KPRC sits down with former Apollo simulator instructor to discuss historic mission

Frank Hughes' job was to train astronauts how to maneuver, troubleshoot

By Rose-Ann Aragon - Reporter

HOUSTON - Behind every big accomplishment are the people -- the hands that help make history happen.

As the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 nears, KPRC's space reporter, Rose-Ann Aragon, sat down with one of the people who was tasked with training the astronauts, especially about what to do if things went wrong. Then-simulator instructor Frank Hughes took KPRC through his experience in 1969 and how he is continuing to inspire future generations today.

Hughes was promoted to chief of Spaceflight Training in 1991 and held the job until he retired in 1999. He is now the president of Tietronix Software Inc., a company that develops simulation programs to help people, such as astronauts, assess what it is like on terrains, such as the moon and Mars.

Rose-Ann Aragon (RA): The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is coming up. What does this time mean to you?

Frank Hughes (FH): Well, it's marvelous. First of all, all of the people that worked so hard on it are able to finally see this day and realize how lucky we are to be here and still do it, but on top of that, together it's a team. People were awesome. I mean, they were so bright, so driven to get it done. You know, we were driven by President Kennedy's edict, if you will, and we did it.

RA: Tell me about your role during Apollo 11. What was it that you were blessed to do?

FH: I started in 1966, so by '69, I'm about three years in, and when you come, you have to learn all of the systems to know what's going on. Then, in the control center, we also represented the flight control team. We knew the crew. We knew the systems. We knew the procedures and everything. But on top of that, we made a very personal connection to the crew. Like, if you say something to your family and they say, "uh-huh," you know that they weren't listening or something like that.

So we knew these people enough that you could say that and you could call when they were not paying attention. Or sometimes you just knew that they didn't know that procedure as well as they wish they would have. None of us are perfect, and sometimes they knew this thing and sometimes they would screw it up. So I'd tell them to watch real closely on this next one. So we did that. We had two people sitting there for Apollo 11, and we would just work as a team.

RA: So you really had to know the astronauts on a personal level?

FH: Yes, and the thing is: Many times they would have a question for us. It was strange, but they'd say "Oh, I did something on the simulator. Is Frank back there?"

RA: What was the purpose of the simulator?

FH: First of all, it's a very complex computer-driven device. It has a cockpit. It looks like you're in the spacecraft yourself. Out the window, we created visual systems so you could see the Earth below you, or if you're around the moon, and do all the things that you would do. You're actually trained. It's like a rehearsal. It's a dress rehearsal. So you'd get in there and, for hours, maybe four hours at a time, sometimes eight hours, you would go through a whole piece of the mission. And during that time, you could see that it would really work out, that nobody's born knowing how to do all of this stuff so, you know, we practice.

So we would train astronauts for these flights. They'd train for almost a year in this one simulator. It's called a mission simulator, which is like the pinnacle of what's going on, and then there were like other devices, some of which actually fly and so on. So the simulator is like a very complex video game. We didn't have video games then, but that was the best video game.

RA: What was it like the day of the Apollo 11 launch?

FH: It's interesting because the launches of Saturn V were amazing. I saw two of the, the first two, because nobody was in them. Once we started launching it with them, I was in the control center. So, two days before launch, I'd be on an airplane to Houston and then we were inside the control center so we would be there for anything that the flight directors needed. You know, talk back and forth and, of course, the crew would call down and ask questions.

RA: Any feeling of nervousness or excitement before the launch?

FH: Oh, excitement! Like Apollo 8. Apollo 11 came because of Apollo 8. Like, when you went to college, you had to leave home. That's the first thing people do. And Apollo 8 for humans was that day. So, in the simulator, we would be flying and doing these maneuvers, going faster and faster, and leave for the moon. So we'd see this happen in the simulator and we were used to it doing good.

But then, on the real day, in the real control center, they launched and they started that engine again and started accelerating and you could just see the numbers and every second it meant those humans were going faster than anyone had ever gone and that they were leaving the Earth. This one was real. And all that simulation comes together. The crew was very comfortable. It felt like the simulator, except they're feeling the gravity. You know, they're being pushed into the seat, but it was marvelous. It's, like, we're really doing it, you know, we're leaving.

RA: What is the challenge of training these men and women with something that none of you had physically done?

FH: Well, actually, you have a good imagination. I mean, that's what it is, what would it be like. Let's face it: They didn't know. We didn't know. We all learned together. The astronauts, the teams, the flight controllers -- we practiced it time and time again and the procedures sometimes didn't work or they were not as good as they could be. We made them better.

So, by the time we launched, it worked, and the greatest thing you'd get back when they came home is, "It was just like the simulator." And if they came back and it wasn't, we went through step by step and found those things and fixed them, changed the software, did whatever it took to make it better.

RA: Where do you even start trying to train astronauts to go up into space?

FH: You know, we started with Link Trainers. Ed Link was the guy that put together "Blue Box" and you taught somebody to fly instruments and it was closed. There was no visual and when you got into it, there are the instruments and you close it. So you're sitting in the dark. I mean, you know, light on and there are these instruments and you learn how to fly. In other words, you had no chance to look out the window. You just depended your life on these things, and that's instrument flying. That's a whole different thing you do if you're going to be a pilot. Ultimately, there's another rating that makes you better is when you get your instrument rating. That means you can fly from A to B and just depend on these instruments.

RA: Who did you work with?

FH: Everybody. The prime and the backup of every one of those flights. We had fingerprints on every one of them. They were marvelous. I mean, it was so good. People were dedicated. I was only one of a member of really good instructors that worked well together. And we had two sets of people -- one in Houston and one in Florida, which was through Apollo, and then later everybody moved to Houston and combined in one place.

