#BookReview – In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969

#BookReview – In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969

By Dr Brian Laslie

Francis French and Colin Burgess, In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. References. Pbk. 435 pp.


One great thing about making a mistake is that you sometimes discover an entirely unexplored avenue for examination. We recently posted our space reading list. After publication, I discovered I had inadvertently left out an entire series of books devoted to space exploration. This was the University of Nebraska Press’ series ‘Outward Odyssey:  A People’s History of Spaceflight.’ You can check out all of their titles here.

To that end, herein lies a book review, but also an overview of Nebraska Press’s ‘Outward Odyssey’ series. The overall series:

[p]rovides a popular history of spaceflight from the rocket scientists of the 1930s to today, focusing on the lives of astronauts, cosmonauts, technicians, scientists, and their families. These books place equal emphasis on the Soviets and the Americans and give priority to people over technology and nationalism.

Thus far every book in this series I have had the pleasure of reading is clear and accessible. Those who have studied space exploration for years and those approaching the topic for the first time will find much in these pages. While I believe academic presses are sometimes viewed as the publishing houses where academics publish their ‘esoteric’ studies, nothing could be further from the truth, especially concerning the ‘Outward Odyssey’ series. The entire assemblage of books is well worth your time and, as a collection, some of the best works written on spaceflight. Included in this series is one of my personal favourite of all astronaut biographies: Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele. These works also include exploration of space history not commonly covered including Skylab and the creation of the Payload Specialist Program for the Space Shuttle. Of the 19 books in the series, three merits special attention: Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965 (2007); In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969 (2007); Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975 (2010). Today the focus is on the second book.

This photograph of the Lunar Module at Tranquility Base was taken by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission, from the rim of Little West Crater on the lunar surface. Armstrong’s shadow and the shadow of the camera are visible in the foreground. This is the furthest distance from the lunar module traveled by either astronaut while on the moon. (Source: NASA)

In the Shadow of the Moon begins with an introduction from astronaut and Apollo 7 member Walt Cunningham. In it, he states (p. xii) that the space race was ‘a clash of cultures, systems of government, and a challenge to our way of life.’ However, this book is a much more personal account, eschewing the ideological backdrop, for a much more intimate portrait of Project Gemini and the early Apollo missions as well as the Soviet Vostok, Soyuz, and Voshkhod program and the men (and in the case of Valentina Tereshkova, woman) who flew them. This work takes the reader from the first Gemini mission through Apollo 11, the first (successful) lunar landing attempt. There are three aspects to this book that allows it stand out: the early focus on Gemini, its attention to the Russian space program, and finally its emphasis on the early Apollo the missions that tend to be overlooked in other works.

The attention on the Gemini missions opens the book up, and Gemini was fundamentally different from its Mercury predecessor. As an air power historian with a growing interest in space exploration, Gemini truly represents air power. Although astronautics and not aeronautics, the Gemini ships it can be justly said, could be flown. As Gus Grissom stated (p. 14) about the program Gemini, ‘was a machine I could maneuver.’ The personal accounts of the Gemini crew members, their struggles with rendezvous and docking, and EVAs are masterfully told. All the necessary building blocks needed to be able to conduct the Apollo missions were accomplished during this program, and French and Burgess tell the story well. As the authors’ note (p. 169) ‘the entire Gemini program of ten flights would be conducted before any Russian cosmonauts once again soared into the skies.’

Thus, it was something of a jolt when the focus moves from the American space program to the activities of the Soviet cosmonauts, but this is keeping in line with the overall purpose of the series, it reminds the reader of the two competing programs – and their ideologies – as they both progressed towards ‘winning’ the space race. This work, much like David Scott’s and Alexy Leonov’s Two Sides of the Moon brings into contrast and comparison the Soviet space program and the human side and losses that took place behind the iron curtain; it would be later that the astronauts and cosmonauts came to realize how similar they were and how much they shared in common.

