Book Review: Launch On Need

NASA’s Foundations of Mission Operations is meant to be a reminder to all working in the manned spaceflight program of the responsibility we hold to the taxpayer and to the astronauts we train and protect. Among other core values, the foundations state:

To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.

As part of that goal, certified flight controllers must complete annual proficiency training, which includes reading key chapters of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s report (the report is often simply referred to as “the CAIB”). We are not required to read the entire report annually – both because it is very long at over 200 pages and because many chapters are irrelevant now that the Shuttle program has retired. However, we read chapters that have a direct relation to how we continue to do our job as flight controllers, such as chapter 7: “The Accident’s Organizational Causes”. These parts of the report drive home the importance of good leadership, speaking up when you see a problem, and technical rigor, among other skills. For instance, page 191 has a very relevant discussion of the danger of trying to present a precise technical topic on a brief PowerPoint slide.

The most important part of the CAIB ultimately is the list of recommendations found in chapter 11, especially those that are organizational and apply still today. Nevertheless, it is human nature to ask “what if?” about the Columbia accident. A 2-page section of chapter 6, titled “Possibility of Rescue or Repair”, seeks to answer this question, however briefly. Chapter 6 (and the longer associated appendix) explain that, had NASA managers understood Columbia’s plight early in the flight, resources could have been conserved onboard to extend STS-107 to a mission length of several weeks and Atlantis – already being prepped for STS-114 in the Orbiter Processing Facility – could have been rushed for a possible bid at rescue. This section of the CAIB, almost a footnote, is the premise of the fictional novel Launch on Need by Daniel Guiteras.

Launch on Need takes the “what ifs?” about as far as they can go, exploring both the how the world would react to the drama of a stranded space shuttle as well as detailing NASA’s mobilization efforts for rescue. Surprisingly, the most central character to the novel is fictional CNN reporter John Stangley, rather than a NASA flight controller or astronaut. It is actually the novel’s biggest failing that Stangley is the only character who is truly explored with depth or appreciable character arc. At 350 pages, this means that a lot of time is spent with characters of little emotional interest to the reader. The fact that all of the characters are fictional – including STS-107 astronauts, rescue astronauts, and mission managers – definitely slowed down my ability to connect with them. However, to be fair to Guiteras, the book likely would not have faced problems getting published if he had assigned invented dialogue and motivations to real people, especially the crew of Columbia.

Fortunately, the reason I read Launch on Need was not really for complex characters. The book intrigued me probably for the same reasons Guiteras wrote it. NASA has not had to publically “save” a crew since the successful failure of Apollo 13, a generation ago. Both accidents during the space shuttle program were tragedies, not crises. By the time the public knew of the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the astronauts were already dead. What would a modern day Apollo 13 look like? How would the public react? Could NASA really pull it off? Of course, without a time machine, we will never really know the answers to these questions. But Launch on Need makes a compelling case for how things may have turned out differently. Despite the weak characters, and often weak dialogue, Guiteras’ loving attention to technical detail creates a drama that carries the reader all the way to the finish.

Guiteras sets up the structure of the novel in a clever way, with three parts titled The Discovery, The Challenge, and The Endeavour, using the names of three of NASA’s fleet of space shuttles. The Discovery starts at launch of STS-107 and ends with the wing inspection EVA, The Challenge covers the rescue flight’s prep for launch, and The Endeavour is the rescue mission itself. This means that, rather surprisingly, the rescue mission launches well over half way through the novel. If this story were ever to be made into a movie (unlikely) this would not fly. The big screen eye candy comes from action in space. The excitement of launch day and the drama of the rendezvous and tense rescue EVA would certainly be the focus, and launch would occur, at latest, halfway through the film. But this imagined big-screen version would steal the soul of Guiteras’ story. The real drama of the story occurs during part 2, as NASA prepares Atlantis for launch. Guiteras does a great job of building up the conflict of man versus schedule in this part of the book, which is hard to do, since the antagonist is not a person but is time itself.

One of my favorite chapters in the book comes in the middle of part 2, while Atlantis is still in the OPF, and NASA is working 3 shifts and struggling to shave precious hours of the launch prep timeline so that Atlantis can reach orbit before Columbia runs out of CO2 scrubbers. In the middle of this chaos, a careless worker drops a large bucket from an upper level of the OPF onto Atlantis’ wings, potentially putting the entire mission in danger, if the damage is bad enough. Not only did I fear for Atlantis herself but I really felt for Wally Jensen, the OPF manager you meet only for the brief 5 pages of this chapter. The accident’s impact on Jensen really painted an accurate picture of how the stress of something like a real rescue mission might take its toll on NASA’s employees.

