#Podcast – Interview with Dr Roger Launius

#Podcast – 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.

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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.

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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.

#BookReview – Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise that Launched America into the Space Age

#BookReview – Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise that Launched America into the Space Age

Robert Stone and Alan Andres, Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise that Launched America into the Space Age. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2019. Appendix. Images. Notes. Hbk. 384 pp.

By Dr Brian Laslie

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In recent months, From Balloons to Drones has highlighted and reviewed numerous books, both old and new, that deal with the Space Race, the moon landings, and the Apollo Program writ large. As the proliferation of printed materials continues to grow – not only as the moon landings themselves recede into memory but as there is an increase of ‘Apollo at 50’ printed materials – it becomes necessary to ask the question, what makes any new work different? What does a particular book tell us about the Apollo program or early space exploration that we do not already know? The answer, in this case, is a surprising amount and denotes that there are still new areas to research and historical stories to be told when dealing with early space exploration.

Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise That Launched America into the Space Age is equal parts social history, cultural history, Cold War history, and political history. The authors state that the journey to the moon (p. x) ‘was a story of courage, adventure, and scientific exploration as well as an exercise in geopolitics.’ This is the long view of reaching the moon. Although the book is billed as ‘a companion to the American Experience film on PBS,’ it is also about the Russian, German, and British experience in the long narrative of the journey to the moon. This is one of the aspects that makes this book unique; it is not viewed either as a singular American accomplishment or as a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. While the entire space race could rightly be said to be both of those things, it is not only those things. Chasing the Moon brilliantly and adroitly links the global history of reaching for the stars, or – from the first rockets to the first footprints on Luna.

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On 19 December 1972, the Apollo 17 crew returned to Earth following a successful 12-day mission. Apollo 17 marked the final crewed lunar landing mission. Here, Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan approaches the parked Lunar Roving Vehicle. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center designed, developed and managed the production of the Lunar Roving Vehicle that astronauts used to explore the Moon. (Source: NASA)

Within these pages are the origins stories and names that are familiar to the early days of rocketry: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth, but other familiar names have a role as well. The legendary Arthur C. Clarke’s appearance in these pages is a welcome addition and demonstrates how the melding of pure science and science-fiction enabled the latter to become science-fact, and how both helped advance the cause of the other. Fact and fiction advanced together thanks to their symbiotic relationship, which also helped in America’s understanding of space exploration at large.

Short of a full biography, Chasing the Moon does an admirable job of telling the good and the bad of ‘The Man Who Sold the Moon,’ Werner von Braun. Von Braun’s importance to the development of rocketry is intertwined with his Nazi past; neither is ignored here. His celebrity nearly eclipsed that of the ‘original 7.’ This was of course helped by his appearance on Walt Disney’s television show Disneyland, which helped promote not only Disney’s ‘Tomorrowland,’ but also the concepts and ideas of rocketry and space that von Braun was so passionate about (pp. 58-9). It was von Braun’s association with Disney (p. 60) that ‘bestowed an imprimatur of American Respectability on the former official of the Third Reich.

While the astronauts do not play second fiddle in this work, this is really the story of those actors who have not traditionally garnered as much attention as the Apollo crews themselves. Obviously the first several classes of NASA’s ‘exemplars of American masculinity, courage, resourcefulness, and intelligence’ appear here, but this work gives agency and voice to the ‘others’ who get their (over)due attention here. These include Julian Scheer, James Webb, and Frances ‘Poppy’ Northcutt, and it is their stories that make Chasing the Moon such a worthwhile endeavour (p. 77).

If there is a downside to this work, it is that several of the Apollo missions, including 7, 9, and 14-17, are mentioned only in passing, but the authors can be forgiven as this is not the story of the Apollo program or of moon exploration, which has more than been adequately covered elsewhere. This is the story of humanity’s journey to the moon. The authors state in the closing pages that ‘[T]he enduring meaning of the space race remains elusive half a century after it came to its end,’ but this work helps give meaning to the space race itself as both a jobs program and an imprimatur of achievement in the twentieth century (p. 301).

This book will appeal to anyone interested in humanity’s journey to the moon, but especially those who are looking for the longer view of that journey: one that traces the voyage from the dawn of rocketry to that small step for a man. This excellent works stands on its own and is destined to become a classic in its own right. Stone and Andres will surely join the likes of Andrew Chaikin, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Jay Barbree, Charles Murray, and Catherine Cox.

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. 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 on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: Fifty years ago on 20 July 1969, humanity stepped foot on another celestial body and into history. (Source: NASA)

#BookReview – Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975

#BookReview – Footprints in the Dust:  The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975

By Dr Brian Laslie

Colin Burgess (ed.), Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010. Illustrations. Appendix. References. Index. Hbk. 480 pp.