Finally, the book turns towards the Apollo program and in-depth attention is given to Apollos 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11, essentially the ‘first half’ of the Apollo missions. While the moon landings probably have a more enduring place in American memory, none of that would be possible without the early Apollo flights. Especially appreciated here is the deeper dives into the virtually ignored Apollos 7 and 9. While other books are dealing with these missions (Cunningham and Eisele both have biographies or memoirs, and Cunningham’s routinely tops the list in this regard), In the Shadow of the Moon contextually links these missions together while at the same time allowing each to stand on its accomplishments. While even the Apollo 9 astronauts themselves recognise theirs (p. 329) was a ‘historically lesser known mission,’ this work does a magnificent job of being deeply personal while conveying just how vital these lesser-known Apollos were at putting the footprints in the dust on the moon, but that is a different review.

French and Burgess’s frequent use of long quotes derived from their interviews astronauts is really a high point of this work, and it is clear the astronauts know the authors are true professionals. If there is a (relatively) minor drawback to the book is its lack of source notes. While it reads smoothly, among the best of the books on NASA and space exploration, it does not provide an avenue from where any particular quote comes from. As a historian who routinely flips to the back of the book looking for source documentation, this was a bit of a distraction, but as a popular history, this really should not be held against French and Burgess. In the end, this is an extremely fine addition to the histories of manned exploration of space. Highly enjoyable, immensely readable, this work, while never eschewing the technological side of the Gemini and Apollo programs, is an extraordinarily intimate and personal history of the astronauts, cosmonauts and their families and it belongs on the shelves of anyone looking for the very finest scholarship on the first age of space exploration.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the United States Northern Command. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: On 4 December 1965, NASA launched Gemini VII. With this mission, NASA successfully completed its first rendezvous of two spacecraft. This photograph, taken by Gemini VII crewmembers Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, shows Gemini VI in orbit 160 miles (257 km) above Earth. (Source: NASA)

#ResearchNote – The RAF Staff College and ‘Learning’ from the French

#ResearchNote – The RAF Staff College and ‘Learning’ from the French

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial note: Defence-in-Depth, the blog of King’s College London’s Defence Studies Department based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College and The Wavell Room have been running a series of interesting articles about military education. The author has read these articles with some interest given his interest in the education of air forces. This research note covers an interesting episode in the process of the establishment of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Staff College in the early 1920s.

The opening of the RAF Staff College at Andover in 1922 marked a crucial step in the early development of the RAF. Andover gave the RAF its own institution that provided higher education tailored towards the needs of the Service. However, many historians have been critical of Andover. For example, Tony Mason, the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies, suggested that Andover ‘lamentably failed’ in providing a developed air power theory for the RAF while Vincent Orange argued that the Staff College served, ‘as a disseminating station for approved doctrine, seasoned by essays on riding, hunting and how to cope with the bazaars of Baghdad.’[1]

However, one aspect not often considered is how the RAF went about preparing for the Staff College’s formation. Key to this is the role played by its first Commandant, Air Commodore Robert Brooke-Popham who was adamant that the RAF should learn from the teaching methods used by both the British Army and Royal Navy at their Staff Colleges at Camberley and Greenwich.[2] Brooke-Popham was a pre-First World War graduate of Camberley, and it is clear that this educational experience played a role in how he approached his position as Commandant. More broadly, before the opening of Andover, it was to the Army and Royal Navy that the RAF looked to provide a staff college education for nurtured officers. Indeed, it is significant that, apart from Group Captain Robert Clark-Hall, the initial Directing Staff – Wing Commanders Philip Joubert de la Ferte, Wilfrid Freeman and C.H.K. Edmonds and Squadron Leader Bertine Sutton – were all graduates of Camberley or Greenwich. However, while the British experience of higher military education was a significant influence, it was not the only source of information.

LD 764
A half-length portrait of Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté in uniform by James Gunn, c. 1940 (Source: © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 764))

More interesting is that Brooke-Popham also considered whether anything could be learnt from the methods utilised by the French Army at the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre in Paris, which in the early 1920s was commanded by General Marie Debeney.[3] Before the opening of Andover, Brooke-Popham and Joubert visited Paris to examine French pedagogical methods, and the critical source concerning this visit comes in the latter’s 1952 autobiography The Fated Sky.[4] Joubert’s recollections provide an insight into the teaching methods at the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre. However, it is clear that he was not impressed with the quality of education present although, as he recalled, the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre was considered, ‘the centre of all military knowledge.’[5]

