Thursday, 31 July 2008

Journey to the Moon, Eldon C Hall

There are a large number of books about the Apollo programme. There are also many books about specific aspects of the Apollo programme - the missions, the people, the hardware, the science... Eldon C Hall's Journey to the Moon, however, focuses on one very narrow element of NASA's project to put a man on the Moon: the development of the Apollo Guidance Computer.

The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) did exactly what its name suggestions - it controlled the navigation functions of the Apollo spacecraft. There was one in the Command Module, and another in the Lunar Module. Designed and built in the early 1960s, it was one of the first production computers to use integrated circuits. It was developed by MIT Instrument Laboratory, but built by Raytheon.

By modern standards, the AGC was crude and not at all powerful. This hardly surprising - computing was still its late infancy, and integrated circuits were so new they were both unreliable and expensive. Happily, advances in IC manufacture during the AGC's development period improved both these factors. Reliability, of course, was paramount - astronauts could not afford for the AGC to crash or malfunction while en route to the Moon.

As someone who works in information technology, I was expecting Journey to the Moon to be a technical read, perhaps similar to books such as CJ Date's Database in Depth or Andrew Tanenbaum's Operating Systems: Design and Implementation. Computing, however, was a very different field during the 1960s - Journey to the Moon is more electronics engineering than it is computing.

Hall is an engineer by trade, and it shows in his prose. The writing in Journey to the Moon is at best plain, and at worst a bizarre engineering-speak which considers subjects or verbs superfluous. Despite this, the book is still readable - although I will confess that much of the maths was over my head.

Much of Journey to the Moon describes the project management aspects of the AGC's development. The manufacture and specification of its various modules is also described in depth. I found this less interesting than I would have done of, say, its operating system. More information on programming the AGC might well have been given in the appendices, but I'll never know - while the text referred to appendices, the copy of the book I purchased had none.

If you're interested specifically in the AGC, then you'll probably find Journey to the Moon a useful addition to your library. Otherwise, it's probably too arcane for most enthusiasts of Apollo. For those interested in further reading, here are a couple of useful links: Virtual AGC Page, MIT's site on the AGC, AGC schematics.

Journey to the Moon, Eldon C Hall (1996, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, ISBN 1-56347-185-X, 226pp)

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