Apollo 13 Owners’ Workshop Manual by David Baker (book review)

November 27, 2017 | By | Reply More

Being in my early teens in 1970 and the school swot on the space program, I was aware of the problems with the Apollo 13 expedition to the Moon and the problems they had. Hence when a film drama was made on the subject in 1995, I paid less attention other than a few clips that were shown on film review programmes.

However, the Haynes book ‘Apollo 13 Owners’ Workshop Manual’ did pique my interest, more so as its author, Doctor David Baker, worked at NASA’s Mission Control from 1965-1990 and had first-hand experience of what was happening. He does mention himself briefly a couple times as a number-cruncher in passing but not his overall function at Mission Control.

Although there are some resemblances to ‘Apollo 11: 1969 (Including Saturn V, CM-107, SM-107, LM-5) Owners’ Workshop Manual’, you also get a detailed look at what went wrong. Indeed, it would be silly to do anything else. Although Baker is not judgemental, there are several areas where the teams had seen problems before and knew that they would right themselves so the odd extra one was often viewed in that light that it would simply right itself. Although I thought when I started reading this book that there might have been some complacency issues with what happened, it looks like experience from previous judgements led to no overall feeling anything could go wrong and things would sort themselves out as they usually did.

Anyway, let’s go through things I learnt from this book. Prior to the introduction, there is a note that NASA measured space in nautical knots and not the regular statute mile. A quick Google scan doesn’t reveal if this has changed or not but you have to wonder if we need a better way to measure distance in near space but not necessarily in metric. Granted people can imagine miles and maybe even nautical knots but, at the end of the day, people see big numbers as long distances and that’s not going to change. I do wonder if the public would ever be ready for a distance/time/velocity calculation for how long it would take to travel, say, to the Moon or Mars.

Although it’s not described as such, on page 36, there is a diagram of the computer console they had back in the 1970s, essentially a numerical keyboard with 17 other specific function keys. The astronauts had this one and a back-up computer to do a lot of their routine activities. What was seen as revolutionary for its size back then has taken us to where we all use calculators and computers regularly today.

Something I doubt you would see in fictional films is spacecraft slowly rotating to dissipate heat. It did make me wonder why this energy couldn’t be used more in future space missions. More so as in the return mission there is a decidedly lack of heat in the lunar module to keep the astronauts warm.

Another thing I wish to clear up here is the misquoted statement, ‘Houston, we have a problem’. From the recorded dialogue noted on page 68, Jim Lovell repeated twice actually says, ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem here.’ I bolded the important word from his repeat message. Past tense. Important to get anyone misquoted right.

Everyone from NASA mission control to the astronauts were in uncharted waters making important decisions on maintaining vital supplies of air and water between the two modules and how quickly to tell them back to Earth after a revolution around the Moon, not helped by not having any stars to navigate by. What the footage at the time never showed was the noise on-board, the lack of heat and the lack of sleep any of the three were getting. Only Fred Haise got a kidney infection but kept quiet about it.

Although Baker doesn’t present too an emotional account, the intensity of their problems still sinks home as you read, making this book very hard to put down and I found I was reading the last sections in long reads to see how they survived. If there was anything I might want to add, then it might have been used to have also included graph comparison than just rely on readers picking up information from the text to let the information sink in.

Luckily, the number of space disasters can only be counted on the fingers of one hand and Apollo 13 the only one outside of Earth’s orbit and that’s now 47 years ago. When you consider how advanced our current technology is, what NASA did back then looks truly miraculous. If you have any interest in the American space programme, then you will want this book as part of your collection.

GF Willmetts

November 2017

(pub: Haynes. 204 page illustrated indexed large hardback. Price: £21.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-85733-387-2)

check out website: www.haynes.co.uk

Category: Books, Science


About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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