By JAMES DRAPER
“Failure is not an option – when you are with God.”
It’s a mantra near and dear to Jonny Ferguson’s heart.
The first half of the phrase was spoken by Gene Kranz, NASA’s second Chief Flight Director, who directed missions in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Programs, including the lunar landing mission of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969. Kranz made the pronouncement in the course of the averted-disaster of Apollo 13.
Ferguson tacked on the second portion, the culmination of many lessons and observations he gleaned from more than four decades behind the consoles of Mission Control.
The United States’ success in the Space Race was, in very real ways, miraculous, he told Gladewater Rotarians Thursday afternoon, the 54 year anniversary of the moon landing.
One miracle after another compounded with the diligent contributions of brilliant, hardworking people, Ferguson said. Prayer and God’s guidance were integral to the NASA community.
For example, “We had lots and lots of people meeting during the lunch hour for Bible Studies,” he explained, adding up to hundreds of sessions in a given week. “This just goes to show you we were very much concentrating and understanding this whole thing depended on God.”
Born and raised in Kilgore, Ferguson’s father was a local police officer while his mother worked in department stores. They were also the first generation on their farm. Their son graduated Kilgore schools and went on to earn his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1965.
By March of the 1966, the 26-year-old was working at the still-new Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“The timing was just right,” he says. “God was opening up the doors for me to get involved in that.”
One of Ferguson’s key roles at the agency was Guidance Officer, or GUIDO, the flight controllers who worked with spacecrafts’ on board navigational systems and guidance computer software.
“I did computer programming back in the early days when you programmed them with ones and zeros,” he said. “As a guidance officer that came in really handy. The computers on board could only hold about 15 minutes of data so we had to continually update from the ground stations and make sure they had all the correct information up there.”
Ferguson recalled stories of working with Gene Kranz, Flight Director during the Apollo program, the second person at NASA to hold the post.
He also recounted the tragic day in January 1967 when the crew of Apollo 1 – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee – were killed on the launchpad when their spacecraft caught fire during testing.
“That was quite a shock to everybody,” Ferguson said. Later, “It slowed us down for about a year-and-a-half to redesign the spacecraft.”
Kranz told his people he and all of them were responsible for the astronauts’ deaths because they were the final stop on all spacecraft designs.
“We should have caught the fact that we had a pure oxygen atmosphere and some naked wires that created the disaster,” Ferguson said, in addition to the fact that the spacecraft’s hatch wouldn’t open the midst of the test. “Those were very obvious places of failure.”
Kranz set up a Flight Techniques panel, including Ferguson, that met once a week to discuss the ins and outs of all things they could muster, whatever it took to prevent another failure. They took all comments and worked to resolve all actions – there would be no flights until everything was hammered out.
“Some of those discussions got pretty hot,” Ferguson added, “but we rely on each other’s intelligence and information.”
During the landing of Apollo 7 in October 1968, Ferguson was aboard a U.S. destroyer in the Pacific Ocean, the backup recovery ship – he was prepared to power down the command module and help the astronauts out of their gear if the spacecraft landed outside the primary recovery area.
Prepping for Apollo 8, the CIA learned the Russian space agency had a huge rocket ready-to-launch – Ferguson was one of six individuals with extended security clearance at Johnson Space Center.
The upcoming mission was originally intended as a lunar and command module test in an elliptical Earth orbit: “We were asked if we could actually change Apollo 8 to going around the moon,” he said. “The final conclusion was, yes, we can.”
Ultimately, it was hailed as NASA’s most dangerous mission, launching a vehicle that had never been manned before to escape Earth’s orbit, enter lunar gravity and return safely home, hitting speeds of 5,000 miles per hour along the way.
“There were a lot of firsts on that flight,” Ferguson said, and it went off without a hitch.
During that flight, the astronauts snapped a famous picture of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon on December 24. The crew read from the book of Genesis that Christmas Eve.
“When back on earth we were having so much turmoil,” Ferguson said, “there was not hardly a dry eye in the control center.
“That brought us to the realization of ‘Here we are. We need to take care of each other. We need to take care of Earth.”
Later, U.S. intelligence learned the Russian moon rocket failed, exploding on its launchpad in January 1969, effectively putting an end to the lunar mission hopes of the USSR.
It was July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11’s Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon.
“Neal Armstrong was the right guy at the right time to be in command of that event,” Ferguson said, experienced in carrier landings, rocket tests, successful missions, failures and recoveries.
It was a good thing, too.
“Things got very, very tense.”
Among all the normal rigors of spaceflight, the lunar landing also brought a rare ‘1201 Error’ in the final minutes of the descent of the Apollo Lunar Module, Eagle.
“We ran across that in one simulation only,” Ferguson said. “It meant that the computers were overloaded at that instant. The computer had too much information so they did a freeze.
“They caught up, and things pressed on.”
That wasn’t the only problem, though.
“The lunar surface where they wanted to land was too rough,” Ferguson said. “Neal Armstrong takes over control of the lunar module and pulls it up to start flying a little longer. Fuel became a critical issue.”
Kranz called for regular updates on fuel status. As distance and altitude clicked away, fuel became its own countdown – 60 seconds of fuel remaining. 30.
“Finally, Buzz Aldrin called down, ‘Kicking up, dust.’ Then, Neal: ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.’ They had 13 seconds of fuel left,” Ferguson said. “After the flight we found out that Neal Armstrong said they were going to set it down anyway.”
There’s another key moment that stands out for Ferguson, who retired in 2009 after 42 years working in the space program.
“Buzz Aldrin had Communion on the moon,” he recalled. “The very first meal served on the moon was a Communion. They did not acknowledge that until many years later.”
Ferguson went on to describe the near-disaster of the Apollo 13, and his role – including his stance that after an onboard explosion the spacecraft should be turned around immediately and returned to Earth as soon as possible.
He laughs now: it wasn’t a popular opinion in Mission Control. That said, he and his colleagues continued their computations, eventually returning the astronauts home safely after they used the moon to turn them back home.
“Of course, we were still doing calculations with things like this,” Ferguson said, holding up the slide rule he used at the time. “Slipsticks, we called them.
“The whole world was praying for the safe return of those astronauts.”