But it was marvelous. These guys were so bright. And then we had contractors because MIT did the software for the computers. Now the computer we're talking about is only a 36K, but it was good enough to fly to the moon and get you back home.

RA: How do you remember Apollo 11 50 years later?

FH: That day started in the morning. I mean, you know that the spacecraft is done well, and now we're in orbit, and everybody is keyed up. I mean, they're on their best game. It was marvelous because we stepped through the landing just like it was supposed to be. We had these alarms these computer codes, which is a whole different story, but you know we go through that stuff, and we knew how to handle it and they got down, and we were, like, "We did it!"

And I said, "Son of a gun!" and then we went back to work because the landing was not it. They were still there. In plus one minute, we had to get off if anything was wrong with the vehicle. We would launch immediately, down to the minute. Shook hands. Back to work.

Apollo 11's Mike Collins, you know, the whole world is watching it except for him, because he didn't have any video, and he was trying to look through his optical telescope to try to watch what was going on, but he didn't ever see it and so we had to tell him, because he's got to go to work, too.

RA: How was Michael Collins during this?

FH: He was on 60 miles up. He was in orbit in the command module and he was close to them because, when they came around the front of the moon, you know, they're still relatively close. But, you know, they were slowing down. They were using their engines to slow down and stop, basically. Collins didn’t have any video or anything like that. There's no connection that gave him that video, so we just had to tell him, "Yep, (Neil Armstrong) is there."

RA: What's going through your head during the Apollo 11? What's happening as you're seeing these men get up there?

FH: Well, first of all, you know them so well that you know inherently what's going on. So they're doing exactly what they should be doing at the time they should be doing it. These alarms were nuisance alarms. Nobody could know that at first but did know that in a lot of ways from all the things we did in the simulator. We used to be the ones to put codes like that in that caused the trouble, you know?

It was amazing because they were just doing business. If you listen to their voice, if you hear it, it was just routine, you know? And Buzz got a little bit up an octave, maybe, a little bit, when the fuel was low, but he knew how low they were and he knew Neil, you know, and you could look out the window. And what it is: The way they, flew Neil was looking out the window all the time and Buzz was reading altitude and speed and all of that to him, and he was inside. You know, he's watching the dust.

You know, finally (Buzz) got to the point. Then he says, "We're picking up dust." Well, you know, that's good. And then, after that, there were little probes that would stick down from the legs, and as soon as one touched, a light came on that would say "Contact," and you would kill the engine. If you're within 5 feet, just stop. Don't do anything. Just let it drop, and that was it. On the simulator, when you see that light and it says "contact," then you're there.

RA: What was Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins' chemistry like?

FH: It was good. I mean, they were not close friends beforehand, but let's face it: If you're going to get to go to the moon, you make the team work. And all three of them were uniquely comical. Sometimes, you know, they'd get lighthearted. Of the three, Neil was awesome in terms of his intellect, but he was also very humorous. But sometimes people thought he was kind of cold. Actually, he put up a lot of zingers, one-liners, and if you didn't know what the hell he was talking about, he kind of just wrote you off.

Buzz (was the) same way -- very, very bright. They had little interactions. It was fun. And Mike Collins was probably the brightest of the three, well-read. He had a hell of an education. My favorite. He was the one you go to drink beer with and go talk about things.

RA: Talk to me about the impact of this moment, hearing the first moments on the moon, as a team making this earthly milestone.

FH: Yeah, the whole planet did this. It's really great. It's really interesting because of the crowd of people -- you think about how many people, we used to talk about 400,000 people and to meet so many people who were just so dedicated. And it's not just the engineers. I mean, the people who were the carpenters and the plumbers that just keep that building running so that you could build this stuff, they were so into it. So it was just marvelous to see them and to work with them at Kennedy Space Center, where I was. It was so great.

It was interesting because our bosses were, like, 900 miles away. That's a great position to be. (Laughs). It was just that it was a team that was ready to do whatever it took to get us there.

RA: The day that they came onto the water, the day that you realized all three are alive and well. What's that moment like?

FH: It was the most relieving thing, first of all. It was like a big deal, you know, with the cigars and the waving of the flags and everything, and that was perfect, but then you settle down and you look back on what we did, what these last days have been like getting them back. That we went through this sort of thing, we succeeded in everything we planted. Everybody did their job. I mean, if you have, like, a ballet or football game or whatever, it's the end of it, that you finally look back and say everybody did their job. You think you're putting this program together. You see how it's really going to be. Like, this is really good, and you just relax and you're very happy, and then you go celebrate and you have a beer.

RA: Fifty years later, what is your overall hope for the legacy that this leaves, your hopes in the future of space?

FH: As we go through how many different companies, and now we're building vehicles -- NASA being only one of them now and the Russians are building another vehicle, too, but the fact is, is that it's building up a whole venture. Later, I say, in another 50 years, we will have space flight as common and you, if you have the money to go, not the $200,000 for 10 minutes or millions to stay for seven days, it's going to be something that's affordable.

I would say it's going to be great. We're going to have a great time, and space is just another place where we've expanded into as humans moving forward.

RA: Clearly you haven't stopped caring about space. Can you tell me about where that path led you and what you're doing today?

FH: Well, actually, I stayed in NASA until 1999. Wound up aiding all the training -- astronaut training, flight control training -- and I did that for the last eight years I was there. And then we were getting ready to do the space station. I wanted to get it done and then go on to do something else, and what I wanted to do was take all the technology we had for training and get it into the classrooms. And so we did a lot of that and now my job (as president) with Tietronix Software Inc. is to take this thing and put it using augmented reality, mixed reality and all these other things.

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