#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 – An Interview with Jeff Shesol

#Podcast – 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.

#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 – 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 – 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

2018: An Australian Space 2.0 Odyssey

2018: An Australian Space 2.0 Odyssey

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

These spacecraft are able to gather remote sensing information with radios and cameras, and are the sort of innovative space capability that can help meet many ground-based needs in ways that make sense for Australia. Because they have re-programmable software defined radios on board, we can change their purpose on the fly during the mission, which greatly improves the spacecraft’s functional capabilities for multiple use by Defence.[1]

Professor R Boyce, Chair for Space Engineering, UNSW Canberra (2017)

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Defence Science Technology Group (DST) of the Australian Department of Defence have separately established partnerships with University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra which has resulted in a space program with one DST space mission already in orbit, one RAAF mission about to be launched. Additional follow-on missions are planned for each of RAAF and DST for launch in the near future. A combination of disruption in space technology, associated with ‘Space 2.0’ that makes space more accessible, and a commitment by UNSW Canberra to develop a space program, has delivered M1 as the first Australian space mission for the RAAF. These small satellite missions will provide research that will give a better understanding, for the current and future Defence workforce, of the potential opportunities for exploiting the space domain using Space 2.0 technology. As such, this article explores the move away from Space 1.0 to Space 2.0. While discussed in more detail below, broadly speaking, Space 2.0 relates to the reduced costs of accessing space and conducting space missions with commercial-off-the-shelf satellite components for lower-cost small satellites and mission payloads.

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A lunch-box sized satellites (CubeSats) for the Buccaneer and Biarri space missions. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The objective of the ADF’s employment of the space domain is to support a better military situation for the joint force in operations planned and conducted in the air, sea, ground, and information domains. Currently, ADF joint warfighting operations are critically dependent on large and expensive satellites that are owned and operated by commercial and allied service providers. As such, a Defence-sponsored university program is currently underway to explore the potential benefits of employing microsatellites as a lower-costing option to augment the capabilities traditionally fulfilled by the large-sized satellites. Furthermore, orbiting space-based sensors can view much larger areas of the Earth in a single scan than are possible with airborne sensors. Thus, a space-supported force element can observe, communicate, and coordinate multiple force elements dispersed over large areas in multiple theatres of operations. Finally, the transmission of signals above the atmosphere enables better communications between satellites, performed over long distances over the horizon without atmospheric attenuation effects, to enable better inter-theatre and global communications.

In the twentieth century, space missions were only affordable through government-funded projects. Government sponsored organisations and missions continued to grow in size and their capabilities. In retrospect, government agencies and space industry now refer to these large-sized, expensive, and complex mission systems as ‘Space 1.0’ technology.[2] As national space agendas drove the development of bigger space launch vehicles able to carry and launch larger payloads with one or more large satellites, changes in government funding priorities away from space lift services began to stifle innovation in space technology which remained as high-end and expensive technology. Recently, in the twenty-first century, the large government agencies looked to commercial industries to find ways to innovate and develop cheaper alternatives for launching and operating space missions. This resulted in the commercialisation of affordable access to space, now commonly referred to as Space 2.0; an industry-led evolution that is generating more affordable commercial alternatives for space launch services and operations management, reusable space launch vehicles and, significantly, miniaturised satellite technology.[3] For example, in 1999, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and Stanford University’s Space Systems Development Lab developed the CubeSat standard, prescribed for the pico- and nanosatellite classes of microsatellites.[4] The CubeSat initiative was initially pursued to enable affordable access to reduce the barriers for university students to access space. CubeSat was initially designed to offer a small, inexpensive, and standardised satellite system to support university student experiments.

CubeSat modules are based on building up a satellite with a single or a multiple number of the smallest unitary 10cm cube module, referred to as a ‘1U’ CubeSat, i.e. a picosatellite.[5] This basic building block approach has enabled a standardisation in satellite designs and launchers. Each 1U can weigh up to 1.5 kg[6]; a ‘6U’ CubeSat, i.e. a nanosatellite, measures 30cm x 20cm x 10cm, six times a 1U and weighs up to twelve kilograms[7]. Microsatellites are typically comprised of a standardised satellite chassis and bus loaded with an onboard computer, ‘star tracker’ subsystem to measure satellite orientation, hardware to control satellite attitude and antenna pointing in orbit, solar power subsystem, communications subsystem, a deployable mechanism actuator for unfolding the solar panels and antennas, and the mission payload, i.e. mission-related sensors, cameras, radio transmitter/receiver and the suchlike.

