Rick Houston talks “Go Flight!” in exclusive Insider interview
SpaceFlight Insider has reviewed a few of the Outward Odyssey series produced by the University of Nebraska Press. Each volume has been amazing reviews of the pivotal and historic aspects of space exploration. One of the series’ latest, Go Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992, is no exception, an emotional, personal read, this book is a fine addition to a series that has raised the bar in terms of books covering space exploration efforts.
Rick Houston, who has already drafted one book under the Outward Odyssey series, Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program, provided SpaceFlight Insider with an exclusive interview about why the book was produced – and some of the dynamics behind its development.
SpaceFlight Insider: What was the impetus behind this book?
Houston: “I was in Houston in June of 2012 for a series of interviews with four-time Space Shuttle astronaut David Hilmers, which eventually became the book, Man on a Mission: The David Hilmers Story. While in town, my friend Milt Heflin took me on a tour of JSC. We visited the robotics lab, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and a handful of other locations on site there.
“It was a great tour, obviously, but then he walked me into the historic third-floor MOCR. As soon as I entered, I was hit with this overwhelming sense of history and the things that had happened there. Think about it. When Neil Armstrong said, ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,’ and then later, ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ he was talking to this room. When the crew of Apollo 13 announced that they’d had a problem, they were talking to this room.
“Within moments, I literally had tears in my eyes. I’m just a writer. I didn’t feel anywhere near worthy to be standing on ground that I truly do consider to be hallowed. It was in that moment that I knew I wanted to do something to honor the people who had worked in and around this room. However, if I’d actually written a book for every idea I’d ever had, they’d fill three bookstores […] and then some.
“However, maybe a couple of weeks later, I got an e-mail from Colin Burgess, the series editor for Outward Odyssey for University of Nebraska Press. He said that the publisher wanted to extend the series and asked if I had any ideas. Well […] Colin […] it’s funny you should mention that! It wasn’t necessarily the easiest process I’ve ever had in landing a book contract, but it was right up there.”
SpaceFlight Insider: What was the hardest part of its production?
Houston: “Honestly, the hardest part was figuring out who was where and when – in other words, who worked what phases of a particular flight. Who was the Control officer during the Apollo 14 landing sequence? Who was the Booster 1 for the unmanned test flight of Apollo 6. Everybody remembered his nickname, but not his actual name. Members of the Trench were the only ones who’d written anything down for history’s sake […] the only other ‘schedule’ I saw was a hand-written one some of the systems guys had for one of the lunar missions.”
SpaceFlight Insider: How helpful were the members of Mission Control/NASA in its production?
Houston: “That was one of the true joys of researching and writing this book. With very, very few exceptions, every single person I interviewed was more than willing to go above and beyond in answering questions during the interview and then in follow-up e-mails and phone calls. I had more than one person type out lengthy descriptions of their careers, without even being asked to do so. At least one man who was well into his eighties went crawling through his attic looking for an old flight plan. Several kept right on talking after I’d asked the last question of an interview, remembering the good ol’ days.
“I hate to single anyone out, but other than Milt, Jerry Bostick, and Dave Reed were probably the two most helpful. Jerry read every word of the book at several points in the process and made incredibly helpful comments throughout. He didn’t just pat me on the head and tell me what a wonderful job I was doing. If I had something wrong, he let me know about it […] and I appreciated that more than he could ever know.
“And Dave? Goodness […] Dave is the most detail-oriented person I’ve ever encountered. Read the account of how he determined who actually said, ‘Is Dave Reed smiling?’ in the book and you’ll BEGIN to get an idea of what Dave is like. He also challenged me early on to get behind the veil of how things were actually done in mission control, and not being anything even close to resembling an engineer, that was completely intimidating. But […] he’s said we’ve done a good job on the book, so something I did must’ve worked!
“As for my co-author, Milt Heflin, he is one of the best mentors I’ve ever had. I’m sure there were times when he probably got frustrated with my silly questions, but he never once showed it […] other than the time I got an e-mail that said ‘FIX IT!!!’ in like 100-point type. You know what? I fixed it. Milt was a flight director, so he had an insight into the way things were done that I would NEVER have been able to capture without his input. Like Jerry, when I got something wrong, Milt let me know about it. I’m glad he did.
“One Milt story […] and there are many. I wound up in the emergency room after completing a half marathon last year, and when my wife texted him to let him know what was going on, I think Milt was scared to death that he was going to have to finish the book on his own after I kicked the bucket. Luckily for Milt […] I survived!”
SpaceFlight Insider: What was one of the more surprising things you discovered while working to publish this book?
Houston: “Two things, actually. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise, but my appreciation for what these guys accomplished was deepened by working on this book. President Kennedy gave them a goal and a deadline. Rather than tweet up a storm and go on CNN or Fox News to talk incessantly about its impossibility, these people poured in from all over the country to work on an engineering problem that far surpassed any other in history.
“The majority of the technology to land a man on the Moon did not exist. The procedures didn’t exist. There were no textbooks on what it took to work in mission control […] these guys wrote the rulebook themselves. What I found most extraordinary was that they would evidently have these knock-down, drag-out discussions over mission rules, but once a mission was actually under way, all those disagreements were over. The decisions had already been made.
“Yes […] there were egos – and big ones at that. But ego took a backseat to accomplishing the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. That’s probably the biggest lesson we could learn from those who worked in and around the MOCR during that era.
“Other than that, the biggest surprise was probably Ed Fendell. Ed has just a two-year junior college associate’s degree […] in merchandising! That he would one day be in charge of all things having to do with Apollo communications is an absolutely extraordinary story. He was probably my favorite interview […] because he is, to put it mildly, quite the colorful character. He’s going to tell it like it is, no holds barred. I liked that immensely.”
SpaceFlight Insider: What do you think your next project will be?
Houston: “Stay tuned! With that, I got to run, I’ll touch base with you later.”
Rick Houston is a journalist with twenty years of experience and a special interest in spaceflight history. He is the author of Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program, 1986–2011 (Nebraska, 2013) and Second to None: The History of the NASCAR Busch Series. Milt Heflin worked for NASA for nearly half a century, including on the prime recovery ships during splashdown and post-landing activities for Apollo 8, Apollo 10, Apollo 16, Apollo 17, each of the three Skylab flights, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. He later became a flight director who led the mission control team during the flight of STS-61, widely considered one of the most important missions of the entire thirty-year Space Shuttle program. At the time of his retirement, he served as associate director (technical) at Johnson Space Center. John Aaron is a legendary former flight controller widely credited with saving the Apollo 12 flight and playing an instrumental role in the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew. (Courtesy of Rick Houston / UNP)
Go Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992 – it is an exceptional read. It is slated to be released next month (December 2015), just in time to give the space enthusiast in your family a copy for Christmas. The book, at 376 pages and containing some 26 photographs, is highly enjoyable and very easy to read. It can be purchased for roughly $36.95 from online outlets and bookstores.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.