“We may not be good, but we can sure claim to be colorful.”

17 January 2011
Categories: Space exploration

This is pretty cool: Spacelog.org, a site that cleans up NASA mission transcripts and puts them in a tidy, readable, searchable, navigable, tweet-like format.

So far, Apollo 13 and John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury flight are available, and the historically imperative (but textbook-dry) Apollo 11 transcript was posted just yesterday. Apollo 8 and Gemini 7 are in work. That’s a good start, I suppose. I’m hopeful that the site gets more traction with regard to its crowdsourcing, because there are plenty of other missions to cover. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

There are some cool bits to the interface. Little photo avatars alongside each entry make it much easier to note who’s speaking at any moment, unlike the non-intuitive CDR – CMP – LMP – CC (etc.) notations in the original transcripts. To my mind, the best addition to the original data is the red vertical bar that sometimes appears down the right-hand side for “Key Moments.” For those not familiar with NASA technojargon and the normal order of events in an Apollo mission, this is a great way to highlight the important points.

In my opinion, the site ought to take that notation one step further, by having the main index page for each mission include a list that links to each of the key moments. Because after all, what we really want in the Apollo 13 transcript is to jump to that moment on April 13, 1970 when CAPCOM Jack Lousma asks the crew to give the cryo tanks a stir.

Let’s be honest, though: the thing about the Apollo 13 transcript is that it’s basically that one famous line—the one that’s now so ubiquitous that it’s the go-to cliché for any moment of crisis, no matter how mundane—followed by page after page of dense technojargon as the crew read off all the things going wrong aboard the spacecraft while CAPCOM sends up various attempts at making it right. Yes, it’s a life-threatening situation, but it’s a cold read. You’re much better off watching the Ron Howard movie, which gets most of the facts correct while bringing the drama of the moment to life with tense immediacy.

You know what’s a much more fun read? The Apollo 12 transcript.

First off, you have an amazing crew. Not just a crew, a team: CDR Pete Conrad and CMP Dick Gordon flew together on Gemini 11—which still holds the manned spaceflight record for Earth-orbit apogee—and were as inseparable as best friends or bosom buddies. They brought LMP Alan Bean under their combined wing and the trio worked together with genuine mutual respect and an air of warm bonhomie. (They were such amigos that they bought matching gold Corvettes, for chrissakes.) They often called each other by their full names, which has a certain cheery goofiness to it since aboard a three-man spacecraft there’s not going to be any doubt about which Pete, Dick, or Al is meant:

Conrad: Al Bean?
Bean: Yes?
Conrad: Go help Dick Gordon; I don’t know where the Sun’s going to be or what’s going to happen, but…
Bean: That’s a smart idea, Pete Conrad.

Then there’s the launch. As it ascended atop its mighty Saturn V rocket, Apollo 12 was struck twice by lightning within the first minute of flight. This caused a momentary electrical overload and set off a cascade of system warnings that brought the mission closer to an in-flight launch abort than any up to that point in the American space program, and perhaps since.

So what you have is a Page 1 that begins with “Ignition – 3 – 2 – 1 – 0 – Liftoff”—and ends with Dick Gordon saying, “What the hell was that?”

The next several pages are amazing to read. The crew holds it together, communicating problems with never a hint of panic; CAPCOM sends up the rabbit-out-of-a-hat call of “SCE to AUX” that saves their bacon; and everyone’s levelheaded enough not to perform any system resets in the midst of the controlled train wreck of staging. Pete Conrad is the first to suggest what later was determined to be the case: “I’m not sure we didn’t get hit by lightning.”

And then—at just over three minutes into the flight, with the S-II second stage roaring at full throttle beneath them and with mission success still a distant uncertainty—the laughter and joking begins. Conrad starts it off with “I suggest we do a little more all-weather testing,” and soon they’re all cracking up about how every warning light on the panel had seemed to turn on at once:

Conrad: Wasn’t that a sim[ulation] they ever gave us?
Gordon: Jesus!
Conrad: [Laughter]
Gordon: That was something else. I never saw so many —
Conrad: [Laughter]
Gordon: There were so many lights up there, I couldn’t even read them all.
Conrad: [Laughter]
Gordon: There was no sense reading them because there was—I was—I was looking at this; Al was looking over there —
Conrad: Everything looked great [laughter] except we had all the lights on!

Episode seven of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon captured much of this pretty well. In fact, some of its very best lines are taken verbatim from reality:

Conrad: Al Bean, you’re on your way to the Moon.
Bean: Yes, you all can come along if you like.

What comes across most in the transcript—and much more so than any other Apollo mission—is that these guys are having the time of their lives. Pete Conrad sums up that attitude as he leaps from the bottom rung of the Lunar Module’s ladder: “Whoopie!”

It’s a lot of fun to read in its entirety—or at least as entire as the NASA transcripts get, because they’re rife with the maddening notation “TIME SKIP” which is shorthand for “too bad if you wanted to follow the remainder of this discussion, because several minutes or hours have been omitted without explanation.” It’s also strictly PG-13 for language, if you’re the type that’s offended by adult humans using adult words in stressful, adult situations.

Here’s hoping that the Apollo 12 transcript comes up soon in the Spacelog.org agenda. Until then, Johnson Space Center has transcripts in the old, inaccurately OCR’ed, slightly illegible, transferred from photocopies, portable document format.

Title quotation from Alan Bean, 03:19:11:13 MET. It is of course a self-deprecating joke: they were colorful all right, but they were also very, very good.

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