July 16, 1969 is a date that James “Jim” Dennison will remember forever. Just like people from around the world he watch as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot onto a world far beyond our own. The difference is that James had a little bit different viewpoint than most people and he held a lot more responsibility. James was known as a “Crew Dynamics Officer” and he worked in Mission Control at NASA. His only job was to monitor the crew on the lunar surface and their fellow astronaut Michael Collins, who was orbiting high above.
Jim worked on Apollo Missions 8, 10, 11, and 12. On each mission his job was the same and it was a job that he took very seriously and to this day, the thoughts of what could have went wrong wake him up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night.
“It was a tremendous responsibility,” the nearly 90-year-old Texan recounts. “I was well aware of what my job was supposed to be.”
Jim was there not only to monitor the crew while they were on the moon, but to standby in the event that Aldrin and Armstrong became stranded.
“We really didn’t have any real backup plan,” Jim says. “We would have tried all we could, but if something went wrong they were going to be left on their own.”
Jim remembers the morning clearly and how NASA flight Director, Gene Kranz came over to his desk carrying the 732 page book. Kranz looked at Jim as he handed him the book knowing exactly what was in it and what it was to be used for.
“I can talk about this stuff now that it has been de-classified,” he says. “I thank God every single day that we never had to use it.”
The contents of the book were somber and are now housed securely with the Smithsonian. The title of the binder was simply “Stranded Crew Protocol.”
If Aldrin and Armstrong had ended up stranded on the lunar surface the procedures were to followed exactly. There was no such thing as a “rescue rocket” that could have reached the crew in time and the support astronaut, Michael Collins did not have any real resources at hand to conduct a rescue.
“We would have damn sure had to leave them there,” Jim says.
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin admired that they had intentionally refused to contemplate what might happen if the Eagle’s ascent engine failed on the moon. “That’s an unpleasant thing to think about,” Armstrong admitted during a prelaunch press conference at the Cape. “We’ve chosen not to think about that at the present time. We don’t think that’s a likely situation. It’s simply a possible one. At the present time, we’re left with no recourse should that occur.”
In the course of my lifetime, I had the chance to become personal friends with Astronaut Al Bean, who was an all-star astronaut and human being. I am also privileged to have been given one of his personal paintings. Some years ago I was interviewing Bean for a piece when I asked him about the chances of being stranded on the moon. It was not something that Al and I had previously discussed. Bean avoided the question at all costs and because we were friends, I decided not to press the issue. The only thing that he would talk about was the ascent from the lunar surface.
“It’s like you’re riding in a very fast elevator,” remembered Bean. “You hear a really big and loud big bang as you separate stages, but you don’t hear anything after that. You don’t hear a roar from main engine, because of the vacuum of the lunar atmosphere. You hear the valves move. All you hear is a little thump-thump-thump kind of sound.”
In the back of my mind, I always wondered if there was in fact a plan to rescue the astronauts. It took me years of searching to find out.
“Once we had determined that al of our rescue and repair options had ran out we would have turned to the the black binder,” Jim recalls. “Like everything we did at NASA, we had step-by-step instructions on how to handle everything.”
One of the first things that would have been done is the astronauts would have been allowed to record a final message to their families back on earth. Each of the astronauts would have been given a “fair amount of time” to explain their wishes to their families and layout plans for how they wished to be remembered.
“Yeah, I would have had to assist in the recording those messages,” Jim said. “I feared that.”
From there the astronauts would have been had a little bit more communication with the ground about their final contingencies and how they would spend their final hours and moments alive.
“If we ended up getting to that point we were going to let the astronauts finish their lives in peace and we would end direct communications with them,” Dennison noted. “We would not have totally cut them off from communications but we would have allowed their lives to expire in peace and with dignity.”
Jim explains how the astronauts did have options as to what they could do next should the situation arise.
“They could have sat there alone and expired of prolonged asphyxiation or they could have simply taken their suits off and opened the door to the capsule,” he points out. “That would have been a quick way to go and it was an option for the crews.”
Meanwhile, astronaut Michael Collins would have continued circling the moon until the crews had been deemed expired. At that point, Collins would have pointed his ship towards the earth and made the long, solo trip home alone.
“That is a ride you hate to think about having had happen,” Jim said. “On the ground, Gene would have notified Chris Kraft, the director of manned space flight. Kraft would have noticed the directors, who would have notified President Nixon.
Jim points to the fact that Nixon would have then made calls to the astronauts families and given them condolences on behalf of the American people. Within the hour Nixon would have addressed the nation.
“There was a pre-planned speech from Nixon and the entire NASA hierarchy,” Jim points out. “It is not something that we all openly discussed during those days.”
These days, Jim is a resident of a retirement community in South Texas and he still enjoys watching and following manned space flight.
“There is something interesting about the reality of manned space flight versus unmanned flight,” he says.
The recent launch of the Demo-2 crew aboard the SpaceX Dragon was a milestone for Dennison.
“I see all those young kids sitting in that control room and I am reminded of the weight that I once carried myself,” he says. “They look different and act different, but they still have a very difficult job to do. I respect them for it and we need to remember that this is really their time. I have already carried the weight and now the future is in their hands.”
Jim believes that those hands are more than capable.