John Aaron was born in Wellington, Texas, and grew up in Vinson, Oklahoma, as the youngest of seven children in a family of seven. His father was a cattle rancher, and his mother was a pastor. He attended Bethany Nazarene College for a year before transferring to Southwestern Oklahoma State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Physics in 1964. After graduating from college, he expected to teach and ranch, but on the advice of a friend, he applied for a job with NASA. He is credited for salvaging the Apollo 12 mission after it was damaged by lightning shortly after launch, and he also played a key part in the Apollo 13 disaster.
Aaron was trained as an EECOM, a flight controller with specific responsibility for the spacecraft’s electrical, environmental, and communications systems when he arrived at NASA. By the time the unmanned Gemini 2 was launched on January 19, 1965, he was already working at Mission Control as Chief EECOM Officer, a position he held until 1967. Aaron moved from the Command & Service Module’s Chief EECOM Officer to the Apollo program in 1967, where he stayed until 1969.
He was promoted to Section Head, Electrical Power, Electrical and Instrumentation Systems Section in 1969, a position he maintained for four years. Aaron was on duty when Apollo 12 launched on November 14, 1969. The spacecraft was struck by lightning 36 seconds after launch, creating a power surge. Instruments started to break down, and telemetry data got jumbled. Gerry Griffin, the flight director, expected to have to cancel the mission. Aaron, on the other hand, recognized he’d seen this strange telemetry pattern before.
Aaron had been watching a test at Kennedy Space Center a year before the trip when he spotted some strange telemetry signals. He tracked the anomaly down to the enigmatic Signal Conditioning Electronics (SCE) system on his own initiative and became one of the few flight controllers who knew how it worked. In the case that drew his attention to the system in the first place, normal readings could be restored by switching the SCE to its auxiliary mode, which allowed it to operate even in low-voltage situations.
Aaron reasoned that by changing this setting, the Apollo 12 telemetry would revert to normal. Most of his mission control colleagues had no understanding of what he was talking about when he told the Flight Director, “Flight, try SCE to Aux.” Gerald P. Carr, both the flight director and the CAPCOM, requested him to repeat the recommendation. “What the hell is that?” said Carr after Aaron repeated himself. Nonetheless, he sent the command to the crew: “Houston is number 12 in the Apollo program. To auxiliary, try SCE.”
Dick Gordon, a ground expert on the CSM as well as the Apollo 12 command module pilot, knew where the SCE switch was and what it did, so he told Alan Bean to turn it to aux. The mission was able to proceed after telemetry was restored. This gained Aaron the admiration of his coworkers, who dubbed him a “steely-eyed missile man.” Aaron was off duty at the time of the Apollo 13 explosion but was promptly summoned to Mission Control to help with the rescue and recovery efforts.
Aaron was put in control of the power supply budget by Flight Director Gene Kranz. He was given the right to veto other engineers’ suggestions, especially if they damaged the modules’ power consumption. He was responsible for rationing the spacecraft’s power during the return trip, and he created an ingenious power-up process that allowed the Command Module to safely re-enter the atmosphere while running on battery power. He ordered the instrumentation system, which includes telemetry, visibility, and communications transmitters, to be turned on last, just before reentry, rather than first, as per standard protocol.
The decision was based on a calculated risk. The crew and controllers would not know for sure if the cold starting had been successful without the instrumentation system until the last possible second before reentry. However, if the correction had not been made, the capsule’s battery supply would have been depleted before splashdown. The technique went off without a hitch, and the team was rescued safely.
Aaron stayed at NASA after the Apollo Lunar Surface program finished, climbing through the ranks of the Spacecraft Software Division, from technical assistant to the chief in 1973 to assistant chief in 1979, before becoming chief in 1981-1984. He began working on the Space Station Freedom project in 1984 and became the manager of Johnson Space Center’s space station projects office in 1989. After Texas Senator Robert Krueger criticized him for $500 million in overspending on the station project, he was forced to leave four years later.
In 1993, Aaron was promoted to manager of the Engineering Directorate at Johnson Space Center, where he remained until his retirement from NASA in 2000. In the 1995 film Apollo 13, actor Loren Dean played a role based on John Aaron. In the 1998 mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, John Travis played Aaron.
He was featured in two History Channel movies about Mission Control, Failure Is Not an Option and Beyond the Moon: Failure Is Not an Option 2, as well as the PBS documentary Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back. The “steely-eyed missile man” title given to Aaron is mentioned in the 2015 science fiction film The Martian, as well as the Legends of Tomorrow second-season episode “Moonshot.” Aaron was featured in David Fairhead’s documentary Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, which aired in 2017.
|Popular As||John Aaron|
|Age||78 years old|
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John Aaron Bennett
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