Gene Kranz, CAPCOM

Of Moon Landings, 1202s, and Check Engine Lights

Having just toasted the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings, I see them in a new, more relevant light now than I did when I was younger. On my visit to Kennedy Space Centre, at age 11, I spent time looking at “all the cool rockets”, but my preteen mind wasn’t quite ready to fully embrace the magnitude of what they signified.

Listening to recent podcasts, and the live feed of what happened on 16 July 1969, though, I feel like I’ve shared what Neil, Michael and Buzz went through. And it told me something vivid, and that we can all relate to: to understand the significance of a Check Engine light, you’ve gotta take a trip to The Moon.

Imagine for a moment that you’re skimming the surface of the moon in a module built from tinfoil, looking for a safe spot to put down. Years of training has prepared you for this, and your instincts have been honed to turn this into just another landing, in just another experimental aircraft.

The Eagle 

Eagle is different, though – while the state of the art in late ’60s aeronautical engineering sees it that no variable goes unaddressed in supersonic flight, lunar flight is another matter. You might have grown the necessary third arm that enables you to manipulate multiple controls at once, and your senses may be capable of processing several visual indicators at once, but it would still be all to easy to upset your equilibrium.

An alarm tone, for example, that you’re not expecting, backed up by a fault code that you’ve never seen before. Just seconds before the Eagle landed, Neil Armstrong’s attention was grabbed by a “1201” warning on the guidance computer, and neither he or Buzz Aldrin had any clue what it meant. With fuel fast running out and a hand hovering over the abort button, this was the last thing these lunar pioneers needed.

It’s rather less dramatic when you’re driving along and your ‘check engine’ light comes on, but, in fact, the premise is pretty similar. You’re on a journey, your family’s on board and you’ve a destination firmly in mind. When, out of the blue, your dashboard throws a ‘check engine’ warning up, you suddenly have to make a decision, based on having no information at hand whatsoever. 

What’s wrong?

All you know is that ‘something isn’t right’ with your engine. Do you immediately re-route to the nearest workshop and have it checked out? Do you get it checked when you reach your destination? Do you abort the mission, head home and pick up a car that – touch wood – isn’t afflicted by the orange dash light of doom?

A check engine, or engine management light (EML) can be triggered off by any number of variables falling outside set parameters, and unless your car has sophisticated onboard diagnostic circuits, or you happen to be carrying a fault code reader with you (which, these days, isn’t actually much of a hardship), you’ll have no idea what the warning actually signifies. Of course, the standard advice is to curtail your journey until you know it’s safe to continue. But, again, imagine you were on your way to The Moon. Failure is not an option.

As with an EML, the 1201 alarm, as with the 1202 alarms that had sounded multiple times in an earlier phase of the landing, signified that something wasn’t working properly – but didn’t tell the vehicle’s crew anything more than that. Fortunately, the Eagle was linked to NASA by live telemetry – assuming continued reception – where CAPCOM could monitor every crucial variable. Even they,  though, had no instinctive idea what to do with a 1202 alarm.

Work it out

So they looked it up. On the back of simulation experience and previous test missions, Flight Controller Gene Kranz had previously demanded that a list be made of all possible computer warning codes, and what they meant. It was of the utmost importance that any code be judged for what it meant, and whether it was safe to continue with the flight. John “Jack” Garman did just that, and it was that list that ultimately saved the landing from being aborted.

What the warnings amounted to in effect was a stack overload. The navigation computer was being asked to write cheques that its processing power couldn’t cash – notably when Neil Armstrong requested that the DisKey (keyboard display) show Verb 16 Noun 68 (rate of descent) data. What with all the maths that the computer was trying to juggle at the time, his request was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Thing is, being that the alarm was local to the Lunar Module’s computer, it likely wasn’t transmitted to CAPCOM, and the first thing they knew of it was Neil Armstrong’s remarkably calm announcement. A few seconds later, Garman had referenced the code, and advised that it could be ignored if it didn’t come up too often. “We’re go on that alarm”, and the mission continued.

Await Advice

With hindsight, perhaps it might have been an idea if such alarms were automatically relayed directly to CAPCOM, with perhaps an ‘await advice’ light on Eagle’s panel. The problem was not something Neil or Buzz themselves could deal with, after all – all it did was add to their workload at a critical moment.

