In honor of the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the moon, we had a conversation with Jim Free, Peerless’ Senior Vice President of Aerospace Systems. Before joining Peerless in 2017, Free had a long career with NASA, including serving as Deputy Associate Administrator in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Free has also served as Director of NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center and in a number of other senior engineering and management positions for NASA.
Peerless: What memories do you have of the Apollo program?
Free: I was still a little young when the last moon landing happened (Apollo 17 in December 1972), but the excitement of the era is part of my earliest memories. I remember the cereal boxes with the astronauts, lunch boxes showing the flag on the moon and the excitement of my family.
Peerless: If you had to single out a single piece of Apollo hardware (or system) as the most impressive, what would it be?
Free: It would have to be the lunar lander because of the razor-thin margins around which it was designed. For example, the walls of the pressure vessel were chemically milled to as thin as 0.015 inches thick. It also had to serve as the descent stage to land on the moon; provide life support and supplies for two astronauts for up to three days in the later flights, and even carry an electric car to the surface on the last three flights. Then, the vehicle had to split apart to launch the crew back into lunar orbit.
Peerless: From a program/engineering management perspective, what are some of the important lessons to consider from Apollo?
Free: Testing and multiple launches are key. Apollo was built on the lessons of the Mercury and Gemini programs. Gemini had 19 launches in all: Two uncrewed test missions, 7 target vehicles to test rendezvous techniques and 10 crewed flights in only 31 months, from April 1964 to November 1966. Modeling, simulations and ground testing has all advanced since then, but there’s really no substitute for a flight test.
Peerless: Through your career at NASA, you supported the development of the Orion spacecraft in various roles, including serving as Orion Test and Verification Manager. From the outside, the Orion spacecraft, with separate crew and service modules, seems to echo the Apollo CSM. Did you and the other engineers working on Orion keep the design of Apollo in mind?
Free: It wasn’t just the philosophical or historical aspect – we used actual data from Apollo. Apollo documented lessons learned to an almost extreme degree. We had tons of documentation by system, by sub-system, by test strategy … when I began working on Orion, we pulled all that data. The similarities and data helped us understand failure modes, informed our test strategy. It wasn’t an abstract artifact; Apollo continues to provide solid engineering lessons learned 50, 60 years after the hardware was designed and tested.
Peerless: What is the most important lesson we should take away from the Apollo missions?
Free: That determination and sheer will can accomplish great human achievements that unite the world.
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