13 Minutes to the Moon

In an excellent combination of my personal history and passion for space exploration as well as my Anglophile travel leanings, my dear friend John sent me a link to a BBC audio podcast that he had been enjoying.  “13 Minutes to the Moon” was originally focused on the final 13 minutes of the Apollo 11 descent to the lunar surface.  More on that in a minute, but based on how excellent the Apollo 11 podcasts were, they were signed up for a second season to cover the Apollo 13 mission in some details as well.  

Most episodic podcasts follow a fairly formulaic role, teasing large topics “coming soon” and then never delivering until the end – stringing along listeners to keep them coming back.  This series did an outstanding job of focusing on a very specific aspect of the major season’s topic and pretty much wrapping it up in each 40-45 minute offering.

Oh … did I mention the theme music was written by Hans Zimmer?  It’s brilliant – listen for yourself.

Direct links to each season are below:

A more-than-pleasant surprise

I’ll be bluntly honest in that I didn’t expect much when I started — part of that was because after John sent me the link, I first looked at the “Decode Mission Control” segment and immediately spotted a few technical flaws that, while irrelevant to most people, raised an eyebrow.  Then, when I started listening to the first segment and repeatedly heard the narrators pronounce Gene Kranz’s last name as “Krantz” … well I was almost ready to bail out.  I am VERY VERY happy, though, that I kept listening, because I was proven wrong (even though I still cringed every time they said “Krantz”). 

Their attention to detail and breaking of that previously mentioned annoying podcast formula of never really telling you the “BIG THING” they said was about to be discussed.  This team (Kevin Fong, Andrew Luck-Baker, and the rest of the production crew) end up telling very tightly-written and well-paced episodes that give an excellent recap of the “final 13 minutes” of the Apollo 11 landing while touching on VERY specific space-geek-loving details! 

Yes, we all know about the “1202 alarm” and yes we know about the “we’re go on that”, but it was excellent to hear the actual Mission Control voice loops and the actual Flight Controller’s words and pitch of everything going on around them at the time.  Hearing a recount of the MCC team later in life as they reflected during some of the JSC Oral History project and blending that with the real-time recordings was excellently done.

Season 1 Episode 2 jumped RIGHT into that.  Titled “Kids in Control”, it focused on the “unsung heroes” of Mission Control who really were that young and who were really that responsible for the success or failure of most spaceflight missions.  It was recently that another documentary “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo” was able to take a similar concept and showcase a few MCC Flight Controllers (some replicated in this podcast series) talking about the program as a whole.   I talked about that documentary at length here.

Season 1 didn’t only focus on the “13 minutes”.  It gave great discussion to the computer system that flew onboard Apollo – primitive technology by today’s standards, but incredibly robust and cutting-edge for the day.  The challenges they faced and subsequently overcome drove spinoffs into the private industry that would have taken much much longer to come about organically without the need of the Apollo program.  I was also a huge fan of the focus on Michael Collins … sometimes Apollo 11’s “forgotten” crew member by most pedestrian examinations of the mission.  This podcast gave him tremendous attention and allowed his own words to speak – rather than trying to fluff them up with some over-dramatic interpretations or reshaping of historical fact.

A delicate balance

That’s actually worth mentioning, too.  Fong and Luck-Baker, as co-writers, do an excellent job of balancing the narration of events and letting the actual participants tell the story themselves… whether by present-day recollections or by a great use of nicely cleaned-up mission audio.  Speaking of – that mission audio included some incredible MCC voice loop traffic that brought back such great memories.  Most people … and I’d hazard to guess that almost EVERYONE except those of us who ever actually worked within the MCC … had never heard some of these detailed front room/back room conversations.  Remember, for every Flight Controller you saw in the MCC – there were many dozens behind the scenes who worked every bit as hard and every bit as importantly as those of us in the front room.  We were an amazing team, and those guys deserve tons of credit, too!

Season 2 continued this successful formula into the telling of the events across the entire Apollo 13 mission.  While the movie is still one of the benchmark retellings of this story, Season 2 did another great job of bringing to life an audio reflection of the “other” landmark Apollo 13 missions that are most well-known to the general public.

Speaking of which … Season 2 Episode 4 gave some excellent airtime to discussion of my former MCC home, The Trench.  It was an excellent focus on a group of the guys who formed the core of the team that saved Apollo 13.  Yes, it was a team effort involving power, procedures, safety … but without a clear trajectory plan to get them back, safely, timely, and in the narrowest of margins with a spacecraft flying in a configuration never before imagined … it really was a “Demanding Situation” that resulted in the successful outcome for what could have been a disaster.

I could go on and on, but I think my point’s been made here … while I may have initially thought that I wasn’t going to enjoy this, I could not have been more wrong.  I hope you take the time and add this to your podcast listening schedule.

Go. Listen. You won't be disappointed.

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1 Comment

  1. Jack Robertson

    Wow! I will make sure to listen to this!


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