Engineering Rock Stars

Amy is gradually getting better. With that, life begins to get back to the normal routine. We watched a bit of TV Saturday night, and the anniversary of the Challenger disaster meant that the History Channel was running a lot of space-related programming. We watched part of a program we had both seen before about the Russian space program. I set up TiVo to record the next program, which was repeat of one I had somehow managed to miss. It was a 2-hour special based on Gene Kranz’s book Failure Is Not An Option. The special is all about Mission Control at NASA from the beginning of the space program all the way through the Apollo missions. I was riveted.

I have to admit that growing up I was never as captivated by the space program as a lot of my peers. STS-1 launched during my Kindergarten year. The Space and Rocket Center here in Huntsville was the default field trip destination for my schools in northwest Alabama. So, I never really knew a world without seemingly routine space travel. Only now that I’m working as an engineer and have begun learning about the details behind the scenes have I really become truly fascinated.

I think that if you grow up in a world where man landing on the moon is a decades-old history lesson and not a far-fetched dream (and also not a deadly serious race against your decades-old enemy), it’s really hard to get that visceral feeling that my parents must have had when they heard Armstrong’s famous words. Despite the fact that putting people on top of that much thrust is nowhere near routine, it’s hard to feel the amazement that I know the previous generation did.

So, I come by it “sideways”. 🙂  I guess to a large extent I have Tom Hanks to thank. I think Apollo 13 is what really got me interested. I love learning the technical details behind stories like that. By the time I saw the movie, I certainly had enough background to understand a lot of the details in the story. More than that, though, I really started getting interested in the people. I watched the astronauts portrayed with exactly the special brand of unflappable, arrogant self-confidence that you would expect. I marveled at the unbelievable presence and control of Ed HarrisGene Kranz during the mission. More than anything, though, I was fascinated by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the hordes of engineers that solved the problems standing between the astronauts and a safe landing. By the way, I’ve seen a partial interview with Kranz, and he was apparently quite pleased with both the movie in general and Harris’ portrayal of him in particular.

But back to the TV special.  🙂 I had seen these guys portrayed in a movie, but in the special, I actually got to hear them talk. Chris Kraft and Kranz talked about the very beginnings of Mission Control. They expressed what a challenge it was to start from scratch doing something no one (at least outside of the USSR) had ever done before. One of the comments made was that after Kennedy’s “great commission” (so to speak), they knew that they had to hire a horde of engineers. They needed so many that they basically hired a bunch of people sight-unseen right out of college. Some of them became controllers: the guys you saw sitting at the consoles in Mission Control in Apollo 13 giving the flight director “go/no-go” indications. Amy had a really good description for these guys. They really were rock stars of engineering. 🙂

One of the people NASA hired was a would-be cattle rancher and teacher from Oklahoma named John Aaron. (archived copy on During the special, I really latched onto this guy. I think it’s because I wanted to see some of myself in him as I was watching. Aaron ended up becoming one of the flight controllers. Specifically, one of the ones in the position known by the title “EECOM”. Aaron’s job was to make sure the electrical, environmental, and consumables on the spacecraft fulfilled the mission. If you don’t see it coming, he had interesting times ahead.

This is the guy who had to make the decision to shut down the Apollo 13 command module so that it would have enough battery power for reentry. He was the one in charge of figuring out how to power the module back up in exactly the right sequence (and with only exactly the right systems) in order to splash down safely. I say that I want to see some of myself in him, but being honest with myself, I can’t imagine not utterly melting down in that situation. Except, he didn’t. He got it done (along with many many other people), and three astronauts lived because of it.

I think the story I like better, though, is one that’s much less known. Shortly after launch, Apollo 12 was struck by lightning. Twice. Everything went nuts. Mission control lost all telemetry, and on-board the spacecraft so many alarms were going off that Pete Conrad remarked “I don’t know what happened here; we had everything in the world drop out.” To be a bit more exact, there was a massive power failure on-board the spacecraft, and the ground crew had no way to figure it out without the telemetry. Aaron was on EECOM, and everyone expected him to call an abort to the mission.

Except… something like a year earlier, Aaron had become curious about some of the spacecraft systems. Specifically about the systems that monitor the electrical equipment and provide the telemetry. During a simulation, he had seen exactly the same garbled telemetry pattern that he was seeing that day during the Apollo 12 launch. He signaled to the flight director, “Flight, try SCE to aux.” Neither the flight director (known by the short title “CAPCOM“) nor Conrad knew what he was talking about. He had to repeat it a couple of times. Fortunately, Alan Bean (lunar module pilot, I believe) knew the obscure switch that Aaron was talking about and flipped it. They got their telemetry back immediately, were able to fix the power problem, and got the mission back on track. Aaron apparently became somewhat of a legend in Mission Control after that.

Oh, did I mention that John Aaron was only about 24 years old during Apollo 12? I think he was immediately and unanimously declared a “steely-eyed missile man”. 😉

This is the kind of thing that gets me hooked. I won’t call it a dream job, because I’m not at all sure I could handle the pressure, but it’s certainly the raw edge. I’d love to meet John Aaron, but to be honest, I’m not sure what I would say if I did. I would love to hear more of these stories… all the way down to the picky little details.

Rock stars indeed. *nod*

4 replies on “Engineering Rock Stars”

Welcome to the dark side — you’re now officially a “space nerd”. 🙂 I wondered how long it would take you to get here. I think I got my space nerdiness honestly — having a grandfather who worked for Nasa, and hearing space stories my whole childhood. Although you missed out on the most fun part of being a space nerd — sitting upside down on your sofa with your feet sticking over the back, strapped in with belts, and using your daddy’s extra TI-99/4 A consoles to pretend you were piloting the space shuttle — you’ll still enjoy the ride from here on out. 🙂
We’re starting Nelson early with the whole space nerd thing — we did his nursery in space stuff. Ben laughed at me because I was distraught over not being able to make the solar system mural on his wall to scale! 🙂 I just can’t wait to get all my grandfather’s flight patches mounted and framed — so I can show them to Nelson and tell him all the same space stories I heard as a child. 🙂

I know exactly what you mean…I came to space geekdom late myself, just last year, as a matter of fact, when Aaron (my Aaron, not the EECOM!) and I visited Kennedy Space Center. I totally want to be an astronaut when I grow up. Except I get motion sick on simulator rides designed for children. 🙁

i’ve seen the show and “apollo 13″ on the same day except it was a few years ago and i was also instantly hooked by the work and the tense environment that these men were in… i was floored by the sheer amount of detail they have to pay attention to, the seemingly ungodly amount of routine they go through and how they are able to overcome such dangerous odds with their minds… it was that day that i came to fully believing in the saying “mind over matter”… call me cheesy but i was sweating bullets just watching mission control putting their heads together (still trying to figure out how is it that i understood what they were discussing when i never really studied engineering) to save the men stranded up in space in apollo 13… and i agree with you, it’s definitely a job i would love to partake on if i could but i would not be able to handle such intense pressure that comes with it…

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