by R. Passov
A little more than five years ago, in a nice home in Sugarland Texas not far from where he once worked, Jack Garman gave me several hours of his day. I had reached out from New York, saying that I was a random retiree interested in learning about his career. Something in the way I phrased my introduction made him want to give me some time. As I got to know Jack, I came to understand that he knew what he wanted to say was special, that he liked an audience and had gladly told his story time and time again.
Five years from a stem cell transplant which provided a hopeful path in his fight against blood cancer, he had reserves of energy. I recorded our conversation. As much as possible, I’ll let Jack speak in his own words.
When I joined NASA, in April of 1966, since my birthday was in May, I could still claim I was 21. My wife, Sue, a Rockwell brat, moved to Houston in 1964. Since she wanted work but didn’t have a college degree, NASA hired her to be a Math Aid.
Sue helped NASA engineers see what they were doing. Those were the days before CRT screens (cathode ray tubes) were attached to computers. If output from a computer belonged on a graph, a plotter was engaged. Plotting was done by hand onto glass surfaces by women who knew how to translate output from a computer onto a graph, and who also knew how to get coffee for the engineers.
My father was a banker and had moved the family to Lebanon, Jordan in the 1960’s as then Lebanon was the West of the Middle East. Since there was no family left in Texas, Sue and I just went downtown and got married.
At some point I spent two years at headquarters in Washington, DC and during that time, Sue went to business school and passed her CPA exam on the first attempt and got all A+s. “I’m real proud of her.” After she finished her school work, she started with NASA as a GS5, getting no credit for her prior work experience as a plotter. Six years later she was the Deputy Assistant to Dan Gold who had been appointed by President Clinton to head NASA.
By then, I had risen to Chief Information Officer for the Space Shuttle, so [me] and Sue were in the ‘Rogues Gallery’ with our pictures in the senior org chart at NASA. Sue eventually signed all of the paychecks except for mine of course, which was signed by John Spice, the number three at NASA.
Sue retired and has a 1st class quilting business. She goes to the largest quilting conferences all over the place and when folks see her name tag they come up to her and say, so you’re Sue Garman!
I’m retired too and do pro-bono help desk work. Taught myself the windows operating system as operating systems were one area of my specialty. Now I have remote control over 50 windows machines around the country, allowing me to provide help desk service. One area of specialty is bringing the start screen back to windows 8.
Let me tell you the typewriter story. My mother made me start taking typing in 7th or 8th grade. I was the only guy in the class and at first couldn’t figure out why she was making me learn how to type. Then I got interested in the girls and didn’t care so much.
When I got to high school I realized it was because she wanted me to be real good at writing term papers. I kept typing all the way through college and got real good at it. Well, when I got to NASA, first thing I wanted was a typewriter and I was told that I couldn’t have one. Typewriters were only for secretaries.
But by the time I started at NASA my writing was really bad, really slow and I could fly on a typewriter. Well, after about a year of trying I was finally given one but with strict conditions: I couldn’t type on letterhead paper and; I couldn’t correct my own memos. Whatever came out I had to give over to a secretary just as if it were written by hand.
Then she’d retype and correct and it’d become a memo from me.
Well pretty soon I was driving the secretaries crazy. I was a fast typist, but if I didn’t have to worry about spelling and correcting errors, well then I could make a lot of racket.
Memos had to be approved. The hierarchy was Division, Branch, Section. If I wanted to send a memo to someone in another section then I need approval from my Section Head; similarly if I wanted to send something to someone in another Branch then I needed approval from my Section Head and from my Branch Head and so on. So we didn’t just write memos, we authored them.
During the Apollo mission, I gained enough status to enjoy ‘display rights’ and could call up one or two of the possible 30 screens that the mainframes could run during a mission. The mainframe would receive the raw telemetry data and convert the data to a bit stream. All of the processing power that the mainframe could dedicate to the telemetry data resulted in ASCII characters being written to a screen. (ASCII is the encoding scheme, finalized around the time of Apollo 8, used to convert characters into a string of ‘1’s and ‘0’s, or ‘bits’)
Once the characters were written to the screen, a slide was placed over the screen. The slide bracketed the long series of output with a decoder. So for example on one side of the readout might have been the subsystem that the data was coming from – say a rocket fire – and on the other side of the octal characters (ASCII-encoded characters) was say the number 2, which meant that the rocket had fired for 2 seconds.
Then a camera would hover over the composite of the numbers on the CRT bracketed between the slide and the result of the video camera showing the combination of the characters on the CRT plus the slide would be projected onto my CRT. Which is not entirely unlike how today’s web pages are created – the text and much of the screen is static and only periodically refreshed and the ultimate screen is itself a composite.
Some of those who couldn’t call up a screen were able to do a ‘Channel Attach’ which meant that they could request to be shown on their CRT a screen that was being viewed by someone else. Then a slide would come alongside the column of numbers, and the result was projected onto our screens. That’s what we saw.
* * *
Apollo 8 was the first time that humans left Earth’s Orbit. The telemetry was not driven by satellite tracking or by GPS but instead by gyroscopes that were periodically calibrated by a sextant that the Astronauts used by looking out a window that was below the council in front of them – this was all part of an apparatus that was designed to ensure that if all guidance equipment had failed, the space craft could still get back to earth with just the ability to hand control the rocket burn combined with the readings of the sextant.
At some point on the way to the Moon the space craft passes a point where the dominant pull of gravity is from the moon and not the earth. At this point all of the coordinates tracked by the guidance computer need to be rebased so that the moon is at 0,0,0 and not the earth. We all knew exactly when in the journey this would happen but what we didn’t know was the inherent delay in the system – the combined time for the astronauts to switch the coordinates to rebase on the moon; the time it would take for that signal to be received by the mainframe, the time for the mainframe to process the signal and then light a frame on a CRT.
Going to the moon was dead silence, not much to do. So, we decided to bet to see who would be the closest to the actual time to receive the notification that for the first time a craft carrying astronauts had left the gravity of the Earth for that of the Moon.
One of the hardest signals to acquire was after the dead silence on the far side of the Moon. There was a lot of anticipation as to when we would reacquire that signal as the exact timing of signal acquisition revealed the timing of the rocket burn that occurred while the spacecraft was ‘dark’ on the far side of the moon. A burn too early would send the craft out into space and too late would send the craft to the surface of the moon.
This was before the satellite tracking systems that we have today which allow for almost constant communication. Then spacecraft were followed by three ground based radar platforms – one in Cape Canaveral (or was it California or Arizona), one in Spain and one in Australia. With three tracking stations roughly positioned equal distance around the globe the space craft’s telemetry feed and signals could be read and calibrated by two of the three tracking stations at all times.
The bet was when the light would come on. We had to take into account the computer processing time, the 1 or 2 seconds for the speed of light, and the time for the main frame to process the signal and get the light lit. When the light came on, after about 12 seconds I believe, the guy who won patted everyone on the back and for the first time in human history we had three human beings falling away from earth.
During the interview, from time to time I’d try and interject with something that I thought would be of interest to Jack. When I listen to that recording, I hear Jack, polite, yet impatient, as though I was between him and so much more that he wanted to say. Shortly after our time together, Jack left this earth.