Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Brothers Under The Skin: 'Island of Clouds' And The Myth of the Astronaut as Hero

NASA photo, July 18, 1969: " The face of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, is seen in this color reproduction, taken from the third television transmission, from the Apollo 11 spacecraft during its trans-lunar journey toward the moon. Aldrin is inside the Lunar Module (LM)."
In the early days of the space program NASA, aided by a questionable agreement with Life magazine, sought to portray the first astronauts as the embodiment of American values. Good husbands, fathers, family men, patriots, professionals. It would have been naïve even at that time to expect them all to be from the same cookie cutter mold. Perhaps that mold was legitimate in one dimension only: they were all competent, even outstanding, pilots.” - Dwayne Day, “Buzz Aldrin will not stop talking,” published on The Space Review, May 15, 2017

[Joan Crawford] was a professional. We did one picture together. Our lives intersected. That’s it.” - Bette Davis played by Susan Sarandon in Feud: Bette and Joan

The subheadings in Dwayne Day’s piece “Buzz Aldrin will not stop talking,” which was published in The Space Review in May, asked the reader, “What do we owe our heroes? What do our heroes owe us?” Day later added, “Our heroes are rarely who we want them to be.” Day underscored in his piece that the tempestuous Aldrin was the first of the Apollo astronauts to tarnish the luster of the “perfect Astronaut” image with his 1973 autobiography, Return to Earth. In that tome, Aldrin discussed the less pleasant aspects of his life in then-unprecedented detail, even dishing intimate details about his alcoholism, adultery, and depression, which were taboo topics at the time. While Aldrin’s achievements cannot be discounted, he has always been kind of an “odd bird” compared to his contemporaries.

Despite that, Aldrin wouldn’t be the last astronaut to dismantle the image of the “astronaut hero.” Walt Cunningham’s All-American Boys, originally published in 1977, functioned as the Ball Four of astronaut autobiographies. Cunningham spared very little in his reminiscences about his colleagues. Two more recent entries in the genre, Al Worden’s Falling to Earth and Donn Eisele’s Apollo Pilot (both co-written with Francis French) further tore down the image of the perfect Astronaut, the infallible knight clad in a white A7L spacesuit.

The Apollo astronauts, probably more than their shuttle counterparts, occupy a strange place in history. Many were test pilots, and all were suddenly thrust into an unforgiving spotlight with little to no warning. Some of them wore their “fame” with more dignity than others. One fictional book released in May, Island of Clouds by Gerald Brennan, furthers Day’s investigation into the myth of “astronaut as hero,” shedding light upon the “fame monster,” and the forced notion of brotherhood and camaraderie among the astronaut corps. Warning: minor book spoilers included.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Maybe It’s Time for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project to Have Its Moment Again

NASA photo, Feb. 1975: "The five prime crew members of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission pose for a group photograph while at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for a three-day inspection tour. They are, left to right, astronaut Donald K. (Deke) Slayton, docking module pilot of the American crew; astronaut Vance D. Brand, command module pilot of the American crew; astronaut Thomas P. Stafford, commander of the American crew; cosmonaut Aleksey A. Leonov, commander of the Soviet crew; and cosmonaut Valeriy N. Kubasov, engineer of the Soviet crew. They were at KSC to look over launch facilities and flight hardware. They are standing in front of artist Robert McCall's painting of an ASTP docking in Earth orbit." 
Space history-wise, the time period from 1973 to 1975 is often overlooked. The Apollo lunar missions had ended, and the Space Shuttle program was just beginning to take shape. The keel for Enterprise had just been laid in 1974. That leaves us with two programs, which were all that remained of what was once known as the Apollo Applications Program: Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP).

People remember lots of disco-funk music, and the mustard-colored uniforms from that NASA era. Even Deke Slayton was wearing lots of plaid, wide ties, and was sporting of-their-time mutton chops. Unfortunately, in terms of attention, many space enthusiasts treat these 1970s programs like “the middle child.” They are seen as lacking the glamour of the prior Moon landings, and aren’t seen as thrilling as the then-upcoming Shuttle program. 

NASA image, a 1973 artist's concept of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
This blog has discussed Skylab countless times, and in the last decade that program has experienced – and continues to experience – a sort of renaissance in the hearts and minds of space fans. What about Apollo-Soyuz? While there were some pangs of nostalgia when its 40th anniversary was celebrated a couple of years ago, it, too, doesn’t gain as much attention as its more exciting Apollo counterparts. Luckily, there are several books that serve to fill in the gaps for space enthusiasts curious about this July 1975 cultural, political, and technological watershed moment.

