(October 7, 1942 – )
Aerospace alumnus Stephen G. Bales was influential in NASA’s successful landing of Apollo 11.
Stephen G. Bales was born in Ottumwa, Iowa, the son of Lyle and Katherine Bales. He grew up in Fremont, Iowa where his father was the janitor of the local school and his mother worked as a beautician. At the age of thirteen, Steve (as he was more often known) was inspired by a 1955 episode of Walt Disney’s Disneyland titled “Man and the Moon” which included an extended dramatization of a trip to the moon and back. This “more than anything” was the impetus for him to study Aerospace Engineering and, following his graduation from Fremont High School in 1960, he began his coursework in that field at Iowa State University. He was a 19-year-old freshman when President John F. Kennedy gave his speech at Rice University naming missions to the moon as a priority.
Bales earned his BS in Aerospace Engineering from ISU in December 1964. Earlier that year he was one of a group of several hundred engineering students that NASA had brought in as summer interns and the connections he made during that time decided his course. He wrote a letter stating his desire to work at NASA upon his return to Iowa. Following his graduation, he was promptly hired into NASA’s Flight Dynamics section operating out of Mission Control at the newly-constructed Space Flight Center in Houston, Texas. He quickly moved up the ranks and served as the backup flight controller for the Gemini 3 and 4 missions in March and June of 1965, and as primary flight controller for Gemini 10 at only 23 years old. By Apollo 4 he was serving as mission Guidance Officer (often referred to as GUIDO) – a position “responsible to the flight director for monitoring guidance, sequential, and propulsion systems” in Mission Control.
He is best known for his role in the Apollo 11 mission. He was the GUIDO on shift during the final descent of the Eagle lunar module to the surface on July 20, 1969. First, during the initial descent he noticed that the Eagle was moving faster than it should have been by around 20 feet per second. This was within the mission parameters, but it required him to continue to monitor the situation and it would have been up to him to call a mission abort if the speed discrepancy continued to increase beyond safety limits. However, his notoriety mostly stems from the decisions he made in the final minutes of the descent.
When the Eagle was approximately 6000 feet from the surface, around 10 minutes before landing, the guidance computer started showing an unexpected alarm code and the astronauts asked Mission Control what it meant and if they needed to abort the mission. This decision would fall to Bales as the Guidance Officer. By chance, during the final training simulation prior to the mission, this same alarm code had come up and Bales had called for an abort. This error code, 1202 – Executive Overload, meant that the guidance computer was overtaxed and would have to drop low-priority commands in order to continue processing high-priority ones in time. This was later determined to be non-critical and that the training mission should not have been aborted. As a result, Bales and his team were asked to make a list of every computer code and under what conditions each could mean that the mission should be aborted. During final descent, when this alarm code came through, he was able to quickly confer with engineer Jack Garman who told him that as long as the alarm didn’t go off constantly the landing could continue. Bales then had the responsibility as GUIDO to make the call to the flight director that they were still a “go” on the landing. This alarm code, and a related 1201 alarm, would go off several more times during the descent, but each time Bales would continue to give the “go” command and the mission completed successfully.
On August 15 of that year, at the ceremony where President Nixon presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Apollo astronauts, Steve Bales was chosen to be present to receive NASA’s Group Achievement Award on behalf of the approximately 400,000 member team on the ground who made the mission a success as well. Bales was chosen, in the words of the president, because, “This is the young man, when the computers seemed to be confused and when he could have said ‘Stop,’ or when he could have said ‘Wait,’ said, ‘Go.’” Additionally, he received the Iowa Governor’s Distinguished Service Award and an ISU Young Alumnus Recognition Award for his role in the mission. In 2012 he was given a Distinguished Alumni Award from ISU’s Department of Aerospace Engineering.
Bales continued to work for NASA, again as GUIDO for Apollo 12 and then moving on to other projects such as Skylab, eventually working up to Deputy Director of Operations before finally retiring from NASA in 1996. Since then he has worked directing a number of small chemical companies in New Jersey, such as Amspec Chemical, and Lord's Additives LLC.
He married Sandra Belinsky in 1984 with whom he has 2 sons.
Stephen Bales Papers, RS 21/7/1, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library
Collins, Craig. “Steve Bales and Jack Garman: Wonder Boys of the Apollo 11 Flight Control Team.” NASA 50th Magazine (2008). www.nasa.gov/50th/50th_magazine/unsungHeroes.html. Accessed 21 Dec. 2016.
Dinsmore, Keith. “Man Played Role in Moon Landing.” Ottumwa Courier [Ottumwa, IA], 4 June 2010, p. A3.
“Eight to Receive Young Alumni Awards.” Ames Daily Tribune [Ames, IA], 2 January 1970, p. 2274.
“Man and the Moon.” IMDB, 21 Dec. 2016, www.imdb.com/title/tt0351298/?ref_=ttep_ep14. Accessed 21 Dec. 2016.
“Man and the Moon. [Parts 1-4]” YouTube, uploaded by Disneytv4me, 6 Apr. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrvxQ7VNqXk. Accessed 21 Dec. 2016.
Richard Nixon: "Remarks at a Dinner in Los Angeles Honoring the Apollo 11 Astronauts," 13 Aug. 1969. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=2202. Accessed 21 Dec. 2016.
Strawn, Jessi. Space pioneers, Iowa natives receive Iowa State aerospace engineering alumni awards. Iowa State University. 11 Apr., 2012, news.engineering.iastate.edu/2012/04/11/space-pioneers-iowa-natives-receive-iowa-state-aerospace-engineering-alumni-awards. Accessed 21 Dec. 2016.
Watkins, Billy. Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes. Praeger Publishers, 2006.