September 23, 2003


I've been reading The Lost Moon, which was the original title of Apollo 13, the account by mission commander James Lovell and science writer Jeffrey Kluger of NASA's most successful failure. Although it's the first time I've read Lovell and Kluger's work, it's not the first book I've read on the subject -- Thirteen: The Apollo Flight That Failed by Henry S.F. Cooper Jr. is a quick paced account of the technological challenges faced by mission control and the ingenuity, teamwork and guts that went into solving them:

The necessity for all these new and untried maneuvers meant that the flight controllers couldn't borrow much from the checklists of previous missions -- something they normally did... Doing three months work in under as many days meant they had to take shortcuts they had never thought possible. Afterward, David Reed, the Lead FIDO, said, "When you take a lot of time, you get the most conservative consensus. But here we shaved off the conservatism to give some fast decisions, and we stuck with them. We found out what we could do when the chips were down. Often, the only simulators we had were our minds -- and damn if they didn't work!"

I like reading about mission control -- if you were a kid who followed the moon shots on television in the late 60s and early 70s (as I was) you probably spent more time staring at the backs of the heads of the Mission Control folks than you did looking at pictures of men on the moon. And, for whatever reason, Apollo 13 is the moon launch I remember best -- at least the emotions of it, the up-down feeling. No sooner had one crisis passed than Walter Cronkite or ABC radio news or some such would be on the air broadcasting the latest trouble. I remember my father (who, like me, wasn't particularly scientifically inclined) explaining to me what the problems were as the recovery efforts progressed, and, as each one was solved, exulting over the solution, only to tell me--the next morning, the next afternoon--of the new problem or problems that had cropped up. I watched the splashdown live on television -- at home, so it must have been spring break or a day off.

While the book Thirteen brought back many of those memories, reading Lovell and Kluger's book brings out a different perspective. Unless I'm imagining things, I keep sensing a Homeric quality to the work -- Lovell as Odysseus, desparate to return home; his wife (who's depicted frequently in the work) dealing with a house filled, not with suitors but with well wishers (and, of course, the press, whom she rebuffs rather early on); the men in mission control aping the gods and demigods who are trying to get the ship home; and the ship itself, part of which was called the Odyssey.

It's been a long time since I read a translation of the Odyssey, but I can't help wondering how closely the structure of the two very different works compares.

Incidentally, I've also been enjoying the photographs assembled in Full Moon...

Posted by Ideofact at September 23, 2003 11:39 PM