#Podcast – The Apollo Program in Global Politics: An Interview with Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony

#Podcast – The Apollo Program in Global Politics: An Interview with Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

The Apollo program, including the moon landing, is one of the most famous events in world history, and one of the most inspirational. Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony, the Curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, joins us to re-evaluate Apollo and look at its political dimensions across the world. 

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Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony is a historian of science and technology and Curator of the Apollo Spacecraft Collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Before coming to the Smithsonian Institution, she earned a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and held positions at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics and the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum. Her most recent book is Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo (2020).

Header image: The Apollo 15 Service Module as viewed from the Apollo Lunar Module, 2 August 1971. (Source: Wikimedia)

 

#BookReview – Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years

#BookReview – Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years

J.L. Pickering and John Bisney, Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2021. Hbk. 240 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

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A couple of years ago, in a book review for From Balloons to Drones, I started by saying:

A different type of book necessitates a different type of book review. Herein you will not find an author’s argument or a critique thereof since the book being discussed today is a collection of photographs and an extremely fine one at that.

That book review was for J.L. Pickering and John Bisney’s Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments. The same authors have followed up that superb effort with the recently released Picturing the Space Shuttle: The Early Years.

As the title suggests, the authors undertake to produce a pictorial history of – and to look at the development of – the reusable Shuttle Transportation System (STS), the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT), the astronaut class of 1978 (the ‘Thirty-Five New Guys,’ or TFNGs) and the first four STS missions that made up the test program for the new shuttle. Pickering and Bisney have again accomplished just that and produced a unique look at the early days of the space shuttle program, using rare, never-before-published photographs from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The book opens with a forward from STS-1 pilot Robert L. Crippen, who stated that he hoped the book ‘will increase your appreciation for what a remarkable accomplishment the Space Shuttle was.’ Crippen need not worry; the book does precisely that.

Although ostensibly a book of photographs, there is also enough background here to keep the layman and the historian happy with the development of the program. However, it is the photos that stand out. From Maxime Faget’s original model of a reusable space shuttle to the numerous designs, concepts, and artists’ renderings as they developed into the recognizable shuttle design that went into production, there are enough photographs in the first chapter alone to make the book worth the purchase.

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This is a montage of the individual portraits of the 35-member 1978 class of astronaut candidates. The Astronaut Class of 1978, otherwise known as the ‘Thirty-Five New Guys,’ was NASA’s first new group of astronauts since 1969. This class was notable for many reasons, including having the first African-American and first Asian-American astronauts and the first women. From left to right are Guion S. Bluford, Daniel C. Brandenstein, James F. Buchli, Michael L. Coats, Richard O. Covey, John O. Creighton, John M. Fabian, Anna L. Fisher, Dale A. Gardner, Robert L. Gibson, Frederick D. Gregory, S. David Griggs, Terry J. Hart, Frederick H. (Rick) Hauck, Steven A. Hawley, Jeffrey A. Hoffman, Shannon W. Lucid, Jon A. McBride, Ronald E. McNair, Richard M. (Mike) Mullane, Steven R. Nagel, George D. Nelson, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnik, Sally K. Ride, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Rhea Seddon, Brewster H. Shaw Jr., Loren J. Shriver, Robert L. Stewart, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Norman E. Thagard, James D. Van Hoften, David M. Walker and Donald E. Williams. (Source: NASA)

Some of the great gems are the photos that show the transition from the Apollo era to the shuttle era. Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than the chapter detailing the Shuttle Enterprise’s Approach and Landing Tests. Here, Apollo mission veteran Fred Haise (Apollo 13) is joined by Gordon Fullerton, Joe Engle, and Richard Truly to test the flying characteristics of the new shuttle. Dave Scott and Deke Slayton in very late-1970s garb also make appearances in these pages (pp. 38-9). This transition is completed in the next chapter with the introduction of NASA’s next astronaut class, the ‘TFNGs,’ which introduced America and the world to the names of Guion Bluford, Anna Fisher, Robert Gibson, Steven Hawley, Sally Ride, and many others. The book includes a complete montage of the 35 Group 8 astronauts, the TFNGs (p. 71). Many of them are also pictured testing out Apollo-era spacesuits, marking the transition from old to new. If you had a favourite shuttle-era astronaut, there is a good chance they were represented in this class, and I was pleased to see photos of some of my heroes herein: Rhea Seddon, Frederick Gregory, and Shannon Lucid (65-71).