Joubert’s criticisms fell broadly into three categories. First, Joubert was critical of the lack of cooperation with the French Navy and their equivalent school for higher education. Second, instructors lacked familiarity with the students they were teaching. Finally, Joubert was not impressed with the formality of the lectures and lack of what in modern teaching is often referred to as ‘white space’ in the timetable to allow for reflections and questions.[6]

Joubert’s criticisms raise several interesting observations about the differences between the British and French militaries in this period. Notably, the lack of co-operation between the French Army and Navy at the staff college level maps to many of the problems that plagued the French military in the interwar period. Joubert recalled Debeney’s ‘look of blank amazement’ when asked about co-operation with his naval counterpart.[7] Conversely, while there were definite problems at the strategic level, the British military regularly co-operated via combined operations exercises at the staff colleges that Joubert himself described as ‘one of the most pleasant periods’ of his time at Camberley, which he attended in 1920.[8] This perhaps suggests something about Britain’s pragmatic military culture in this period. Individual service cultures certainly existed, but when co-operation was required, the British military appeared to be able to do this.

Furthermore, Joubert recalled of his time at Camberley that while heated discussions between students occurred, ‘it was always possible to come to an agreement over a round of pink gins in the Mess’ thus highlighting the importance of socialisation between the services as means of breeding understanding between them.[9] It also seems clear that Joubert’s perception of the lack of formality in British Staff Colleges bred a willingness to question accepted views while the French military maintained a ‘Maginot’ mentality for much of this period. However, even this must be understood within the context of differing service cultures. Joubert himself reflected on these differences when he wrote that:

Naval officers would discuss Naval affairs freely amongst themselves and before members of another service and would unhesitatingly attack any ideas which they thought themselves were wrong. But let an outsider in the audience offer a criticism and Naval ranks closed up solidly. The Army seldom, if ever, discussed their problems in the open. If they were asked for a statement of policy Field Service Regulations and Army Council Instructions were solemnly quoted. As for the Air Force, they would fight amongst themselves in private and in the open, and would quite ruthlessly disagree with their instructors before a mixed audience. Nothing was sacrosanct.[10]

The final criticism of the lack of ‘white space’ in the timetable is significant as this is considered a crucial element of the pedagogical process and differentiates higher education from training. The lack of this ‘white space’ in the French Staff College system suggested an unwillingness to allow French officers to think more broadly about their place within the profession of arms and the conduct of war more generally. This raises fundamental questions concerning leadership development within the French Army such as whether the French system was developing senior leaders or staff officers. Moreover, it is clear that the French system differed from the British with the existence of the Centre des Hautes Études; a war college, which existed to educate senior Colonels and Brigadiers.[11] A ‘war college’ was something the RAF lacked, and as such an exact comparison between the two systems is fraught with challenges.

While Joubert’s recollection should, as with any autobiography, be treated with some care, from the perspective of the provision and development of military education in the RAF they are useful. This is primarily because of Joubert’s affiliation with education in the RAF. As noted, he attended Camberley and was Directing Staff at Andover. However, he would also go on to be the first RAF member of the Directing Staff at the Imperial Defence College as well as going on to being Commandant at Andover in the early 1930s. As such, he was well placed to comment on such issues.

In conclusion, this episode shows that the RAF was willing to move outside of national confines to learn lessons for what was the world’s first air force Staff College. However, that the methods examined in France were not adopted also highlights issues related to how militaries perceive themselves. As Joubert himself noted, ‘[i]n the event we did not adopt […] the French Staff College methods [and] [w]e went our own perfectly normal and unspectacular British Way.’[12] This reflection says as much about the RAF and its culture as it does the perceived failings of the French system of higher military education. The final important point is that in looking to other Staff Colleges, whether in Britain or France, the RAF were looking to similar institutions with similar objectives – the education and nurturing of future senior leaders – but axiomatically these educational establishments were not similar. Putting aside national proclivities, the critical difference was the military service these institutions served. The Écoles Supérieures de Guerre served the French Army, not an air force, though of course at this time, the French air service formed part of the army. Similarly, Camberley and Greenwich served the British Army and Royal Navy respectively. As such, while the RAF could, and did learn from their counterparts, it still had specific service challenges that it would have to solve on its terms. Indeed, the focus of Brooke-Popham and Joubert’s visit to Paris was more on ‘how’ to teach rather than ‘what.’

