#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)

Space: A Reading List

Space: A Reading List

By Dr Brian Laslie

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

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

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

Primer Texts:

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

NASA History Series (@NASAhistory)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memoirs and Biographies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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