Skip to main content

Thirteen: the Apollo flight that failed – Henry S. F. Cooper Jr. ***

Most of us probably think we know all we need to know about the Apollo 13 mission – after all, we’ve seen the movie (which isn’t bad at all) – but inevitably the Hollywood treatment skims over a lot of fascinating detail, while this book, written just two years after the event, gives us the true nitty gritty.
I found it absolutely fascinating, seeing the disaster unfold in slow motion, with all the messiness of real life. For instance, the ground controllers, unaware that an explosion had taken place and had disabled a lot of the equipment went quite a while making incorrect assumptions, still hoping they could get the mission to the moon. In fact what the book makes clear is that in some ways the astronauts were just bit part players and it all the different individuals on the ground who were making the decisions and calculations and generally trying to sort things out.
On the whole this works very well – by relaying the conversations on the ground, the arguments between the different specialists and so on, we get a real, in-depth feel of what really happened here. This makes it a genuine page turner, as the reader feels to be present as the disaster unfolds. The only downside of this is that we are showered with with acronyms for all the different controllers, referred to, for instance, as CAPCOM, TELMU, FIDO, EECOM, GUIDO, RETRO and so on. To add to the confusion, because there are four shifts of controllers, there are four persons per title, leading to a cast that it is very difficult to keep sorted in the mind.
I have two niggles with the book – one small and one significant. The small one is the author’s affectation of spelling re-entry as reëntry, which is for some reason very irritating. The big one is the science, which the author clearly hasn’t got a clue about. Two specific examples. He says ‘One amp-hour on the spacecraft’s twenty-eight volt current (sic) would keep a 40-watt bulb burning for one hour.’ Anyone with high school science should be able to see at least two things wrong with that. But the biggest howler is ‘so it was difficult for the computer to work out vectors, a vector being a point in space where the spacecraft was known to have been’. It’s not rocket science. Well, okay, it is rocket science, but it is not exactly postgrad physics to realise that a vector is not a point in space.
The book doesn’t suffer particularly from its age – in fact it is only apparent in two ways. One is that it thinks the computers of the day are impressive bits of kit (dwarfed as they now are by any smartphone), and the other is that when the book was written it seems that one of the most iconic quotes of modern times (misquoted though it often is) had not become well-known. There is no direct reference to Swigert’s ‘Okay Houston, we’ve had a problem here.’ (Or Lovell’s near repeat ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’) All Cooper says is ‘First, Swigert reported over the radio that the seemed to have a problem.’
Although I can only give it three stars because of the bad science, I have no doubt that anyone interested in the history of space flight should give this book a go.
Note, paperback is original 1972 edition while Kindle is a new edition

Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World Acc…