Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Staging Disaster (That Never Happened)

Among people who celebrate the Apollo program, there is a group that can recite the details of a near disaster during Apollo 10. They talk about the Lunar Module spinning out of control, seconds from impacting the moon. A chaotic staging in the middle of engine firings. It's a dramatic story, no doubt. Fortunately, for the men on board at the time, the story is largely false. The dramatic events actually never occurred, at least not in the way they have come to be described.

A still from the 16mm film taken as the descent stage moves away during staging. Notice that the lunar horizon is "upside down".

I can't blame people for believing in this mythology. Take a look at this excerpt of a video that has been shown on the Discovery Channel. We see the LM apparently in the midst of a rehearsal for landing. The descent engine is running. Then suddenly we see the stages separate and the ascent stage goes in a rapid, wild tumble. These are powerful images.

I am sure that the Discovery Channel showed this animation over and over to attract attention to their show. I don't know if the people who produced it knew it wasn't real, but for sure, if they had spent a few hours researching the mission records, they would have known it was a false telling of the tale. 

Just to be clear, something did go wrong at staging. At the moment it occurred, in May of 1969, no one knew exactly what was happening, and there is no doubt it was a frightening incident. Both Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan, the astronauts aboard, deserve great credit for quickly recovering and keeping their mission on track. In this post I will look at some of the fictionalized accounts online, and then go back to the original records to piece together what really happened that day. The exaggerations that have been popularized in recent years don't honor the true courage and flying skills of these brave men.

First lets look at more of the false accounts.

Here is a YouTube video from "Seeker", which claims that "the spacecraft could have slammed into the Moon." In fact the astronauts were in a stable orbit, and slamming into the surface was simply not something that would have happened in any scenario. 
Sadly, even the Draper Corporation has joined in the fiction-fest. This company descended from the MIT instrumentation lab that designed the guidance and wrote the software for the Moon landings! But this web site, which Draper sponsors, joins the chorus of bogus descriptions of the staging incident. They claim that the crew was "seconds from crashing into the moon when they successfully regained control." Fortunately for the Apollo crews, Draper's standards for reality-checking were tighter back in 1969. No doubt Charles Stark Draper is spinning in his grave faster than an out-of-control LEM.

Here is one more misleading account of the event, and again one would hope for better fact-checking from the source...Smithsonian Magazine. While I appreciate their effort to draw attention to an overlooked Apollo mission, the claim that the staging gyration took place "after the ignition of the ascent engine" is simply false, as a few minutes of online research will quickly prove.

Surprisingly, it seems that the over-dramatized accounts of the staging incident tie back to someone who was there - Gene Cernan, the Apollo 10 Lunar Module Pilot. Back in1969 his descriptions of the events related well to the facts of the mission. By 2009, 40 years later, his sense of drama appears to have enhanced his memories, and the tale he tells has grown. He recounts "seeing the lunar horizon go by 8 times in 15 seconds". No wonder the event mythology has become so exaggerated. Eyewitness testimony! While I have great respect for Gene and all of his contributions to the space program, in this case we unfortunately need to doubt his words.

Let's go back to May of 1969 and uncover what really happened. There are a number of great sources to help understand the event, including film taken out the LM window, on-board audio recordings, telemetry data, the crew debrief, and the "anomaly" investigation report.

For starters, one fun video from the time is the live coverage that was being broadcast by CBS. They were "all in" on the Apollo program, and invested heavily in animations to complement the audio they were getting from NASA. Famously, there was no 7-second delay in those days, and we clearly hear Gene cussing on live television as things go south in the LM. In the video I linked above, Cernan recounts how his wife admonished him about his "salty" language when he got back to Houston. However even from the live coverage, it's clear something went wrong during staging, resulting in a "wild gyration".

Cernan's mic was "live", so his words went straight to Houston, and on to CBS, which is why he was tagged as the "salty" one. Meanwhile, an on-board tape recorder captured audio from both Cernan and Stafford. From the transcript of the tape produced by NASA, we see that Stafford (labelled "CDR" in the transcript) had a few choice words of his own. Fortunately for all concerned these words were not broadcast live. 

This excerpt from the LM transcript captures the tense moments of the staging incident.

