Roger, Houston

Wednesday 8th August 2012

NASA is celebrating the successful landing of Curiosity on Mars. I didn’t set an alarm clock: half the missions sent to the red planet have failed to phone home, Colin Pillinger’s flying saucer Beagle 2 among them.

It’s a risky business, space travel.

“Okay, Houston… we’ve had a problem here.”

“This is Houston. Say again, please.”

“Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a Main B Bus Undervolt.”

“Roger. Main B Undervolt. Okay, stand by, 13. We’re looking at it.”

When Apollo 13 ran into trouble following an oxygen tank explosion on its way to the Moon, many observers expected the mission to end in fatalities. I certainly did, staying up all night (sleep being relatively irrelevant when at university) anxiously watching Cliff Michelmore, Patrick Moore and others discussing the problems, practicalities, and seemingly impossible rescue plans.

“Whether or not that will work, we just don’t know,” Moore told us, time and again, with candid uncertainty.

It seems remarkable, looking back, that the world was allowed to listen in, to share the drama, to bite its collective nails, as engineers on the ground ran simulations, devised emergency strategies, and relayed sheet after sheet of revised instructions to the crew.

Was risk more acceptable in those days? Did the media concern itself more with reporting facts than seeking to apportion blame? Were people generally more honest? Maybe.

Even after squeezing into the ‘lifeboat’ lunar module, having to construct a makeshift carbon dioxide filter, and spending long hours in temperatures not much above freezing, the astronauts had no way of knowing if the heat-shield had been damaged in the explosion. Nor had the flight controllers.

On re-entry, the communications black-out lasted thirty-three seconds longer than expected: a silence of suffocating tension.

Only when flickering images of the craft, with its three main parachutes deployed, were visible on the screen, did those at mission control in Houston start to applaud.

Copy that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to Roger, Houston

  1. I have to confess to being Utterly Impartial. One of my best friends designed the wheels for curiosity and…you can have as many computer chips as you like; all the scientific knowledge in the world…. without the wheels Curiosity ain’t goin’ nowhere. Mr Steven Park…. I salute you

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