Thirteen: The Apollo Flight that Failed by Henry SF Cooper

Houston, we have a problem…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

thirteenOn April 13, 1970, two bare wires created an electrical current that caused an oxygen tank to explode. Bad enough if this were to happen on Earth, but much worse when it happens on a small spacecraft hurtling towards the Moon. This is the story of what went wrong on Apollo 13 and how the flight controllers and astronauts managed to bring the badly damaged craft home.

Cooper’s writing style is plain but clear. He has had access to most of the people involved in the mission and gives an enthralling picture of these men retaining their professionalism under extreme stress, working as the ultimate team to bring their colleagues home. He gives a minute-by-minute account of the immediate aftermath of the explosion, when neither the astronauts nor mission control knew what had happened or how severe the damage might have been. At that stage, the thought was still that the planned moon landing might be possible, but as various systems began to fail, it became clear that the task would be to ensure the survival of the crew. Cooper shows the seat-of-the-pants planning that made this possible, as the scientists and engineers in mission control scrambled around inventing previously unthought-of solutions, using computer equipment that seems laughably inadequate to our modern eyes.

Apollo 13 Launch
Apollo 13 Launch

Meantime, he also shows us the astronauts becoming increasingly exhausted as the flight continued, and suffering dehydration as they rationed their drinking water to dangerous levels. We see the crew gradually finding it more and more difficult to carry out the instructions coming from mission control, with mistakes creeping in both in space and on the ground as the crisis went on. But Cooper also shows the patience and commitment of each team member, battling to find ways to overcome each new problem as it arose.

Cooper explains how the accident came about – that as the moon flights proceeded a certain level of over-confidence had crept in, meaning that pre-flight checks and simulations hadn’t been carried out quite as thoroughly as they perhaps should have been. And we are shown how the fickle public, already bored with moon landings, suddenly tuned back in in droves when the flight went wrong.

Gene Kranz, Flight Director
Gene Kranz, Flight Director

The over-whelming feeling that I got from the book was one of intense admiration, not just for the courage of the astronauts, thousand of miles away in a tiny inadequate-seeming craft, but for the mission controllers, truly like heroes from sci-fi, coming up with ideas and workarounds of which Geordie La Forge himself would have been proud. We all know the outcome, but I still found I was holding my breath as the crew plunged towards earth’s atmosphere with no-one knowing whether the heat-shield would hold.

There’s a lot of fairly basic science in the book, which Cooper explains simply enough for anyone to grasp. I’ve seen a couple of reviews criticising some aspects of the science – mainly misuse of terminology – but I wasn’t aware of that while reading, and don’t feel it was anything particularly significant. I thought Cooper got the balance just about right between the technical and the human in the telling of the story, and the shortish book contains no unnecessary padding. An informative and exciting read – recommended.

The crew - Fred Haise, Capt James Lovell and John Swigert
Fred Haise, Capt James Lovell and John Swigert

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

34 thoughts on “Thirteen: The Apollo Flight that Failed by Henry SF Cooper

  1. FictionFan – I couldn’t possibly agree more about the courage and heroism of all of those involved in bringing Apollo 13 safely home. It was truly a time when people were holding their breaths, hoping for the best and fearing the worst. Glad to hear that Cooper has told the story well. Just goes to show you that there is plenty of tension and suspense to be found in real life…

    • Indeed! Reading it so soon after reading ‘The Martian’, I couldn’t help but draw parallels – the real life story was at least as dramatic and tense as the fictional one. And even though I knew how it ended, Cooper was still able to convey the suspense…

  2. It was one of the times it seemed the entire country was watching and waiting together. Those moments are few and far between these days, save unspeakable tragedies like 9/11. This sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Adding to my list. My endless list, lol.

  3. Nice review, FEF. I’m so interested by this story. It’s amazing, I think, they were able to bring the spacecraft back. I would have been so nervous! I would have probably died.

    I think we should try to land on the sun. That would interest everyone again.

    • No, you’d have been heroic! Especially if you’d read The Martian and could use all his survival tips…

      *chuckling* OK – you go first and once you come back, I’ll go…

        • You’d probably have done something more exciting than just returning to Earth – if they’d used their initiative they could have gone off and battled a few aliens first. Don’t bang your head – that’s the tree’s job!

          *shocked* Thank goodness I’m only a lady sometimes, then!

            • Well, if I’m not allowed to come on your mission, I’ll set up a ladies-only mission of my own, and challenge you to see who can kill most aliens…

            • *laughing* Only if the aliens looked more like horses than men… (I’m getting the distinct impression my C-W-W wishes FF had never watched the dadblamed film… *winks naughtily*)

            • You should have been! But if you’d laughed at FF sobbing when Little Blackie died, then I’d have set Tuppence on you…

              (You could take Amelia to see a really romantic, weepie film and laugh all the way through it…that would work!)

            • Blubbed like a baby, I fear. It doesn’t take a lot to make FF cry, you know, and murdering a horse is one certain way…Value cannot always be measured by cost (Ooh, I just sounded like Shnoddy there – how scary!)

              (Yes, because you don’t really want to lose her…)

            • Well, I have a friend who doesn’t like that part at all. In the new one, it’s even worse. And she was really upset, too. I can’t remember the scene, to be honest. You do sound like Shnoddy! And it’s really okay to cry. Really. It is.

              ( *laughing* That’s wicked!)

            • It probably wouldn’t bother me quite so much in the new one oddly, because there are all the rules to stop them being actually cruel to animals now – so you know it’s all trickery. But back in the bad old days, you could never be sure. That’s why the dead people don’t bother me – you know it’s not for real. Still probably wouldn’t watch the new one though…

    • I know! A short book! It should really get an extra star just for that! I think you’ll enjoy it…and I’m rubbish at knowing what’s suitable for particular age groups, but it might be one that would appeal to your son too – I don’t think the science was too horrendous and there’s lots of danger and excitement.

  4. I read this when it first came out and have read many other books about the space programme since, especially Apollo 13, and I remember this as one of the best. Great review- perhaps this and other reissues will interest young people in space again.

    • Thanks! Yes, it was a good, easy read, this one – with the science and technical stuff explained nice and simply. Mind you, since the whole thing seemed to be held together with string and chewing gum, I don’t suppose there was much to be technical about! Hopefully if they get around to a manned flight to Mars sometime soon interest will pick up again…or make a new series of Star Trek.

    • Thanks! I certainly found it interesting and not too heavy as these sciency books can sometimes be – if you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂

  5. A very interesting period in the time of the Apollo missions. Strangely, I don’t remember anything about the mission from my childhood though I do remember Apollo 11 mission and discussing it with a friend, James Campbell. Good to know the film was accurate especially as I think it was based on a book by Jim Lovell. I loved the scene where guys at Houston walked into a room with all the items that the Astronauts had available and had to try and design something to help save the mission. An incredible group of people.

    • That’s funny – I’m exactly the same. I remember Apollo 11 vividly, but nothing about Apollo13. In fact the first time I saw the film I actually didn’t know how it turned out – whether they got home safe or not. So I got the full force of the tension…

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