Saturday, September 15, 2018

Ye Olde Space Book Corner: What Neil Armstrong Definitely Wasn’t Doing Before Becoming "First Man"

Neil Armstrong somehow finds some time to practice landing on the Moon while he simultaneously spends 4,000 hours in the X-15. Real caption from NASA: "Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, participates in simulation training in preparation for the scheduled lunar landing mission. He is in the Apollo Lunar Module Mission Simulator in the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Flight Crew Training Building." Photo dated June 19, 1969
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first human-helmed lunar landing, and suffice it to say, there will be, no doubt, a great many books and television shows dedicated to this spaceflight milestone. The anniversary season kicks off on October 12th, with the release of the movie First Man. The film, based upon James R. Hansen’s officially-sanctioned Neil Armstrong biography, has already been critically well-received, and stars Oscar-nominated actor Ryan Gosling as the enigmatic Armstrong. Since the release of the movie’s trailers and preliminary viewings at two film festivals, the spaceflight community has been awash with talk about “what Neil would’ve wanted” with regard to the film. Thus far, early reviews have shown that First Man has been faithful to the book, the man, and his family.

That is not the case, however, with other books discussing Armstrong’s achievements and life. Meet Rocket Men, written by Craig Nelson, which was published around Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary. (This volume is not to be confused with the recently released book also called Rocket Men, written by Robert Kurson, which discusses Apollo 8’s mission.) According to the author’s website, this book fulfilled a need never before addressed in publishing history: “For the first time, an award-winning historian tells the full, epic story of the Space and Missile Race and its dramatic conclusion: the first moment when humankind set foot on another planet.” I guess Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon wasn’t shit then? There had been a great many fine books about the Space Race and ensuing Apollo missions published prior to this one, but I digress.

Full disclosure: I own a copy of Rocket Men, but I bought it for about a dollar at Borders many years ago, and I haven’t read it. Apparently I didn’t miss much, because the book is rife with errors that would send even the most casual space enthusiast over the edge. According to a Space Review article published shortly after the book’s release, the book was a trove of “howlers.” Writer Thomas J. Frieling detailed, “Nelson states that the X-15 was ‘aerotowed’ like a sailplane (p. 54) and that Neil Armstrong logged ‘over four thousand hours in the X-15’ (p. 53). The famous X-plane flew a total of one hundred ninety nine times with a typical flight lasting nine or ten minutes. Do the math, and the only way that claim works out is if Armstrong lived in the thing. Then there’s his assertion that the United States stationed ‘one hundred sixty Atlas ICBMs in Europe’ (p.139). In fact, no Atlas was ever deployed outside of the US.” This poor research does create an interesting opportunity though: if First Man had been done more recklessly, the whole movie would’ve consisted of Neil Armstrong just chillin’ in the X-15. The whole movie could have just been Gosling, squinting through his faceplate at the horizon, on a loop, over and over and over again.

Speaking of loops, the book also alleges that the Saturn V – which had a great success rate during its short history – was capable of some CRAZY behavior. Frieling continued, “… Nelson really reaches his apogee of mistakes with his over-the-top account of the first Saturn V launch (p. 194); where he writes: ‘Two F-1 rockets abruptly quit during liftoff, at which the stack pulled a U-turn and headed screaming back at the ground. But the guidance system righted the vehicle…’ The very next sentence goes on to describe the equally trouble-filled Apollo 5 launch in which two engines on the ‘three stage rocket died.’” I was not aware the Saturn V was able to loop around just like I loop around in my Nissan Sentra to make a turn when I miss the taco stand. Did Nelson get his account of these launches confused with the Apollo 6 launch, which did encounter problems (but still managed to be a partial success, carrying out an alternate mission)? Did he simply make this up? Who knows, only the author does. I’m a little surprised, however, the book made it past the fact-checking and editing stages without these things being addressed.

According to a July 2009 thread on collectSPACE, around the time of Rocket Men’s release, Nelson made an appearance on C-SPAN discussing his tome. A user called mdmyer recounted:

Mr. Nelson started off telling how Armstrong was shy or a recluse, even while he was an astronaut. He explained that was why other astronauts often called him the ‘Icy Commander.” [Note: Alan Shepard was actually the Icy Commander.] Then he explained how Buzz Aldrin has recently legally changed his name to Buzz and advised the people in attendance that they should not call him Eugene any more. 
 
Then he explained why the manned missions splashed down in the oceans instead of landing on the Earth. He said that NASA did not have the ability to accurately land the returning spacecraft on the Earth. As an example he asked what would happen if NASA aimed for the desert of the American southwest but instead had the spaceship land in Albuquerque. That, he explained, was why NASA used the oceans. 
 
