Saturday, August 02, 2008

Futility (Part 2)

Blogging time continues to be consumed by forces beyond my control. Ergo, instead of the thoughtful explication of the differences between drama and reality as evidenced by a comparative reading of Marooned and Lost Moon that I had planned for today, I instead present this outstanding example of proto-geek humor, as found in Lost Moon, chapter 12.

The date is Thursday, April 16, 1970. Apollo 13 has successful rounded the moon and is headed back towards Earth, with a projected splashdown on noon, Friday. But they've lost pressurization in the LEM descent engine fuel tanks — the LEM's main engine will never fire again — which rules out the possibility of any further major course corrections, and the ship's trajectory is inexplicably drifting away from the proper re-entry angle. Too shallow, and the command module will skip off the Earth's atmosphere like a rock on a pond and never come down again; too steep, and it will not so much land as impact.

With only tense hours to go before the moment of truth, what is happening in the lunar module control room at the Grumman Aerospace plant in Bethpage, Maryland? Is anybody getting drunk while despairing at a solution? Arguing over a romantic relationship? Threatening to kill himself if the ship crashes?

Not exactly...
The laughter started at one end of the lunar module control room at the Grumman plant in Bethpage and gradually spread to the other. Tom Kelly, who had been wedded to his console in a corner of the room since he and Howard Wright had flown down from Boston in the early hours of Tuesday morning, had not heard much merriment in the three days he had been here, and he didn't have a clue as to what this outburst was about. Several consoles away, he noticed that a thin sheet of yellow paper was being passed from controller to controller, each of whom looked it over and emitted a loud bark of laughter.

Kelly waited for the paper to arrive at his station. Scanning, the sheet, he recognized it immediately, and with a mixture of surprise and amusement, read on.

The thin yellow sheet Kelly had been passed was a copy of an invoice that Grumman would send to another company when Grumman supplied it a part or service. In this case, the company being billed was North American Rockwell, the manufacturer of the command module Odyssey.

On the first line of the form, underneath the column headed "Description of Services Provided," someone had typed: "Towing, $4.00 first mile, $1.00 each additional mile. Total charge, $400,001.00." On the second line, the entry read: "Battery charge, road call. Customer's jumper cables. Total, $4.05." The entry on the third line: "Oxygen at $10.00/lb. Total, $500.00." The fourth line said: "Sleeping accommodations for 2, no TV, air conditioned, with radio. Modified American Plan with view. Prepaid. (Additional guest in room at $8.00/night."

The subsequent lines included incidental charges for water, baggage handling, and gratuities, all of which, after a 20 percent government discount, came to $312,421.24.

Kelly looked at the controller who had handed him the form, then looked back at the paper and smiled, despite himself. The men at Grumman would love to send this out, and the men at Rockwell would hate to receive it. For that reason, as much as any other, Kelly guessed that someone was actually going to put this thing in an envelope and mail it to Downey, California...