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FPQ6 Radar crew

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The Control Room

Bob Burgess

R Burgess at plotboard

Weeks before an Apollo Mission, much preperation was needed. Regular checks were made to ensure that essential equipment was functioning properly. Plot boards, strip recorders, console meters and digital clocks all needed to be calibrated to a high degree of accuracy. Even the pilot lights behind the push buttons were checked and replaced if faulty. Lives depended on a correct interpretation of this multi-million dollar equipment. After many simulation exercises were carried out, launch day finally arrived.

A telescopic camera mounted on the FPQ6 Radar antenna was linked to a screen in the Control Room. This gave viewers a visual image of what the radar was tracking. Sweeps-up, across, down and back was the only visual contact with the outside world from the control room. The idea was to catch a glimpse of the third stage rocket booster burn. But more often than not, as the radar swept from the sea to the sky, all that could be seen was a patch of clouds here and there. Even with the best of conditions all one could see on the screen was just a little puff of white indicating the rocket had fired.

What was more significant to engineers and technicians was the functioning of a set of three backlighted plot boards located at the front of the room. These boards resonated with the sound of a high-pitched whine around 400Hz and sprang to life when the radars locked on to their target. On the left was the FPQ6 radar plot, in the center was the Impact Prediction Plot and on the right was the FPS16 radar plot.

High above the plot boards, three large digital display clocks were mounted. Timing is crucial to space exploration. The acuracy of these clocks was traceable back to the National Bureau of Standards. One clock gave time in GMT another in local time and the third displayed the countdown/countup time.

Eyes were fixed on the countdown clock, ears listened carefully as the Station Director announced : "Bermuda is green, all systems are go. We are waiting for launch... stop all vehicular traffic - 90 seconds to launch."

Then from Cape Kennedy, " All stations, we have ignition sequence start . . . 3. . . 2 . . . 1, we have liftoff. . . Apollo has cleared the tower."

The Control Room was charged with a sense of urgency and expectation. Just a few minutes after liftoff we heard "Bermuda has AOS." As soon as acquision of signal (AOS) was achieved the Range Safety Officer watched the plot boards intently looking for anything that deviated from the predicted path. But it never happened! "All systems are go!" The fact was that the Range Saftey Officer had the capability of destroying the missile should it malfunction and begin heading on a dangerous course.

The radar plots traced out a parabolic path which indicated AOS, maximum elevation and LOS (loss of signal). After tracking for about 12 minutes, the anouncement came over the speakers "Bermuda has LOS." In less than 15 minutes the Bermuda Tracking Station had done it's job. The Range Safety Officer pressed one of the four red buttons on the console in front of him, disarming the destruction devices aboard the boosters and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. We were finished!