Then he told of a launch of an X-15 rocket plane. He explained that Armstrong was piloting a B-29 with an X-15 strapped to one of its wings. He explained how one of the B-29 engines was going bad and the prop was coming loose. Armstrong told the pilot of the X-15 that he needed to drop him. The pilot reported that he was not ready but Armstrong explained that he needed to drop him anyway. Armstrong released him and then the prop fell off the B-29 and it took out two other engines. Armstrong was able to land the B-29 on the one remaining engine. The whole time he was telling this story the slide showed a B-29 and a rocket plane but it was not an X-15. 
 
Later Mr. Nelson detailed the crash of the LLTV that Armstrong was piloting. He said the LLTV was actually a prototype lunar lander and that it crashed because of wind shear.
There’s more in the thread and I’ll stop here, but damn, I hope the B-29 sequence makes it to First Man! I really want to see shirtless, chiseled Ryan Gosling in this crazy insane B-29/X-15 goulash scene, playing the Neil Armstrong of my fantasies that Nelson envisioned.

Somehow Rocket Men has almost four stars on Amazon, and despite its glaring conceptual errors, has received “glowing reviews” – but not from people who would know the difference between a Titan II and a Saturn V. This book seemed to be marketed to a general audience who might not have much passing knowledge about spaceflight, which is why it probably was published. It’s nice to see non-experts attempting to tackle spaceflight, but sometimes they just don’t know what they don’t know. This also illuminates the problem with reviews on Amazon – you’re never sure about the reviewer on the other end.

Hopefully, in 2019, we’ll see a spate of better edited efforts with heart that will do justice to Apollo’s – and Armstrong’s – legacy.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Movie Review: 'Salyut 7' Is Sort of A Mess. You Should Still See It

"Viktor, did you know I did all of the vocal tracks for Thriller? Well, I did. That guy Michael Jackson is partying it up back on Earth, and here I am, my ass is stuck on this damn frozen space station." Screenshot from Salyut 7 movie.
Salyut 7 bears the name of the Soviet-era, pre-Mir space station that boasted many firsts, including the second woman in space and the first woman to perform an EVA (both records held by Svetlana Savitskaya). Indeed, the film opens with a (partially fictionalized) depiction of her famous spacewalk. However, in the months following this first, Salyut 7 would run into big trouble; ground controllers were unable to communicate with the space station, and it was believed to be irretrievably dead. A great article discussing the actual efforts to save the station, helmed by Soyuz T-13 cosmonauts Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh, is accessible through Sven Grahn’s website. Being fair to the subject, this remains one of the greatest “rescue” stories in spaceflight history. While Skylab was in desperate shape following its May 1973 launch, it wasn’t dead. Dzhanibekov and Savinykh resurrected the station following what seemed like irreversible death – the station was literally frozen upon entry, forcing both cosmonauts to don winter garb.

The real cosmonauts of Soyuz T-13, Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh. Photo Credit: Spacefacts.de
There are spaceflight-related movies that portray historic events in a manner that elevates the events’ status (Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff), and there are some that miss the mark entirely (1974’s fulsome TV movie Houston, We’ve Got A Problem, which was very, very, very loosely based on the events surrounding Apollo 13). The recently-released Russian film, Salyut 7, is sold as that nation’s equivalent to Apollo 13, but falls somewhere in the middle – at once portraying real-life events with startling accuracy and beauty, but also having moments that are completely over-the-top insane to the point of hilarity. That being said, I loved it. Note: there are spoilers below.

The movie’s “Vladimir” comes with a twist. Banned from spaceflight following an unfortunate attack of “seeing angels” during his flight with “Svetlana,” movie Vladimir is stuck on Earth in a modest Soviet-era apartment with his wife and daughter, smoking cigarettes, drinking vodka, and wearing the official uniform of Being Fired, a tank top, all the time.

Enter the plight of a suddenly-dead space station, and one intrepid, slightly physically violent flight director named Valery. Valery just happens to run into Vladimir at a gas station, and somehow after one awkward exchange and a lot of other failed potential mission commanders screwing up in the Soyuz simulator, our hero Vlad is named as the mission commander to save Salyut 7. This comes after a meeting on Earth where Cold War-era concerns about the U.S. sabotaging the space station are discussed, including possible interference by the space shuttle Challenger and an evil, sneaky AF French astronaut who happens to have a lot of knowledge about Salyut 7 (based very loosely on Jean-Loup Chrétien, who flew aboard Salyut 7 in real life).

...But enough of the plot line, because soon it won’t even make sense or really matter. One of the best things about Salyut 7 is its realistic depiction of what the dead space station must have looked like to Dzhanibekov and Savinykh upon first entry: all surfaces are covered in ice and “snow,” and the juxtaposition of the twinkly, icy/wet surfaces against Soviet-era space technology is quite breathtaking. The visual and practical effects are stunning, and Salyut 7 is beautiful film. Also, as someone who has very little first-hand knowledge of what the Soviet era was like, the film’s depiction of mid-1980s Soviet life is eye-opening.