Dr Ross Mahoney is a contract Historian at the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia as well as the owner and Editor of From Balloons to Drones. He is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and a Vice-President of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: The modern day Ecole Militaire, which previously housed the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Tony Mason, ‘British Air Power’ in John Andreas Olsen, Global Air Power (Washington D C: Potomac Books, 2011), pp. 26-27; Vincent Orange, Churchill and his Airmen: Relationships, Intrigue and Policy Making, 1914-1945 (London: Grub Street, 2013), p. 87.

[2] Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, ‘The Formation of The Royal Air Force Staff College,’ The Hawk, 12 (1950), p. 19.

[3] For a British overview of the Écoles Supérieures de Guerre, see: ‘The “Ecole Superieure De Guerre,” Paris,’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 70:477 (1925), pp. 1-7.

[4] Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferte, The Fated Sky: An Autobiography (London: Hutchinson, 1952), pp. 87-88. Joubert also recollected that Brooke-Popham also considered ‘Madam Montessori’s ideas.

[5] Ibid., pp. 87

[6] Ibid., pp. 87-88

[7] Ibid., p. 87.

[8] Ibid., p. 84.

[9] Ibid., p. 83.

[10] Ibid., p. 88.

[11] ‘The “Ecole Superieure De Guerre,” Paris,’ p. 1.

[12] Joubert, The Fated Sky, p. 88.

#BookReview – Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home

#BookReview – Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home

By Dr Brian Laslie

Jack Clemons, Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2018. Appendices. Glossary. References. Further Reading. Hbk. 264 pp


In the first of our space-related book reviews, Stages to Saturn, I discussed a book about a technology and a ‘thing,’ that thing being the family of Saturn rockets. This next review is a book about people or rather, a single person: Jack Clemons.

Author Jack Clemons is one of the 400,000 (or so) people who worked on Project Apollo. You should quickly surmise that 399,999 other stories could be told about NASA and space exploration, but this is Jack’s story. This is the story of one person’s efforts to help put Armstrong’s (and eleven others) boot prints on the moon, but at least as far as Clemons was concerned bringing him, as well as and Aldrin and Collins back to Earth. Clemons, employed by TRW Corporation and working for the Apollo program as a re-entry specialist, presents himself as part of the group of ‘Americans who embraced the study of engineering and the sciences’ (p. 3) and who joined President Kennedy’s call for landing a man on the moon, and the oft-overlooked second part of that sentence, returning him safely to Earth. The call for Clemons (p. 21) was so great that ‘I stayed in Houston for sixteen years for one reason, because that’s where NASA was.’

The prime crew of the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission is photographed during spacecraft checkout activity at North American Rockwell Space Division at Downey, California. Left to right, are astronauts Charles Conrad Jr., commander; Richard F. Gordon Jr., command module pilot; and Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot. (Source: NASA)

HBO’s TV series From the Earth to the Moon based on the book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin introduced viewers to stories of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts. In one episode, the launch of Apollo 12 is shown to be struck by lightning, and the crew is informed they must ‘switch SCE to AUX’ to start restoring power to the crippled command module. This is also where Jack Clemons book Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home begins as well when flight controller John Aaron makes the call to have the crew switch Signal Conditioning Electronics to Auxiliary. This is what separates Clemons work from all that has come before it – and becomes the real strength of the work; this is not a book about the astronauts themselves, but about the unnamed masses of the support team.

This is not a purely academic work, and Clemons is clearly not speaking to an exclusive audience. Instead, he brings forth in a very accessible manner what it was like to be ‘in the trenches.’ Clemons also provides a certain levity in his book. He often ‘breaks the plane’ by talking directly to the reader, a massive ‘no-no’ in most professional writing, but it works and much to Clemons credit, I found myself smirking.

