Nearly Sandbagged by Betsy

By David Ridge

December 2016

In 1965, I was working at the Michoud Plant in eastern New Orleans as a weight engineer. We were building the S-1C Saturn Booster there for the Apollo Mission moon shot. The No. 1 booster was near completion and was lying on its side in the manufacturing plant. From memory, it was about 33 feet in diameter and 130 feet in length. It was composed mostly of two huge tanks, the forward one for liquid oxygen containment and the aft for fuel (RP-1, kerosene.) This entire empty vehicle weighed nearly 300,000 pounds, already had the engines installed and was near shipment by barge.

At this time, as it turned out, Hurricane Betsy was descending on New Orleans. (Not as bad as the later "Katrina," Betsy was bad enough, flooding half of New Orleans.) When I showed up for work on the day of the storm, it still wasn't determined if it would hit New Orleans or veer off to the east. Nevertheless, as I looked around that morning it appeared that over half of the work force had already decided to be somewhere else. A loudspeaker announcement promised to let us know if things turned our direction, but they never did.

At noon I looked around to find I was the only person left on the floor. I went to the cafeteria, only to find it closed. Apparently they got the memo that the hurricane was pointed directly at New Orleans. I was single at the time and decided to stick around until closing time in case an emergency came up.

An emergency came up. About 1 p.m. the phones started ringing. I answered the phone in my boss's office. It was the plant manager calling to know how deep the floodwater would have to get around the booster before it started bobbing around like a cork. It seems the insides of the tanks were "super-cleaned" and sealed, with some nitrogen added to give positive pressure for structural reasons. Some poor soul had been nominated to stay in the plant in the anticipated flood. It was his job to breach the tanks if the booster started floating. This prospect would destroy the vehicle almost as well as floating around. An alternative was to build a sandbag wall around the booster, but they needed to know how high to make the wall.

Fortunately, I had all of the information...volumes, weights, centers of gravity. I was able to tell them that six feet of water in the plant would float the vehicle, and it would have precious little room before it could start dinging the roof or near-by columns. I believe they finally built a dirt wall around the entire plant, and I think they did sandbag around the booster. I didn't stay around to find out. Winds were at 60 miles per hour when I went to the parking lot.

As it turned out, eastern New Orleans did flood, but the Michoud Plant was spared. So....maybe I didn't exactly save No. 1, but I felt righteous anyway.