There are several astronaut autobiographies, including General Thomas Stafford’s We Have Capture, Slayton’s Deke!, and Alexei Leonov’s Two Sides of the Moon (co-authored with astronaut Dave Scott), that discuss ASTP in detail. A newer autobiography, Vance Brand’s Flying Higher and Faster, is a welcome addition to this genre. Published last year, Brand’s book delves into much of the training he undertook before the mission, and underscores his personal dedication to fitting in as well as possible with the Soviet ASTP crew, Leonov and Kubasov. Brand took lessons in the Russian language on his own time, and on his own dime, well before the mission was flown.
We probably had a lot of accent in our Russian. You know, Tom always claims to speak ‘Oklahomaski,’ which is a combination of Oklahoma – well, it’s Russian with an Oklahoma accent. I know we all had an accent, and they had accents. We all had varying degrees of expertise with the other person’s language. They did very well in English, I thought, and it was always hard for me to judge how well we did in Russian because you can’t really hear yourself like a Russian would. But we had excellent communications, could understand each other very well.” – Vance Brand, July 25th, 2000 NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project interview
There are also reminiscences about the trips the crews took afterward to promote their message of international cooperation in space. Brand is one of the quieter astronauts from the Apollo era, and it’s nice to finally hear his thoughts about his life, career, and missions. Brand went on to fly three Shuttle missions in the years after ASTP, and remained at NASA until 2008, capping off nearly 42 years at the space agency. 

NASA photo, labeled Feb. 13, 1975: "Two crewmen of the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission participate in ASTP training in Building 35 at the Johnson Space Center. They are astronaut Vance D. Brand (left), command module pilot of the American ASTP prime crew; and cosmonaut Valeriy N. Kubasov, engineer on the Soviet ASTP first (prime) crew. They are in the Soyuz spacecraft orbital module mock-up. Brand and Kubasov are going through a walk-through simulation of the second day of activities in Earth orbit. Brand takes some pictures."
Perhaps the best existing standalone book about ASTP is The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, written by Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell. Published by NASA shortly after the end of ASTP in 1978, this book delves into the many political, cultural, and technical challenges involved in bringing U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts together in orbit. One will discover that docking two disparate spacecraft with different atmospheres and operating pressures isn’t as simple as it seems; there was much concern about the docking mechanism that brought the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft together. While this book was published nearly 40 years ago, this writer has no doubt that many of its lessons and findings contributed to developing “Phase One” (Shuttle-Mir) and the International Space Station in subsequent years.

An upcoming book to be published on Apogee, the Apollo-Soyuz NASA Mission Reports, is currently being put together by author and filmmaker Dwight Steven-Boniecki. Maybe it’s time for ASTP to have its own renaissance. Five men from completely different backgrounds and cultures found common ground in low Earth orbit, which at the height of the Cold War, was nothing short of miraculous. In addition, the cultural and technological resonances from this mission directly contributed to Shuttle-Mir, and our present fortress in space, the International Space Station. And, of course, there was a handshake we’ll never forget.

Some content for this blog post was excerpted from the author’s opening remarks at the Skylab/ASTP Panel at Spacefest VIII, which took place on June 10, 2017. 

NASA photo, July 17 or 18, 1975: "Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (left) and cosmonaut Aleksey A. Leonov are photographed together in the Soyuz Orbital Module during the joint U.S.-USSR Apollo-Soyuz Test Project docking mission in Earth orbit. They are respective commanders of their crews."

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Ye Olde Space Book Corner: 1988’s Liftoff and The Soviet Manned Space Program

From July 18, 1966: "Astronaut Michael Collins, command pilot, is photographed inside the spacecraft during the Gemini 10 mission." NASA photo.
The late 1980s represented a transitional time for both the U.S. and Soviet space programs. In January 1986, an unspeakable tragedy was etched all over the skies of Central Florida, signaling the fiery demise of Challenger; a lengthy investigation and redesign of many facets of the space shuttle program followed. Meanwhile, the Soviets focused on developing a space shuttle of their own (Buran), while also building infrastructure in space (Mir, their first modular space station, which stayed in orbit through 2001).