The book is essentially divided into two parts: his work on the Apollo Program and his later work in the Space Shuttle program. During Apollo and found many times throughout the pages of Safely to Earth, the role of technology is clearly on display. In the modern world where our phones hold more computing power than some of the early computers, it is nearly overwhelming to remember a time where so much of a computer processing ability first had to be input by hand. In one example, Clemons notes (p. 41) that the process of entering information into the IBM mainframes and waiting for results: ‘was a tedious and labor-intensive way to grind out data, but at the time it was cutting edge, high art, and great fun.’ Clemons primary work was on reentry data (p. 70), ‘[S]ince every Apollo mission was unique, reentry procedures had to developed and tested for each one.’

During the 1980s, Clemons moved over to IBM where he worked on the Space Shuttle’s computer programs and flight software, and this work provides a good history of the development and operation of the Shuttle. During these years, Clemons, responsible for the displays and controls of the Orbiter, worked closely with the early shuttle astronauts, including Bob Crippen and Dick Truly. Ostensibly, Clemons seeks here (p. 122) to ‘to convey here a sense of the scope of this singular effort, and an appreciation for some of the unheralded people behind the scenes’ and this occurs not only in the latter half of the book but throughout the entire text. The reader gets a sense of how many people at so many levels worked towards the singular goal of space exploration.

This is a welcome addition and is truly a unique work that contributes something new to an already overcrowded field of books about manned spaceflight. Clemons brings into focus what it was like to be one of the 400,000 who contributed to getting man to the moon and in doing so broadens our understanding of getting into space in general. While those aviation, history of technology, and space readers and historians will find much to enjoy here; those interested in race and gender issues, particularly as they apply to employment in STEM career fields, will also find enjoyment in the marked switch that occurred between Apollo and the Space Transportation System programs; Clemons covers this transition particularly well. The ultimate question posed by Clemons (p. 190), and so many others in recent years, and one for which we do not have a definitive answer for is, ‘[S]o where does human spaceflight go from here?’

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: The last of 13 captive and free-flight tests on 26 October 1977 with the space shuttle prototype Enterprise during the Approach and Landing Tests, validating the shuttle’s glide and landing characteristics. Launched from the modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the Enterprise’s final flight was piloted by Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton to a landing on the main concrete runway at Edwards Air Force Base before a host of VIPs and media personnel. (Source: NASA)

#Commentary – The Threat of Commercially Available Drones

#Commentary – The Threat of Commercially Available Drones

By Harry Raffal

Following the disruption at Gatwick airport, it is unsurprising that the potential dangers and disruptions that private drones can cause have come sharply into focus. For many experts, the use of a small, readily available, and easily affordable drone to achieve the disruption witnessed at Gatwick was not unforeseen. Instead, there have been increasing warnings from security advisors, financial service experts and even the United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, regarding the emerging risk exposures created by the recreational use of drones. The use of commercially available Drones to disrupt civil aviation has been one of the most apparent consequences of allowing the huge proliferation of these devices without ensuring there are relevant safeguards in place first. The prospect of a drone temporarily putting a major airport out of action was a threat which was predicted and reflected the lower end of warnings regarding ‘the potential for catastrophic damage.’ The question must surely be to ask why it has taken so long for this danger to be taken seriously by the government and aviation authorities.

There have been warning signs that drones while offering potentially enormous economic advantages, will be used by those with malign interests. In 2018 alone Drones have been involved in near-misses with RAF jets; caused low-level disruption at numerous airports; been used in an attempted attack on the Venezuelan President; they have also delayed and imperilled aircraft and helicopters involved in fire-fighting efforts. In Syria, the use of Commercially available drones by non-state forces is commonplace, and Kurdish forces released evidence of what they claimed was an ISIS Drone factory in July 2017.

The challenge of countering Drones without sufficient preparation is enormously difficult if the perpetrators are intent on causing disruption. During events at Gatwick, many observers may ask why such drones could not merely be shot down. It is difficult for those not familiar with military topics to immediately conceive that firing high-powered rifle bullets at a target can have potentially lethal collateral consequences if that target is missed – no small possibility when the target is a small, fast and agile Drone in flight. As the UK Security Minister, Ben Wallace stated following the disruption at Gatwick ‘the challenges of deploying military counter measures into a civilian environment, means there are no easy solutions.’

