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Where Did the NASA Expression Steely-Eyed Missile Man Come From?

In the 2011 novel The Martian and its 2015 film adaptation, orbital dynamics expert Rich Purnell devises a maneuver to get NASA’s Hermes spacecraft back to Mars and rescue marooned astronaut Mark Watney. Upon carrying out the maneuver, the crew of the Hermes sends a signal back to Mission Control, stating: “Houston, be advised: Rich Purnell is a steely-eyed missile man.”

This colourful phrase was not the product of author Andy Weir’s imagination, but has a long and distinguished history in American spaceflight. Within NASA, to be called a “steely-eyed missile man” is among the highest honours one can receive, indicating a unique ability to quickly and cooly solve complex problems under enormous pressure.

So where did the expression come from?

While it’s not known with 100% certainty, it is thought to have emerged from the ballistic missile silos of Strategic Air Command sometime in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For more than four decades, the missileers of SAC sat day after day in their underground control rooms, waiting for the first signs of a Soviet attack and the signal to unleash Armageddon. It was a task characterized, as the old combat adage goes, by long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, as the slightest error could easily bring the world to a premature end. But in the end, the steely nerves of SAC missile crews and their Soviet counterparts would, on more than one occasion, save the world from nuclear annihilation – and for more on this please check out our videos such as “That Time the Moon Nearly Started WWIII” and the story of a Russian man who literally single handedly saved the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the video there aptly titled- The Man Who Saved the World.

Given the top-secret military nature of SAC, the term “steely-eyed missile man” would not enter the public consciousness until the formation of NASA, which as a civilian agency conducted its operations in the full light of public scrutiny. Within the agency, the term was used sparingly, referring only to the absolute best and brightest. As Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell recounts in his 1994 memoir Lost Moon:  

“Among the men in the Canaveral blockhouse and the Houston control room, there was no greater tribute a controller could be paid than to describe him, in the rough poetry of the rocket community, as a “steely-eyed missile man.” There weren’t many steely-eyed missile men in the NASA family. [Wernher] Von Braun was certainly one, [Chris] Kraft was certainly one, [Gene] Kranz was probably one too.”

Those who didn’t make the cut received an altogether different nickname, as legendary NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz recalls regarding colleague John Llewelyn: “John was somewhat on the short-tempered side against those people that he considered ‘pogues.’ Pogues were people that in his mind did not measure up at being steely eyed missile men. This was particularly noticeable shortly after we moved into the Houston area, when we had a bunch of people who were trying to be flight controllers, but really didn’t have the background for it. I always had to keep John separated from our pogues at the beer parties.”

While several NASA personnel have received the honour over the years, no single person is more associated with the title steely-eyed missile man than flight controller John W. Aaron, who on November 14, 1969 at the age of 26 almost single-handedly saved an entire Apollo mission from disaster.

Apollo 12 was NASA’s follow-up to the epoch-making Apollo 11 mission which first landed men on the moon. Crewed by Commander Pete Conrad, Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean, and Command Module Pilot Richard Gordon, the mission’s primary goals were to make a precision landing in the Ocean of Storms, recover parts of the unmanned Surveyor 3 lander, and conduct two extended surface EVAs to collect geological samples – in short, to do everything Apollo 11 had done, but better.

The weather on the afternoon of November 14 was rainy and overcast, with wind speeds to be encountered of 152 knots or 280 km/hr – the highest of any Apollo launch. But Mission Control was unconcerned, and the countdown proceeded as planned, the rocket clearing the pad at exactly 4:22 PM. At first, it seemed like another textbook launch. But then, at T+36 seconds, observers on the ground saw a bright flash of light in the sky, followed by another 19 seconds later. Lightning had struck the rocket, travelling down the exhaust plume to the ground. Instantly, the mission was plunged into chaos. The massive electrical surge had knocked out all of the spacecraft’s fuel cells and instrumentation, causing alarms to shriek and the control panels to light up like Christmas trees. Meanwhile back on the ground the steady stream of data cascading down the flight controllers’ screens had suddenly turned to garbled gibberish. With the steely calm of a career astronaut, Commander Pete Conrad wrapped his left hand around the abort handle, which when pulled would activate the Apollo spacecraft’s Launch Escape System or LES and wrench the Command module away from the Saturn V stack. Millions of dollars of rocket hardware would be destroyed and America’s second lunar landing mission would end in failure, but at least the crew would be saved.

