APOLLO MOON ROCKET LIFTOFF
Man on the Moon; A Short Story
The Cold War was at its peak when President Kennedy first broached the idea of sending a man to the moon in a speech to a joint congressional audience in May of 1961. Part of the Cold War competition involved developing a superior capability in space and putting a man on the moon would be a dramatic demonstration of the United States capabilities.
The United States industrial complex took notice. This included the Data Action Corporation (DAC) Government Systems Division located in Minneapolis Minnesota. The DAC Government Systems management asked their marketing people to beat the bushes to see if they could find opportunities related to the moon landing program.
Pete Jorden in the DAC Government Systems Washington sales office had maintained contact with NASA engineer Denny Johnson who had been a classmate at South Dakota State College where both had graduated as electrical engineers. Their relationship had been mostly social since the DAC Government Systems hadn’t been involved in any NASA programs.
Denny had grown up in a small town in western Minnesota and still had family there. His wife also came from that part of the country but they had been recently divorced. Denny, in his late thirties had an eye for attractive women and having an athletic build and strong features was in turn attractive to women. It had been a bad combination for the marriage.
Denny had spent two years in the army during World War II and went to college on the GI bill and started working for NASA when he graduated from South Dakota State. Computers were just emerging as useful devises and Denny ended up in a department evaluating computers for NASA applications. Since no entrenched computer experts existed Denny was able to move up quickly and had engineering sign off responsibility for computers his department used in its programs.
Pete called Denny and arranged for a lunch meeting. He figured a lunch meeting with Denny would be a good place to start looking for moon landing business. Making the luncheon arrangement with Denny would be easy since Pete would be picking up the tab and they had a lot in common to talk about. Pete said he would be bringing along Ray Olson, a sales support person from Minneapolis.
Ray had recently come off a North Dakota wheat farm, made a stop at the North Dakota State College to pick up a BS in electrical engineering. He found design to be boring but marketing matched his personality and abilities perfectly. He loved to entertain customers by taking them to restaurants and hot spots locally in Minneapolis and away when visiting customers. He didn’t have a lot of technical depth but made up for it with a likable personality and enthusiasm. Ray Olson’s round face, blue eyes, blond hair and extremely fair skin made him look even younger that his thirty years. Pete Jorden on the other hand had technical credentials. He had been around the block a few times and was recognized as a capable system conceptualist. Pete wasn’t particularly social in part because he was an abstaining alcoholic and when it came to after meeting dinners and other entertainment he would often find some excuse for bringing Ray Olson out from Minneapolis to bolster that part of marketing.
They met at a K Street restaurant famous for its two hour lunches and prices to match. Lunch conversation started with Pete and Denny sharing recent information about some classmates that they had known while attending South Dakota State. Ray Olson had attended North Dakota State, and had to defend its reputation against that of South Dakota State, big rivals in sports and academics. The three had a lot in common, growing up in western Minnesota and the Dakotas, and then leaving the area after being trained as engineers, going to places where they could find work in their fields. Pete finally got around to asking Denny if he saw any need for any DAC equipment in any of the upcoming programs Denny was dealing with.
“Maybe,” Denny replied. “This moon landing thing by the end of the decade is turning NASA inside out and upside down. They are going to need a lot of stuff once they figure out what it is.”
Ray asked Denny if anyone had figured out how get to the moon and get back.
“The physicists at Redstone have come up with what they say is the best way to do it,” Denny answered. “What they call the best way sounds kind of scary to me. The lab put together a little animation that shows how it’s supposed to work. They have this spacecraft that will carry three people with hardly space for two that will fly to the moon and then orbit around it. This spacecraft has a moon lander attached to it. While the space craft orbits the moon the lander will be detached with two astronauts in it and descend and land on the moon. After they land they will look around and walk around for a while. Then they take off and rendezvous’ with the orbiting spacecraft which then returns to earth and they splash down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
“What are the odds of that happening? Ray asked. “It has to be close to zero. Don’t know if I would trust those physicist if I was an astronaut. Imagine being in that lander. Say you bang up the lander, can’t take off. You’re done. Nobody you can call for help. Maybe you do get off the moon and then can’t connect up with the spacecraft. Nobody had ever done this for real before. You’re done.”
Denny agreed. “I wouldn’t give you very good odds that this will go off without a glitch or two.” Denny hesitated, and then added, “There is a small computer to be used for spacecraft checkout before launch. Got any recommendations? We would like something off-the-shelf, don’t want to reinvent the wheel.
“Sure, we have the DAC6 and DAC6A, got some information on it in my briefcase.
Denny shrugged, “I’m familiar with the DAC6’s. They are using some of them on the Gemini program. Looks like a desk.”