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This review follows on the heels of my review of In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969 and is about a book which itself is a follow-on to that work. Whether the press intended it, one might consider Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965, In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969, and Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975 a three-volume set within the overarching series. You could also add in Bison Books’ great work Homesteading Space about the three Skylab missions, which always seem to be separated from their Apollo brethren.

Footprints in the Dust begins with a forward from the astronaut and Gemini 11/Apollo 12 member Richard Gordon. In it, he states that the Apollo Program was ‘a true epoch of the Space Age, a golden era of scientific endeavour, advancement, and incredible discovery’ (p. xxi). Interest in the past Apollo Program and the future of human-crewed spaceflight is undoubtedly on the rise in 2019 with the anniversaries of Apollos 9, 10, 11, and 12 all occurring this year and with NASA vowing a return to the moon in the (hopefully) not too distant future. Past is prologue as we look to the future and Footprints in the Dust is an excellent work to pick up this #Apollo50.

If Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon is the primus inter pares, in the Apollo history catalogue, then there must be a reason why Footprints in the Dust stands out, and indeed, this work goes beyond Chaikin’s 1967-1972 focus. It brings into more explicit context the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) and it also (rightly) places these under the rubric of the Apollo program. The contributors are a diverse group of space enthusiasts and aficionados.

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 A drawing of a Soviet LK lander illustrating its components: 1) passive plate of the docking system, 2) attitude control nozzles, 3) orbital rendezvous window, 4) landing window (in a concave recess), 5) high-gain antennas, 6) solid-fuel “nesting” engines, 7) footpads, 8) omnidirectional antenna, 9) rendezvous radar, A) pressurized compartment, B) equipment compartment, C) hatch, D) batteries, E) engine and fuel tanks, G) ladder. (Source: Wikimedia)

There are some excellent highlights. The ability to put the Soviet space program in context with its American counterparts is something this book (and the entire Outward Odyssey series in general) does uniquely well. These ‘Soviet chapters’ demonstrate how the Soviet Union’s manned program continued to keep moving forward despite the dawning realisation they would never reach the lunar surface. Dominic Phelan’s ‘The Eagle and the Bear’ about exactly how the Soviets planned to pull off a lunar landing is especially illuminating. As is Colin Burgess’ ‘A Whole New Focus’ which presents the tragedy of the Soyuz II mission

On the American side, the Apollo 12 seems eternally wedged – and not just numerically – between Apollo 11 and 13. This chapter written by John Youskauskas is simply terrific. Philip Bakers’ ‘Science and a Little Golf’ about Alan Shepard’s triumphant return to space, Edgar Mitchell’s ESP attempts, and Stu Roosa’s struggles with his Hycon camera are all highlights. All members of Apollo 14 have departed this planet for the final time, and this chapter does each of them a great service. Although those familiar with Apollo 14’s moon EVAs will know this bit of information, will still find themselves hoping Mitchell and Shepard reach cone crater at last. Finally, Collin Burgess’ chapter ‘Beyond the Moon’ about Skylab and the cancelled Apollo 18-20 missions demonstrate what was gained through Skylab but lost on the lunar service, not just for science but for the crews who were never afforded their opportunity to put their footprints in the dust.

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Two Apollo 17 crewmen ready a Lunar Roving Vehicle trainer following its deployment from a Lunar Module trainer in the Flight Crew Training Building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, c. September 1972. Taking part in the Apollo 17 training exercise were astronauts Eugene A. Cernan (right), commander; and Harrison H. ‘Jack’ Schmitt, lunar module pilot. (Source: NASA)

All that being said, some of the chapters suffer, not from anything the authors did wrong, but simply from coverage in other books and media, namely the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions. In the books already written, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the stories of Apollo 11,13, and to a lesser extent the later well-documented moon missions 15-17 into something genuinely new, but the authors in this book put in the effort to do so.

Readers of From Balloons to Drones will by now be familiar with the fabulous work of both the University Press of Florida and, in this case, the University Press of Nebraska’s great works on space exploration. In this, the 50th anniversary of the first moon landings, it is a fitting time to reflect on what was gained, and perhaps just as important, what was lost in the race to the moon and Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975 does both exceedingly well. This is a superb work and well worth your time.

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: Sitting in the life raft, during the Apollo 12 Pacific recovery, are the three mission astronauts; Alan L. Bean, pilot of the Lunar Module (LM), Intrepid; Richard Gordon, pilot of the Command Module (CM), Yankee Clipper; and Spacecraft Commander Charles Conrad. The second manned lunar landing mission, Apollo 12 launched from launch pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 14 November 1969 via a Saturn V launch vehicle. The LM, Intrepid, landed astronauts Conrad and Bean on the lunar surface in what’s known as the Ocean of Storms, while astronaut Richard Gordon piloted the CM, Yankee Clipper, in a parking orbit around the Moon. Lunar soil activities included the deployment of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, finding the unmanned Surveyor 3 that landed on the Moon on 19 April 19, 1967, and collecting 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of rock samples. Apollo 12 safely returned to Earth on November 24, 1969. (Source: NASA)

#BookReview – Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments

#BookReview – Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments

J.L. Pickering and John Bisney, Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2019. Hbk. 264 pp.

