The MER was not the MOCR
(Mission Evaluation Room – Mission Operation Control Room)
by Jerry Woodfill
Several months ago, I met Gene Kranz, Flight Director for Apollo 13. The circumstance leading to the meeting was an interview for a National History Day high school documentary. My interview was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Gene’s was at 9:00 a.m with Glynn Lunney’s, another of Apollo 13’s Chief Flight Controllers, at 9:30 a.m. Since 9:08 p.m., April 13, 1970, Gene Kranz has been a hero of mine. His words heard in my head set, following Jim Lovell’s call “Houston we’ve had a problem,” earned Gene my lifelong respect and admiration.
Playing varsity basketball at Rice after experiencing a half dozen coaches in grade school, high school and college ranks qualifies my assessment, “No man’s response to a potential loss in an emergency situation has more motivated me.” Never, before or since, have I felt more inspired to win as Gene Kranz inspired all of us facing the prospect of losing three men’s lives. No, this was not a ball game. It was much more serious. His words that April evening in 1970 were among the most empowering I have heard in my life.
But I was simply an “over-hearer.” I was assigned the Apollo 13 engineering support room, the MER. Known as the Mission Evaluation Room or MER, it housed the spacecrafts’ systems’ engineers. As a MER-minion, I was never involved or central to the main events which rescued Apollo 13. Though I was the MER engineer for the Apollo 13 warning systems, my role was only as an expert. Should an inexplicable glitch in an alarm occur, I might be consulted. And I was - when the carbon dioxide levels began to threaten the astronauts’ lives, ringing alarms. However, to this day, I am proud that the Command Module’s alarm system was the first warning alerting Mission Control and Lovell’s crew to the life-threatening problem. The Hanks/Howard movie wonderfully captures the drama of that system’s performance.
Nevertheless, about the title MER-MINION, I need to explain. Comparing the 1970s era MER to the Mission Operations Control Room, known as the MOCR, would be akin to comparing the Queen Mary to a weekend boater’s cabin cruiser. Likewise, comparing my roll in the rescue to Gene Kranz and Glynn Lunney’s, whose history interviews followed mine, would be more incomparable.
Gene Kranz arrived in the historic MOCR for his interview just as I was finishing mine. I’d brought my copy of FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION for him to autograph. Quickly, I introduced myself as one of MER Manager Don Arabian’s MER-men, the Caution and Warning engineer. Not only was Gene gracious to autograph my copy, he pointed to where his phone for calling the MER had hung. It had been near his MOCR counsel display. From there he had called the MER for advice. Then, he added, “Jerry have you seen the Space Shuttle MER?” I never had.
With Gene leading me across the hall, I was overwhelmed by the new MER’s sophistication. Compared to the primitive setup I recalled from that April evening long ago was akin to the contrast between a Flash Gordon and Star Wars film. Now, everything was digital, every bit as sophisticated as not only the original MOCR but the upgraded version as well.
I’m not exaggerating about the “seat-of-the-pants” configuration of our beloved 1960s MER. Indeed, in some ways, Columbus’s bridge aboard the Santa Maria would be state-of-the-art compared to that facility: Rather than individual counsels at our respective engineering stations, we shared gray vinyl cushioned chairs positioned picnic-like around church-pot-luck dinner tables. Like the chairs, they were gun metal gray.
None of us had a dedicated video display. We shared 19 inch television-like video monitors. These were mounted overhead atop iron tripods. By my recollection, there were a half dozen of them placed against the curtain covered windows of the third floor of the Manned Spacecraft Center’s Building 45. My home TV was more sophisticated. Mine was a 25 inch RCA color floor model.
Fortunately, I was a relatively young engineer that evening. I had not yet reached 28 years of age. My chair was close enough and eye-sight keen enough so that I was spared using binoculars. Those in more distant seats of more senior years donned the cumbersome bee-nocks. From their perch, they alternated between focusing, hunting for the needed ID number, dropping the spy-glasses into the lap, and recording things like pressure or voltage values.
The Columbus comparison fits well here: the Admiral peering across the Atlantic horizon with telescope, hunting for a land sighting. Our focus was on that TV’s blurry black and white 24 point alphanumeric letters and numbers denoting Apollo 13’s telemetry measurements. These confirmed the ship’s space worthiness.
To record the status of our measurements, the MER was equipped with the latest technology, a Polaroid-picture-in-a-minute-camera. Of course, one could acquire telemetry printouts from the data guys, but that took time. The snap-shot was spit out of the Polaroid’s developing slot in only a minute. Nevertheless, it was important to wipe the emulsion with one of those “fix-it” swabs or your data sample photo might fade away before the mission ended.