Obviously, the book really takes off (pun completely intended) with a section devoted to the first four shuttle missions, all of them aboard the Columbia. After that, the book moves from construction at Palmdale to delivery to Kennedy. The woes of Columbia’s heat-ablative tiles are adequately covered and, although the shuttle is a brand-new ship, it looks the worse for wear in several photographs (pp. 104-5). However, these problems overcome, there are some truly terrific ‘behind the scenes’ shots as Columbia is mated to the stack and rolled out to the pad. Here, there are some iconic photographs of the shuttle sitting on the pad with the setting sun turning the clouds a stunning orange and lifting into bright clear-blue Florida skies, but also some great shots ‘on orbit’ and the crews returning safely to Earth along the tanned lakebed of Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on lakebed runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to conclude the first orbital shuttle mission
The Space Shuttle Columbia touches down on lakebed runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base to conclude the first orbital shuttle mission, 14 April 1981. (Source: NASA)

Picturing the Space Shuttle is another masterwork. It is truly a tour de force and a compelling collection of photographs that should be on the bookshelf of everyone who considers themselves a shuttle aficionado. One hopes that Pickering and Bisney continue to comb through the photographic archives of later shuttle missions. It has been 40 years since Columbia lifted into the sky for the first time and, perhaps even more amazing, a decade since the last shuttle returned safely to earth. As time marches on and the shuttle program recedes into memory, Pickering and Bisney have given us a reason to remember what Astronaut John Young called the ‘world’s greatest flying machine,’ the Space Shuttle.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and is the Command Historian at the United States Air Force Academy. Formerly he was the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is the Book Reviews Editor for From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021),  Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header image:  The Space Shuttle Columbia glides down over Rogers Dry Lake as it heads for a landing at Edwards Air Force Base at the conclusion of its first orbital mission on 14 April 1981. (Source: NASA)

#BookReview – Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space

#BookReview – Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space

Bruce McCandless III, Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2021. Illustrations. Notes. ARC. 247 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

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It is a picture that seems to hang somewhere in every elementary school and library in America. For that late Gen-X group born in the last half of the 1970s, it hung on the walls of our bedrooms next to baseball heroes Dale Murphy and Mike Schmidt. Space Historian Emily Carney has dubbed it simply ‘the poster.’ The image is so ubiquitous as to be almost forgettable, not because it is forgettable but because you see it everywhere: from museum walls to commercials. It is inescapable. It is easily as memorable as any photograph that came out of America’s early space program, and it remains one of NASA’s most requested pictures. The image is of an untethered astronaut floating alone in the blackness of space, feet dangling above a blue and white Earth. Even as I write this review, a version of the famed photo hangs in my office, a hand-painted copy by my oldest daughter, herself a budding STEM and space lover.

The astronaut in the photograph is Bruce McCandless II, hardly a household name; but you have heard his voice, and you have seen his face in the old B-rolls of the floor of mission control where he served as a CAPCOM (capsule communicator) on the Apollo 10, 11 and 14 missions. McCandless served as CAPCOM for the first lunar extravehicular activity (EVA), and said “Okay, Neil, we can see you coming down the ladder now.”

Hardly a household name, yet he was at the epicentre for two seismic events in the history of crewed spaceflight: the first steps on the moon and the man behind the mask in the first untethered EVA. That untethered EVA and his first ride into space was a long time in coming. Half of his astronaut class flew to the moon, including Jack Swigert, Al Worden, Stu Roosa, Ron Evans, and Ken Mattingly as Command Module Pilots, while classmates Edgar Mitchell and Charlie Duke walked on the surface of the moon. Fred Haise served as the Lunar Module Pilot for the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, another of McCandless’s astronaut class. Much of his class served on Skylab, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and the early shuttle flights.

