The ‘rocket men’ of Sacramento: They sent Apollo 11 to the moon

The date was July 16, 1969. The Saturn V rocket that sent Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon took off from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex in Florida.

Right before the launch, more than 2,400 miles away, near an aerospace testing site in Rancho Cordova, Donald Brincka watched with excitement and angst as the three Apollo 11 astronauts climbed into a capsule atop a rocket taller than the Statue of Liberty and stronger than a 100-million-horsepower engine.

Brincka, the director of testing at the Douglas Aircraft Co. was just 38. He started working for the Missiles Division of the company fresh out of college at 24 as an engineer. Within three years, he would become the youngest manager of the division, working behind the scenes with the U.S. Air Force and NASA to help land on the moon, 50 years ago July 20.

“It was new ground we were plowing,“ he said in an interview with The Bee recently. Saturn V was the first rocket to be launched into space with a liquid oxygen and hydrogen “exotic” propellant – an explosive, revolutionary mixture at 423 degrees below zero that could shrink and crack metal like glass.

The company leased the land where Saturn V was tested from the local rocket manufacturer Aerojet in 1956, with the original mission of building an armed ballistic missile called THOR. The testing site was the size of 3,000 football fields. Large enough, Brincka said, that if a rocket exploded, those driving by only heard a distant hollow echo.

Brincka had been working part-time in Rancho Cordova then, commuting from Los Angeles. But in the late ‘50s he moved with his wife Barbara to Carmichael, closer to the action.

They bought a quiet suburban home, where Brincka, now almost 88, preserved his many pictures and memorabilia of the long-gone Sacramento testing site. Here, his two boys grew up. And here, he retired in 1996 after dedicating 40 years to the American space race – 17 working for the Douglas Company, and 23 more for Aerojet.

From the brown, worn armchair where he sat on Monday, he watched the televised moon landings in the ’60s and ’70s. Brincka said we should not forget that Sacramento is an important part of this history.

“The whole test site was disassembled when the program was over and there’s nothing left out there,” he said. “But you should know that the moon landing was the culmination of a 10-year endeavor out here (in) Sacramento.”

Critical third stage

The company began working with NASA to design the rocket around 1960, and by 1964 Brincka was put in charge of 500 engineers and technicians to begin testing the unit of Saturn V that propelled three astronauts into the moon’s orbit.

The original design consisted of five metal tank-like capsules towered together, called stages. The first and largest stage, S-I, was built by Boeing Company in New Orleans. The aerospace manufacturer North American Aviation built the S-II in Seal Beach.

S-III and S-V were never constructed, Brincka said. The design was simplified, and the third and final stage of the rocket was named S-IVB (Saturn Four B).

The company built SIV-B in Los Angeles, and tested it at the Complex Beta-Sacramento, known as SACTO, in Rancho Cordova. Brincka led the testing process for five years, until, in 1969 the stage reached a “zero defect” status and was shipped to Florida for launch.

Unlaunched prototypes still survive in exhibits, attesting to the size, strength and complexity of the stage. In Houston, Texas, the Johnson Space Center currently hosts a stage close to the S-IVB that Brincka tested, he said.

While Brincka said locals knew of activity there, the work was kept out of public sight. Outside SACTO’s walls, signs warned: “DANGER KEEP OUT... TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.”

Warning sign at Complex Beta-Sacramento, known as SACTO, where the Saturn V rocket stage was tested. Courtesy of Donald Brincka

Residents in the area could hear the explosive roars of the testing site.

“We made our share of rocket noises,” Brincka said. But, he added, most residents associated them with their neighbor Aerojet.

Terri Pennello, the daughter of the late NASA engineer Julian Pennello said she remembers hearing the blasts from their home in Carmichael, and even saw Apollo 10 astronauts outside of SACTO walls. But the testing facility was classified “top security,” she said, and no one – not even her father – revealed details about what was happening on the inside.

The stage was lighter than any prior model, but it was also significantly larger, Brincka said. A custom cargo transport aircraft flew it from the test site in California to the launch site in Florida, according to “Sacramento’s rocket men,” by British historian Alan Lawrie. They called the aircraft the Pregnant Guppy.

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“Transportation of the Saturn stages is quite a logistic feat,” said company executive H. E. Bauer in Lawrie’s book. “In the early days it was done by barge... at 4 mph. At that speed nothing much should happen but, as incredible as it may sound, we did run over a very mature and ripe skunk.”

Before the stage could be loaded on Pregnant Guppy, it was transported via truck on a minutely-calculated course for a rocket stage bigger than the roads.

Both transportation and, of course, testing could be risky, Brincka said. The stage was filled with more than 60 gallons of liquid hydrogen and nearly 20 gallons of liquid oxygen that produced a colorless, sometimes untraceable flame. The engine could detonate instantly at the slightest miscalculation.

SIV-B was critical, Brincka said. The first and second stage would be already sinking deep into the Atlantic by the time the third stage ignited, orbiting the earth 150 miles above its surface at 17,000 mph.

“The astronauts did not have much control, almost everything was pre-programmed,” Brincka said. But then, moments before the trans-lunar injection that would take them to the moon, they could make or break the mission.

Brincka had met with the astronauts in 1966 in Houston to train them for this very moment. “They had to call ‘go or no go’,” Brincka said. “Once they fired the (third) stage, they were going for the ride.”

Under pressure

The company had tested and rebuilt the third stage of the Apollo 11 rocket 16 times, Brincka said. “The system had to work 100 percent the first time or there was not going to be a second.”

He knew one mistake would lead to disaster.

“No definitive material existed that described how big a fireball would occur if you detonated a large quantity of LH2 (liquid hydrogen),“ Brincka wrote in the book’s preface.

The team went to extraordinary lengths to move fast and to ensure nothing was left to chance.

“We were committed by President Kennedy to land on the moon before 1970,” Brincka said. “And so there was an extreme amount of pressure to build the stages, check them out and verify that everything worked properly.”

‘A phenomenal success’

Brincka had great confidence in the Apollo 11 crew, all of them “extremely intelligent and acutely aware of the technical complexities” of the rocket, he said.

“Apollo 11 ... was serious business,” astronaut Collins told the Associated Press. “We, crew, felt the weight of the world on our shoulders. We knew that everyone would be looking at us, friend or foe, and we wanted to do the best we possibly could.”

Everybody in Carmichael was surely watching their neighbors’ work come to life, said Pennello. When Armstrong landed on the moon, Pennello said she was glued to the screen. But moments after the broadcast began, her father called her outside to his car.

They drove down Arden Way, houses away from Brincka’s home. “There wasn’t a soul on the road and that’s what he wanted to see,” Pennello recalled fondly. “He wanted to see that everyone was watching the moon landing.”

Thanks to the painstaking years of work of Brincka and his team, two hours, 44 minutes and one-and-a-half revolutions after the launch, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins ignited SIV-B. They accelerated to 26,000 mph, beginning the journey to the moon.

Brincka said he annually picnics on the grounds of the former SACTO complex with about 30 Douglas Aircraft Co, engineers and technicians, “veterans” of the former Complex Beta-Sacramento. This year, they will meet on Saturday, July 20, to commemorate the 50th anniversary. Pennello will be joining as well.

“Circling, landing, leaving the moon and arriving on earth: each of them could have been a disastrous failure,” Brincka said. “Which is why this was such a phenomenal success.”

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.