Tag Archives: Rocket Science

The Best Job I Ever Had~Part 3

29 Oct

A Slice of Life

By Bill Lites

Bill Lites

Bill Lites


One of the largest assignments I was responsible for was the 1st /2nd stage separation system. This system was used in two places on the S-II stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle; to separate the first stage S-IC from the second stage S-II, and again 30 seconds later, to separate the protective S-II Interstage from around the S-II engines. The S-IC and S-II stages were both 33 feet in diameter, so the test fixture used to test the full scale separation system was massive.



The test fixture was designed to lift a simulated section of the separation plane off the ground so that when the explosive system fired, the lower portion could be photographed while it fell to the ground. This was the closest we could come to simulating the actual event, and we learned several important things from these tests that would drive the final design of the separation system itself. The first thing we discovered, was that the originally designed charge assembly would warp as it was unreeled from the installation spool, making it difficult to keep it lying flat on the tension plates it had to cut. Next, we found out that any amount of water between the charge assembly and the tension plate would diffuse the cutting ability of the explosive. The Los Angeles fog taught us this fact. This happened when we installed the separation system one day for a full-scale test the next day, and when the fog rolled in that night, the moisture ran down the stringers, onto the tension plates, and collected in the “V” of the shaped charge in several places. The final design consisted of a vinyl wrapped charge assembly that kept the moisture out of the cutting area, and a retention system that held the charge assembly tight against the tension plates. The manufacturer of the charge assembly also supplied a disposable holder that kept it from warping as it came off the installation spool.



This separation system did not use a large size explosive charge, but because it had to cut the 216 tension straps around the 103 foot outside circumference of the vehicle, it ended up being a large explosion. After the first three tests, we had to move the entire test fixture to an El Centro desert facility because of complaints from the local Downey, CA residents.


After finalizing the ordnance systems testing for the Apollo and Saturn S-II vehicles, I was transferred to the NAA Field Operations Group and moved to Florida in 1965 to be one of the Field Test Engineers responsible for the processing and installation of many of those same ordnance systems I had tested in California. My job now was to write the procedures for, and supervise the processing and installation of, these flight ordnance systems on the Saturn S-II launch vehicle that helped boost the Apollo Astronauts and their spacecraft to the Moon. What a thrill it was to be able to watch that giant 363 foot high Saturn V launch vehicle lift off, in all its glory, and see those systems work as they had been designed and tested. But of course, as it turned out, that job wasn’t near as much fun as the job of blowing up those system test specimens back in the early days at the home plant (Will I ever grow out of being a kid?).



You may have seen the picture below or a video clip of it in an Apollo documentary or an advertisement, but this was the S-II Interstage falling away from the S-II Stage booster 30 seconds after separation from the S-IC stage, which occurred during each Apollo/Saturn V launch from the Kennedy Space Center.



Most people have no idea how many unseen systems have to work perfectly, and in the proper sequence, during any rocket launch. I still get thrilled every time I watch a video of one of the Apollo/Saturn V launches, and see each of the many ordnance systems function as they were designed. And, it’s gratifying to know that I played a small part in that historical program to place the very first men on the moon.






—–The End—–


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