Eagle navigation computer

One might say the same about an EML, which is the only warning light on your dashboard more vague than ‘door ajar’. It might signify anything from an increase in NOX emissions to imminent explosion – it would be rather nice to know which end of the spectrum you’re facing, wouldn’t it?

These days, I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard  for cars to have sufficient on-board diagnostics to offer a little more advice than a panicky-looking amber dashboard light can provide. In fact, in these connected times, over-air diagnostics ought not just be possible, but the norm. Should a fault code arise, it can be transmitted to a technical centre, interpreted and, if non-critical, reset, with communications remaining open should the fault reoccur on the same journey.

AR Diagnostics in the future?

As an ex warranty administrator, I can see how the reduction in ‘no fault found’ workshop traffic would be appreciated, and there’s little doubt that motorists would welcome the added certainty that augmented diagnostics would bring. In fact, I suspect that such technology is already in development, leaving only the question of why it’s taken so long.

The ‘check engine’  and EML warnings should have only been a step towards something more useful, ergo a car that can actually tell you what’s wrong, rather than merely that something is wrong. On Apollo 11, they were limited by an absence of alphanumeric display – “insufficient memory” is rather less cryptic than “1202”, as well as being less sinister in its ambiguity. There is literally no point in being given a vague warning. All it does is erode your happiness.

It’s much better for journey’s end to be a Sea of Tranquility than an overcrowded workshop. 

(Copyright RoadworkUK / Hooniverse 2019. All images from Wikipedia.)

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27 responses to “Of Moon Landings, 1202s, and Check Engine Lights”

  1. Maymar Avatar
    Maymar

    I think that’s a key point – anyone who has the ability (or at least innate curiosity) to try and understand the check engine light, can easily access whatever tools they need to do so. Anyone who doesn’t is the reason that we have a temperature gauge that doesn’t show normal fluctuations.

    1. Scoutdude Avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yeah today we can, in the early days not so much. But yeah the reason we don’t have real temp, oil and fuel gauges is the fact that the majority of consumers don’t have a clue and/or don’t care.

    2. Scoutdude Avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yeah today we can, in the early days not so much. But yeah the reason we don’t have real temp, oil and fuel gauges is the fact that the majority of consumers don’t have a clue and/or don’t care.

    3. Scoutdude Avatar
      Scoutdude

      Since the original comment disppeared as spam, for those that aren’t understanding what is going on. In a nut shell for $25 bucks you can turn your phone into a scanner and know why that check engine light came on. If you want to spend a little more you can do much more than retrieve and clear engine codes. I’m in about $75 and can change settings in my Fords like tire size, tire pressure, or even adjust the temp of the heated steering wheel.

  2. Scoutdude Avatar
    Scoutdude

    I forgot to mention that modern Ford radio/infotainment and some automatic HVAC systems have built in diagnostics. For the older Fords with traditional radios pressing and holding the 3 and 6 preset buttons while in FM mode will start it. It will do an individual speaker walk around showing which speaker should be working at a given time. It will also tell you if it is communicating with its peripherals, such as steering wheel controls or CD changer. You can also use the preset buttons to look at for example the station signal strength or software version.

  3. Scoutdude Avatar
    Scoutdude

    I forgot to mention that modern Ford radio/infotainment and some automatic HVAC systems have built in diagnostics. For the older Fords with traditional radios pressing and holding the 3 and 6 preset buttons while in FM mode will start it. It will do an individual speaker walk around showing which speaker should be working at a given time. It will also tell you if it is communicating with its peripherals, such as steering wheel controls or CD changer. You can also use the preset buttons to look at for example the station signal strength or software version.

    1. Scoutdude Avatar
      Scoutdude

      Alright, who marked my comment as SPAM??? I think it was definitely relevant to the discussion, enough so that someone replied to it which is still there.

      1. Batshitbox Avatar
        Batshitbox

        Happens a lot lately. Did you have a hyperlink in there?

        FWIW I saw it this morning as I was writing my comment but it was TL;DR for my coffee break.

        1. Scoutdude Avatar
          Scoutdude

          No link in my original post. Plus it was there for a while, before showing “marked as spam” so to me that says a person marked it not a machine which should have either prevented it from posting originally or immediately removed it.