In contrast to the parts of the novel about Atlantis being readied for launch are the chapters following the rescue crew, which I felt really missed the mark. For instance, during one chapter, we join two of the rescue mission astronauts who are selected to do the spacewalk to ferry all 7 astronauts from Columbia to Atlantis. They are training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) the week before the flight. Actually, it is the day after they were assigned to the mission and they are already on their first NBL run. As they alone in the locker room getting ready for prebrief, one astronaut begins to confide in the other that he is worried and scared, that he has lost confidence in himself. While astronauts are just humans like you and me, and surely feel the pressure leading up to a big mission, the timing of the confession and the dialogue was rather contrived. Keep in mind that these two characters were introduced as NASA’s best spacewalkers. Unfortunately, this was a theme throughout and I felt that the astronauts were the weakest characters in the story. Similarly, a lot of the scenes that occur in mission control itself felt off to me, based on my experience in mission operations for the ISS. The most jarring scene for me was when a “tiger team” of 4 members is formed in the middle of the climactic rescue EVA to figure out how to open a stuck hatch, or else the last two crew of Columbia will die aboard. The entire logistics of this episode do not match how we do things at mission control: the IMMT chair, who was at the back of the control room at the management console, grabs 3 flight controllers who are currently on shift in the front room during an EVA and leave the room to come up with options. This would never happen. Instead, the army of back room flight controllers and engineering support rooms would be working together on the comm loops to come up with a plan.

Despite Guiteras lack of ability to provide believable astronaut or flight controller characters, the story has another strength in its exploration of the space program in the American psyche. One of the most interesting scenes to me (regardless of its realism) comes near the beginning of Part II, shortly after NASA has committed to rescue as the only option for Columbia. The NASA administrator is holding a meeting with the heads of his public affairs and communications divisions and outlines an innovative approach to media relations during preparations for the rescue mission: hide nothing, let the media in everywhere. The administrator realizes that this is an “Apollo 13 moment” and seizes on the opportunity to get everyone talking about NASA again.

As NASA starts to let reporters into the VAB and OPF, just inches from Atlantis as she is prepared for her rescue mission, the American public begins to become fixated on the mission. The 24-hour news channels essentially have a launch countdown ticker on the screen at all times and they do daily status updates. STS-300 is on the front page of the New York Times. This is my favorite part of Launch on Need. I think Guiteras has a great sense of how Americans really feel about space. Sometimes it seems NASA is ignored, often even forgotten, but that is not because people don’t love space. Spaceflight is in the background fabric of our culture, the way we expect to have a football game on TV on Sunday night or that we get 100 options of breakfast cereal at the grocery store. You don’t notice something so ingrained in our culture until they are gone. Everyone wants to talk about space when something goes wrong; we see this every time a cargo launch doesn’t make it to ISS – you see a headline in every news media outlet, even if they just use the AP brief. Often those launches aren’t covered when they are successful.

Guiteras seems to understand all of this about American culture, which makes his fictional tale about how STS-107 could have ended in triumph an optimistic but cautionary tale that I think leaders within NASA should read and learn from. Launch On Need is an interesting thought experiment about NASA public affairs. It points out that people love space (which I think is true of the majority), but that NASA needs to actively share its mission in an exciting and emotional way if we want people’s love of space to be active and conscious, and not just like their love of the breakfast cereal aisle.

We will never know if Atlantis really could have made it to orbit to save the Columbia crew before Flight Day 30. All we can say is that if NASA hadn’t made the errors in management, communication, and decision making which are outlined in the CAIB, there could have at least been a chance to try. Even if a rescue mission had been attempted and failed, the way we remember the Columbia disaster would be very different. The idea of following the Foundations of Mission Operations – of being ever vigilant – is not because we believe we can prevent all disasters from happening, but instead is to at least give ourselves the chance to turn something like Columbia from a tragedy that no one saw coming into a crisis that we can put forth our best effort to recover from. This is the point of the last line of the Foundations of Mission Operations:

To recognize that the greatest error is not to have tried and failed, but that in the trying we do not give it our best effort.

I would recommend Launch On Need to fans of space history and flight controllers alike. In fact, with some good editing and improved character development in another edition, I think it could be quite good. I hope that if and when NASA has another crisis in manned spaceflight, we will have improved our blind spots that led to disaster for Challenger and Columbia and will instead give ourselves the chance for redemption shown by Guiteras in Launch on Need.

You can read Launch on Need for free if you have Kindle Unlimited or order it for $11.60 in paperback. Here is the Amazon link.

June 15, 2015 6:00 am

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