This is not to say that there are no devices capable of disabling Drones, there are. Point-and-shoot ‘drone killers’ exist. These ‘drone killers’ use software-defined radio to jam the specific frequency a drone is operating on causing them to crash. Alternatively, for more sophisticated models, such ‘drone killers’ can force drones to land on auto-pilot. Even minimal preparation at UK airports would have ensured the capacity to detect the frequency a drone was operating on, and the use of a higher-powered transmitter would have provided the capacity to deal with the threat from commercially available Drones which do not possess the capacity to ‘channel hop’. Elsewhere, some thought has been given to counter the dangers posed by commercially available Drones. However, until the three days of disruption at Gatwick, there had not been any systematic preparations or hardening of vulnerable targets in the UK.

The future development of micro- and nano-drones, and their potential use in the civil environment brings with it the possibility of further disruption and dangers. The recent regulations which among other things have set height restrictions and, from November 2019, will require users of devices heavier than 250g to register with the authorities provide limited protection against those intent on the criminal use of drones. What is required is forethought and preparation to ensure that we are not discussing, in the not-too-distant future, why authorities were unprepared to deal with ‘swarms’ of these devices.

Harry Raffal is the Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum and has recently completed his PhD thesis on the RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of the Dunkirk in 1940 at the University of Hull. Harry has previously published research on the online development of the Ministry of Defence and British Armed Forces and presented papers at several conferences and events including the RAF Museum’s Trenchard lecture series, and the 2017 Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials conference. His research has been funded through bursaries and educational grants from the Royal Historical Society, the 2014 Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities research grant, the Princess Royal Trust, the University of Hull, the Sir Richard Stapley Trust and the RAF Museum PhD bursary.

Header Image: DJI Phantom 4 Pro/Pro+ quadcopter with camera. (Source: Wikimedia)

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

From Balloons to Drones is seeking submissions for a series of articles that examines the varied use of air power during the conflict in Vietnam (1945-1975). Two thousand nineteen marks 50 years since the announcement of President Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. This marked a significant turning point in a conflict that dated back to the end of the Second World War when France returned to Indochina to reclaim her colonial possessions. Throughout this long conflict in Vietnam – both during the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War – air power played a significant role. Themes to be explored might include, but are not limited to:

Roles | Operations | Strategy, Theory and Doctrine

Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments

Organisation and Policy | Culture | Ethical and Moral Issues

National, International and Transnational Experiences

We are looking for articles of c. 2,500 words, though we will accept larger pieces and we reserve the right to publish them in parts. We welcome and encourage submissions from academics, policymakers, service personnel, and relevant professionals. We plan to begin running the series in May 2019, and it will continue for as long as we receive potential contributions.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. References can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line to discuss.

If you are interested in contributing, please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Header Image: A USAF Douglas A-26C Invader loaned to France during the Indochina War. This aircraft was loaned to France from March 1952 to November 1955. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles

#BookReview – Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles

By Dr Brian Laslie

Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003. Illustrations. Notes. Sources and Research Material. Pbk. 544 pp.


This entry in our continuing series of book reviews might strike you as something a bit different from what we usually publish in several respects. First, this is an older work and originally published as part of the ‘official histories’ by NASA. Initially published in 1979 by the NASA history office, this 2003 updated version published by the University Press of Florida, was written, at its creation, primarily for an internal audience. Second, and as promised, this is the first book review in a series on Space exploration and space power. Finally, this review is inherently about a thing, and a means rather than an event or person. It is a review of technological history.

Even with fifty years of retrospective, the images of the gigantic Saturn V rocket with the Command and Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM) perched atop the three-stage rocket remains impressive. Histories of NASA and the Apollo Program tend to focus on the Saturn as a completed unit, stacked and rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) ready for transportation to the launch pad and final countdown and liftoff of the series of Apollo missions. The University of Florida Press’s and author Roger E. Bilstein’s Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles plays this familiar tale in reverse. The book begins with the launch of Apollo 11 and the ‘fiery holocaust lasting only 2.5 minutes’ of the first stage (S1-C) five F-1 engines that included the combination of 203,000 gallons of RP-1 kerosene and 331,000 gallons of liquid oxygen.

