Book review – Go, Flight!

I don’t want to bury the lead here: Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992 by Rick Houston is a must read for any serious space fan, and will be enjoyed by many more casual fans as well. Anyone who actually works in Building 30 at Johnson Space Center, like me, will have their love for their work stoked anew by this book.

Read this book

 

I know what you are thinking: another book about the Apollo program? I hear you, but this is not your father’s space race memoir. First of all, the book covers a time period more than an event or a specific NASA program. As the subtitle suggests, Go, Flight! covers all the events in NASA’s manned spaceflight program from Gemini in 1965 through the middle of the Space Shuttle’s golden years in the 90’s, although the focus is heavily on 1965 to 1975. This choice of dates is not random but matches the dates that the third floor MOCR (or the “Apollo room”) was used for active missions. The book opens with a description of Houston’s first visit to the MOCR, described in terms that can only be summarized as a religious experience. Houston compares the MOCR to a rather short list of other famous places: Gettysburg, Westminster Abbey, Pearl Harbor, and a few more. Houston felt the power of that place and this book is partially his attempt to share that experience with his readers.

But Go, Flight! is about more than just a place. More than just a room in a building. What gives it power is that it is also a book about people. Houston set out to learn about the characters who worked in the MOCR through first person interviews. Houston’s friendship with former flight director Milt Heflin, who gets coauthor credit, helped him get access to a great list of former flight controllers. You can see by how many people showed up to a book signing last year that Houston created quite a network of contacts while writing.

Signatures from Space Center Houston book signing

Yes, Houston tells stories about familiar missions through all three programs. Obvious missions covered include Apollo 11 and Apollo 13, as well as the tragedies of Apollo 1 and Challenger. There are also insightful chapters on less famous missions, such as Gemini 4 or Apollo 14. Did you know that Apollo 14 was almost aborted when they couldn’t dock the Command Module to the Lunar Module? I didn’t. Most readers will certainly learn some new tidbit of NASA history. But the value of Go, Flight! is not in new facts added. While the Apollo 14 story was new to me (or I had forgotten it), it is certainly not new to the vast literature covering the Apollo Program. I have read at least a couple of dozen space race histories, but I am missing some key classics such as Chaikin’s A Man On The Moon. What truly makes Go, Flight! unique is that it feels like the stories are being told by the people who were there.

Flight controllers discussing the Apollo docking probe in mission control

 

In general, the American public thinks of astronauts when it thinks of NASA. There is very little thought of the important contributions of the many hundreds of engineers and technicians on the ground in various NASA field centers around the country. The blockbuster Apollo 13 in 1995 helped to adjust that point of view by showing how crucial the flight controllers in mission control were to saving the crew. However, Apollo 13 didn’t do much to dispel the notion that mission control is full of a bunch of nerds with pocket protectors and glasses (thanks Clint Howard). Houston has set the record straight in Go, Flight!

Houston starts the book out with a quick overview of each of his main characters in a chapter titled “Who Did What”. Even just this chapter on its own proves the point that mission control was home to a diverse (albeit not diverse ethnically or by gender) group of young men with strong personalities. Start with John Llewellyn, a Korean war veteran with PTSD who once rode his horse to work after getting his on-site driving privileges revoked because he parked on mission control’s front steps. Or how about Ed Fendell, who had only an associates degree in marketing, but nevertheless worked his way up to the INCO console in the front room for some of the biggest missions in NASA’s history. One of Fendell’s proudest moments was controlling the pan-able television camera to capture Apollo 17 lifting off from the lunar surface.

These guys who got us to the moon and flew the space shuttle had lives and families – some (or many) of which were damaged by their over-zealous commitment to the cause. Fendell tells a story about going on a first date on a Friday night and promptly getting out of bed in the morning to head to work. When his date asks him what she is supposed to do with him going to work on a Saturday, Fendell simply told her “I’m going to work. I write mission rules on Saturday morning.” These were not German engineers in lab coats (thanks The Right Stuff), nor were they emotionless bookworms who stated technical facts and then did as the Flight Director says. These were men of personality and passion. They argued with each other, with management, with the sim supervisors, with everyone. The job was the thing, and it was going to get done. If bridges had to be burned, so be it.

These stories from a wide array of flight controllers helps to balance out what space fans have read in memoirs from men such as Kraft, Kranz, and various astronauts. For instance, a lot of people know about the legendary SCE to AUX call from EECOM John Aaron, which allegedly saved the Apollo 12 mission on ascent. But in Go, Flight! that story is expanded significantly to show how Aaron’s backroom support personnel were involved and how a critical call from the GNC flight controller was also needed to get the inertial measurement unit back online. This kind of deep dive gives the reader the best insight I have ever found into what working in a NASA mission control room is really like. Nothing gets done without teamwork – no one person fixes a problem on his own.

If there is a problem with Go, Flight! it is the rushed last few chapters. In a book of just over 300 pages, only the last 40 pages cover events after the last Apollo mission. Given that the author was trying to tell the story of the third floor MOCR, and not every mission in manned space flight, this choice is understandable but no less jarring to a reader that knows there is more history to tell. The book would feel a lot more cleanly wrapped up if it ended with the last Apollo flights flown from the room. That being said, I really appreciated the chapter on the Challenger accident.

Despite its flaws of pacing and scope, Go, Flight! easily makes its way into my list of essential books to read to understand the history of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Kraft may have invented mission control, but it was men like Llewellyn, Aaron, Fendell, Liebergot, Heflin, Garman, Briscoe, and more who took Kraft’s concept and made it the model for all modern control centers through their incredible dedication and preparation. These people and what they did should be remembered as long as our species dreams of spaceflight. Great things are done by men and women of passion, not cold calculating nerds, and Go, Flight! proves that point emphatically.

Go, Flight! can be found in hardcover or Kindle formats here on Amazon. If you want more stories from the front lines of the early space program, try Apollo EECOM by Sy Liebergot, Full Circle by David L. Cisco, and Highways Into Space by Glynn Lunney.

More “must read” books from my collection

 

August 11, 2016 12:51 pm

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