  4. outback_ute Avatar
    outback_ute

    Very well done!

    I’ve driven hundreds of kilometres with the orange light on, having borrowed one of the 7-8-9 year old Hiluxes from work. I’m sure one had the light on for a couple of years, upon asking – “it’s fine, don’t worry about it.” Not sure if they knew what caused it or not, but the thing never stopped.

  5. Batshitbox Avatar
    Batshitbox

    Dude I know bought a used car and the seller said, “This thing overheats on the highway. When that light on the dashboard comes on, pull over or slow down and let it cool off.” Dude I know ignored the light, boiled the engine and got towed in to San Francisco, car hasn’t moved since.

    That dude makes 6 figures as a software engineer for a self driving car company. What a putz.

    1. Scoutdude Avatar
      Scoutdude

      While I can’t really feel sorry for the person, I do feel sorry for the car. I do have to wonder why someone with that kind of money bought the car in the first place. Was it just a run of the mill used car? If so then why didn’t he find one that seller didn’t tell him it overheated? If it was something special then I would think that he would have taken care in getting it home, or would be getting it fixed.

  6. Sjalabais Avatar
    Sjalabais

    My Honda used to throw a CEL when it was low on oil (as if there wasn’t an extra light for that). Currently, our Camry’s light goes on and off without a clear cause, not even the gas lock seems a reasonable source. *shrug*

    I would really appreciate a text message or something. 1990s Volvo 240s had the first version of OBD with a series of light signals in the engine bay. Worked very well!

    1. Scoutdude Avatar
      Scoutdude

      My wife’s car (2013 C-Max Energi (US) just sent me an email the other day telling me it had a low tire.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar
        Sjalabais

        Not sure if this is a joke, but I love it! Our Leaf came with some sort of online account, too, but I haven’t really checked it out yet.

        1. Scoutdude Avatar
          Scoutdude

          No Joke, the plug in Fords have an app and an online system that notifies you when it has completed charging and also lets you start the car, lock or unlock the doors. Newer Fords of all types can also do it when you have the right options.

  7. 0A5599 Avatar
    0A5599

    Check Engine failure is not an option.

    Although I guess sometimes it is. And technically the Gene Kranz “quote” is really just made up for a movie.

    1. outback_ute Avatar
      outback_ute

      Didn’t know that about the movie line!

      1. 0A5599 Avatar
        0A5599

        I probably wouldn’t have known it, had I not heard it directly from Kranz. He was discussing the irony of titling his book with something he didn’t say. Well, he said it eventually…

        1. outback_ute Avatar
          outback_ute

          Fitting too, because the other line from that movie “Houston we have a problem” wasn’t ‘true’ either.

  8. Lokki Avatar
    Lokki

    These days, I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard for cars to have sufficient on-board diagnostics to offer a little more advice than a panicky-looking amber dashboard light can provide. In fact, in these connected times, over-air diagnostics ought not just be possible, but the norm. Should a fault code arise, it can be transmitted to a technical centre, interpreted and, if non-critical, reset, with communications remaining open should the fault reoccur on the same journey.

    My 2019 BMW 5 does most of this. It has the warning lights, of course, and a “check control” submenu that allows you to look at oil level, and a few other basics like identifying any burned out light bulbs, etc.. However its main feature is that the car is connected by internet to a central computer. If any of the (I don’t know the extent) monitored operating system parameters falls out of range, the car contacts the computer, flags the problem, tells the dealer about it so they can start ordering parts, and then sends a (computer generated voice) phone message to me: “Your car has requested service; please contact your nearest BMW dealer to schedule an appointment. Note that I did not get any warning lights on the dash about the problem.

    I haven’t had anything go wrong with -this- car, but with my previous one (a 2016) I ‘got the call’. I called for an appointment and the Service Department asked, “what is wrong with your car?” and I had to answer, “I don’t know; the car just told me to make an appointment!

    As a side note – this is one of the reasons (while I enjoy driving them) that I will never, ever, own a BMW out of warranty. BMW has effectively tied the car to the dealership for service for the life of the car, for most people. There’s no option to have the car call the problem in to your local independent mechanic, and the car does NOT identify the problem to the owner… just says “your car has requested service” which could mean anything from transmission failure to a dirty cabin filter….

