R. F. Mojica
- Published on Amazon.com
I've read dozens of books on the history of the US space program dealing with the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and this is now one of my favorites.
First on the book itself and how it seems (to me) it was put together. I don't know for sure, of course, but it seems that a group of the flight controllers who worked for NASA during the glory days of the '60s and early '70s collected written reminiscences of those days in book form to give to their children and grandchildren so these kids would have an idea of what their fathers had done during those days, then published it privately through a subsidy publisher with the idea of distributing it to friends and family, and that the book worked out so well that they decided to offer it to the public. So it's not a fancy book. In design and layout, it's pretty much a no-frills affair. It contains a good number of photographs, and, for the most part, the reproductions are clear and well printed. Don't expect anything eye-catching or beautifully artistic. Graphically it's clean and easy to read but it's, like I said, no frills.
It's the content of the book that will grab you. When I was a kid, watching the Apollo flights on TV (I was too young for Mercury or Gemini), I was always fascinated by the shots from mission control. I didn't know exactly what the guys at the consoles were doing, but I knew it was important stuff, and, even though I knew the astronauts got all the glory, I had a feeling that the MOCR was the real place to be. While all the other kids wanted to be astronauts, I wanted to be one of the controllers in the MOCR, so this book was right down the alley of my greatest interest in following the space program.
The best thing in the book, and what by itself would make it worth the purchase price, is its first section—a book length autobiography of Glynn Lunney. Lunney was, along with Gene Kranz, one of the two best known of the NASA flight directors. He never got the press notice Kranz got and has continued to get over the years. I think there are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that Kranz is a more picturesque character. He's a better interview, he looks like what you'd expect a NASA flight director to look like, with his hawk nose, his steely eye, his crew haircut. He has a sharp, clipped way of speaking, He has a knack for inspirational speeches and for coining slogans and, what I think the makers of documentaries really like, is the way he gets misty eyed and emotional when discussing the overcoming of crises during space flight. Kranz couldn't be more perfect for space documentaries if he had been cast for the part by Hollywood.
Lunney, on the other other hand, is a pretty ordinary looking guy. He might remind you of your high school physics teacher. I think he's a good interview and he seems to have a sense of humor, but he doesn't present the "character" that Gene Kranz does, and even in documentaries, film makers want easily identified characters that fit into a scheme of stereotypes. That said, it doesn't seem that there was any jealousy or rivalry between the two men. Kranz, because of his personality, was bound to be the more public figure while the lower-key Lunney seems to be satisfied to be appreciated by the "people who know". The two men had some things in common, particularly being raised as, and remaining, devout Roman Catholics, which was unusual in the very WASPy NASA of the 1960's, and each seems to bend over backwards in giving credit to the other in the managing of the spaceflights they worked on together.
Where there did seem to be some rivalry and conflict was between what I'll call the astronaut office and the controllers office (I don't think these were the proper terms, but they'll do). The astronaut office was headed by Deke Slayton (along with, later on, Alan Sherpherd), who looked out for the interests of the astronauts, while the controllers' office was headed by Chris Kraft. You can maybe compare this to a Hollywood set-up, where the Astronauts were the big stars, the names the public knew and loved and admired and whose lives they followed on TV, in newspapers and magazines, while the controllers were the unknown, unglamorous, almost faceless technicians who made the whole show go. Naturally, amongst the astronaut crew, there were a number of prima donnas, and their sometimes peevish behavior led to the conflicts mentioned above. The astronauts had a public stature they could use to bully their way through conflicts had it not been for one person—Chris Kraft, who not only stood behind his guys to the last ditch, but who also outranked, in the NASA scheme of leadership, both Slayton and Shepherd. He made it clear that when it came to disputes between the two groups that, for all the fame and glory the astronauts enjoyed, if mediation between the two groups failed, his guys would win. In all the numerous accounts in this book, the controllers are unstinting in their praise and appreciation of Kraft for his support, which is an antidote to some of the bad press Kraft sometimes gets from those who get their history just from the side of the astronauts (for example, read some of the reviews of Kraft's autobiography "Flight" on this website).
A particularly telling instance of this is Lunney's account of the flight of Apollo 7, which is famous for the "mutiny" that broke out between the Apollo 7 crew of Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele. Lunney took the brunt of this "mutiny" and had to use patience, fortitude and a tightly held tongue in order to preserve for NASA a positive public image during what could have been an ugly public incident. Lunney compares the stalwart leadership of Kraft in maintaining the morale of his crew of controllers to that of Schirra, whose antics ruined the NASA careers of his crew mates Cunningham and Eisele, neither of whom ever got to fly again for NASA.
This book doesn't tell the complete story of mission control. The participants in the book are all drawn from the Flight Dynamics branch, nicknamed "The Trench" because of their position, in the MOCR, in the front row below the other consoles (hence the title of the book) and, besides Lunney, gives the first person accounts of Jerry Bostick, H. David Reed, Chuck Deiterich, Maurice Kennedy, Dutch von Ehrenfried, William Boone, and WIlliam Stoval. All are interesting and a lot of it is new—not necessarily new in the incidents they write about, but often a new, unheard perspective on those events.
If you are interested in the US space program during the days of Mercury (a little bit of info), Gemini (more info) and Apollo (a lot of info), you need to get this book and read it. It may not have the circulation or receive the publicity of books put out by major publishers, but the stories it has to tell are essential knowledge and very entertaining as well. As I've said, I've read a lot of books on the space program, and this one goes automatically to very near the top of my list.