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Bruce McCandless II, c. 1971. (Source: Wikimedia)

McCandless, and classmate Don Lind, was considered more a scientist than a pilot in his astronaut class. This undoubtedly hurt him in crew rotation and mission assignments. One need look no further than Astronaut Walter Cunningham’s book, The All-American Boys, to know that Deke Slayton did not look favourably on anyone who was not a test pilot. Cunningham aptly noted:

If an astronaut had been in space, he was a star. If he was on a crew, he was a prospect. If he was not yet in line, he was simply a suspect. He hadn’t really made the team. (Cunningham, p. 84).

Cunningham also noted that amongst all astronauts, ‘At the very bottom of the pile were the hyphenated astronauts, the scientists’ (Cunningham, p. 87). McCandless II almost became the astronaut the world forgot despite his presence in the famous photo.

In his new book Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space, this omission is being corrected by his son, Bruce McCandless III. This book focuses on the astronauts of the Apollo era who doggedly hung on at NASA through the early Space Shuttle program. Also unusual is that Wonders all Around is the third book to either be authored or co-authored by a son or daughter of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Astronauts, the others being Rosemary Roosa’s To the Moon: An Autobiography of an Apollo Astronaut’s Daughter, and Kris Stover’s For Spacious Skies, written with her father Scott Carpenter. All three bring a different perspective to the golden age of spaceflight.

The author traces the early journeys of his father but does not fall into the trap of taking too long to tell it. For Bruce McCandless, ‘the real joys of his life: reading, thinking, and engineering.’ This demonstrates that McCandless II was a man at home inside the cockpit and a textbook (p. 40). McCandless’ selection to NASA might not have come with a rapid assignment to a flight, but it did place him in the middle of the action, most notably with his selection serving as a CAPCOM. The author notes this assignment came with a bit of a letdown when he states:

It’s like being the backup quarterback who relays plays from the sidelines; you’re part of the action, but no one’s going to remember you after the game. (p. 62).

Nevertheless, McCandless II soldiered on through Apollo, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz, all without a flight assignment and grimly hung on through the intervening years waiting for the shuttle to come online. McCandless endured, and he could be seen ‘wandering the halls of Building 4, haunted by the ghosts of cancelled Apollo missions,’ even as newer generations of astronauts began to take their place in line for shuttle assignments (p. 134).

McCandless III sets about telling his father’s story and the societal, political, and cultural events that occurred along the way. He also delves into the family life of McCandless II at home, and, in this case, ‘dad’ comes across as a work-at-home, distant, slightly standoffish figure, that many in my generation can identify with.

Wonders all Around is the perfect transition book for those looking into the late-1970s lean years as NASA moved from the Saturn V to the Space Transport System. McCandless III notes that his dad was part of the transition from the all-male, test pilot atmosphere to the shuttle era’s more inclusive and scientific period. McCandless was there to see it all, still hoping for his first rocket launch and all along the way continuing his work on the piece of machinery that would solidify his place in the history of photography: the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU).

Of course, the book inevitably leads to McCandless’ first flight, his piloting of the MMU up to 300+ feet from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984, and ‘Hoot’ Gibson taking the now-iconic photo, but neither of the McCandless’s story ends there. Instead, McCandless II continued to stick it out at Houston and flew one more time on a possibly more famous mission, STS-31, which deployed the Hubble Space Telescope (I would be remiss here if I did not recommend Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan’s magnificent biography Handprints on Hubble).

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Astronaut Bruce McCandless II, mission specialist, participates in a extra-vehicular activity (EVA), a few meters away from the cabin of Space Shuttle Challenger. He is using a nitrogen-propelled hand-controlled Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU). He is performing this EVA without being tethered to the shuttle. The picture shows a cloud view of the Earth in the background. (Source: Wikimedia)

As new and forthcoming astronaut biographies continue to be published each year, our understanding of NASA as an organization continues to grow as well. McCandless III’s biography of his father adds to our understanding. McCandless II clearly had the ‘Right Stuff,’ but he had more than enough of the ‘Scientific Stuff’ to make him a legendary astronaut, and this biography cements the name of McCandless alongside Shepard, Armstrong, and Ride.

