Houston, we have a problem...,
This review is from: Thirteen: The Apollo Flight That Failed (Kindle Edition)
On April 13, 1970, two bare wires created an electrical current that caused an oxygen tank to explode. Bad enough if this were to happen on Earth, but worse when it happens on a small spacecraft hurtling towards the Moon. This is the story of what went wrong on Apollo 13 and how the flight controllers and astronauts managed to bring the badly damaged craft home.
Cooper's writing style is plain but clear. He has had access to most of the people involved in the mission and gives an enthralling picture of these men retaining their professionalism under extreme stress, working as the ultimate team to bring their colleagues home. He gives a minute-by-minute account of the immediate aftermath of the explosion, when neither the astronauts nor mission control knew what had happened or how severe the damage might have been. At that stage, the thought was still that the planned moon landing might be possible, but as various systems began to fail, it became clear that the task would be to ensure the survival of the crew. Cooper shows the seat-of-the-pants planning that made this possible, as the scientists and engineers in mission control scrambled around inventing previously unthought-of solutions, using computer equipment that seems laughably inadequate to our modern eyes.
Meantime, he also shows us the astronauts becoming increasingly exhausted as the flight continued, and suffering dehydration as they rationed their drinking water to dangerous levels. We see the crew gradually finding it more and more difficult to carry out the instructions coming from mission control, with mistakes creeping in both in space and on the ground as the crisis went on. But Cooper also shows the patience and commitment of each team member, battling to find ways to overcome each new problem as it arose.
Cooper explains how the accident came about - that as the moon flights proceeded a certain level of over-confidence had crept in, meaning that pre-flight checks and simulations hadn't been carried out quite as thoroughly as they perhaps should have been. And we are shown how the fickle public, already bored with moon landings, suddenly tuned back in in droves when the flight went wrong.
The over-whelming feeling that I got from the book was one of intense admiration, not just for the courage of the astronauts, thousand of miles away in a tiny inadequate-seeming craft, but for the mission controllers, truly like heroes from sci-fi, coming up with ideas and workarounds of which Geordie La Forge himself would have been proud. We all know the outcome, but I still found I was holding my breath as the crew plunged towards earth's atmosphere with no-one knowing whether the heat-shield would hold.
There's a lot of fairly basic science in the book, which Cooper explains simply enough for anyone to grasp. I've seen a couple of reviews criticising some aspects of the science - mainly misuse of terminology - but I wasn't aware of that while reading, and don't feel it was anything particularly significant. I thought Cooper got the balance just about right between the technical and the human in the telling of the story, and the shortish book contains no unnecessary padding. An informative and exciting read - recommended. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.