Sunday, April 17, 2005

planet earth is blue and there's nothing i can do

Thirty-five years ago today the Apollo 13 crew stopped floating in their tin can and started bobbing in the Pacific ocean after a flight that was about as exciting as it could get and still have survivors.

When Gene Kranz, the flight director in charge of the mission (referred to as 'Flight' on the voice loops), pointedly asked Liebergot what was happening on board the Odyssey, the EECOM responded, 'We may have had an instrumentation problem, Flight.'

Thirty-five years later, Liebergot still ruefully remembers his initial assessment. 'It was the understatement of the manned space program. I never did live that down,' he chuckles.

To Kranz, the answer sounded reasonable, as he'd already had some electrical problems with the Odyssey on his shift, including one involving the high-gain antenna. "I thought we had another electrical glitch and we were going to solve the problem rapidly and get back on track. That phase lasted for 3 to 5 minutes," says Kranz. Then 'we realized we'd got some problem here we didn't fully understand, and we ought to proceed pretty damn carefully.'

Kranz's word was law. 'The flight director probably has the simplest mission job description in all America,' Kranz told Spectrum. 'It's only one sentence long: The flight director may take any action necessary for crew safety and mission success.' The only way for NASA to overrule a flight director during a mission was to fire him on the spot.

(I wish more companies were like that. Or that they allowed dueling.)

What followed has been touted as a triumph of brilliance and ingenuity, which seems reasonable only if you disregard one thing: these guys were just doing their jobs. Every step of the process of strapping what is essentially a big bomb to the ass of a few astronauts and blasting them into space with any hope of safe return requires brilliance and ingenuity and quite a bit of planning for any contingency.

The film 'Apollo 13' showed only a small part of what really happened. The IEEE Spectrum (which I still read when I feel like pretending I am still an engineer) has a great article detailing what really happened, interviewing some of the key players. It's worth a read - especially in light of how the space shuttle disaster has gutted NASA. Back when giants walked the earth they dealt with the threat of disaster every day, but somewhere along the line we made the rather silly decision that it's not ok for people to get hurt doing *anything*. It's homogenization through hubris.