McCandless II said of that famous photo that “I have the sun visor down, so you can’t see my face, and that means it could be anybody in there. It’s sort of a representation not of Bruce McCandless, but mankind.”[1] That may be true, but the author has lifted that visor and allowed the sun to shine on the face of his father at last. Wonders All Around is a powerful biography, history, and love letter to an organization, an event, a photograph, and an individual.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also the Book Reviews Editor here at From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header image: Astronaut Bruce McCandless, II tests a the manned maneuvering unit during a test involving the trunion pin attachment device he carries and the shuttle pallet satellite (SPAS-01A), partially visible at bottom of the frame. The space shuttle Challenger was flying with its aft end aimed toward the Earth. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Anne Broache, ‘Footloose,’ Smithsonian Magazine, August 2005.

#Podcast – Mercury Rising: An Interview with Jeff Shesol

#Podcast – Mercury Rising: An Interview with Jeff Shesol

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

In the latest entry in our podcast series, we interview prolific and celebrated author Jeff Shesol about his latest book Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold War. In this episode Shesol talks about John Glenn, who captured the hearts and imagination of many Americans as the first US astronaut to orbit the earth. We not only talk about Glenn’s place in the history of the Cold War, but also in deeply personal terms.

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Jeff Shesol is the author of Mercury Rising, most recently, as well as Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court and Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud That Defined a Decade, both selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. He is a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and is a founding partner of West Wing Writers. A Rhodes Scholar, he holds degrees in history from Oxford University and Brown University and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker News Desk.

Header image: The Mercury Seven astronauts with a NASA Langley Research Center Convair F-106B Delta Dart aircraft at Langley Air Force Base, 20 January 1961. From left to right: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings

#BookReview – Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings

Earl Swift, Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings. New York, NY: Custom House, 2021. Illustrations. Notes. ARC. 365 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

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It is rare for the team at From Balloons to Drones to cover machines that run across the ground. After all, our name literally describes the history of aircraft. I feel somewhat sheepish, then, in covering a book that is essentially about a car, but here we are. That being said, in his new book Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings, author Earl Swift has produced an important, much needed, and excellent history of the lunar rover vehicle and its excursions on the final three Apollo missions. In addition, Swift has written the seminal history of the concept, design, and creation of perhaps the most unique automobile ever built.

Swift’s thesis is straightforward. As the author states:

It comes to this: Remembered or not, the nine days the final three missions spent on the moon were a fitting culmination to Apollo, and a half-century later remain the crowning achievement of America’s manned space program.

While the world remembers Neil Armstrong’s “One Small Step” and Apollo 13’s “Houston, We’ve had a problem here,” the visits, footprints, and rover tracks at Hadley–Apennine, Descartes Highlands, and Taurus–Littrow Valley are certainly less well-remembered. Even the individuals who took these steps, including Jim Irwin, Charlie Duke, and Harrison Schmitt, are not the easiest of names in the Apollo Program to recall. Of note, Irvin, Duke and Schmitt all authored excellent books later in life that are worth adding to your collection. Each of the commanders of these missions: Dave Scott, John Young, and Gene Cernan, Gemini and Apollo giants that they are, are oft-forgotten for those who do not read and study this particular section of space-exploration history. It is also worth mentioning that, although not covered in Swift’s account, the Command Module Pilots: Al Worden, Ken Mattingly, and Ron Evans spent the longest amount of time flying solo around the moon and conducting their own scientific experiments.

Swift divides his new work into seven different sections, more or less covering the principal characters, the ‘Practical Considerations’ of building a lunar automobile, which also details the various designs and concepts for lunar vehicles never produced – Oberth’s moon car is worth looking up – and two sections on building the rover. However, it is section six, ‘Across the Airless Wilds’ where Swift really shines. Here the book is strikingly similar to the ‘Outward Odyssey’ Series by the University of Nebraska Press. If you enjoyed these books on the Apollo program, Swift’s work is definitely one you will want to read. The final three Apollo missions (the ‘J’ missions) were the ultimate in scientific exploration. Swift’s account of the rover’s operations clearly demonstrates that much of the discoveries made during these missions were not possible were it not for the Lunar Rover.

