exhaust Fairing at its forward end.  Note the relief valve extending aft from the end of the mast.  Photo Credit: Tony Chong, 2012.
10)              The port view of the Boeing-made Active Ranging System atop the forward fuselage.  The ARS utilizes a modified LANTIRN pod with a high-power CO2 laser.  The ARS acquires the target from the IRST sensor in the chin pod and uses the CO2 laser to find the range to the target.  Photo Credit: Tony Chong, 2012.
11)              A close-up of the cocooned nose turret.  The chin pod protrudes below.  Photo Credit: Tony Chong, 2012
12)              The chin pod consists of a forward-looking Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor (lower, red covered ball and cylinder), and a weather radar (gray, upper ball housing).  The rear-looking IRST is in the very tip of the aft fuselage.  Photo Credit: Tony Chong, 2012.
13)              The YAL-1A sports seven successfully targeted (but not destroyed) missile markings, plus two actual kill missile markings under the cockpit on the port side.  The cockpit windows have sun reflectors installed on the inside as part of the boneyard processing.  Photo Credit: Tony Chong, 2012

Public Release Case Number 12-1705