But back in Mission Control, as the flight controllers scrambled to determine what the hell had happened, one man stared at the garbled telemetry on his screen and felt a strange twinge of recognition. That man was John Aaron, the mission’s Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager, or EECOM. During a training exercise a year before, Aaron had seen this same garbled data appear when an obscure piece of electrical equipment, the Signal Conditioning Electronics, had been disabled. The SCE was responsible for converting raw data from sensors into voltages the spacecraft instruments could read; if it had been deprived of power, Aaron reasoned, then this would account for the loss of telemetry. He thus proceeded to make a call that would soon become legendary: “Flight, try SCE to Aux.”

A hush fell over Mission Control. So obscure was the SCE that neither Flight Director Gerry Griffin nor most of Aaron’s colleagues had ever heard of it. When asked by Gerald Carr, the capsule communicator, to clarify, Aaron repeated: “Turn SCE to auxiliary.” Confused, Carr nonetheless relayed the command to the crew, who were similarly baffled. But then, Alan Bean suddenly remembered the device from a training exercise and reached up to the panel flip the witch. It worked. With the SCE now running on auxiliary power, the telemetry on the flight controllers’ screens suddenly retuned to normal. After a few moments Gerry Griffin determined that the Saturn V was still flying straight and true, and made the decision to continue the ascent. Once in earth orbit, the crew conducted a full inspection of the spacecraft, discovering to their relief that the lightning strike had caused no significant damage. Apollo 12 would go on to fly a near-textbook mission, having been snatched from the jaws of disaster by John Aaron’s legendarily quick thinking.

John Aaron would go on to distinguish himself once again during the disastrous Apollo 13 mission, when he helped solve a crucial electrical problem. The oxygen tank explosion which had crippled the spacecraft had knocked out its hydrogen fuel cells, forcing the crew to shut down the Command and Service Modules take shelter in the attached Lunar Module. This meant that when it came time for the crew to power up the Command Module for reentry, the only power source available would be the relatively small  reentry batteries. Aaron was thus tasked with developing a startup sequence that would allow the crew to run the most vital spacecraft systems without running out of battery power in the process. The sequence Aaron eventually came up with called for the spacecraft’s communications and telemetry systems to be switched on last, in the final moments before the capsule entered the earth’s atmosphere. At first this plan was met with horror as it meant Mission Control would only learn if the power-up sequence had worked once it was already too late to do anything about it. But as any other sequence would have caused the crew to exhaust their battery power long before splashdown, the plan was accepted, and on April 17, 1970 the crew of Apollo 13 made a safe landing in the South Pacific. In the 1995 film Apollo 13, for the sake of narrative efficiency Aaron’s role is assigned to astronaut Ken Mattingley, played by Gary Senise.

Other inductees into the pantheon of “Steely-Eyed Missile Men” include computer engineer Jack Garman and Guidance Officer Steve Bales, who, in similar fashion to John Aaron, saved the Apollo 11 mission from a possible abort scenario. During their descent to the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began receiving multiple 1201 and 1202 program alarms, indicating that the Lunar Module’s guidance computer was becoming overloaded with data. No matter what the crew tried the errors kept appearing, leading Mission Control to worry that the vital landing radar might be affected, forcing the landing to be aborted. Garman and Bales, however, knew that the computer was designed to prioritize certain tasks over others, and was simply suspending less vital operations to allow more vital ones – like running the landing radar – to proceed. They thus gave the “Go” for the descent to continue, and 3 minutes after the last 1202 alarm, Armstrong and Aldrin successfully touched down on the lunar surface. It was later determined that the computer overflow had been caused by the LM’s rendezvous radar being accidentally left on; had it not been for Garman and Bales’s decisiveness and thorough knowledge of the spacecraft’s systems, the first lunar landing might have had to wait for another mission.

A very different computer problem nearly aborted Apollo 14’s lunar landing on February 5, 1971. Having separated from the Command Service Module Antares, Commander Alan Shepard and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell were conducting the final checks of their Lunar Module Kitty Hawk when the computer began returning an abort signal. As no abort command had been given, Mission Control suspected that a small ball of solder had broken loose behind a control panel and shorted the switch. Indeed, when Shepard and Mitchell tapped on the panel with a pen the signal briefly went away, only to return a moment later. Minor though it at first appeared, this problem threatened the entire mission, for if at any point during the descent the tiny solder ball drifted back into the switch, it would trigger an abort and cause the LM ascent engine to fire, blasting Shepard and Mitchell back into lunar orbit. The landing could not proceed until the problem was solved, and as the two astronauts impatiently circled the moon, computer engineers from MIT, who had designed the LM’s computer, were called in to find a solution.