    1. Sjalabais Avatar
      Sjalabais

      So BMW chose the dystopian road. Very strange – you can’t identify the issue in said menue either? Issues should be extractable with standardized OBD readers somehow? I thought all carmakers are forced to comply to some standards here.

    2. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      That’s the thing. Even with on-board diagnostics, the success of our mission is still at the mercy of the dealership.The power is in THEIR hands. I want things to be the other way around. It should be me, in the Lunar Module, that calls “Go/No Go” based on the information available to me. Which should be ALL the information.

      1. nanoop Avatar

        Strictly speaking, the crew was held dumb on the 1202 error:

        “we are go on 1202”

        instead of

        “That error is caused by the way the OS is handling multitasking and means that there was no core set available for a task. We don’t know which exact task got frustrated, but since we have a priority system for the tasks in place we expect the essential functions to work as intended, and nothing did contradict that expectation yet. It may reoccur, but we are confident that we are and will stay GO on that 1202.”
        There was no time nor necessity. When Kranz and team would have said “No Go” they would have aborted the descent, and dialogued about that later.

        The issue is that BMW is treating us like an Apollo crew (I can imagine all these Germans with headsets in a theater-like seating arrangement in a secret Dingolfing basement, staring at the coolant properties of my car, and trying to figure out where the leak might be). But we’d like to swap our mission control every now and then, or swap the astronauts. We want to be Kranz and Buzz.

        1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

          Precisely right.

        2. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

          Precisely right.

  9. Scoutdude Avatar
    Scoutdude

    In the early days of EFI there were true on-board diagnostic systems that were fully self contained. Cadillac’s Digital Fuel Injection was one such system. While it did vary depending on the exact vehicle it was activated by pressing and holding 2 buttons simultaneously frequently the warmer and off buttons on the HVAC panel. Once you did that you could look at both the ECM and BCM codes as well as scroll through the individual sensor inputs. Once Chrysler got into EFI theirs just needed the key. Cycle it on-off-on a couple of times and the CEL will start flashing the codes.

    Nowadays there is a way to know if it is safe to proceed or not. If the light is on solid keep driving, if it is flashing then pull over as damage could occur if you continue to drive.

    However with the advent of cheap electronics and a computer in everyone’s pocket there really is no excuse to not know what your car is telling you. $20 will get you a Bluetooth OBD-II dongle and $5 will get you the app to talk to it. Depending on the app you can get the ability to read codes and live data from the engine or in some cases do pretty much everything the factory system will do. I drive Fords so Forscan is the way to go. With the app you can not only look at data from every module on the car you can initiate the factory self tests. With the Windows version you can even reprogram the settings in your car, though what you can change does depend on the vehicle in question. But some examples, in my F-250 I changed the tire size to correct the speedo, in my E-150 I turned off the DRLs and changed the tire pressures, in my Lincoln I changed the temp of my steering wheel. In the wife’s C-Max I turn off the windows down with the remote function come winter time. Not to mention actually using it to figure out which tire was low on my wife’s car yesterday, which cylinder was missing on my F-250, which parking sensor is the iffy one on our SUV, why ABS light was on on both the F-250 and SUV, and why the Marauder I was looking at was doing the airbag 5 beeps.

    I actually have a couple of them an OBDLink MX which automatically switches to the Medium Speed CAN used on some of my Fords for some of the lesser functions, its my Go-To device. I’ve also got one with a physical switch to talk to the MS CAN and one that only does the HS CAN which gets all the modules in some of my older Fords. I rarely travel far from home w/o one.

    Oh and the other thing it can be used to know the truth about what is going on with your car. What your dashboard is telling you is lies, pure lies, about at least some if not all of the displays, but the computers know what is up. Your speedo reads faster than you are going. Your temp gauge may tell you the same thing whether the car is running at 180 degrees or 230 degrees. Your fuel gauge tells you that you have more fuel than you actually do when in the top half, while in the bottom half it will tell you that you have less than you actually do your volt gauge will tell you the same reading with a wide range of actual system voltage.

    So yeah run out and spend $25-$100 and know what is going on with your car.

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