As the world’s first all-civilian mission orbits Earth this week, it’s hard not to stop and think about precisely what went on behind the scenes to make this and other milestones in space possible. Many of us have witnessed the US space program’s jaw-dropping achievements, but America’s manned space program has also dodged a few bullets over the years.
Many close calls in space never received widespread news coverage, including one rather amusing firsthand account that involves America’s favorite caffeinated beverage.
Seymour “Sy” Liebergot is a retired NASA flight controller who served during the Apollo program, and his role was famously portrayed in the movie Apollo 13 by director Ron Howard’s brother, Clint Howard. Liebergot was in charge of Environmental Control and Life Support Systems, known in space program lingo as EECOM. In that role, he was responsible for the electrical and environmental systems onboard the Apollo command module.
In 1970, Liebergot was part of the team that guided Apollo 13 home following an explosion that crippled the spacecraft while it was en route to the moon. He is considered by many NASA insiders to be the most famous EECOM of his generation. His book, Apollo EECOM: Journey of a Lifetime, offers a behind-the-scenes look at life as a NASA flight controller during the golden era of the moonshots.
Liebergot’s book introduces astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who flew on Apollo 17, the final manned moon mission. The first scientist to walk on the lunar surface, Schmitt collected evidence of volcanic activity there. While there was a clear divide between the Apollo astronauts, who were the poster boys of that golden era, and the flight controllers behind the scenes, Schmitt, a geologist who was known as Dr. Rock, was the exception. He spent more time in Mission Control than any other astronaut did.
“He seemed determined to learn everything he could about the people and workings of Building 30,” Liebergot explains in his book. “He visited with the technicians and flight controllers, staying long enough on two occasions to accidentally spill coffee into the electronics of backroom consoles, shorting them out.”
According to the Apollo 17 lunar surface journal, through a series of blunders, Schmitt was responsible for spilling “about 3 or 4 cups of coffee” on an array of sensitive flight control consoles at Mission Control in Houston during the Apollo 16 mission.
“In about 30 seconds, Dr. Rock had started a chain reaction which just about wiped out the [spacecraft analysis] room,” the NASA account states. Known as SPAN, the spacecraft analysis room was a part of Mission Control that collected real-time information from the spacecraft during missions.
Recounting Schmitt’s coffee spill, the Apollo 17 journal continues: “We spent the next couple of hours cleaning up. During the Apollo 17 mission, we (SPAN) had the CapCom tell Jack Schmitt that the guys in SPAN wanted him to know that it was very peaceful in the SPAN, no spilled coffee, and that we were glad he was on the Moon.”
Coffee or Die Magazine spoke on the phone to Liebergot, who was at his home in Houston, to get a firsthand account of the coffee-spill incident. The 10-minute conversation with the former flight controller, now well into his 80s, was informative and amusing. Even over the phone, Liebergot’s enduring pride in Apollo was clear.
As we continue to push the envelope in space in both the commercial and government sectors, it’s important to remember how far we’ve come as a nation and the countless sacrifices of the men and women such as Liebergot who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make space travel possible.