Among them was 27-year-old Don Eyles, who immediately grasped the difficulty of the problem. Unlike in modern computers, the software in the Apollo Guidance Computer was literally hardwired in by weaving cables in and out of metal rings, meaning the abort program could not be disabled or changed. No matter what the astronauts did, if the switch closed an abort would be triggered. Apollo 14 appeared dead in the water. But then, in an inspired bit of lateral thinking, Eyles came up with a clever workaround. While he couldn’t prevent the computer from triggering an abort, he could convince it that it was already in abort mode, preventing it from triggering the ascent engine. Racing against the clock, Eyles wrote out a short string of instructions which were checked over by his colleagues, transmitted to the crew, and entered by Mitchell into the LM computer with just minutes to spare. Then, as Mission Control held its breath, Shepard and Mitchell fired the LM descent engine. Despite some carefully-timed maneuvers to get around the programming changes, the descent went smoothly, and, thanks to Don Eyles’ elegant software patch, Shepard and Mitchell became the fifth and sixth men to walk on the moon.

These are just a handful of the numerous “Steely-Eyed Missile Men” and women whose quick thinking and coolness under pressure helped make possible some of NASA’s greatest triumphs. Their stories, so often forgotten, remind us that while the astronauts might get all the glory, they wouldn’t have gotten far if not for the brilliant minds backing them up down on planet earth.

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Bonus Facts

#1: Another storied phrase in NASA’s history is the so-called “Shepard’s Prayer.” Despite the seemingly Christian connotations of the name, it actually derives from astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space and commander of Apollo 14. On May 5, 1961, as Shepard waited to be launched on his pioneering Mercury-Redstone 3 mission, he uttered the words that would become a sort of mantra for the astronaut corps: “Oh Lord, please don’t let me fuck up.”

Mercury-Redstone 3 also gave us another common expression: “A-Ok.” During communications tests on the Mercury spacecraft, technicians discovered that adding an “A” before “Ok” helped the words cut through radio static, and this became a standard part of communications protocol. The public first heard the expression during the broadcast of Shepard’s launch, and it has been a fixture of American vernacular ever since.

#2: The launch countdown, made iconic by countless movies, tv shows, and live launch broadcasts, is so integral to our collective image of space flight that it is difficult to imagine a rocket being launched without one. So it might be surprising to learn that the Russians, the original pioneers of spaceflight, have never done countdowns. Early Soviet rocket scientists saw little practical need for them, so to this day Russian rockets are simply launched as soon as the flight controllers determine all is ready, with little buildup or fanfare. So where did the American-style launch countdown come from? Strangely, the idea came not from an engineer, but rather a filmmaker. In 1929 German director Fritz Lang released Frau Im Mond, or Woman in the Moon, a silent science-fiction epic about gold prospectors who travel to the moon. It was one of the most scientifically-accurate space films of its day, a result of Lang hiring pioneering astronautics theorist Hermann Oberth as a consultant. To ramp up the tension of the film’s showpiece rocket launch scene, Lang came up with the idea of the countdown, intercutting the scene with title cards showing numbers gradually counting down to zero. Among the film’s biggest fans were Wernher von Braun and other young German rocket enthusiasts, who in the 1930s would be hired by the Nazis to develop the V2, the world’s first operational ballistic missile. When von Braun and his colleagues were captured and brought to the United States at the end of WWII, they brought with them many of their peculiar customs – including the launch countdown. This soon became a fixture of NASA launches, and helped to make live broadcasts just a little more suspenseful – just as Fritz Lang had intended.

Expand for References

Houston, Rick & Heflin, Milt, Go Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control 1965-1992, University of Nebraska Press, 2015, https://books.google.ca/books?id=A3HHCgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Lovell, Jim & Kluger, Jeffrey, Apollo 13, Houghton Mifflin, 1994, https://books.google.ca/books?id=LDJ43xYxK5YC&pg=PA157&dq=steely+eyed+missile+man&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjyoL61mJvtAhUaHDQIHQePA00Q6AEwAnoECAQQAg#v=onepage&q=steely%20eyed%20missile%20man&f=false

Eliot, Lance, Speaking Of Space Launches, Here’s How Apollo 12 Was Saved By A Steely-Eyed Missile Man, Forbes, May 28, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/2020/05/28/speaking-of-space-launches-heres-how-apollo-12-was-saved-by-a-steely-eyed-missile-man-plus-lessons-for-self-driving-cars/?sh=2a49ec0d5911

Teitel, Amy, Apollo 11’s “1202 Alarm” Explained, Discover, January 5, 2018, https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/apollo-11s-1202-alarm-explained

Apollo 11 Timeline, NASA, https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4029/Apollo_11i_Timeline.htm

Adler, Doug, Hacking Apollo 14: How an MIT Computer Scientist Saved a Lunar Landing, Astronomy, June 21, 2019, https://astronomy.com/news/2019/06/hacking-apollo-14-how-an-mit-computer-scientists-saved-a-lunar-landing

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