Pete agreed. “It’s housed in a grey office desk with the computer parts in a drawer. The company genius, Clayton Douglas, designed it one weekend when he needed and input output device for his latest’s super computer. But it’s a fully functioning computer. It’s a mini computer but lots of capability; can run FORTRAN.”
“They want redundancy, think it can it do that?”
“It might take some modes. I don’t think you will find redundancy built into any off-the-self computers. Do you have specs?
“Not really, we don’t want to design a computer. There are requirements, what the computer has to do.”
“Can you get me a copy of those?” Pete asked.
“Can do. What kind of money are we talking about for a DAC6?”
“Less than fifty thousand for the DAC6A, unmodified.”
Denny looked surprised, “Sounds interesting.”
Ray had an idea, “I’m staying overnight, want to meet for dinner somewhere, bring a copy of the requirements, maybe do the town a little.”
Denny thought that would be a good idea, “Takes care of what to do for dinner tonight.”
Pete said he wouldn’t be able to make it but would meet Ray in the morning for breakfast at eight.
Ray looked a little peaked the next morning. “Damn, only got a couple of hours of sleep last night.”
“Long dinner?” Pete asked.
“That Denny knows how to party, met a couple of gals he knew, things went downhill from there.”
“Glad I didn’t go; did you get the requirements information?”
“Got two, one for you and one for me. I’m wondering how to show some of the expenses for last night on my trip report.”
Pete laughed, “That’ll be a good test of your creativity.”
Ray Olson delivered the spacecraft checkout computer requirements to Jerry Aden the DAC Government Systems Division design engineering manager. Jerry looked Ray over with a wary eye. Jerry looked, acted like and was a typical engineer. He wore a white shirt with a tie, no coat, a pocket protector that held a number two pencil, a pen and a six inch slide rule. His hair needed a trim. Jerry didn’t consider engineers that worked in marketing or other such activities to be real engineers.
“Can you get right on this,” Ray asked, “This has potential and we have an opportunity to get our ideas in before there’s a request for proposal (RFP).”
“You got a charge number? Jerry asked.
“Charge overhead while I get a number approved.”
“Easier to get a proposal number than charge to overhead.”
“Jes, how many hours do you need? Look, we have mentioned the DAC6A as a candidate. While you are eating your lunch you can scan the requirements and figure out if the DAC6A can do the job. If it can’t then we’ll have figure out what we have to do to make DAC6 or something else work.”
“OK. Means I’ll miss playing duplicate bridge during lunch. You’ll owe me.”
“Right, I’ll get us a contract so you can keep your job.
The next morning Ray checked with Jerry to see what he had learned about the requirements.
Jerry sat in his office drinking his first cup of coffee from the department party sized perk. He greeted Ray, “Hell, I was wasting my time. If you had read a page or two to the requirements even you could have figured out the DAC6A wouldn’t cut it.”
“True, but I had to get an expert opinion.”
“OK, so now if you are serious about this you will have to put a logic guy and a programmer on it for a couple of days and a memory guy and an input output peripherals person on this for a day each and a couple of days for myself. That is to come up with a system concept to meet the requirements. Don’t know if division management will spend that kind of money on something they have never heard about before. It might be some NASA engineer’s wet dream.
“Sounds like you are designing something from scratch, where does the DAC6A fit in? Ray asked.
“Maybe we can save the logo, not much else; maybe some of the logic boards. They are asking for complete redundancy between two computer systems, with a common memory shared by both computers, and two redundant input output (I/O) systems with redundant peripherals. I’m not aware of any existing computer system that can do what they are asking for. They describe an interrupt system that has to be invented. We need over a 100K of core memory in the computer main frames and double that in the memory modules. This is not a DAC6A.”
“How in hell are we going to sell something like you describe as off-the-shelf?”
“Your problem Ray. I don’t worry myself about those kinda problems but I’m sure no competition has anything like it off-the-shelf either.”
Ray brought Pete Jorden back from Washington D.C. to help convince division management to spend the money to come up with a system concept to satisfy the NASA requirements for a computer to use in the spacecraft automatic test system (ACE). Pete persuaded division management that DAC had an inside track as a computer supplier for the spacecraft ACE system. Ray got the funding and backing to pursue the perceived NASA opportunity.
When the computer system concept for the ACE system had been completed, reviewed and approved, Pete Jorden set up another meeting for Ray Olson and himself to meet with NASA’s Denny Johnson. They met in Denny’s office and Ray did an over the desk presentation of what DAC had designated as the DAC6G. It met all of the NASA ACE needs as spelled out in the requirements that Denny had provided to DAC. Ray showed a conceptual diagram that showed boxes that designated both computers interconnected with both memory boxes and two I/O boxes that connected to devices being tested and a bank of magnetic tape handlers. Either computer could connect to either memory box which could connect to either I/O boxes.