Two books, both released in 1988, address many of the issues associated with this era in spaceflight, while casting a witty, sometimes critical eye at both countries’ past glories. Both authors, despite writing about programs that exist on two sides of the world, managed to find common ground – and some of their words were chillingly prophetic.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The New Buran?: SA-500F, and Other Saturn Rockets for the Easily Triggered

"The Apollo Saturn V 500F Facilities Test vehicle, after conducting the VAB stacking operations, rolls out of the VAB on its way to Pad 39A to perform crawler, Launch Umbilical Tower, and pad operations." NASA photo, May 25, 1966. The SA-500F went on to have an eventful life after death.
Every few years or so, an old spacecraft or spacecraft concept appears and reappears on the Internet and becomes so ubiquitous, it almost becomes a meme. This blog has already gone into excruciatingly intense detail about the Soviet space shuttle that couldn’t: Buran. We all know Buran has appeared hundreds of times on social media, message boards, in my damn life, etc. Lately this ubiquity has extended to the SA-500F, the Saturn V facilities verification vehicle, and other sometimes upsetting mutations of the Saturn V and Saturn rocket family.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Last Hurrah: Skylab’s 1978-1979 Unmanned Mission

"An overhead view of the Skylab space station cluster in Earth orbit as photographed from the Skylab 4 Command and Service Modules (CSM) during the final fly-around by the CSM before returning home." Feb. 8, 1974 NASA photo

All things must pass away.” -George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass”
According to the NASA History book Living and Working in Space: The NASA History of Skylab, Skylab 4’s commander, Gerald Carr, boosted the space station’s orbit by firing the Apollo spacecraft’s attitude-control thrusters for three minutes at the end of his crew’s 1973-1974 mission. It was then expected that the space station might remain in orbit for another nine years, through 1983. By 1977, that expectancy shifted to 1980, the solar maximum year. But in early 1978, it was clear that Skylab might come down even sooner than expected. Solar activity had been the highest ever recorded by modern instruments, and this factor increased drag on the space station.

Adding insult to injury, a proposed Space Shuttle mission to attach a Teleoperator Retrieval System to Skylab was thwarted by the fact that the shuttle wasn’t yet ready for flight (and it wouldn’t be until 1981). Faced with this turn of events, Skylab thus began its final unmanned mission – with the aid of ground controllers and computer programmers. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Alone As Never Before: An Interview with ‘I Love You, Michael Collins’ Author Lauren Baratz-Logsted

The man who carried the fire: a close-up of Michael Collins during an Apollo 11 press conference, May 14, 1969. Photo Credit: The Project Apollo Image Archive
I knew I was alone in a way that no earthling has ever been before.” - Michael Collins, Gemini 10 and Apollo 11 astronaut

Author Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s newest book, I Love You, Michael Collins (to be released June 20th by Farrar Straus Giroux), is aimed at young readers, but can appeal to anyone who remembers what it was like to be “bitten by the space bug” at a young age, or people who simply love Michael Collins, one of NASA’s most beloved figures (and trust me, there are a lot of us). Many adult readers will be able to relate to the book’s young protagonist, a 10-year-old girl named Mamie, who is assigned to write one of the Apollo 11 astronauts for a school assignment in 1969. While Mamie continues to correspond with Collins throughout the book, changes arise on the home front, motivating her to emulate her hero by “staying with the ship.”

This Space Available interviewed Baratz-Logsted this week, and asked why she focused on a lesser-known Apollo 11 astronaut, and discussed the importance of keeping young adult books historically informative, but entertaining. Note: some book spoilers included.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How Skylab’s Beast of a Computer System Inspired the Space Shuttle

From Dec. 5, 1973: "Scientist-astronaut Edward G. Gibson, Skylab 4 science pilot, stands at the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) console in the Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) of the Skylab space station cluster in Earth orbit." The computer interface is at lower left, above the cables. Photo Credit: NASA
Skylab occupies a difficult spot in space history. One thing you hear too much when you’re a Skylab fan is how the first U.S. space station didn’t have any applications or purposes beyond its three crewed missions. This fallacy can be shot down on many levels, but one area that doesn’t get enough attention is how Skylab revolutionized the use of computer systems aboard spacecraft, and how its systems led to the development of the world’s most sophisticated flying machine, the Space Shuttle.