‘Go, Flight!’ For children of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era, just those two words alone are enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Scores of brave Major Toms have been fired into space atop the most powerful rockets known to man. The responsibility for getting them there – and back – rested with the mission controllers in Houston.
While the foreground action of the NASA space programme is very familiar, it’s in the detail of the workings of Mission Control where the real, human stories are to be found. For example, when Deke Slayton says, “Shut up and let ’em land.” Too much information is being relayed to Neil Armstrong as he wrestles with the lunar module to steer clear of a boulder-strewn field. Gene Kranz agrees: only fuel readings will be called up. The atmosphere must have been crackling.
The achievements of Apollo 8 are legendary — the first astronauts to escape Earth’s gravity, the first to see the far side of the Moon. Less well known is that Apollo 8 wasn’t planned to be a lunar mission. With just four months to go before launch — and 18 months to meet President Kennedy’s ‘end of the decade’ challenge – controller Chris Kraft called a meeting with a few select colleagues: “Can anybody give me a reason why Apollo 8 should not go around the Moon in December?” There was only ever going to be one answer.
The story starts back in the days when Houston was just another oil town, vulnerable to the occasional hurricane. The political shenanigans in choosing where to site mission control are laid bare. Fortunately, the cursed Apollo 13 was spared the indignity of having to say, “Bogalusa, we’ve had a problem…”
Unsung heroes? Heroes, certainly. But after this firecracker of a book, no longer unsung.
Reviewed by Andy Sawers