OTTUMWA — The decision on whether to cancel the moon landing by Apollo 11 came down to a series of alarms as the lander descended and a final decision by a man born in Ottumwa.
Steve Bales served as the guidance officer during the mission. In the event of an emergency during the landing on July 20, 1969, it was Bales who would have to decide whether to abort the landing. He came close to doing so.
Bales was 26 at the time, extraordinarily young for someone with so much responsibility. But the space race meant NASA rapidly increased its staffing, and Bales rose quickly in the new organization.
Bales’ role brought him some small measure of fame. A NASA article called him “a key flight control team member who kept his cool while the onboard computer in the lunar module sent out a series of alarms.” But most of the attention focused on the astronauts who walked on the moon.
The road to that moment in July 1969 began here.
Stephen Black, president of the Friends of NAS Ottumwa, said Bales was born in Ottumwa on Oct. 7, 1942, son of Katherine Alice and Lyle M. Bales. His first home was with his grandparents, John Ray and Eunice “Bessie” Glaze in the 100 block of North Davis Street.
Bales grew up in the area, on acreages near Agency and Hedrick. He attended Iowa State University’s aeronautical engineering program, which helped lead to NASA and Bales’ role in one of humanity’s major milestones.
As guidance officer, Bales was responsible for figuring out whether warnings during the landing were a risk to the spacecraft and the men inside. If they were, he had to make the decision on whether to call things off. Bales had a team of engineers helping to make the calls; he wasn’t alone in analyzing either situation. He later singled out Jack Garman, a computer specialist, for identifying issues even faster than he did.
But it was Bales who had to make the final decision and, had it been the wrong call, his responsibility.
Twice, alarms forced Bales to make critical decisions. The first was when a guidance error meant the spacecraft was moving faster than it should have been. Bales kept an eye on the situation, but decided the mission could continue.
Alarms sounded again just before landing, as the computers aboard the craft struggled to keep up with events. The alarms had shown up during a previous training exercise. While the cause wasn’t identified until after the flight, Bales and his team knew how to respond. He told Flight Director Gene Kranz to keep going.
The team on the ground knew Bales’ importance to the mission. It was Bales who accepted a NASA Group Achievement Award on their behalf. And Apollo wasn’t the end of his work. He rose to become deputy director of operations at Johnson Space Center before his retirement from NASA in 1996.
Bales didn’t forget Iowa. He returned to Fremont, where his parents were living, a month after the Apollo 11 landing.
Iowa didn’t forget Bales, either. In the Courier’s archive is a photo of him holding the Governor’s Distinguished Service Award, given “For his outstanding contribution to the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing July 20, 1969, an achievement which brought honor and recognition to his native state of Iowa.” The plaque has Gov. Robert Ray’s signature engraved.
In 2017 he was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame.