Book Review: Below Tranquility Base

Almost 50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, triumphantly ending America’s space race with the USSR, it is hard to find a fresh perspective on that slice of history. So much has been written about the early space program that it can be hard even to get through all of the old stuff. I have read memoirs from Collins, Cernan, Slayton, Shepard, Kranz, Kraft, Worden, and Scott, but have actually still never read The Right Stuff or A Man on the Moon (I know, I know). Despite the mountain of material out there, new books continue to be written. Not only are there new histories being written, like Dr. John Logsdon’s After Apollo?, but there are new astronaut memoirs: John Young’s Forever Young just came out a couple of years ago. But with all due respect to Captain Young, I have read a lot of test-pilot-astronaut memoirs.

The thing is, there are thousands of stories to tell from the Apollo program. It was a massive project that cost billions upon billions of dollars, which means that thousands upon thousands of people had their hands on the spaceships, on the control centers, on the Deep Space Network communications dishes. Everyone loves hearing from the astronauts, but what about all those other people who were a part of history? Fortunately for us space fans, some of those people have written those stories down to share with us. They are out there if you search for them!

One of those stories is Below Tranquility Base by Richard Stachurski. I wouldn’t expect you to recognize his name, because he is one of those thousands of small but important players in the epic story that is the Apollo program. Stachurski served as a flight controller starting in 1965. He started in the backroom and was promoted to the “Network” position for Apollo. Network was the call sign back then for the person in charge of the ground network comm link to the spacecraft, which is now called GC (Ground Control). Stachurski is a geek through and through. He is so excited to talk about his experiences in mission control during Apollo 11 that he spends very little time on his personal history and background. The book starts out “Did you ever have a job that you would pay to do? I did.” and the book thoroughly convinced me he meant it. Stachurski looks back on his time with NASA with almost unbelieving reverence to have been a part of something so amazing.

The details of Stachurski’s work as a Network flight controller are interesting in their own right, and Stachurski is happy to explain all of it. In fact, the book is so heavy on technical details that it may be off-putting to some more casual readers who aren’t already familiar with the details of an Apollo mission timeline. In fact, most of the book is a description of the Apollo 11 mission from the Network consoles perspective, detailing things that were broken and fixed, technical conversations on “the loops”, and Stachurski’s own emotions throughout the whole mission. So what exactly was “Network” responsible for?

While the movies and histories focus on the astronauts, their spacecraft, and the people in the Flight Control Room (FCR) with the Flight Director, there were hundreds of people working around the world trying to hold on to a communications link with the spacecraft so that the Flight Director could do his job. Anyone who has seen the movie The Dish knows a little about that. Today our link to the ISS is a bit simpler, since we have the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) in geostationary orbit. These still require ground antennae to get data back to mission control, but there are fewer stations, not to mention we have 50 years of experience coordinating that kind of worldwide network. In the 1960s, the entire concept was brand new, they had no geostationary comm satellites, and the missions were flying all the way to the moon, where the geo sats wouldn’t have helped anyway.

Stachurski paints a vivid picture of how this communications network worked (or didn’t). In some ways, there was more drama in the struggle to keep comm with the spacecraft than in what was actually going inside the Lunar Module during powered descent to the moon. Before I read Below Tranquility Base, I never would have guessed how close to the hairy edge of holding on to that link NASA was at several points during Apollo 11. As a flight controller myself, I can relate to Stachurski’s feeling of not being important or noticed until his system has a problem, and then all eyes are on him until the problem can be fixed. The speed with which they coordinated ground site swaps is impressive. Stachurski and his team from Apollo 11 truly were “steely-eyed missilemen” despite the humility in the face of history that he alludes to throughout his tale.

It is in fact this humility that makes Below Tranquility Base such an interesting read, and will probably help most readers get through the technical parts of the book. Stachurski’s academic background in fact is not technical at all. He studied history in college while in the ROTC program to help pay his tuition. After school, he went into active duty, which got him assigned to a bomber wing in Indiana. In those days, a bomber wing in the heartland meant that you looked after airplanes that stood at the ready 24/7 to take off with nuclear warheads to drop on our enemies. After Indiana, Stachurski spent some time babysitting nuclear missiles in the Dakotas. He was one of the guys with his finger on a launch key the Cuban Missile Crisis. The frank look we get from Stachurski into what these Cold War jobs were like is not something you would expect from a space program memoir, but is fascinating nonetheless.

This all leads to Stachurski’s assignment by the Air Force to support mission control in Houston for the Apollo program, where he feels like just a “liberal arts puke” (his words) out of his element. His journey from an overwhelmed nobody in the backroom to a front room flight controller for both the Apollo 11 launch shift and the lunar ascent shift is inspirational. In addition, his own opinion of himself that he was not that important of a player during Apollo 11 affords an unfiltered perspective on life in mission control. For instance, Stachurski gives us his frank opinion that he actually didn’t care for Gene Kranz much, feeling that his leadership style was a little bit overbearing and relied too much on micromanagement. He also tells us about the dirty magazines that they had hidden away on console for boring night shifts…

Below Tranquility Base and books like it are an important but rare part of the story of the early space age. Without them, we miss out on the small dramas that were happening all the time. Small triumphs, like having a solution when a whole network switch catches on fire in Spain during a crucial Apollo 11 mission phase, put in perspective how many people were required and how many things had to go right for the Apollo program to be successful. The book also helps to chronicle the early development of the culture of flight control in Houston that survives today. I even learned the definition of an acronym* I use regularly at work from Stachurski! This is a book that should make it onto the reading list of all avid space history fans and current flight controllers at NASA, but will probably be enjoyed by most casual fans of NASA or US history. You can get it for free on Kindle Unlimited here (it is $11.31 in paperback).

*Apparently a “pad” in a procedure is actually a PAD, standing for Pre-Advisory Data.

Some other good books that give the ground level perspective on the early space program include:

Full Circle by David L. Cisco, lunar module electrical technician.

Apollo EECOM by Sy Liebergot, Apollo flight controller.

The Unbroken Chain by Guenter Wendt, Apollo launch pad closeout team leader.

July 19, 2015 3:53 pm

Leave a Reply