SA-9, the eighth Saturn I flight, lifted off on 16 February 1965. This was the first Saturn with an operational payload, the Pegasus I meteoroid detection satellite. (Source: Wikimedia)

Bilstein then roles the tape back to the earliest days of rocketry before moving into the primary purpose of the book, the development of the Saturn family of rockets. This is the history of an object albeit, one of the largest moving objects ever created. Stages to Saturn is the story of the development of the launch vehicles that took man into deep space for the first time. There are hundreds of books (see our reading list) about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, but this book is fundamentally different in that it focuses on the creation of the means it took the latter program to get into space.

A note of warning for the prospective reader up front, this is not a book for the layman reader, and in all fairness, it is hardly a book for the professional historian. It is an extraordinarily technical history, what might be most justly described as a ‘dense’ read. If there is a drawback to this work, it is that one might enjoy the book more if one were an expert mechanic or an aircraft engineer, someone who fundamentally understands the way machines work. It is also as much an organisational and logistical history as it is a technological history. All, this should not indicate that the book comes across as is inaccessible; it does not. Still the reader should be prepared for some overly technical discussions of thrust chambers and cryogenic propellants.

Rollout of the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad, 20 May 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

The book is built, not chronologically, but rather by component pieces of the rocket itself, each earning a detailed developmental history. This includes a ‘building blocks’ section which is a short history of rocketry but, thankfully, not a history of everything. From there the book details the development of the engines (RL-10, J-2, H-1, and F-1), before moving into the building of the various Saturn stages (S-IB, S-IVB for the Saturn IB and S-IC, S-II, S-IVB for the Saturn V) and finally on the management and logistics. While the development and building of the massive Saturn systems are fascinating enough in their own right, the logistical undertaking, which required ships and the development of special aircraft just to move the various stages and components to Cape Kennedy is a worthy addition to understanding of the continental network required simply to have the rocket components arrive at their destination. Bilstein ends his book with a disposition of the remaining Saturn systems (most on Static display now), but also a retrospective legacy section. It should also be noted that Bilstein includes a series of appendices covering everything from a detailed schematic of the Saturn V to the Saturn V launch sequence (beginning at nine hours and 30 minutes before liftoff) as well as R&D funding. While ‘richly detailed’ or ‘meticulously researched’ are overused in reviews, a trait myself am guilty of; they aptly apply to Stages to Saturn.

In the end, this is the story of the Apollo and Saturn programs that needed to be told. All the histories and biographies of the ‘Space Race,’ fail to rise to the level of detail and the important contribution of Stages to Saturn. It is a first-class organisational and technological history, and it stands alone as, perhaps the very best of the overall government ‘official histories.’ Historians of air and space power studies will find much to enjoy here, but also aerospace engineers. It is often said that 400,000 people helped get the United States the moon. This is the history of that rocket, but it is equally the history of those 400,000.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: Apollo 6 interstage falling away. The engine exhaust from the S-II stage glows as it impacts the interstage. (Source: Wikimdeia)

Space: A Reading List

Space: A Reading List

By Dr Brian Laslie

As the combatant command of the ‘newly re-established’ United States Space Command inches closer to being stood up (or reincarnated we are really not sure), we at From Balloons to Drones thought now would be an opportune time to publish articles, book reviews, and reading lists on the very best of space scholarship.[1] The simple fact is that here at the site we have focused almost exclusively on air power. We just have not gone high enough. Therefore, to make a mid-course correction, we are looking to expand into air and space power. The first step is this reading list. Hopefully to be followed by book reviews and original articles like this one here that we have previously published.

Our Assistant Editor, Brian Laslie, has chosen to divide this reading list up: Primer texts, NASA and civilian histories, and finally a list of biographies, memoirs and autobiographies.

Much of what you will find below was done in coordination with historians at the United States Air Force Academy, Air Command and Staff College, and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. We reached out to some of their senior scholars for their list of ‘must reads’ plus what they assign to students. We also reached out to several academic presses who specialise in space scholarship. Here you will find some of the usual suspects (University Press of Kentucky, MIT, Johns Hopkins), but also some really impressive works out of the University Press of Florida, look for book reviews of some of these titles below coming shortly. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but we believe that if you are interested in expanding your space knowledge, professionally or for fun, this list is a great place to start.