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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 excellent one at that. J.L. Pickering and John Bisney have brought us Picturing Apollo 11: Rare Views and Undiscovered Moments. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, there is sure to be a proliferation of all sorts of materials, merchandise, and collectables celebrating one of, if not the defining moment of the 20th Century and in what will undoubtedly be a crowded field, it will be difficult for printed works to stand out. Pickering and Bisney have accomplished just that, a unique look at the Apollo 11 mission through photographs: both official and candid – many of which have never been published before.

It is common practice for me that when a book arrives in my mailbox, I will take a few minutes and flip through it. It should be noted that when Picturing Apollo 11 arrived on my doorstep, I stopped what I was doing, sat down, and read the entire book (insert joke here about my ‘reading’ a picture book). However, this extremely well-done book did what few other works can do, it stopped me in my tracks. Divided into nine chapters, the book covers everything from the assembly of their Saturn V, training for the mission, all the way through the triumphant return home. Rather than review the book as you might typically find on the site, I have decided to highlight some of my favourite photographs from the book.

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Astronaut and Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin is pictured during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the moon. He had just deployed the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package. In the foreground is the Passive Seismic Experiment Package; beyond it is the Laser Ranging Retro-Reflector (LR-3). (Source: NASA)

Any of the shots of the Saturn V rocket, Service Module, Command Module, or Lunar Module arriving at the Cape and being ‘processed’ and stacked are compelling. However, I found myself especially drawn to photos of the Command Module (CM) wrapped in the protective blue plastic covering (p. 51) – this was how Apollo Nine’s CM came to be known as ‘Gumdrop.’ If you have ever viewed one of the Apollo CMs in a museum setting – I am currently trying to see them all – you have only ever seen the scorched and burned relic after its re-entry. There is something inexplicably ‘technological’ when you view the CM as it was before being mounted on the Service Module; the newness and perfection of the CM in its original state are fascinating. It is also especially entertaining to see the many ‘Remove Before Flight’ banners hanging about the CM as if it has been decorated with red sprinkles in addition to its blue wrapping.

I also enjoyed many of the candid shots of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins during training (pp. 71-80) or visiting (pp. 82-8) the Apollo support sites around the country. Sixties fashion is on full display in these pages and as representative of the times as the astronaut’s moon suits!  In this vein, there is an excellent shot of a group of the Apollo Astronauts at the US Navy Diving School in Key West, Florida; love the paisley shirt, Neil!

Military pilots love the T-38, and NASA used the versatile training aircraft to keep up the astronaut’s proficiencies, but also as a way for the astronauts to travel rapidly across the country from Texas to Florida, California, and Missouri. Here, there is an excellent shot of Armstrong and NASA’s Flight Crew Operations Director Deke Slayton (p. 95) strolling away from their parked T-38; while Armstrong looks conservative in his blue flight suit, Slayton looks every bit the fighter pilot and a bit more devil-may-care. Their personalities come forth in the photograph: Armstrong the Engineer, Slayton, the tough-as-nails director.

The pictures from all the moon landings are amazing, but as better equipment was sent up on later missions, those shots became increasingly more precise and crisper. Armstrong and Aldrin suffered from being the first in this regard, but modern photographic enhancement has brought the Apollo 11 shots into better relief. In this regard, my favourite photograph in the book is a shot of Aldrin and the American Flag (p. 193), where if you look close enough, you can clearly see Aldrin’s face inside the suit looking towards Armstrong. As you may know the pictures of Armstrong on the lunar surface are limited, but a great photograph of a relaxed looking Armstrong back inside the Eagle smiling after the EVA was completed sums up his feelings after landing and walking on the moon.

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The Apollo 11 astronauts, left to right, Commander Neil A. Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. ‘Buzz’ Aldrin Jr., inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS Hornet, listen to President Richard M. Nixon on 24 July 1969 as he welcomes them back to Earth and congratulates them. (Source: NASA)

Picturing Apollo 11 is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is a truly unique work and a compelling collection of photographs that is sure to fire the imagination of those who remember the mission and those looking retrospectively at an event they were not around to see. As I closed the book, I again wondered, when will we return?

After you have ordered Picturing Apollo 11, I also highly encourage you to pick up a copy of Apollo VII-XVII a photographic journey through all the Apollo missions.

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: On 1 March 1968, the Saturn S-IC-6 arrived at the Mississippi Test Facility – today’s NASA Stennis Space Center – from the Michoud Assembly Facility. The was the first stage section of the Saturn V rocket the took Apollo 11 into space. (Source: NASA)

#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

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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.’

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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)

#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.

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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.

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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.

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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)