Saturday, 12 July 2008

Apollo EECOM: Journey of a Lifetime, Sy Liebergot

EECOM means Electrical, Environmental and Communication systems. The flight controller filling this role operates from the Mission Operations Control Room during manned space flights. Sy Liebergot was EECOM for Apollos 8 - 15, and EGIL (Electrical, General Instrumentation and Life support) during the Skylab missions. This book is his autobiography.

Given that Apollo EECOM was published by Apogee Books, most readers of it are going to be interested first and foremost in Liebergot's career with NASA. The book, however, opens with his childhood - and it was not a pleasant one. His father was a small-time crook, and Liebergot and his siblings spent time in foster homes. After a stint in the Army Weather Observers Corps, Liebergot went to work in the aerospace industry in California, before transferring across to NASA.

Liebergot is unflinchingly honest in Apollo EECOM - about himself, his life, his family, and his colleagues. Many of the latter come across as unpleasant individuals, although to be fair Liebergot admits he was no different. Interestingly - and this ties in with comments I made below in my review of Harrison H Schmitt's Return to the Moon - Liebergot mentions one or two people whose careers which were blighted by flight director Chris Kraft. And simply because those people had disagreed with Kraft. Much as been made of Apollo-era NASA's management systems, and how they were crucial in getting a man on the Moon. And yet, from all that I've read, they still appear to follow the "charismatic leader" model. Kraft is a case in point. His authority was absolute. NASA was not a meritocracy - it was based upon the perception of excellence by those in authority. And that perception - as seems clear from Apollo EECOM - was often based upon personality.

Liebergot himself came close to suffering the same fate but, as he appears to be fond of saying (and writes repeatedly throughout Apollo EECOM), he "dodged the bullet".

Another telling incident which demonstrates this occurred during Apollo 10 when a fellow member of Mission Operations Control threatened to violence against Liebergot because he had not been "personally briefed". Yes, different times then- but no matter how competent someone is, that sort of behaviour should be seen as unacceptable.

Apollo EECOM is very good on technical detail and personalities, and there's no doubt Liebergot followed an interesting career. He not only discusses Apollo 13 in depth, but also mentions his peripheral involvement in Ron Howard's film. Unfortunately, Liebergot's writing style leaves much to be desired. While his tone is honest and friendly, the book often seems to be written more like a memo or report - especially its strange tendency throughout to punctuate sections with italicised concluding sentences. For example,

"... What a beautiful sight it was to see the Command Module on the main chutes and then splashing down in view of the recovery carrier. We were all so relieved and so very proud.

For us flight controllers, the mission was a success."

There are no great insights in Apollo EECOM, but despite the clumsy writing it's an entertaining read. Liebergot's role in the Apollo programme means those chapters detailing his career as flight controller are the most interesting to a reader such as myself. He not only describes his job in great detail (and most especially during Apollo 13), but also relates many interesting anecdotes from his time at NASA. There's also a CD-ROM with the book, containing audio of the EECOM loop during Apollos 13 and 15, a Quicktime panorama of Mission Control, and 55-minute video presentation by Liebergot about the Apollo 13 explosion.

Liebergot's honesty - a book like Apollo EECOM could all too easy have become self-aggrandising - outweighs, I think, any deficiencies in his prose. You could do a lot worse if you were interested in reading about life in Mission Control during Apollo.

Apollo EECOM:Journey of a Lifetime, Sy Liebergot, with David M Harland (2003, Apogee Books, ISBN 1-896522-96-3, 199pp + appendices and CD-ROM)

Note: Liebergot has a webpage at

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