Primer Texts:


  • Ted Spitzmiller, The History of Human Space Flight (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2017);
  • Michael J. Neufeld, Spaceflight: A Concise History (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018);
  • Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1985);
  • William F. Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age (New York, NY: Random House, 1998);
  • A. Heppenheimer, Countdown: A History of Spaceflight (New York, NY: Wiley, 1997);
  • Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (London: Frank Cass, 2002);
  • Joan Johnson-Freese, Space as a Strategic Asset (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007);
  • Matthew Brezezinski, Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age (New York, NY: Times Books, 2007);
  • John Klein, Space Warfare: Strategy, Principles and Policy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006);
  • David Spires, Beyond Horizons: A Half Century of Air Force Space Leadership, Revised Edition (Maxwell, AL: Air Force Space Command in association with Air University Press, 1998);
  • Bruce DeBlois (ed.), Beyond the Paths of Heaven: The Emergence of Space Power Thought (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 1999).

NASA History Series (@NASAhistory)

The NASA History Office runs arguably the single best history program in the entirety of the United States Government. With dozens of publications (and most available to download for free here, this is the first place you should stop for the history of space flight in the United States. More recently some of their titles have been re-published with the University of Florida Press.


So much of the literature of the space race focused exclusively on the American perspective. Even the Soviet ‘firsts’ are often viewed through the lens of how other Americans reacted. If you are interested in the development of the Soviet space programs there is Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race (2000) by Asif A. Siddiqi and the four-volume set by Boris Chertok Rockets and People (2005 to 2012) which provides ‘direct first-hand accounts of the men and women who were behind the many Russian accomplishments in exploring space.’

If the early American experience in spaceflight interests you then download: Where no Man has Gone Before: A History of the Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions (1989) by William David Compton, Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions (2007) by Robert C. Seamans, Jr., On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini (2010) by Barton C. Hacker and James M. Grimwood, and “Before this Decade is Out” Personal Reflections of the Apollo Program (1999) edited by Glen. E. Swanson

Under the UPF bin there is Pat Duggins, The Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program (2008) which seems a bit dated in 2019 (there is a reference to a pre-iPad that might perplex readers) but provides an excellent treatment of the history of the Shuttle Program as well as NASA’s uncertain future.

The Final Mission: Preserving NASA’s Apollo Sites (2018) by Lisa Westwood, Beth O’Leary, and Milford W. Donaldson details the importance preserving sites related to the Project Apollo and moon missions both here on Earth and the lunar surface.

Other works by NASA or UPF that are well worth your time include: Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who Brought the Astronauts Home (2018) by Jack Clemons, and Spies and Shuttles: NASA’s Secret Relationships with the DOD and CIA (2015) by James David. If you are an engineer by trade or just interested in highly technical work, there is Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles (1999) by Roger Bilstein

Memoirs and Biographies:

There are dozens of books in this genre from the ‘Golden Age of Manned Spaceflight.’ Many of the Mercury, Gemini, and particularly the Apollo astronauts either wrote a memoir or have had a biography published. We cannot list them all here, but we agree the following rate among the very best: First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong (2018) by James R. Hansen, Carrying the Fire: An Astronauts Journey (2001) by Michael Collins, The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space (1999) by Eugene Cernan, Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele (2017) by Don Eisele, and Calculated Risk The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom (2016) by George Leopold.


More recent works by the space shuttle and ISS astronauts include Scott Kelly’s Endurance about his year in space. As space flight becomes increasingly commercialised, the recently published The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos (2018) by Christian Davenport were also showing up from many of the academic institutions with whom we spoke.

Finally, in a departure from the readings above, we recommend the YouTube channel of Amy Shira Teitel. Amy is a ‘spaceflight historian, author, YouTuber, and popular space personality,’ who does a great job in her web series Vintage Space.

Again, this is not a comprehensive list, but rather a starting point. As interest increases and we enter what may very well be a second golden age of space exploration, these are the titles that provide the background and history of working with, in, and through the space domain. If you have suggestions, leave them in the comments.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: The US Air Force launches the ninth Boeing-built Wideband Global SATCOM satellite at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida., 18 March 2017. Such satellites play an integral part in the strategic and tactical coordination of military operations. (Source: US Department of Defense)

[1] There continues to be debate about whether the U.S. Space Command is being re-established from its predecessor or if this truly a new combatant command