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Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992

Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965–1992 by Rick Houston and Milt Heflin. University of Nebraska Press, 2015, 368 pp.

A mission to the moon is conducted by astronauts—some in zero gravity and some in a one-g control room located southeast of Houston, Texas. Although history best remembers those who escaped Earth’s gravity, the primary focus of Go, Flight! is the mission controllers’ actions, stories, and impact on our nation’s space program. Mr. Houston’s journalism background rings through the celestial narratives re-created in the pages of this history book that spans the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) projects from Gemini to the space shuttle. Credit for the incredibly accurate technical detail goes to Mr. Heflin, who, as a former NASA flight director, lived through most of the covered events firsthand. Through first-person recollections and interviews with the former mission controllers, the authors have developed a masterful narrative history of American manned spaceflight.

Houston and Heflin begin their tale at the creation of the Manned Space Center, the penultimate name of what is today known as the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Readers learn that NASA did not attract top-tier talent from universities like MIT and Stanford in favor of “not quite as brilliant . . . team players” from bigger state schools (p. 49). In spite of that limitation, legends like flight director Gene Kranz and electrical engineer John Aaron were born after successes like the lunar landing and Apollo 13’s safe recovery. The authors cover the eclectic mix of controllers after explaining what the many stations in the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) were designed for. Several operators are developed more fully than others, giving the book a movie-like quality of having stars and supporting actors. Where interviews were insufficient, quotations from books by a controller-turned-author, data from voice recordings, and photos of genuine NASA checklists offer a more real-life, behind-the-scenes perspective than an amateur science reader could have hoped for. The concentration on the astronauts in the MOCR sometimes leaves the reader wondering what was happening in the spacecraft—similar to how the controllers must have felt. This writing style makes the book quite suspenseful during dramatic retellings of the momentous spaceflights.

Go, Flight! supplies more perspective in the pages covering historical flights—such as Ed White’s Gemini spacewalk, the ill-fated Apollo 1, Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11, and the nationally unifying Apollo 13—than those on less salient stellar sojourns. This practice is especially true with the treatment of the shuttle program, which, aside from the 1986 Challenger tragedy, seems almost an afterthought during the fewer than 50 pages dedicated to the post-Apollo era. The book easily could have ended up twice as long had chapters been divided more equitably, so perhaps this was by design since the pace of the book seems to mirror the American people’s interest in manned spaceflight: national pride ebbed and flowed with the heroism that certain NASA missions demonstrated. A reader hoping for an all-inclusive anthology of data from the missions in between will be disappointed, but one searching for a new view of history’s famous spaceflights will be handsomely rewarded.

Someone who picks up Go, Flight! having never followed NASA missions is likely to struggle to grasp the magnitude of some background details spilled in this extensively researched text. Although it reads conversationally, the depth of information assumes that the reader has a baseline knowledge of American space exploration. That technique does not detract from the book, but it tailors the audience to more scientifically educated readers. Perhaps the best quality of Go, Flight! is that it offers no political or prophetic message, just an entertaining retelling of history. Messrs. Houston and Heflin accomplish exactly what they set out to do: provide background stories of MOCR operators during NASA’s heyday. Anyone who fits that description or wonders exactly how Gene Kranz came up with his “failure is not an option” line from the film Apollo 13 should dive into this highly educating summary of spaceflight.

Capt James Maday, USAF
Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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