There are some minor drawbacks to be found herein. Swift admits this is not an academic work. Since the version provided to From Balloons to Drones was an advanced reader’s copy, I cannot speak for his bibliography. Swift often breaks into the first-person perspective, and for a work of non-fiction, this can be slightly distracting. However, since these sections discuss Swift’s travels across the country to meet with the creators of the rover or visit the locations where it was tested, this is a relatively minor distraction.

Across the Airless Wilds is part history, part travelogue, but one hundred per cent terrific space history. Swift has written a book that provides unique, personal accounts and, at the same time, is deeply researched and throws fresh light onto a well-traversed subject.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Command Historian at the USAF Academy. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of three books with his most recent being Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021). His first book, The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header image: One of a series of images taken as a pan of the Apollo 15 landing site, taken by Commander Dave Scott, 1 August 1971. Featured is the Lunar Roving Vehicle at its final resting place after EVA-3. At the back is a rake used during the mission. Also note the red Bible atop the hand controller in the middle of the vehicle, placed there by Scott.

#Podcast – To Fly Among the Stars: An Interview with Rebecca Siegel

#Podcast – To Fly Among the Stars: An Interview with Rebecca Siegel

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

In our latest episode, we interview Rebecca Siegel, author of To Fly Among the Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts. In this interview, we discuss the Mercury Program and the 13 women who went through astronaut training but were not allowed to become astronauts. She also tells us about the process of how to make these complex, nuanced histories accessible to a younger audience.

Rebecca Siegel has a masters degree in English Literature from Loyola University, Chicago. She has worked in children’s publishing for over a decade, editing and writing books for school library publishers.

Header image: Jerrie Cobb operating the Multi-Axis Space Test Inertia Facility at the Lewis Research Center in Ohio. This test simulated bringing a spinning spacecraft under control and was one of many that the women of the Mercury 13 went through in order to qualify for space flight. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings

#BookReview – John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

William F. Causey, John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2020. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 347 pp.

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There has been no cooling in the publication of space-related material in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary. Partially in response to NASA’s returning astronauts to space from American soil this year and partially in response to an undeniable zeitgeist, NASA is enjoying renewed popular support. This provides an excellent opportunity for the publication of further scholarship about the history of the organisation. Academic presses (Florida, Nebraska, and Purdue) have been working hard to expand, and further our understanding of not only crewed exploration of the cosmos, but also the choices made in advance of rockets leaving the launch pad. To that end, Purdue University has recently published John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings by William F. Causey. Causey’s Houbolt examines NASA’s decision-making process through the lens of an individual. This approach places emphasis on the members of NASA–this is their story and not the story of the astronauts riding rockets. That being said, Causey’s book is no less amazing than the stories of the astronauts themselves and by pulling back the curtain, Causey deftly reveals the backstory and offers a fresh look at how NASA ultimately decided the method that would lead to footprints on the moon.

My introduction to the mind of John Houbolt, and I would wager some our readers as well, came in the form of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (based in part off the book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin). In the episode ‘Spider,’ Houbolt is shown as the ‘voice in the wilderness’ who bravely stood against senior NASA leaders to preach the gospel of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) as the preferred method of sending astronauts to the moon.

Causey’s work demonstrates that the history of LOR is richer than just Houbolt’s contributions and the entire work is as much a history of NASA’s early years and its decision-making process as it is about Houbolt himself. This is a book about how we got to the moon, or rather, about how NASA decided how we would get to the moon. Causey’s work covers the period from roughly 1957 to 1963 and represents a comprehensive and readable history of NASA’s early years, but one that still brings a fresh and nuanced perspective to a familiar story.

