Reaching for the stars: One firefighter's role on the secretive Apollo Astronaut Rescue team
Former IAFC president Bill Killen reflects on his time as one of the original members of an exclusive firefighting team tasked with high-risk missions
Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, the historic Apollo 11 mission landed astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.
Bill Killen, along with an estimated 600 million people, watched the pair take man's first steps on the moon. But unlike most of America's mesmerized viewers, Killen had a front-row seat to history in the making.
As part of the original Apollo Astronaut Rescue team, Killen had been anticipating this life-changing moment.
An interest sparked in the fire service
Killen, whose father was a civil service firefighter at the Bolling Army Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., kickstarted his firefighting career at 16 years old as a volunteer firefighter. However, his obsession with the fire service started long before then.
"If I had $100 for every spanking I got for chasing those fire trucks, well, then we could have one heck of a dinner," Killen joked.
Killen enrolled and completed a firefighting course at the University of Maryland while he was still in high school. After being on active duty with the U.S. Army, he went to work for the U.S. Navy as a firefighter. And, after working as a civil service firefighter at an ammunition plant for five years, Killen was offered a job at the Kennedy Space Center in 1965.
"I thought it would be exciting to be involved with the fire service in the space program – and it really was," he said.
During his tenure, Killen met several astronauts, including Gus Grissom.
"I fished with Gus on several occasions," Killen recalled.
Unfortunately, Grissom, along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee, were killed in the tragic Apollo 1 fire on Jan. 27, 1967.
As a result of that incident, the Apollo Astronaut Rescue team was established on Oct. 7, 1968.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The original Apollo Astronaut Rescue team
The Apollo Astronaut Rescue team, Killen said, was made up of volunteers selected from the ranks of the Kennedy Space Center Fire Department.
"The original team consisted of the two training officers, who served as team commander and team leader, and then there were nine firefighters in different ranks that were selected for the team," he said.
Killen is one of five surviving members of the original team, which initially went unsupported by the union.
"The union had not been consulted by management to set up the team," Killen said. "It was not a very popular thing to do initially. Later on, management was able to resolve the issues and we went forward from that point."
Once that hurdle was cleared, the team began a 12-week training program in preparation for the Apollo 8 launch. The team, whose shift started at 7:30 a.m., started their day with 30 minutes of calisthenics, followed by a jog led by team leader Al Wozniak.
"By December 1968, before the first launch of the Apollo 8, we were running about two miles … jogging at a fast pace. It was tough at first, but it was fun," Killen said.
Outside of their exercise routine, members of the team received training to familiarize themselves with the command and service module (CSM) – the vehicle in which the astronauts would ride to the moon.
"Most of us were familiar with the launch umbilical tower (LUT) and the crawler; we were familiar with a lot of the fuels and oxidizers," he said.
Each team member, who was assigned a specific position number, had a different job to perform in case of an emergency. Killen was assigned position #5 – extracting the pilot.
"We got to the point where any one of us could fill another's position on the team in case someone was sick or injured," he said.
In case of an emergency, the Apollo Astronaut Rescue team would move in to rescue the three astronauts in the CSM.
"We had to open that module, turn off some switches to make sure they didn't set off the charges that would have blasted the CSM from the LUT into space," he said. "There was a great deal of training on that."
The structural configuration of the launch pads and launch towers, according to Killen, created a number of rescue problems, including confinement of restricted areas of heights over 300 feet from the ground.
"The rocket was literally a 360-foot stick of dynamite weighing over 6 million pounds," he said. "The blast danger zone extended 7,000 feet from the launch pad, and the rescue team was well within the blast danger zone."
World War II veteran and team commander Roy Terry was interviewed by Killen for his recently released book, titled "History of the Apollo and Skylab Astronaut Rescue Team," and said the team was the "very best of their profession in their time."
"Not much has ever been written about the Astronaut Rescue teams," Terry said, whose words can be found on the back cover of Killen's book. "It makes you think, when you look back at those emergency contingency crew systems out of NASA, they really didn't hold much hope to get in and get out on time."
Terry continues to say the team's work will "go down in history," but that it was a shame it "had to be kept covered up so much."
Killen said no one, including his wife, who he has been married to for over 60 years, knew the team was in that kind of imminent danger.
The risks of being an Astronaut Rescue team member
According to Killen, NASA didn't want any publicity that informed the public about how dangerous the mission to the moon was, including the formation of the Apollo Astronaut Rescue team. Despite the potential danger, Killen, along with the rest of his team members, continued to serve on various Apollo and Skylab missions.
"I served on the Apollo 8, 9 and 10 teams," Killen said. "But I had different assignments for Apollo 11, 12 and 13. I was the escort for Apollo 14, 15, 16 and 17, and served on Skylab missions."
Although Killen was not assigned to some of the launch missions, he still served as part of the team. For example, every time the astronauts moved into a suited environment, a member of the Astronaut Rescue team was on standby.
"I'm sure you've seen pictures of the astronauts going to get into a van as they come out of the manned spacecraft operations on their way to the launch pad," he said. "But there was always a firefighter there to escort them to the van and up to the launch pad."
After a case of the measles posed a threat to the launch of the Apollo 13 mission, Killen said NASA created a health stabilization program.
"I was the only guy in the fire department that could be in close proximity to the astronauts in the four-week period before launch," he said. "I had a special badge that I had to wear, which had a number on it that indicated I could be next to the astronauts."
And, in 1972, NASA created a permanent Astronaut Rescue Team, a position Killen competed for.
"From Apollo 17 through Skylab, I was the primary contact on the Astronaut Rescue Team, and I also served on rescue position #5 through Apollo 17 and on all three Skylab missions."
Killen's 186-page book, which includes over 200 photos, details the crew's journey from beginning to end.
The team was disestablished on Feb. 11, 1974.
The book, he said, serves as an "overdue recognition the Astronaut Rescue team never received."
A 63-year fire service career
On the last page of his book, Killen notes, "serving on the Apollo and Skylab Astronaut Rescue team was more than a 9-5 job. It was our mission – setting standards for safety and protecting the brave men whose dream was reaching for the stars and walking on the moon. We worked and served with pride – without recognition and in harm's way for NASA and our nation."
Killen, whose fire service career spans over 60 years, kept busy after leaving the Kennedy Space Center, and continues into retirement.
Currently, Killen serves as the president and CEO of the National Fire Heritage Center, a non-profit organization whose goal is to preserve the written history of the American fire service.
He also served as director for the U.S. Navy Fire and Emergency Services, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) from 2005-2006, vice president of the U.S. branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers, among many other various roles in career and volunteer organizations.
Most notably, he was the recipient of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service and the Military Firefighter Heritage Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award.
And although his Astronaut Rescue team days are behind him, Killen said he would not hesitate to do it all over again.
"They are one of the finest bunch of men I've ever worked with," Killen said. "If I had to do it all over again, I would be right back in it."
If you're interested in buying a copy of Killen's book, titled "History of the Apollo and Skylab Astronaut Rescue Team," or a limited-edition Astronaut Rescue team challenge coin, then fill out an order form and mail it to Bill Killen at 526 Whitetail Road in Church Hill, TN, 37642. All proceeds will go to the National Fire Heritage Center.