But back to the good parts: after a completely unbelievable docking sequence, the crew tries to resuscitate the space station, to little effect. I won’t spoil too much of these parts, but at one point it all looks hopeless, and only the crew’s flight engineer is ordered home – dooming our hero Vladimir to certain death. Flight director Valery freaks out to great dramatic effect at this point, throwing a chair through a pane glass window to underscore the fact that THIS SITUATION IS OUT OF CONTROL. At this point, with no f--ks left to give, Vladimir lights up a cigarette inside Salyut 7 pondering nothingness. But have no fear, a life-saving EVA is just around the corner...along with a greeting from an international frienemy you’ll never forget! I ended the movie with a dry mouth and a migraine, wondering WTF happened.

So is Salyut 7 accurate? Well, there are parts that are accurate, and parts that veer very far from what actually happened. But you should still see this movie, even if some parts are slightly messy.

Salyut 7 is currently free on Amazon Prime.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Adios (But Not For Long): This Space Available Goes On Hiatus

NASA photo, March 13, 1969: "The Apollo 9 crewmen arrive aboard the USS Guadalcanal as they step from a helicopter to receive a red-carpet welcome. Two of the crewmen salute the crowd of newsmen, Navy and NASA personnel gathered to greet them. Left to right, are astronauts Russell L. Schweickart, David R. Scott, and James A. McDivitt. Splashdown occurred at 12:00:53 p.m. (EST), March 13, 1969, only 4.5 nautical miles from the USS Guadalcanal, prime recovery ship, to conclude a successful 10-day Earth-orbital space mission." 
This Space Available is going on a hiatus for the time being - but don't despair, the previous posts will always be accessible, and I'm not going anywhere. I am taking a break from this space to focus on a bigger project that will take up all of my time for the next year, and I think fans of this blog will enjoy it.

Until then, you can find me on Facebook, on Space Hipsters. And I will be speaking at Spacefest IX in July, as well. See you there for the time being!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ye Olde Space Book Corner: The World Book Year Book, 1967

1962 NASA photo: "Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. looks into a Celestial Training Device (globe) during training in the Aeromedical Laboratory at Cape Canaveral, Florida." Some of Glenn's comments in a 1967 World Book Year Book piece would prove to be prophetic. 

John Glenn’s 1966 Rundown

The tag line for John Glenn’s piece in the 1967 World Book Year Book, entitled “Focus on Space,” read, “Despite the Gemini successes and the space probes to and around the moon, the year ended with a nagging problem unsolved.” Glenn in his piece provides a nice summary of the then-recently wrapped-up Gemini program, and acknowledges that during 1966, the United States seemed to pull ahead of the Soviets in the “Space Race,” accomplishing goals including useful EVAs, rendezvous, and docking, all aims that were critical during the more complex Apollo lunar missions. Indeed, 1966 was spaceflight’s grandest, most eventful year in its then short history.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Myths and “Myth-Takes”: Keeping Things Accurate (Or Not) In Modern Spaceflight History

NASA photo, April 11, 1970: "Astronaut John L. Swigert Jr., command module pilot for NASA's third lunar landing mission, appears to be relaxing in the suiting room at Kennedy Space Center prior to launch." Swigert's role during Apollo 13 was mythologized by a Hollywood movie.
Everybody loves a good story. At the dinner tables, by the firesides, by the swimming pools, people always huddle by the person with the best, most far out, outrageous story – replete with dramatic interjections, pseudo-shouts, and all the bells and whistles. The Internet has become like a “dinner table” for the masses. Frequently, you’ll find hordes – sometimes thousands – of people virtually “huddling” by a story almost too outrageous, teased and polished to the point of legend, to be believed. And often, they are too outrageous to hold water. But people cling to these tall tales like life rafts from a sinking ship.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Remembering One Of The "MOL Men": Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.

USAF Major Robert H. Lawrence in an undated LIFE photo. Lawrence's life and career would leave resonances, despite both being cut painfully short.
There were big names within their ranks including Bob Crippen, Henry Hartsfield, Bo Bobko, Al Crews, Richard Truly, and Gordon Fullerton. But the MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) Men also boasted another big name: United States Air Force Major Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. In June 1967, Lawrence became the United States’ first African-American astronaut with his selection to this program. Yet over 50 years after his death, he remains all too obscure. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

How John Young Got The U.S. To Apollo Before Apollo Flew

NASA photo, July 18, 1966: "Agena Target Docking Vehicle 5005 is photographed from the Gemini 10 spacecraft during rendezvous in space. The docking adapter is turning towards the spacecraft. Both vehicles are about 24 feet apart."