To understand what really happened, there is one truly outstanding source - the Apollo Flight Journal. Robin Wheeler of the AFJ put together a video that combines the film, the on-board audio, and telemetry data, aligned to a mission timer. Anyone interested in the true story of this incident needs to watch this video. When I watch it I have to really admire the crew as they quickly and effectively dealt with a very unexpected situation. Clearly they are a great team, with years of experience training and flying together. Listen to the great communication as they keep each other apprised as events unfold.

From the video it's clear that the LM did not tumble or spin in the dramatic fashion of the Discovery Channel animation. The lunar horizon does not go by "8 times in 15 seconds" as Gene claimed. What we see in the video matches up much more closely to what Tom and Gene described in the crew debrief interview they gave when they got home. In that interview Tom states that "We got the vehicle under control after about, I'd estimate, a 360-degree maneuver." Gene's account is more conservative, saying that "We could have maneuvered 30 degrees or we could have maneuvered 90 degrees. All I know is that it was fairly slow." Then he added "whether we did a 360-degree maneuver is difficult for me to say." The account Gene gives years later, is very different, and is probably one of the the main reasons that the staging mythology grew. 
This chart shows the spin rates at the time of staging. The peak in the Z-axis (roll) was around 26 degrees per second...about 13 RPM.  Source

It's important to understand that neither the descent engine or the ascent engine was fired during the staging maneuver. The plan was to use the small "RCS" jets to speed up by 2 feet per second, kick off the stage, then slow back down to the original speed. This is basically what happened, but the unexpected attitude changes meant that the stage was kicked off more upwards than backwards. Robin Wheeler at the Apollo Flight Journal undertook a detailed analysis of the film and prepared this image showing the planned and actual staging attitudes.

The confusion about the engine firings probably arises because the LM was designed to be able to perform staging "hot", during descent. This "Fire In The Hole" capability had been tested with the first unmanned LM flight during Apollo 5. For Apollo 10, no such risk was taken with men aboard. The descent engine had been deactivated after the Phasing burn, two hours before. The ascent engine would be fired for the first time 10 minutes after staging, as the crew began their rendezvous with "Charlie Brown".

This table from the Mission Report shows the Phasing Burn that preceded staging and the Insertion Burn that occurred about 10 minutes after staging. We also see that the LM was in a 190-by-12 nautical mile orbit...with no risk of impacting the surface

Another point of confusion about the staging mishap concerns the altitude above the lunar surface when it occurred. Prior to the Phasing Burn, the LM had been in an orbit that took it to within 8.5 nautical miles of the surface. However, at the time of staging, one can see from the Mission Report that they were at an altitude of 31.4 nautical miles. They were never in danger of impacting the Moon.

Table 6-II from the Mission Report, showing the altitude of 31 miles at the time of staging

All of the original documents point to the staging event as much less dramatic than the one so widely depicted online these days. That bothers me. Although the mission was a success overall, there were plenty of challenges, and plenty of surprises for the talented crew to overcome, and they met them all in grand fashion. Thanks to the fantastic job by Gene, Tom, and John, Apollo 10 was an amazing success, which paved the way for the first landing on the Moon less than two months later. There is no need to exaggerate the mission to celebrate its triumphs.


  1. Great post, thank you. I was not aware of the exaggerations & unneeded hype propagated by the likes of the Disco channel...

  2. I really enjoyed seeing Walter Cronkite squirming in his chair as the "salty" language went out on the broadcast. It was fun to find that on YouTube!

  3. Thank you for this post! I did a talk for the 50th year after the Moon landing about "Failure IS an Option" about how most of the Apollo missions had a failure that could have ended the mission. When I dug into the Apollo 10 LM sep incident I found much I assumed was true wasn't so. So, I showed the video at sep and asked my audience to decide for themselves if the event was an unexpected tumble or almost a really awful day. Thanks for the detailed analysis!

  4. I tried to post a comment but it may have failed. Thanks for this post.

    1. Comments are moderated, so they don't appear right away. (Prevents SPAM, trolls, etc.)

  5. Excellent documentary report. The analysis of the real facts here is the only way to get to the truth. The videos you’ve provided are defining ones.


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