Denny liked what he saw, said he would send information about it down to the Cape where a NASA team worked on the ACE concept. He divulged that GE will be the prime on the ACE system and they would like to develop a government funded computer system for the application. “They say there’s nothing off-the-shelf that can do the job. By the way what does the “G” in DAC6G stand for?”
“Government Systems,” Ray replied. “We are using the same circuit boards as the “A” uses, with some added types; it uses the “A” instruction set with some additions. The memory and I/O units are new developments. We will repackage everything, no more grey office desks, lot of bright colors.
Denny wanted to know how the modes would be paid for. You know we want this off- the-shelf if possible..
Ray said the modes would be included in the unit price based on the estimated number of units to be sold. He added “You can bet it will be more than the 50K we were talking about for the DAC6A.”
Actually Ray didn’t know how the DAC6G modifications would be paid for. To include the cost in the price of the systems would mean DAC would be treating the “G” like a commercial product and amortizing the development cost over the estimated number of units to be sold. Company money would be at risk until the development costs were recovered. Government Systems Division wasn’t in that kind of business.
Pete asked the next obvious question, “How many systems would NASA need?”
“It’s been fluctuating around thirteen- fourteen systems,” Denny replied.
To Ray the number Denny mentioned wasn’t impressive although those were dual redundant systems so you could double the number but even that wouldn’t be an exciting number. Getting management to go along with the off-the-shelf story might be a stretch.
Ray and Denny talked about dinner that evening and Pete decided to join them even though he knew it might be a long night. Pete had concerns about the NASA communities working on the ACE system not being aware of the existence of the DAC6G. Talking to Denny was kinda like preaching to the choir. The final decision about the ACE computer wouldn’t be made by him.
Denny suggested a watering hole with good food and mature clientele. During dinner and drinks and then after dinner drinks Pete drank carbonated water. Denny had put away three water and bourbon drinks and had his eyes on some of the women at the bar that appeared to be unattached. Despite Denny’s wandering interst Pete suggested talking about how to best get information about the DAC6G to NASA personnel working on the ACE program.
Denny responded by noting that the blond in a green dress sitting at the bar had been giving him the eye.
Ray checked out the blond, “Hell she’s old enough to be your mother.”
“Damn, my eyes must be going bad. Pete, what were you saying about computers?”
Pete repeated his question about how to inform NASA about the DAC6G. Denny, now on board said he would distribute the same DAC6G information he planned to send to the Cape to other NASA people involved in the ACE program.
Ray wondered if Denny could arrange to have Pete and him visit the people that would be getting the information. “Talk up the DAC6G, answer questions. How many groups are we talking about?”
“Half a dozen,” Denny replied. “We won’t have much time, the Apollo train has left the station and we have less than ten years to put a man on the moon.
Ray and Pete spent the next two months briefing NASA ACE system people about the DAC6G and trying to convince DAC management that this was a great opportunity for the company to become part of the Apollo program.
When the ACE RFP hit the streets the DAC Government Systems had no problem responding to requirements since they were written around the DAC6G system. Price was a different matter. The DAC proposal would feature the off-the-shelf DAC6G. The term off-the-shelf implied that any development cost of the DAC6G would be amortized and included in the recurring price of the DAC6G. Therein lay the conundrum. The DAC Government Systems Division was not in the business of developing products using company funds to be recovered in sale of the products developed.
DAC Government Systems Division was headed by a General Manager named Robert Glassman. Robert Glassman had held that position for a little over a year. Tenure of general managers of the Government Systems Division had a history of being short lived. Competition for government contracts in the defense and technology business was brutal. The Government Systems Division general managers were expected to grow the business and profits in this competitive market. Historically the proceeding general managers were able to grow the business or profits, but not both simultaneously. Bidding low might grow the business but hurt profits while maintaining profits might cost business growth.
Glassman felt confident enough that he could be successful that he moved his family to the Twin Cities and bought a home in a tony suburb.
Glassman had been kept informed of the ACE opportunity and the latest developments. Marketing claimed DAC had an inside track to supply the computer for the system. However when Glassman saw the backup for the pricing he was shocked. The non-recurring cost for the external memory and I/O units were included in the bid but the non-recurring for the DAC6G computer development did not appear. Glassman called the two men who claimed responsibility for marketing the DAC6G concept for use in the ACE system, asked them to meet him in his office the next morning.
Pete Jorden was in his Washington D.C. office when he got the call and took the red eye into Minneapolis to make the meeting. Ray Olson threw together information he thought he might need for the meeting.
Glassman greeted Pete and Ray by asking them where in hell they had buried the DAC6G development costs. Ray dug through his data and fished for some spread sheets.
