Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Apollo 13: The Write Stuff

Posted on | January 27, 2013 | No Comments

I recently had the chance to visit the Johnson Space Center near Houston, Texas with my family. I couldn’t help remember those famous words, “Houston, we have a problem” as I toured the facility. Uttered when the crew of Apollo 13 discovered “a main B bus undervolt”, indicating a loss of power from their fuel cells and an associated gas leak. These technical failures changed the spacecraft’s mission from exploration to survival. Their plight was cinematized by Ron Howard in his (1995) movie Apollo 13.

saturn rockets with burnt Command Module

I wrote the essay below at the time to point attention to the new literacies and simulation techniques created and enhanced by NASA programs to guide and test the space vehicles on their historic journeys. The cybernetic process of guiding a spacecraft to the Moon is exemplified by some clever F/X and acting in this movie, but more than that it tells the story of a certain break with “reality” and a new trust in the techniques and instrumentalities of hyperreal simulation.

Apollo 13 was the third spacecraft scheduled to put humans on our orbiting Moon. Shortly after its liftoff on April 11, 1970, one of its oxygen tanks ruptured and destroyed several fuel cells and caused a small leak in the other main oxygen tank. Immediately NASA knew the mission was no longer landing on the Moon, but a desperate attempt to return safely to Earth. The problem became one of returning the astronauts to terra firma before they either froze to dead or died of oxygen deprecation (or CO2 poisoning); not to mention the problems associated with navigating back with barely any electrical energy left to run the computer or even the radio.

Unlike the macho heroics of The Right Stuff (1979) based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, Apollo 13 celebrated not just the obvious bravery of the endeavor, but a new type of technical/scientific literacy. The “ground controllers” in Houston had to recalibrate the mission trajectories and develop a new set of procedures to be tested and written for the crew in space. These were done largely using the multimillion dollar simulators that the astronauts had trained in before the actual launch.

A fascinating example was when the ground crew developed the procedures for using some additional lithium hydroxide canisters for taking the CO2 out of the air. The astronauts were faced with a very real problem of being poisoned by their own exhalations when the square carbon dioxide tubing from the Command Module was not compatible with the round openings in the Lunar Module environmental system (they had been forced to move to the Lunar Module when the explosion in the Command Module occurred). A group of the Ground Crew got together around a table with all the supplies they knew were expendable in the spacecraft and devised a way to attach the square canisters to the round openings by using plastic bags, cardboard, tape, etc. and wrote up the procedures which were transmitted to the crew just in time to avoid asphyxiation.

The movie is a very interesting historical representation of the use of systems and written procedures within an organization. To some extent the Moon landings provided the triumphant background narrative for the new developments in computers and simulation. Their successes provided the aura of certainty needed for a whole host of new technological investments from CAD/CAM 3-D production, pilot-less drone warfare, space-based remote sensing and mapping, and the Bloomberg/Reuters worldwide system of electronic financial markets.




Anthony J. Pennings, PhD recently joined the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin TX, after ten years on the faculty of New York University.


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    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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