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On 24 July 1962, Dr John Houbolt explained his lunar orbit rendezvous concept for landing on the Moon. His approach called for a separate lander which saved weight from the ‘direct ascent’ design in which the entire spacecraft landed on the lunar surface. (Source: NASA)

This is a vital book as it refocuses attention on the thousands of people who aided our ascension to deep space for the first time. While the written record has generally favoured the importance of the astronauts themselves in numerous books, biographies, and autobiographies, the recent trend in focus on the individuals behind the scenes has improved our understanding of the golden age of NASA and crewed spaceflight. Causey’s biography of Houbolt now sits alongside other recent publications including Sonny Tsiao’s Piercing the Horizon: The Story of Visionary NASA Chief Tom Paine, Richard Jurek’s The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George M. Low and Rick Houston and Milt Heflin’s Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992. This is important for several reasons, but perhaps most of all because these books continue to expand our understanding of NASA as an organisation composed of thousands and not as one whose principal employees are those at the end of propellant-fueled rockets.

Causey writes with a deftness and a flair that keeps the narrative moving forward even when the subject matter is the Space Task Group, the Goett Committee, the New Projects Panel or any number of other bureaucratic organisations in the NASA hierarchy. This work never feels like you are reading the history of an organisational board meeting, but adroitly describes how the workers at the various levels of NASA made the important decisions necessary that made the entire Apollo program possible. If you are picking up this work, there stands a good chance you have more than a passing understanding of NASA’s history and organisation, and while you might be familiar with the LOR story, Causey’s telling through the lens of Houbolt is worth a read even if you think you have read it all already and neither the scholar nor the buff will be disappointed. This is an essential and much-needed addition to the history of the Apollo Program. Causey’s John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings is a critical and stimulating look at the individual of John Houbolt, but also at NASA writ large.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US 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. He is also the author of 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 online at www.BrianLaslie.com

Header Image: A view of the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle as it returned from the surface of the moon to dock with the command module Columbia. A smooth mare area is visible on the Moon below and a half-illuminated Earth hangs over the horizon. The lunar module ascent stage was about 4 meters across. (Source: NASA)

#BookReview – To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts

#BookReview – To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

Rebecca Siegel, To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts. New York, NY: Scholastic Focus, 2020. Bibliography. Hbk. 340 pp.

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Academic book reviews, at least those found in the back two-thirds of academic journals, tend to follow a predictable pattern. The good: ‘The author deftly demonstrates…’ Followed by the not so good: ‘What the author misses though is…’ Finally, the wrap up: ‘In the end, this work…’ It is, to a certain degree, the nature of the ‘business’ of academia, the manner in which one professional must praise and critique the work of a peer to the wider audience of colleagues. Removed from this predictable outline of reviews are more personal opinions. One will likely not find the phrase, ‘I enjoyed….’ I have often lamented to friends that nothing will ruin your love of history like the professional study of it. So, it is with great pleasure that every so often a book lands on my desk that is at the same time a well-written history and a thoroughly enjoyable book. Rebecca Siegel’s To Fly Among the Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts is just such a book. For something a bit different here at From Balloons to Drones, I will follow the predictable pattern not so often found on blog posts.

The Good. The author deftly demonstrates that the search (and desire) for women astronauts has been almost entirely overlooked. In this book, written for the upper Middle Grade to Young Adult audience, Siegel weaves the well-known story of the Mercury 7 alongside the contemporaneous story of the virtually unknown ‘Mercury 13’ – the moniker was never official and added much later. This is not to say that the study of these pioneers has been entirely overlooked, and I would encourage our readers to get their hands on the following works: Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight and Margaret A. Weitkamp’s Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program. Do not allow the fact that this is a book written for a younger audience, dissuade you from its importance and what will surely be great impact. For starters, this is a good book. Even scholars of the field will likely find something new – and dare I say something to enjoy – in these pages. Siegel has not only done her homework, but she provides avenues for a new generation to do theirs: her bibliography, the place where the next generation scholars and scientists will turn, is diverse and exhaustive. Considering, the age group this book is intended for, the bibliography is the equal of scholarship on the subject.

