Steve Bales is a former NASA engineer and flight controller, best known for his role during the Apollo 11 mission as a Guidance Officer (GUIDO). While monitoring the lunar module’s position and velocity Mr Bales came close to calling an abort when it became clear a navigational error had occurred. The spacecraft was moving 20 feet per second faster than it should have been and was halfway to its abort limits, then in last few minutes of the landing, programme alarms initiated from the guidance computer.
These alarms signalled an “executive overflow” which meant the computer might not be keeping up with its computing tasks, but despite these, Mr Bales informed flight director Gene Kranz that the landing should go ahead.
Mr Bales is often credited for his nerves of steel, earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon upon Apollo 11’s return to Earth..
However, James Donovan has spilt the beans on the real impact of the responsibility during his new book “Shoot For The Moon”.
Mr Donovan writes; “By the time simulations began for Apollo 11’s launch, set for early February 1969, the procedures were in place.
“Over the next several months, Bales spent hundreds of hours in flight techniques and mission rules meetings and many more hours in the room dubbed the “Guidance Officers Training School” running through every type of guidance failure conceivable.
“There were also trips to the MIT Instrumentation Lab, where the Apollo Guidance Computer had been designed to go through all the software what-ifs, and to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles with astronauts because they would navigate by the stars, he had to know them also.
“In Houston, because so many flight teams were practising a lunar landing, there were shifts throughout the day and evening.”
Mr Donovan went on to reveal why Bales felt confident heading into Apollo 11.
He added: “A couple of months or so before the Apollo 11 launch in July, Bales began to notice something.
He continued: “That was the good thing, the bad thing, or at least what keeps Bales up at night, was that after weeks of discussions, NASA had decided that GUIDO – in this case, Bales – had the power to abort during descent to the lunar surface.
“Bales hadn’t wanted this responsibility, and neither had some of the other flight controllers.
“Now GUIDO could abort the landing even if it could be completed, under certain circumstances.
“And if the abort led to a botched rendezvous – entirely possible, since it would result in a changed trajectory – that could lead to the two crewmen stranded in the LM with no chance of rescue.
“Bales tried not to think of what could happen.”
Mr Bales had a long subsequent career at NASA and eventually became Deputy Director of Operations at Johnson Space Center.
In 1996 he left the space agency and took a position at Amspec Chemical in New Jersey.