Reflections on Saturn All-Up Flight Testing: Robert Seamans

George Mueller, shortly after being named NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, introduced the concept of "all-up testing" to the Saturn/Apollo program. Rather than traditional method of testing rockets, which called for a slow, methodical program, testing one stage before adding another live stage, "all-up" called for a rocket comprised entirely of live stages from the very first launch.

Here are comments regarding "all-up" from Robert C. Seamans, Jr., NASA Associate Administrator from 1960 to 1965 and Deputy Administrator from 1965 to 1968, taken from his book, Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions:

It can be said that George [Mueller] was not a person to accept past decisions as a given. In particular, he decide to review the flight schedule, tasking two old hands, John Disher and Del Tischler—the first knowledgeable in spacecraft, the second in rockets and launch vehicles. George wanted an unbiased, fresh look. Two weeks later, George was appalled by their findings. They estimated a late 1971 date with a launch within the decade only at unacceptable risk. They immediately came to my office for a similar briefing. When it was over, I took George aside and told him to bury the Disher-Tischler review and create a new program with an acceptable outcome. George was prepared to put forth a radical plan for this purpose. The plan was managerial as well as procedural, and it took into account Congress's reduction of the President's 1964 request from $5.7 billion to $5.1 billion.

We were perilously close to losing control of the program, which placed George in the driver’s seat. First, he insisted that the three major Centers in Houston, in Huntsville, and at the Cape should report directly to him. Second, internal to this group, George was the chief executive officer and chairman of the board. . . . Reductions in the budget included eliminating four Saturn I manned orbital missions. And, of course, the Nova vehicle was no longer required. But these reductions alone would be insufficient to control the budget and to achieve a landing within the decade.

A step-by-step approach adding elements in sequential flights coupled with repeated flights of the final configuration would not, according to George, build reliability into the system. The best opportunity for reliability and success would come from careful design, redundancy where possible, component quality control, and systems testing. I agreed. As the stages were assembled one by one and then coupled with the spacecraft, the system would be checked out by the same instruments, monitors, and people that would be responsible for the go-ahead on launch day. Finally, on launch day, in the 2-minute period prior to ignition, all key items would be automatically checked to be certain that the readings were within prescribed tolerances. With this procedure, it is only sensible to plan on success. If the first stage is going to do its job, have the second included, and so on, until an all-up systems test is achieved on the first attempt. I was present at Launch Control when Saturn V was launched the first time. Not only did all launch systems perform flawlessly, but Apollo and the service module did also. The Lunar Lander was not yet available, but it would have been included if checked out.

Now, George created quite a stir with his revised program. Words like impossible, reckless, incredulous, harebrained, and nonsense could be heard behind the scenes. After announcing the plan to the manned spaceflight team, George followed up immediately with detailed schedules. George didn't sell; he dictated—and without his direction, Apollo would not have succeeded.

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Thursday, 9 November [1967], was the day planned to determine in dramatic fashion the validity of all-up systems testing. Four flights of Saturn I were allocated to tests of its first stage before the second stage was included. All four flights were completely successful, and the option to move Saturn I's development ahead faster was delayed two years. How different the first Saturn V flight test was. On the launchpad were the three stages of Saturn V, the Saturn instrument package, the Apollo capsule, and its service module. There was the whole enchilada except the lunar excursion module (LEM). A press conference was held outdoors the day before the launch, with Kurt Debus [Director of Kennedy Space Center] and me officiating. We faced over 1,000 members of the media with the Saturn V steaming behind us. The remarkable backdrop was awesome. At the press conference, I explained that in addition to testing all three stages of the Saturn V, we were using the service module rocket engine to take the capsule to a higher altitude and drive it back into the atmosphere at near-lunar-reentry velocity. With such a large press corps, including Soviet and other foreign correspondents, there were bound to be tough questions—and there were. Weren't we taking too big a risk with all-up testing? If the first stage exploded, could the astronauts escape? . . .

The countdown to the Saturn’s launch proceeded without a hitch; all seated in the viewing stands heard the tremendous pent-up energy suddenly being released. . . . Saturn V was just nearly clearing the tower, and the sound was just reaching the viewing stand. The sight and sound were truly awesome. The sound was heard by the ear as lots of noise crackling and popping, and by the body as a rumbling vibration. Dr. William Donn of Columbia University found the Saturn V blastoff to be one of the loudest natural or manmade noises in history, excepting nuclear detonations.

Early indications from the first Saturn V flight (also called the Apollo 4 mission) were all favorable. Later, analyses of the data showed that the thrusts of all the engines were well within tolerances and that the capsule approached Earth’s atmosphere at close to the nominal 7 degrees below the horizon and at a speed of 24,900 miles per hour.

. . . The rocket motors, the structure, the controls, the instrumentation, the guidance, and the heatshield all had been completely successful. The members of NASA’s highly professional rocket team, headed by Wernher von Braun, were astounded, and George Mueller was vindicated for his bold planning and execution.

[Apollo Program Director] Sam Phillips was moved to say that he was tremendously impressed with the smooth teamwork exhibited. Wernher von Braun said that no single event since the formation of the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1960 equaled that day's launch in significance. Jim Webb praised the devotion and quality workmanship of the 300,000 men and women working on the Apollo Program. And President Johnson said, "The whole world could see the awesome sight of the first launch of what is now the largest rocket ever flown. This launching symbolizes the power this nation is harnessing for the peaceful exploration of space."

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Finally, the United States would never have succeeded with Apollo if we'd plodded through 20 to 30 flights of Saturn I and Saturn V to achieve man rating. The funding wouldn't have been available. All-up systems testing was essential. . . .