I grew up on James Burke‘s books and television series, a taste I inherited from my father. All the way through high school, I had a reputation as a know-it-all, a walking encyclopaedia (who was, at least, a helpful guy). I kept telling people that if they’d watched Connections — and read The Cartoon History of the Universe — my know-it-all-itude would be a great deal less impressive.
I saw James Burke live, once, at an aerospace conference back in 2000. I had to run off and do something else right after his talk, so I didn’t get a chance to have a conversation or even get a book autographed (one more reason I’m glad I was able to say thanks to James Gleick). I do, however, remember a story he told about his days in the BBC, covering the Apollo program.
He was responsible for explaining the scientific motivations for going to the Moon, the motivations which stay valid after you beat the Russians there. As he reports in the Connections book, the British media put more emphasis on this than the Americans did, so British interest remained relatively high during the later missions, when NASA’s TV ratings in the United States were dropping. At the time, the significance of all this was probably less apparent, and Burke was busy enough just trying to translate NASA tech-speak into something people could understand.
Part of this job involved reading through NASA’s manuals for the equipment which would be used on the Moon. These machines were not simple devices, nor were their instructions straightforward. Each manual had to have a full description of possible failure modes, with contingency plans for each eventuality, and all written with such detail that both the astronauts and the Mission Control people could handle all possible malfunctions without going back to the original engineers. The result, Burke said, was something like this: “If X-Y-Zed, then gobbledygook. If X-Y-Zed-Beta, then gobbledygook squared.”
Finally, after a whole page of bullet-pointed technical jargon, came the last contingency plan:
“If all else fails, kick with lunar boot.”
And because this is the multimedia era, here’s a clip from BBC Four, in which James Burke demonstrates how the KC-135 “Vomit Comet” was used for weightless training.