John Aaron, Steely-Eyed Missile Man


The behemoth stands out, tall and mighty.  It’s alive, hissing and groaning.  The metallic surface expands and contracts from the cool fuel loads within, creaking and pinging.  Three brave men stand at the foot of this beast, glancing up, craning their necks to see the top.  The mighty Saturn V stands tall, 363 feet high, and weighs approximately 6,500,000 pounds.  All except the astronaut support crew vacates the area, leaving these brave men to their fate.  Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, and Richard Gordon ride the elevator to the top and strap in for one rough and intense flight.

The crew of Apollo 12 are heading to the moon.  Conrad will command this mission, but the public already questioning why we’re heading back.  “We’ve already landed on the moon,” they say as interest becomes fleeting.  “Couldn’t the money be used for other things?”  The afternoon of November 14, 1969, the silence breaks with the deafening roar of the main stage engines, powering up to their full 7,000,000 pounds of thrust.

The Saturn V slowly climbs into the air, passing the launch tower.  The mission starts, and the three astronauts begin their voyage into space.  In spite of the rainy weather, NASA proceeds with the launch, but soon regrets this decision.  Shortly into the flight, lightning strikes the rocket, placing the mission in jeopardy.  Telemetry is lost, and various power problems are plaguing the control systems.  Many warning lights are flashing on the control panels.  Mission Control scrambles, trying to figure out what’s going on.

The astronauts report many problems; warnings light up on all over their control systems.  It’s quickly realized that lightning struck the rocket, traveling back their ionized trail, striking the launch pad as seen by ground crews, even captured on film.

“Try SCE to aux,” calls John Aaron, one of the many young flight controllers.  A fairly obscure switch, among the many switches in the spacecraft, unknown to Flight Director Gerald Griffin, CAPCOM Gerald Carr, and ealso Mission Commander Pete Conrad.

“What the Hell is that,” says Conrad over the radio before setting the switch, which restore the systems, allowing the flight to continue.  Lightning strikes the rocket, and the problem is addressed in about a minute and a half, all while the astronauts are climbing with pressure increasing up to four times their weight.

The Steely-Eyed Missile Man

John Aaron was one of many young flight controllers during the Apollo program.  Only twenty-six at the time of Apollo 12, his call saved the flight, and quite possibly the lives of the three astronauts.  His knowledge of the systems provided insight to reach the solution.  It wasn’t a random flip of a switch to see what would happen.  A year earlier, Aaron noticed unusual telemetry readings during a test at the Kennedy Space Center.  On his own initiative, he traced the anomaly back to the Signal Conditioning Electronics (SCE) system, and was one of the few controllers familiar with it.  Aaron researched and learned more about the systems, which produced results when the time was right.

His call during the flight was bold, and even though many others were not familiar with this system, or the switch setting, his recommendation was trusted and implemented.  This decision saved the mission, and the growing budget constraints and public disinterest in further moon landings, Aaron may have saved the future of the Apollo program.

Lessons to Learn

Organizations need to learn to trust all their employees, especially Millennials.  Although they may not have years of experience within a department, they may be able to bring alternate ideas and fresh perspectives.  Had NASA adopted a stance that only personnel with certain years of experience could contribute or have ideas entertained, the Apollo 12 mission may have ended in disaster.  A younger flight controller, on his own initiative, learned the system and made a recommendation that saved the mission.  Many younger and lesser experienced workers on the team may not have years of experience, but they often have good ideas and knowledge, which should be taken into consideration.  Each organization needs to ask how many of their twenty-something employees contribute to the direction and vision?  Would any of these employees be able to step up and be heard?

If you’re starting out in a career, with not much experience, seek every opportunity to learn and grow.  Absorb all the experience and knowledge of others.  Do you see a problem in your department or organization?  Learn about what the root causes are and propose a fix for it.  Do not, ever, take the mindset that you are not qualified or it’s beyond your realm of responsibility.  Always be respectful, but question the status quo.  Learn and grow, and you may save the day.

Always remember, the astronauts received much of the acclaim and parades for successful missions, but it was many very young engineers, flight controllers, and scientists that contributed greatly to the success of the early space program.  Many of these young workers made mission critical calls and in the case of John Aaron, their decision saved the day, earning a promotion into the “steely-eyed missile man” club, usually reserved for fighter pilots and astronauts during this time.  Organizations who learn to listen and are receptive to new ideas, products, or possible solutions from all levels of skill sets and experience will often be more innovative to new trends.

Launch Transcript:

Public Affairs Office – “40 seconds.”

000:00:42 Carr: Mark.

000:00:43 Carr: One Bravo.

000:00:43 Conrad (onboard): Roger. We had a whole bunch of buses drop out.

000:00:44 Conrad: Roger. We [garble] on that. [Long pause.]

000:00:45 Bean (onboard): There’s nothing – it’s nothing …

000:00:47 Gordon (onboard): A circuit …

000:00:48 Conrad (onboard): Where are we going?

000:00:50 Gordon (onboard): I can’t see; there’s something wrong.

000:00:51 Conrad (onboard): AC Bus 1 light, all the fuel cells …

000:00:56 Conrad (onboard): I just lost the platform.

Public Affairs Office – “Altitude a mile and a half now. Velocity 1,592 feet per second.”

000:01:00 Bean: [Garble] Got your GDC.

000:01:02 Conrad: Okay, we just lost the platform, gang. I don’t know what happened here; we had everything in the world drop out.

000:01:08 Carr: Roger.

Public Affairs Office – “Plus one.”

000:01:09 Gordon (onboard): I can’t – There’s nothing I can tell is wrong, Pete.

000:01:12 Conrad: I got three fuel cell lights, an AC bus light, a fuel cell disconnect, AC bus overload 1 and 2, Main Bus A and B out. [Long pause.]

000:01:21 Bean (onboard): I got AC.

000:01:22 Conrad (onboard): We got AC?

000:01:23 Bean (onboard): Yes.

000:01:24 Conrad (onboard): Maybe it’s just the indicator. What do you got on the main bus?

000:01:26 Bean (onboard): Main bus is – The volt indicated is 24 volts.

000:01:29 Conrad (onboard): Huh?

000:01:30 Bean (onboard): Twenty-four volts, which is low.

000:01:33 Conrad (onboard): We’ve got a short on it of some kind. But I can’t believe the volt…

000:01:36 Carr: Apollo 12, Houston. Try SCE to auxiliary. Over.

000:01:39 Conrad: Try FCE to Auxiliary. What the hell is that?

000:01:41 Conrad: NCE to auxiliary…

000:01:42 Gordon (onboard): Fuel cell…

000:01:43 Carr: SCE, SCE to auxiliary. [Long pause.]

000:01:45 Conrad (onboard): Try the buses. Get the buses back on the line.

000:01:48 Bean (onboard): It looks – Everything looks good.

000:01:50 Conrad (onboard): SCE to Aux.

000:01:52 Gordon (onboard): The GDC is good.

000:01:54 Conrad (onboard): Stand by for the – I’ve lost the event timer; I’ve lost the…

Public Affairs Office – “Comm reports the reading is back.”