Sunday, June 26, 2011

It's the little things you learn

Or perhaps this was a big one. I suppose it's a matter of perspective.

As mentioned yesterday, I'm working my way through the book about the Apollo 13 mission, as told by Jim Lovell and Jeffery Kluger, the latter of which was probably the one to add style to the story. It's dramatic enough to tell in the short and sweet language an astronaut might tell it, but then it probably would have been a much smaller book that sold for a lot less.

My knowledge of the Apollo 13 mission comes from the docu-drama of the film, as well as some online research. That happens to me. I'll see a movie based on history, and a part of me becomes very interested in what REALLY happened. It happened when I watched Braveheart, (in which my online research revealed William Wallace was just a really tall Scotsman who got into some fights). It happened with Titanic, to which I went as far as to read the Congessional hearing about the disaster). And it's been going on for some time with the Apollo mission, but I've never had the opportunity to buy Lovell's book.

Now I'm getting bits and pieces of the story that didn't exist in the movie, and these things are somewhat obvious, but excluded. Sure, they ran simulations for the astronauts, as shown, but did you know they also ran simulations for the control room? I didn't...but it makes perfect sense that they would. Everyone needed practice for these things, especially if you were about to send three lives into space in the equivalent of a very sophisticated aluminum can.

Clint Howard, brother of Ron Howard, played EECOM controller Sy Leibergot. (EECOM is Electrical, Environmental, and COMmunications; the communication part involved the sensors and their ability to send information back to Houston.) Sy is actually an interesting character in the whole story, and I say this because of what happened a week before the actual mission. What follows is a summary of what went down.

They were running a simulation with a full cast and crew. That is, even the astronauts were on hand for this simulation with the control room. Now, there's a moment before the space craft would go behind the moon, and there would be a communication blackout, when the data on the various monitors would become "ratty." Sy was not the only one watching his screen; there was a room in the back with several other guys who would be watching as well. And all of them saw a minor blip on the instrumentation that told them the pressurization of the command module was starting to drop.

No man is an island in NASA. Sy saw it and immediately questioned it with his backup gang. They saw it too, and all of them proclaimed it as the infamous "ratty data." They decided there was no real problem; it was that danged glitched that would show up in the moment before the astronauts went on the dark side of Luna. And so for the next 40 minutes, while Ken Mattingly was supposedly making his way around the moon solo, the others simulated to be down on our terrestrial satellite, EECOM did nothing...

...and paid the price for it. At the end of the simulated communications blackout, Ken came online and reported that he had zero cabin pressure, and was suited up against the near-vacuum that now existed inside the ship.

Had another flight director been on hand other than Jean Krantz, Sy might very well have been handed his walking papers. Instead, the simulation went on, with Lovell and Haise returning from the lunar surface and all three using the Lunar Excursion Module as a lifeboat. Ultimately, Sy was relieved that things had worked out as they did, as improbably as they did. I mean, really...Could anyone imagine things going so badly that they would EVER need to use the LEM as a lifeboat for three men out in space? "Impossible!" they would have exclaimed.

I'm going to get back to bed to continue reading. If you've seen the movie, you just might want to pick this book up to get some of the many details that were missing from the cinematic version, as it's all fascinating.

Be well, and DFTBA!

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