Since Curiosity landed on Mars last Sunday night, the internet has been buzzing not about the Sky Crane that delivered the rover to the surface but about “Mohawk Guy.” Bobak Ferdowsi is a 32-year old flight director at JPL who looks more like a rock star than an engineer. Consensus on the internet is that Ferdowsi – specifically his mohawk – has made NASA cool, young, and relevant; the most common refrain is along the lines of “this isn’t your father’s/grandfather’s NASA.” But Ferdowsi is actually older than most engineers of the Apollo era. In fact, the average age in mission control has risen since the Apollo days as engineers stay with the agency over multiple long-term programs. Though 1960s engineers may look old fashioned, your father’s or grandfather’s NASA was a fairly young one.
When NASA was established in 1958, the singular goal was to get a man in space before the Soviet Union. The problem was, no one was entirely sure how to get a man in space. The technical challenge was something a few rocket pioneers had already worked out in theory, and putting those theories into practice with test programs was the natural next step. But running a space program, determining mission rules and safe practices, and finding men to work through all the technical problems was another issue altogether.
Only a handful of men from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics moved over the NASA after its inception. And they were some of the younger ones still in their 30s; a lot of the men who had been with the NACA longer felt the space program wasn’t a sure enough deal to bet their careers on. Staffing NASA was was similarly hard. Space was new and risky, and there weren’t tons of newly minted software or spaceflight engineers PhDs looking for jobs. So NASA took guys right out of college, guys who had studied engineering but most importantly had a strong drive and enthusiasm for this new venture into space.
A number of these right-out-of-college guys became the guys in mission control – the flight dynamics officers, retro officers, and environmental control officers. They were divided into teams, each of which was led by one seasoned flight director who made the final calls. Gene Kranz was one of the flight directors during Gemini and Apollo. His team was the White Team, which is why he always wore white vests during missions.
Kranz described his team of controllers as an incredibly and intensely dedicated group of very young people. Working as a team they developed the discipline, morale, toughness, competence, commitment, and teamwork that kept them working as a tight unit through good missions and bad.
There were multiple flight directors each with his own team during the Gemini and Apollo programs. They rotated, each covering an eight hour shift to make sure the crew in space had a link to the ground around the clock. Apollo 11’s moon landing fell during one of Kranz’s shifts.
At 4:17 on the afternoon of July 20, 1969, the average age of the men listening anxiously in mission control as Neil Armstrong fought to land the lunar module before running out of fuel was just 26 years old. Kranz has described himself as the old guy in the room. He was 35 that day.
Four months later, Flight Director Gerry Griffin was 35 and overseeing his Gold Team during Apollo 12’s launch when the Saturn V was struck twice by lightning. It took out the main electrical systems, threatening to cancel the mission less than two minutes after launch. But 24-year-old John Aaron came to the rescue, remembering the fix from an old mission simulation.
The astronauts were the actual “old” guys on these missions. Neil Armstrong was less than two weeks away from his 39th birthday when he landed on the Moon, definitely not old by any standard. Apollo 12 Commander Pete Conrad was 39 when he landed in the Oceans of Storms in November 1969.
Author’s note: There’s a lot to be said for experience in space leading to success, but I think Apollo goes to show that there’s a lot more to be said for young and creative minds given free reign to work a problem, making up solutions as problems arise. The Sky Crane took nine years from inception to landing and that’s with data from three successful rovers, three successful landers, and a slew of flybys and orbital missions. NASA was thinking idly about the Moon in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but when Kennedy promised the nation a Moon landing within the decade in 1961 the agency had nothing concrete to go with – no lunar-capable rockets, no lunar spacecraft or spacecraft configuration… the mission mode of lunar orbit rendezvous (which meant Apollo would use a command and service module and a separate lunar module) wasn’t finalized until 1962. These young guys put a lot on the line to go from suborbital missions to Moon landing in 8 years and 2 months. I just think this is an extremely important perspective to bear in mind if you’re going to talk about “old” vs. “new” NASA.