Janitor Saves Saturn

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Apollo 09 David Scott podczas lotu Apollo 9 GPN-2000-001100.jpg This article is a Historical Essay
Written and submitted by
Grady Woodard.

Grady’s Space Chronicles


This story is about the tank welds and how they suddenly started to leak and how a janitorial contract employee named “Gus,” saved the day!

While under the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), as part of a long-range project for lunar exploration, was ordered to begin work in August 1958 on a 1.5-million-pound-thrust booster for the multistage launch vehicle program later named Saturn. The project was initially authorized and funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Army personnel located at Redstone Arsenal worked on this project until AOMC lost all of its space missions to NASA in July 1960.

In 1960, the Army facilities was being transferred to the NASA following a recommendation of the President to the Congress. President Eisenhower announced the intention to name the Huntsville facilities for the late General of the Army George C. Marshall. The NASA organization will continue under Army business management until June 30, 1960, the end of the current fiscal year. The Marshall Space Flight Center will inaugurate NASA management in all fields July 1, 1960.

During the 1959-1962 years , the first Saturn I, Block I, rocket program had gotten an upstart. MSFC arrived and things were moving from the Army’s ABMA to MSFC conversion. ABMA’s cluster of eight 70-inch diameter Redstone-type tank sets (all will be stretched to hold more fuel for longer flight time), arranged around a hollow cylinder Jupiter 105-inch tank manufactured with the Jupiter tooling. Four outer tanks would carry liquid oxygen (LOX) and the other four outer tanks would carry RP-1 fuel, was born on August 17, 1958.

MSFC assembled the stages in its own on-site main assembly building in a horizontal, rotating assembly fixture. The aft thrust structure would be lifted into the fixture first, followed by the central LOX tank and forward spider beam assembly. Then, the four white outer LOX tanks would be lifted into place one at a time. The tanks were installed in opposing pairs to keep the jig balanced. Finally, the four black fuel tanks would be installed. The five LOX tanks were load-bearing. The fuel tanks were not.

During the final stages of assembly, a complex maze of propellant lines would be installed within the thrust structure. Some interconnected the tanks. Some connected to fill and drain valves. Others fed the engines. Each propellant tank, for example, fed fuel to one inboard and one outboard engine (actually making a single rocket with eight rockets bolted together). Finally, the eight H-1 engines would be installed. The four, fixed inboard engines were installed first, followed by the four, gimbaled outboard engines. The last step was the installation of heat shield panels and aprons on the booster base. The completed stages were then rolled out on an eight-wheeled transporter cradle to the MSFC Test Stand for static firing.

In 1959, all of our early rocket structure parts and tanks were fabricated in the Army’s Fabrication Assembly and Engineering Laboratory (FA&E Lab) Building 4707 at ABMA. The tank parts were welded together on a horizontal turntable with welding heads. When the welds cooled, their surfaces had small cracks. Later, under super stressful heating and cooling conditions, the weld surface cracks started to crack deeper until leaks occurred. The first set of tanks were for testing and was stored in one end of the building as displays. The second, third and fourth sets were for vehicles SA-D1, the Dynamic Stress Tower’s vehicle for bending and shaking , the SA-T test stand firing test and a fourth set for the first launch vehicle SA-1.

The first tank cracks were on SA-D1 vehicle in the “shake“ tower and leaked. In a panic, checks were made on SA-T and SA-1 tanks. All welds were x-rayed and found cracking. The first fabricated tanks on display in Building 4707 were checked and found good. These tanks were pressed into use on SA-T to stay on schedule. Why were the first set good and the rest were bad? What were we doing wrong after the first successful sets were made good?. All the specs and blueprints were checked again and again - found nothing had changed. The welding equipment also was checked out and no change.

The Army was racing to fix this problem and were informed by their Liaison Officers imbedded in almost all Divisions and Braches of ABMA. Meetings and teams were busy searching and investigating. The FA&E Lab’s Structure Branch, next door to my Engine Unit Office, was under Dick Taylor and he had his team working all hours to fix their tanks.

Engineers were checking the history and movements of the first set of tanks. Interviews with workers and people that worked in the Building 4707 was made. While a group of engineers were looking at this display set of tanks, a contractor janitor named Gus, was cleaning the floors and dusting the displays asked,” Will I get those display tanks back, a lot of visitors look at them?” The group of engineers looked at Gus puzzled? Gus said, “I promise to continue to keep them polished and looking good for the visitors!” The group asked Gus exactly what did he do to them. Gus told them, “The welds color were turning a bit dull and I sanded and polished them with an abrasive cloth - people see these!”

On examination, the engineers found that Gus’s polishing of the weld surfaces had stopped them from cracking. Gus was given an Award of $50, made up in the FA&E Lab employees (mostly welding engineers) and presented it to him. Soon, Gus’s contractor company was changed and Gus was laid off. No one can recall his actual name. No mention of this were ever made in the base papers or records.

All of the tanks made to that date were reworked using Gus’ procedure. The welding procedures were changed and later, NASA gave welding “tips” and held America Welding Society meetings on “cryogenic welding” and other welding technologies developed in symposiums from March, 1963 through July, 1967. A Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory welding engineer, Miss Margaret “Hap” Brennecke, worked in the Methods Research and Development Branch on the fabric ability of two alloys in 1962, was a big benefit to the new welding technologies too.

The SA-T First Saturn C-1 booster stage used in extensive static tests beginning in March 1960. Tested in configurations to mimic SA-1 through SA-5 through November 1962, then sent to Michoud for facility testing. Probably now on horizontal display next to static test tower at Marshall Space Flight Center.

The SA-D1 Vehicle (S-1-D1/S-IV-Dummy/S-V-Dummy) Block 1 dynamic test vehicle installed in the new dynamic test stand in June 1961. Now on display at MSFC with dummy upper stages.

Launch Vehicle SA-1 (S-1-1/ S-IV-Dummy/S-V-Dummy) launched October 27,1961 on suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral Pad LC34. The S-1-1 tested at ABMA/MSFC June-July 1961. Shipped to Cape August 1961. At the end of the flight, project “High Water” test was made (water ballast in upper stage) and exploded into space, which formed a mushroom ice cloud.

Saturn vehicles SA-2 and SA-3 were repeats and studies were made for dispersing propellants during a possible destruct action (one of my projects).