Microsatellite projects exploit commonly available Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology to reduce costs and development schedules, even in military mission systems. The use of COTS technology enables a simplified plug-and-play approach to microsatellite engineering and design. By having pre-made, interchangeable and standardised components, microsatellite designs can be rapidly assembled, tested, evaluated, and modified until an acceptable solution is realised. Agile manufacturing methods such as 3D printing can further reduce the time taken to engineer and manufacture a viable operational microsatellite design.[8]

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The Buccaneer miniature satellite CubeSat at the UNSW Canberra satellite research laboratory at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra on 17 October, 2016.(Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The CubeSat model has become a commonly accepted standard for low-cost, low-altitude orbit, and short duration space missions. Microsatellites are relatively cheaper, more flexible in mission designs, and can be built more rapidly when compared to larger satellites, and can be replaced on-orbit more frequently, thereby taking advantage of recent technological innovation. Their small size can also exploit spare spaces in the payload section of the launch vehicles that are scheduled and funded mainly for larger satellites. This is commonly referred to as a ‘rideshare’ or ‘piggyback.’ The challenge for the designers of such ‘piggyback’ missions is to find a suitable launch event with a date and planned orbit that matches the readiness and mission of the microsatellite.

Space 2.0 evolution has realised commercial alternatives to the traditional space mission designs that used heavy satellites launched from heavy rockets. These smaller and cheaper rockets have been specifically designed to launch lighter payloads of microsatellites. In 2017, an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle using a PSLV-C37 heavy-lift rocket set a world record in lifting 104 small satellites into orbit in a single space launch event. As the Times of India reported:

India scripted a new chapter in the history of space exploration with the successful launch of a record 104 satellites by ISRO’s [Indian Space Research Organisation] Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in a single mission. Out of the total 104 satellites placed in orbit, 101 satellites belonged to six foreign countries. They included 96 from the US and one each from Israel, the UAE, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Kazakhstan.[9]

The growing maturity and expanding capabilities of CubeSat systems have seen a growing acceptance beyond university users. For example, DST and UNSW Canberra are designing, building, and testing microsatellite designs for space missions to meet Defence needs in Australia.

Space 2.0 standards and microsatellites are not intended to replace the traditional large satellites deployed into higher altitude orbit missions. Large and small-sized satellites each offer different benefits and limitations. Large satellites can collect information with higher fidelity when configured with bigger optical and radiofrequency apertures, with room available for better pointing control subsystem, larger and more powerful on-board computing systems, and multiple mission, all needing a larger power subsystem. Alternatively, disaggregating space missions across different small satellites, deployed into a large constellation, may be more survivable to environmental hazards and resilient to interference in a contested environment.

Small satellite missions can now fulfil the potential mission needs of military, commercial operators, scientists and university students. Microsatellites have already been employed for communications, signals intelligence, environmental monitoring, geo-positioning, observation and targeting. They can perform similar functions as larger satellites, albeit with a much smaller power source and reduced effective ranges for transmitters and electro-optical devices. They are easier and cheaper to make and launch for a short-term, low-Earth orbit mission. This is ideal for employing space missions to improve ADF capabilities on the ground.

Defence has partnered with UNSW Canberra, including ‘UNSW Canberra Space’ – a team of space academics and professionals – to collaborate in space research, engineering, and mission support services with Space 2.0 satellite technology in space missions for DST and RAAF. When combined with new and agile manufacturing techniques, these microsatellite missions provide the ADF with opportunities to test and evaluate potential options for operationally responsive space capabilities.

UNSW Canberra has already built the ‘Buccaneer Risk Mitigation Mission’ (BRMM) as its inaugural microsatellite space mission, in partnership with DST.[10] In November 2017, NASA successfully launched BRMM from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. BRMM is a collaboration, in both the project engineering project and space mission management, between DST and UNSW Canberra to jointly fly and operate the first Australian developed and operated defence-science mission. BRMM is currently operational in low-Earth orbit, at a height above the ionosphere which is a dynamic phenomenon that changes with space weather effects and the Sun’s position.