The not so good. What the author misses though is…not much. Weaving the familiar with the lesser-known demonstrates the state of cultural and gender backwardness that was accepted as normal practice in the latter half of the 20th Century. Siegel presents a refreshing take on a familiar space story. Most female pilots struggled to find work and acceptance in the air, but for a select few being a pilot was not enough. While the names Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Cooper, Slayton, Schirra remain (more or less) recognisable, the names Cobb, Dietrich, Steadman, Sloan, Funk and others are not. Siegel’s timely work coincides not only with the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo flights but with a modern NASA seeking to inspire an American public as it sets its sights once again on deep space travel. It was only 37 years ago that the first American female astronaut launched into space, the first female shuttle pilot 25 years ago, and the first female shuttle commander 21 years ago. In the 60+ year history of crewed American spaceflight, these exploits and successes were built upon lesser-known figures whom Siegel brings to light for a younger audience.

In the end, this work will appeal to a wide audience: across specialties, across interests, across genders and across generations. To steal from another space-themed genre, this work will be the spark that lights the fire in the next generation of space explorers. We are all better for this book having been written.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US 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 second book was 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: Exuberant and thrilled to be at the Kennedy Space Center, seven women who once aspired to fly into space stand outside Launch Pad 39B neat the Space Shuttle Discovery, poised for liftoff on the first flight of 1995. They are members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the ‘Mercury 13’), a group of women who trained to become astronauts for Americas first human spaceflight program back in the early 1960s. Although this FLATs effort was never an official NASA program, their commitment helped pave the way for the milestone Eileen Collins set: becoming the first female Shuttle pilot. Visiting the space center as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins are (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Apollo: An Interview with Dr Roger Launius

#Podcast – Apollo: An Interview with Dr Roger Launius

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, this series aims to build on the success of From Balloons to Drones and provide an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.

In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Roger Launius about the history, legacy, and memory of the Apollo program and the moon landing, at the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s famous steps for all mankind. Looking back after all this time, what does the Apollo program mean for us today?

Dr Roger Launius retired from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 2016 as Associate Director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs having previously served in several other positions. Before that, he had been Chief Historian for NASA. As well as being a specialist in the history of air and space power, he has also written on 19th century American history. You can find his website here.

Header Image: A photograph of the Apollo 11 crew just after they had been selected for the mission. Left to right, are Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., the lunar module pilot; Neil A. Armstrong, commander; and Michael Collins, command module pilot. They were photographed in front of a lunar module mock-up beside Building 1 following a press conference in the MSC Auditorium, c. January 1969. (Source: NASA)

#BookReview – Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind

#BookReview – Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

James R. Hansen, Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2019. Appendix. Notes. Hbk. 400 pp.

Neil Armstrong

Twenty-nineteen represented, for me, a golden age of space nostalgia. Twenty-eighteen through to 2022 represents the fiftieth anniversaries of the 11 human-crewed Apollo flights. Everywhere you turn you see someone in some NASA paraphernalia. Books on the Apollo program and NASA writ large are taking over the Science sections at local bookstores and larger chain stores. The government organisation is enjoying an undeniable resurgence and moment of ‘coolness,’ though I ponder whether anyone under the age of 40 uses that term. Perhaps no single individual enjoyed a greater resurgence in this regard over the last two years than the first man on the moon, Neil A. Armstrong. Twenty-eighteen saw the release of the film First Man, based on the authorised biography of the same name by James R. Hansen. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission witnessed the release of CNN Film’s Apollo 11 documentary and those in Washington DC were even able to witness the Saturn V launch from the Washington Memorial.

Hansen returns to his topic with the release of Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind. At its core, the book is simply a collection of letters, a representative sample of the hundreds of thousands of letters that were sent to Armstrong before, during, and after his mission; a series of letters that lasted until his death in 2012. This correspondence is now held in the Purdue University Archives as part of Armstrong’s papers. Hansen indicated that this book is the first of at least two books covering the trove of correspondence now housed at Purdue University.

