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

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

By Dr Brian Laslie

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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