However, the nasty smelling fixative often seeped from its squeegee applicator onto the fingers. Such made a trip to the restroom a must.
“What dreadful poisoning might await unwashed hands?” was not a pleasant thought. A cleansing was essential prior to dining on a Twinkie™ from the Building 45 junk food machines.
Now, the audio set-up was actually more rudimentary than the video arrangement. While each MER-man, (There were no MER-maids. Excuse the pun, but to my knowledge, there was not one woman among our kind.) wore the most uncomfortable of headgear. Those audio headsets had no soft mufflers cushioning ears from hours of wear. NASA failed to procure hi-fi listeners’ top-of-the-line-gear. This was “low-bidders” wear. But who cared? The scratchy voiced audio from a quarter million miles in space had a frequency range of no more than several thousand hertz anyway.
Accompanying the head-phones was a pushbutton audio channel selector box. It looked like a child’s toy, one of those Playskool™ - for children under three years only playthings. Again, my recollection is there were nine pushbuttons for selecting various flight controller audio private sub-loops.
What made our audio situation so primitive was we could only listen not transmit. MOCR folks had those nifty head-sets with the protruding microphone attachment, like every computer comes with these days. We had to use the telephone for that kind of thing. Of course, we could only call our office, or wife, or, I guess one of the other MER guys in the room. Of course, there were no touch-tone type phones, only rotary dials. And I don’t remember the head of our team, Don Arabian, being one of those nine channels.
To get anyone’s attention, Don had to almost scream above the audio level of our headset’s volume. For Don, this was not a particular handicap. His projected volume, like my voice, needed no amplification. However, a soft-spoken MER operative would be wholly incapable of communicating.
I remember Don crying out from his throne along the wall opposite the video tripods. “I NEED THOSE GUYS IN THE BACK ROOM TO GIVE ME THEIR FIX TO THE CARBON DIXOXIDE FILTER PROBLEM.” Had Don not been blessed with loud lungs and larynx physiology, I would have missed that moment in time, a key element of the Apollo 13 rescue, making a square peg, the Command Module’s square filters, work in the Lunar Module’s round CO2 filter holder. Indeed, the MER’s audio system needed no binocular counterpart to the video monitors, i.e., an amplifier. Don’s voice was amplifier enough.
Again, how different was the MER from the MOCR! Can you imagine Gene Kranz yelling to the EECOM Sy Liebergot, “EECOM, IS IT INSTRUMENTATION OR AN EXPLOSION?” I heard everyone of Gene’s pronouncements though I was a building away. Gene was not handicapped by the MER audio system as was Don and our MER team.
Another striking difference in the two rooms was the dress code: I think among the NASA civil servants, I was one of the few to wear a tie. Though our colleagues with North American and Grumman usually wore neckwear, few government servants in the MER did likewise. I’m thankful that I threw in with my Grumman and North American colleagues. The photo taken of me with my paisley print tie has served me well for the past two scores of years. It made me look like a denizen of the MOCR where ties were in vogue rather than my tie-less MER associates. (I credit my wife with this fortuitous event. We had friends whose husbands worked for IBM. I wanted to look like them for my wife’s sake.)
And so every time I show someone my photo in the MER, I am careful to crop out almost everything surrounding me, the overhead tripod monitors, the Playschool audio box, the colleague seated beside me with binoculars resting beside his brown bag lunch sack, and the tie-less MER-men surrounding me. Yet, even then, those who view the photo ask, “Why doesn’t it look like you are in the MOCR?” And, I pause once more, wondering if I should lie or make up a story.
But to my credit, I have always confessed,
“It’s not Mission Control. It’s the MER.”
Then most ask, “What’s that?”
And I respond with what you have just read.
“The MER was not the MOCR.”
(PS: I suppose that many of my recollections are flawed by time. Please cut me some slack. It’s been forty years!)
PSS: I found an old photo of our MER team. The Playskool™ audio selector had
eighteen channels not nine, and, I think there might have been seven or eight TV tripods instead of six, but, one thing I was right about…few ties or women present.)
(Jerry can be contacted at 281-474-2974)
My cropped MER photo with Grumman’s Jim Riorden Tie-less MER-men but for the bottom-left one
The MER Playskool™ Audio Box MER Audio Box upgrade?
A hero of the MER actuates video “zoom” view mode while employing advanced audio transmitter/receiver headset
MOCR Video Display MER Version*
*Note: MER Multitasking dual rack upgrade?
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