Hansen’s preface included the words given to Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin printed on a small silicon-disc and left on the surface of the moon. Much like the rest of the book, Hansen only included samples. From Félix Houphouët-Boigny, President of the Ivory Coast (p. xiv), ‘I especially wish that he would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are when viewed from up there.’ John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia (p. xv), chose to quote Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses ‘to strive, to seek, and to find, and not to yield.’ The disc remains at the foot of the Lunar Module Descent Stage where Aldrin dropped it while climbing back into the Module.

Apollo_11_ticker_tape_parade_1
A ticker tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts in Manhattan, New York City on the section of Broadway known as the ‘Canyon of Heroes.’ Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. (Source: Wikimedia)

The book is divided into thematic chapters: ‘First Word,’ presents correspondence that poured in during the weeks leading up to the launch of Apollo 11 and deals with letters giving Armstrong advice on what to say. ‘Congratulations and Welcome Home’ samples some of the hundreds-of-thousands cards and messages that poured into Armstrong’s inbox in the immediate aftermath of the mission from military service secretaries, general officers, old friends, and civic leaders. Chapter three entitled ‘The Soviets,’ contains selections from the letters that came in from behind the Iron Curtin including from leaders and citizens of Poland, Serbia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. Congratulations from behind the wall also came from fellow Soviet Cosmonauts. Perhaps no better chapter demonstrates how the Apollo 11 mission was viewed as a globally unifying event. ‘For all Mankind’ contains the letters coming in from women, men, and children of all ages all around the globe.

The final three chapters go especially well together: Many Americans wanted a piece of what they considered to be their man on the moon and these letters are found in the chapters ‘From all America,’ ‘Reluctantly Famous,’ and ‘The Principled Citizen.’ Many of the appeals were harmless requests for autographs and at higher levels requests for appearances, but some requests were outright bizarre. For example, one letter requested an impression of Armstrong’s foot in clay (p. 161).  Hansen has done a superb job of providing the breadth of requests made to Armstrong in the years following his return to Earth. The simple fact remains that too many of us asked for too much of this man who simply could not respond and give of all he was asked to do.

It would be remiss if I did not ponder what this book tells us about air and space power? As I poured through the selected letters and pondered the many thousands more that Hansen could not include, it became clear that there was and remains to this day something ephemeral and special about crewed spaceflight. The book brought to mind the importance of Joseph Corn’s The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation (1983); however, it also demonstrated that the romance with crewed spaceflight is not unique to America at all. In America and around the world, the love and excitement for space exploration were undoubtedly not monolithic, but Armstrong became the embodiment for those who recognised the crewed Apollo missions as something significant and special in the history of mankind.

Dear Neil Armstrong will appeal to those seeking a deeper understanding of what the Apollo program meant, much like Roger D. Launius’ magnificent Apollo’s Legacy, but Hansen’s reaches us on a deeper personal level here. Hansen’s First Man is and will remain, the definitive biography of Armstrong, but the collection Hansen has put together is a must-have for those seeking to understand the more profound social and cultural meaning of Apollo, namely how the world viewed this particular man and what it desired of him in return. As Hansen more eloquently reflected (p. xxiii), ‘[c]ertainly it is my own conclusion that the letters ultimately tell us more about ourselves than they do about Neil.’

Dr Brian Laslie is a US 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: Neil Armstrong is seen here next to the X-15 ship #1 after a research flight. Armstrong made his first X-15 flight on November 30, 1960, in the #1 X-15. He made his second flight on December 9, 1960, in the same aircraft. This was the first X-15 flight to use the ball nose, which provided accurate measurement of airspeed and flow angle at supersonic and hypersonic speeds. The servo-actuated ball nose can be seen in this photo in front of Armstrong’s right hand. The X-15 employed a non-standard landing gear. It had a nose gear with a wheel and tire, but the main landing consisted of skids mounted at the rear of the vehicle. In the photo, the left skid is visible, as are marks on the lakebed from both skids. Because of the skids, the rocket-powered aircraft could only land on a dry lakebed, not on a concrete runway.