Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Index

APOLLO: RACE TO THE MOON

By Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox (1989, Simon and Schuster)

As the design for the Apollo program expanded, engineers became managers and controllers for the problems that arose during the nation's struggle to get to the Moon.

 

 

5 stars

Read July 6th to 21st, 2003, for the second time  
    A terrific way to tell the same story we are familiar with, from a totally different perspective.

Most people reading a history of the Apollo program will expect to hear about the training that the astronauts went through to get ready for space, about the experiments they did while they were there, and how they reacted to crises. This book does none of that. In fact, there are only a few mentions of the astronauts in the entire book. This history tells the story of the designers of Apollo, the engineers who filled roles that had just been created, who took creative liberties because they didn't know any better, and who made sure that the astronauts could get into space and home again -alive.

The book is not comprehensive in any way. As the authors mention in their postscript, so many people went missing simply because there was no more room to write about them. So much history also goes missing. However, the parts that we get are magical. The style of the book was to introduce us to the problem-solvers, the people who made the decisions, or the people who carried out the instructions. Rarely does it include all of these together when dealing with the same problem. There lies the charm of the book, in that it reads like a novel, or like the reader was actually sitting down with some of these people and reliving the events with them.

The first part of the book, Gathering, was intensely political, with early NASA being both more and less organized than I think is popularly believed. More, because they already knew that they wanted to go to the Moon, even before Kennedy made the historic announcement. Less, because they had dreams that they didn't even know the scale of, not realizing how much work and money it would have to take, and they were so very small before Kennedy's announcement.

I couldn't believe the amount of politics that were involved in the Apollo program, with people being transferred around to where there were problems, and others to get them out of the way. So much creativity in one place meant that people had such huge egos, which meant clashes in personality. Strangely enough, the spacecraft and the program came out ahead of most of these.

The main problem with the book is its vast cast of characters. Many, especially the ones who had a hand through the entire process, were fairly easy to keep track of, but others were easy to forget because they only popped up for a couple of pages here and there. The authors did what they could, by giving biographies and mini-histories of those people. However, they kept moving around the organization, that it was often difficult to keep track of who was where, especially in the cases where people have similarly-spelled names. Even this was kept to a minimum, however, by cutting out the names of some people, leaving it at "...said one engineer who worked under him". At some points, the book reminded me of Tolkien's Silmarillion!

At some points, the technical language threatened to overwhelm the book. I loved it, however. The pages devoted to the F-1 engine were well worth it, as was the mammoth description of the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building, which now mates Space Shuttles. The MOCR once again described controller stations in such magnificent detail, but it almost became too much detail! The very best of the detailed descriptions, however, came with the very first launch of the Saturn V. It took so many pages just to get off the launch pad, but after reading about the bureaucracy, the technical specifications and problems, and the people who had put so much heart and soul into getting it there, those pages seemed like a fitting tribute.

Most of the book throughout the second and third parts ("Building" and "Flying", respectively) dealt with problems that crept up, either in the politics or the engineering. With politics, things were generally straightforward. If a program was falling behind, or had many complaints, somebody was sent in to straighten it out. We got a description of the management style, and how people reacted to it. Sometimes, it was quite awesome to see. The technical engineering provided problems for analysts, managers and engineers to work around and fix.

In fact, most of the book went from problem to problem, barely stopping to give even momentous events some space on the pages. With so much politics, I could say that it was more about the managers than the engineers -but that would also be inaccurate, since most of the managers were engineers before NASA was formed.

Of course, the engineers and managers were at their best while troubleshooting the missions. That is the glory of the controllers during the missions, too. They live for the highs of getting things to work through unexpected situations. This is what justifies giving nearly four chapters to Apollo 13. While there must have been things to talk about during Apollo 7 and 9, where things went smoothly, times were most glamorous when fixing problems and coming out of it looking like miracle workers. Other histories can deal with stuff that went right the first time!

However, the book could have been longer, and could have certainly put in some material about the lunar module, which we barely got to hear about. I wish there had been more about Gemini, which paved the way for Apollo. Instead, it gets a footnote. It was barely even mentioned that Gemini came to be because the astronauts and controllers needed more testing with rendezvous and manoeuvres. There was no way anybody could have gone from Mercury directly to Apollo.

I loved the descriptions of the simulations. We need a whole book on those scenarios, too. At least, we could have had an entire chapter! However, what we did get, I loved. I loved the way the controllers lived the simulations like it was real life, and especially the way the controllers allowed the simulators to throw anything at them after the seemingly impossible multiple failures on Apollo 13.

I also got to see how accurate the movie of Apollo 13 was. Aside from the obvious time factor, in which everything that happened in hours occurred in minutes through the movies, I was amazed at how many details from the movie were recited in this book -which was written years before the movie ever came out -I wonder if it was used as a source. Another obvious tactic is to simplify the characters, leaving Gene Krantz in charge throughout instead of changing flight directors and other controllers.

My favorite moment in the book, however, comes from Apollo 12, a situation which became legend with the flight controllers. Since I first read this book, I always hoped to become a curious engineer like John Aaron, who went to so much extra effort just to find out why his screens gave garbage data briefly during one simulation. When lightning struck Apollo 12 as it lifted off a year later, he once again got garbage readings, and knew exactly what to do, giving commands that neither the astronauts nor the other controllers, including the Flight Director, knew how to interpret, because they didn't know this switch existed.

The book unfortunately spends a single short chapter on the missions that took place after Apollo 13, mainly because there were no major problems, because the controllers became so good at their jobs. They still weave an interesting story about those times, however brief.

The title of the book is quite appropriate: this was a race to the Moon, not against the Russians, however, but against time. The schedule was critical, so that nothing else mattered -until the fire of Apollo 1. After that, things slowed down, but as missions were flown with few problems, they became overconfident again, until Apollo 13, after which they again grew cautious. I wonder if there would have been another accident in one of the cancelled missions, because things were going so well again.

This book takes some young engineers, in a very young space program, and allows them to grow and mature, often in gigantic steps. Apollo was successful because of those people, because they had the drive and creativity to get the job done. They also had the money, even through the waning years of Apollo, which is something that the space program does not have now.

It was also a free time, where NASA hadn't developed the bureaucracy that it has now, so that people could seemingly do as they pleased. I loved the description in early chapters of the Langley engineers -so brainy, and so odd! That description fit many of the people who populated NASA in its early years. I'm sure many of the people there now have similar personalities, but the world is a very different place, and much of the creativity and free spirit must be crushed in a way that it wouldn't have been back then.

Do I sound nostalgic for a time that I never knew? Yes. Do I wish I had been there to participate? Doesn't everybody? Still, I love living in a time where technology allows us to do so much good stuff, even if it allows the same technology to be used in other ways, too. For those of us who wish we could have been there, this book is a good start. The complexity of the Apollo program is given to us from hundreds of interviews in the first person, so that a narrative could be made that was friendly and entertaining, in addition to being informative and historical. Amazing.

 

 

5 stars

Also read September 4th to 22nd, 1991  
   

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