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 Director Ron Howard in his (1995) movie Apollo 13 and is having a resurgence with a new National Geographic version of “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s (1979) book, The Right Stuff.

saturn rockets with burnt Command Module

I wrote the essay below 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.

Still, 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 as well as the more recent Hidden Figures (2019) about the black women who contributed so much to the engineering and mathematics needed for success in the space race.

Apollo 13 was the third spacecraft scheduled to land 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. The problem became one of returning the astronauts to terra firma before they either froze to death or died of oxygen asphyxiation (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 with all the supplies they knew were expendable in the spacecraft and devised a solution. They configured a way to attach the square canisters to the round openings by using plastic bags, cardboard, tape, etc. Finally, they 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.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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