While Ray searched for the spread sheets, Pete reminded Glassman that the DAC proposal was describing the DAC6G as an off-the-shelf product. NASA is familiar with the DAC6 products and the “G” is being promoted as part of the family.
Glassman, a heavy set middle aged man with a lot peaks and valleys in a rugged square face stared at Pete through deep set grey eyes. “Why?” He asked.
“NASA is looking for off-the-shelf hardware where possible and we’ve promoted the DAC6G as off-the-shelf.”
“Who is we?” Glassman asked.
The question caused Pete to realize that the “we” had been Ray and himself. They had been doing the NASA briefings and planting the idea that the “G” version of the DAC6 was off-the-shelf. “Well a lot of people” Pete replied.
“Be more specific, I like to know who I need to fire.”
At that point Ray came up with the spread sheet which showed that the DAC6G development costs had been amortized over a build of fifty units.
Glassman asked how many computers is NASA planning to buy.
“The RFQ ask for the delivery thirteen systems,” Ray replied, “Which will include twenty-six DAC6G computers.”
Glassman wanted to know who would buy the other twenty-four computers.
Ray had prepared an analysis of the market potential for the DAC6G justifying the fifty unit amortization, but the numbers were based for the most part from an input from NASA’s Denny Johnson that the price shouldn’t exceed $250 thousand. The recurring price came out at $200 thousand and the development amortization for fifty units came to $40 thousand per unit so they priced the DAC6G at $245 thousand. It all worked out but it didn’t seem like the right answer for Glassman’s question. Ray instead talked about the analysis, the potential market.
Glassman wasn’t hearing any of it. His voice became louder as he asked “What in hell are you guys thinking? We don’t have a budget for carrying any of the development cost on the books; Government Systems isn’t in that kind of business.”
Pete didn’t like the way the meeting was going. The DAC inside track on the procurement was about to be scuttled because of how the company was organized. He and Ray had busted their buts on this procurement. OK, so maybe we sold something we don’t exactly have, but not something that can’t be done. OK, DAC needs to take some financial risks to ensure we sew up the procurement. So what else is new? It’s that kind of business.
Pete made an attempt to articulate his thoughts and concerns. “Because of our nearly off-the-shelf computer is able to satisfy the ACE system requirement we are in a favored position to win this program. If we include the full DAC6G development cost in our proposal we lose that advantage.”
“Nearly off-the-shelf,” Glassman huffed, “the numbers don’t support that.
Pete moved to why DAC should want to win the program. “This is a big chunk of business for our division; it establishes DAC as a NASA supplier in a significant historical event.”
Pete’s last argument touched Glassman in a vulnerable place. The ACE program would be a big chunk of business for the division, something needed to grow the business in the near term. Winning would as always entail financial and technical risks. It was these thoughts that caused Glassman to make his decision to approve the ACE proposal as prepared with the provision that DAC Defense Group Management would support the amortization of the DAC6G development cost.
The DAC Defense Group consisted of three divisions and had the wherewithal to manage the risk of amortizing the DAC6G development. The Defense Group Management approved the proposal that had been prepared with the understanding that Glassman’s job depended on the sale of at least fifty DAC6G computers.
DAC Government Systems Division won the ACE computer system program and executed the program well. The DAC6G meet all of the ACE system needs, proved to be reliable and never held up a launch.
However the Government Systems Division only succeeded in selling three more dual DAC6G systems for a total of six computers. The DAC6G had proved to be an excellent computer that made technical advances in redundant computer design and use but could not find customers who needed the capabilities it provided.
True to upper management’s stipulation that Glassman’s job depended on the sale of at least fifty DAC6G computers, he was invited to seek his opportunities at a place other than DAC. However before Glassman had been given the opportunity to leave he had provided the same opportunity for Ray Olson. He would have done the same for Pete Jorden but Pete reported to a different chain of command.
Ray soon found a similar position with another defense industry company in St. Louis and he put DAC and the moon landing business behind him. On 20 July 1969 he had been visiting a company on Long Island New York. After an early afternoon meeting he went to Kennedy Airport to catch a plane that would take him back to St. Louis. While walking through the airport lobby he noticed people crowding around a TV monitor. He remembered the moon landing was to happen that day and here it was, pictures from the Eagle as the Lunar Module settled down on the moon at the Tranquility Base. Ray felt a strong reaction to the scene on the TV monitor. He was watching a historic moment in the human experience in real time and he had contributed to making that happen. All the ups and downs of that experience, like losing his job didn’t matter at that moment. That he had been part of the team that made this happen was all that mattered.
Alfred Wellnitz Published Book and Short Story Information at:
Copyright © 2016 by Alfred Wellnitz
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this short story are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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