The importance of this orbit is that the RAAF is dependent on the ionosphere to enable functioning of its Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) systems, which is a crucial component of a national layered surveillance network that provides coverage of Australia’s northern approaches.[11] The JORN coverage and system performance are critically dependent on the ionosphere. The BRMM satellite is configured with a high-frequency receiver to measure the JORN signal that passes through the ionosphere. These signal measurements allow DST scientists and engineers to study the quality of JORN’s transmitted beam and signal, and the propagation of High Frequency (HF) radio waves that pass skywards through the ionosphere. BRMM was planned with a one-year mission-life but could stay in orbit for up to five years, depending on space weather effects and atmospheric drag.[12] BRMM is also a risk reduction activity for the ‘Buccaneer Main Mission’ (BMM) as a follow-on space mission.[13] BRMM will provide space data on how spacecraft interact with the orbital environment, to improve the satellite design for BMM, and also provide mission experience that can be used to improve the operation of the BMM. The BMM will also be used to calibrate the JORN high-frequency signals but will use an improved payload design, based on a heritage of BRMM. BMM is planned for a launch event in 2020.

This space odyssey pursued by UNSW Canberra is also bringing direct benefits to RAAF. The UNSW Canberra space program includes parallel efforts to develop three CubeSats, funded by RAAF, for two separate missions in separate events. These space missions will support academic research into the utility of microsatellites, configured with a small-sized sensor payload, for a maritime surveillance role. The first mission, ‘M1,’ will deploy a single CubeSat, currently scheduled to share a ride with a US launch services provider in mid-November 2018.[14] UNSW Canberra will continue the program and develop a second mission, ‘M2,’ which is planned to deploy two formation-flying, with inter-satellite communications, in a single space mission in 2019. The M1 and M2 missions will support research and education for space experts in Defence, and UNSW Canberra, to further explore and realise new possibilities with Space 2.0 technologies.

To conclude, the advent of Space 2.0 has reduced cost barriers and complexity to make access to space missions and space lift more affordable for more widespread uses. The increased affordability of space technology has helped to demystify mission systems and increase the interests and understanding of the potential opportunities for Space 2.0 missions as alternatives to more expensive and more complex space missions. Additionally, Space 2.0 enables agility in the design phase for the rapid development of new and viable concepts for space missions hitherto not possible with Space 1.0 technology. Space 2.0 evolution makes it possible for ADF to consider affordable space options; UNSW Canberra’s knowledge and technical achievements in space engineering and operations, with DST for Buccaneer and RAAF for M1 and M2, will provide critical research for considering the potential for new space missions for Australia.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is an Officer Aviation (Maritime Patrol & Response), currently serving in the RAAF Air Power Development Centre, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future employment of air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defence, Royal Australian Air Force, or the Government of Australia. The Commonwealth of Australia will not be legally responsible in contract, tort or otherwise, for any statements made in this document.

Header Image: Lunch-box sized satellites (CubeSats) used for the Buccaneer and Biarri space missions. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] UNSW Sydney, ‘RAAF invests $10 million in UNSW Canberra Space missions,’ UNSW Newsroom (2017).

[2] F. Burke, ‘Space 2.0: bringing space tech down to Earth,’ The Space Review, 27 April 2009.

[3] Ibid.

[4] NASA, ‘CubeSat 101 – Basic Concepts and Process for First-Time CubeSat Developers,’ NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative, NASA Website, 2017.

[5] ‘What are SmallSats and CubeSats?,’ NASA Website, 2015.

[6] Cubesat, 1U-3U CubeSat Design Specification, Revision 13, The CubeSat Program, 2014.

[7] Cubesat, 6U CubeSat Design Specification, Revision 1.0, The CubeSat Program, 2018.

[8] European Space Agency, ‘Ten Ways 3D Printing Could Change Space,’ Space Engineering & Technology, 2014.

[9] U. Tejonmayam, ‘ISRO creates history, launches 104 satellites in one go,’ The Times of India, 15 February 2017.

[10] H. Kramer, ‘Buccaneer CubeSat Mission,’ eoPortal Directory, 2017.

[11] Royal Australia Air Force, ‘Jindalee Operational Radar Network,’ 2018.

[12] Kramer, loc cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] UNSW Canberra, ‘M1 satellite on track for September launch,’ 2018.