 Columbus was right. The world is round.” - John Young following Gemini 10

After Project High Jump and well before he traveled to the Moon twice and commanded Columbia twice, the late John Young, who died January 5th, was one of the astronauts who bridged the gap between the one-man Mercury missions and the much more ambitious Apollo lunar missions. While many tributes and obituaries focus on his status as a moonwalker and/or STS-1’s commander, it’s my opinion that his achievements during 1966’s Gemini 10 mission are almost criminally underrated. Here’s why:

Gemini, “The Bridge”

Michael Collins’ 1988 book Liftoff characterized the Gemini program as “The Bridge.” That’s a good way to describe it: this two-man program functioned as a series of sequential steps to get the United States from the simpler Mercury missions to the rendezvous-heavy Apollo lunar missions that were still under development. While rendezvous had been accomplished between two spacecraft in December 1965 (Gemini 6A/7), another key objective, docking, hadn’t yet taken place by year’s end. Gemini 8’s mission objectives changed dramatically from successfully docking to merely survival. In a sense, so did Gemini 9A’s, with Gene Cernan’s wild, truncated spacewalk (see the chapter “The Spacewalk From Hell,” in his book The Last Man On The Moon). In addition, the prospects of docking with an Augmented Target Docking Adaptor (after the mission’s Agena Target Vehicle was lost due to an Atlas launch vehicle failure) were thwarted by an errant payload fairing that was famously called “The Angry Alligator.”

That left Gemini 10, which would be characterized as the “Everything But The Kitchen Sink” mission. The objectives: rendezvous with not only one, but two, spacecraft. The Gemini spacecraft would “visit” the dead Gemini 8 Agena Target Vehicle, and dock successfully with a live Agena. The command pilot in the driver’s seat would be John Young, who at age 35 was already a spaceflight veteran, having flown alongside Gus Grissom in March 1965 during Gemini 3. Young and pilot Collins were underway aboard a Titan II launch vehicle on July 18, 1966. 

NASA photo, July 18, 1966: "Astronauts John W. Young (right), command pilot, and Michael Collins (left), pilot, prime crew for the Gemini 10 spaceflight, undergo suiting up operations in the Launch Complex 16 suiting trailer."
 
Young In The Driver’s Seat

Collins’ Liftoff sheds a little light into Young’s personality, which could be best characterized as inscrutable (Collins called him “mysterious” in his 1973 book Carrying The Fire). One notices when Young gets nervous (especially with Collins outside of the spacecraft), he uses the nickname “babe” a lot (“Well, babe, if I don’t translate down soon, we’re going to run into that buzzard” is a classic Young-ism). Collins also related that when Houston asked Young for a propellant reading “while I am cranking the hatch locking handle,” after his second EVA, Young doesn’t like that at all and growls, “Get serious.”

The road to rendezvous and docking isn’t an easy one, either. Collins wrote:

John is flying and I am alternating peering out of the window and reading numbers from our computer. At a mile out, we are closing at 25 mph, which is about right. But then things start to go wrong. We have gotten off to one side somehow and our closing rate has dribbled off to zero. We have to thrust toward the Agena again and now we are swinging around it in a tightening arc. We have done this in the simulator and we don’t like it a bit. “Woah, woah, woah, you bum!” John yells.

The two crewmen, Collins revealed, called this maneuver a “whifferdill” in the simulator. By the time the two spaceships were docked, fuel had dwindled to 36% instead of an expected 60%. Collins later added at bedtime, “John is morose because of our excessive fuel usage...[we] are not in a happy mood after our first day in space...I have failed my Magellan test.” (Young had nicknamed Collins “Magellan” for his navigational skills.) The fuel issue was later determined not to be Young’s fault. He was later quoted in 1996 as relating, “The primary rendezvous was characterized, I think, by a large out-of-plane error. When we realized this was taking place, we could no longer let orbital mechanics work for us...We were working for it. We had to use what I call a brute force method of rendezvous, and it takes a lot of fuel.”

On mission day three, the crew separated from the Agena and went to “visit” Gemini 8’s Agena, which Young flew alongside in formation, approximately 10 feet away.

While Collins still had an EVA to perform and multiple experiments to undertake, and despite their mixed feelings about fuel consumption, Young and Collins had performed a historic achievement: Gemini 10 would be the first time ever that a spacecraft had rendezvoused with two separate spacecraft. They had docked with a space vehicle as well, this time with no life-threatening complications. These milestones were useful not only for Young’s later Apollo missions (10 and 16), but also were key for Apollo in general, and future space station missions.

The Legacy

I’m sure in the coming weeks, much more will be written about John Young’s missions and legacy in general, but it more than bears mention that well before he conquered the Moon and mastered the Shuttle, Young must also be remembered for helping us pioneer and perfect the techniques that got us to the Moon and to the ISS.

Much more about Gemini 10 can be found in Young’s book Forever Young, Collins’ Carrying The Fire, and the NASA History book On The Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini.