Q&A: Apollo flight simulator instructor remembers Apollo 11 mission 51 years later

NASA first launched humans from Earth to the moon on July 16, 1969, nearly 51 years ago.

The Apollo 11 capsule launched atop a Saturn V rocket, taking humans faster and farther than they had ever gone before. Four days later, the world watched as Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin became the first two men to step foot on the moon.

Though, behind that landmark achievement was a team of determined professionals, young men from all over the country, who took on the mission of a lifetime.

KPRC’s Space Reporter Rose-Ann Aragon spoke with the former Apollo Flight Simulator Instructor, Frank Hughes. He shares his experiences from 1969 and 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. The company is also working on how to conduct medical procedures and response in space.

Rose-Ann Aragon: On July 16, 1969, Americans launched humans to the moon. It has now been 51 years. How does it feel, Frank?

Frank Hughes: It feels like one year [since I spoke with you] has gone by in a flash. All and all, it’s been a marvelous time. We’ve had a lot of fun. Yet, it’s kind of sad because a lot of people have died since [last year]. A lot of people it’s like they strived to get to the 50th. So, in the last year, we’ve lost 10 to 15 people I know.

Aragon: I’m so sorry to hear that. Last year, we spoke with several people from mission control. We were so happy and honored that they let us into their lives. So we could share that moment, and I hope families are able to keep those stories and are able to share them.

Hughes: For sure. They are a marvelous group of people they really are. Marvelous to see so many bright people. Just regular people but very smart people that came together to do something extraordinary.

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

Hughes: 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.

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

Hughes: 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?”

Aragon: What was the purpose of the simulator?

Hughes: 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 a dress rehearsal. So you’d get in there. 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. Then there were like other devices, some of which actually fly. So the simulator is like a very complex video game. We didn’t have video games then, but that was the best video game.

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

Hughes: It’s interesting because the launches of Saturn V were amazing. I saw two of 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.

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

Hughes: 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 we’re really doing it. you know we’re leaving.

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

Hughes: 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. We changed the software or did whatever it took to make it better.

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

Hughes: You know, we started with Link Trainers. Ed Link was the guy that put together “Blue Box.” 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.

Aragon: Who did you work with?

Hughes: 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: Today, you are the President of Tietronix? Why was that something you want to do? Tell us about the company.

Hughes: It’s an interesting company. It’s a software company, and we work with NASA a whole lot. We work to make life better in the cockpit through software or through medical devices. We’re working on things so we can do ultrasounds in space, and not only just ultrasounds but have a machine tell you how to do a good ultrasound. So that way you won’t have to have a doctor with you. We have to figure out how to keep them alive long enough to get them back home or repair it on the spot.