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Ground Control to Major Tom...

Failure is not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond - Gene Kranz

This is a wonderful book, in its way- and by that I mean that it can be a bit dry and technical in areas, but overall it gives you a good feel for the kind of work this author did, over the course of thirty years, for NASA.


Gene Kranz was a combat jet pilot in the Korean War, and then a test pilot for a defense contractor. Where do you go from there, if you're starting a family, and looking for somewhat safer work? ("There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots") The answer in 1959 was NACA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. It was the precursor group to NASA, formed in the Cold War American Sputnick-panic.


Kranz brought a lot of technical knowledge about flight to the job, and eventually became a flight director. You know how every NASA-themed movie has all those guys at Mission Control sitting at banks of monitors, talking into headphones to the astronauts? The guys who stand up and cheer when some perilous mission ends in success, against all the odds? Well that's what Gene Kranz did for thitry years.


But what do those guys actually DO, you might ask? (I did.)


They monitor a ton of real-time telemetry data, keeping tabs on every system needed for a successful space mission... fuel, battery power, vehicle position, velocity, altitude, life support systems, oxygen pressure, ship-board computer functions, radar, all the monitors for the scientific missions (e.g. the photographic mapping of the moon surface, the magnetic sensors, etc) Each system is constantly monitored, and if anything is abnormal, it needs to be addressed immediately. In the earliest days of the program, the Mercury missions, the astronaut didn't even steer the ship; it was done from Ground Control.


Turns out, there are a lot of things which can go wrong, and it takes a team of very clear-thinking subject matter experts (mostly engineers) to devise workable corrective measures, to ensure the safety of the crew and the success of the missions.


In a way, this book reminds me of that great 1970's movie "The Conversation" with Gene Hackman. He plays a security expert hired to record conversations between two "targets". He wiretaps them, follows them around with high-power microphones, etc... It turns out the conversations they are having pertain to a murder they are planning. You never actually find out why they are plotting this murder, and you never even meet the guy they talk about killing. You never even really get much exposure to the conspirators. It's all told through the eyes of some guy who is way off on the periphery of the story, who by most accounts would just be some low-level functionary very incidental to the drama, and played by an extra in most accounts of the murder. But in "The Conversation" it is his story which is front-and-center. Same way with this book. Most re-telling of mankind's early days in space would most naturally be told in an astronaut-centric way.


Kranz directed the Mercury missions (named so because Mercury is the first planet), the Gemini missions (named after the zodiac twins because the Gemini capsule had a two-man crew), and finally the Apollo missions to the moon (not sure how they came up with the name for those ones). It is real-life drama, dealing with a lot of life-or-death decisions which the public never learned about at the time.


The other cool thing about the book is how it highlights the degree to which early NASA was infused with the sense that everything they did was about national security, and staking a claim for America in the next battlespace between superpower rivals: outer space. NASA was very cognizant of every milestone, and how they measured up to the Russians- who had a head start. Russians put the first man into space, and the first man in orbit. America finally overtook them with a Gemini mission which married up two orbiting space vehicles together. Russia at the time had never managed to get two vehicles closer than three miles apart.


The issue: computer power. Traveling 17,000 mph, computers monitoring a constant stream of telemetry data are needed to make minor corrections for both. In 1962, Soviet Russia didn't have the speed or processing power to deal with that amount of data in real-time. The US barely did either, but it's interesting that mundane solid state electronics like most Americans were enjoying with their transistor radios at the beach is what closed the gap, rather than fancy rocket propulsion systems or exotic fuel mixtures.


If you're interested in any of the technical stuff, you should enjoy the book. You might think putting the first man on the moon would be the high point of the book, but actually bringing the crew safely home during the problem-ridden Apollo 13 mission is.