Sunday, November 25, 2018

Book Review: The Astronaut Maker

STS-5 crew walkout, November 11, 1982. Front, from left: PLT Robert Overmyer and CDR Vance Brand. Back, from left: MS Bill Lenoir, George Abbey, and MS Joe Allen, laughing (astronaut John Young is behind Abbey). Note the sign in Lenoir's hand. Photo credit:

In the spaceflight history canon, there are biographies and autobiographies that almost depict their subjects as secondary characters in their own lives (not a criticism – for example, James R. Hansen’s First Man delves into many of the central characters in Neil Armstrong’s life and career), and books that function almost as treacly love letters to their subjects (Buzz Aldrin’s Magnificent Desolation). In addition, as the previous sentence proves, many spaceflight biographical sketches focus upon astronauts’ lives (this doesn’t discount the many fine books about rocket pioneers and flight controllers, but the genre is astronaut-gaga).

Michael Cassutt’s The Astronaut Maker represents a refreshing departure in the genre, discussing a spaceflight figure who has been described as “mysterious,” controversial, and as “the ultimate insider.” While George Abbey may have not been an astronaut (alas, he did submit an application for the 1966 class), his still-ongoing spaceflight career, like it or not, shaped many decisions from the 1960s to the early 2000s. (Note: minor book spoilers included.) 

The Astronaut Maker is a continuation of Cassutt’s 2011 Air & Space magazine article titled “Mr. Inside.” In a way, this book almost functions as an end to a Cassutt trilogy – the author previously co-wrote Deke! (with Mercury/ASTP astronaut Deke Slayton) and We Have Capture (with astronaut General Tom Stafford). Abbey’s leadership bookends that of Slayton’s and Stafford’s, both whose influence upon human spaceflight cannot be overestimated.

In previous spaceflight books, Abbey has been depicted somewhat negatively; Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets and Bryan Burrough’s Dragonfly – books set respectively during the early Shuttle era and during Shuttle-Mir – depicted him as a “power monger.” It would’ve been easy for Cassutt to go one of two ways with The Astronaut Maker. The author could have turned the book into a Valentine to its subject (see Aldrin’s Desolation again), or could have turned it into Riding Rockets Part 2, a snarky condemnation of Abbey.

Instead, Cassutt just tells Abbey’s story from its beginnings, from his plebe days at Annapolis to the canceled Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar program, through Apollo, Shuttle, eventually leading to the current International Space Station (ISS). While acknowledging Abbey’s reputation and murmurs about his leadership (both positive and negative), the book delves into the laser-focused thinking behind many of Abbey’s biggest career decisions, including one that may have saved the ISS as we know it. Cassutt was given unprecedented access to Abbey and his family, and the book brings into clearer focus a man previously depicted as inscrutable and unknowable.

Of course, the book also delves into Abbey’s relationships with colleagues; while I won’t give away spoilers, we learn about some surprising astronaut and NASA personnel feuds, and why Abbey had less faith in some colleagues than others. This book succeeds in that it doesn’t pass judgment on Abbey, or even those he may have liked or disliked – it just tells a thoroughly balanced story about his career, and illuminates the thinking behind some of spaceflight’s fundamental program decisions.

This is recommended reading for anyone curious about the “behind the scenes” decision-making in spaceflight, and for those interested in knowing more about the quiet, yet bold man previously identified – somewhat sarcastically – as “NASA Official George Abbey” by STS-5’s Bill Lenoir during that crew’s walkout.


Disclaimer: none of the moderators at Space Hipsters are involved in choosing the Space Hipsters Book Prize. Here is a link for those interested in nominating titles for the prize; the deadline for nominations is Tuesday, January 15, 2019. Please download the nomination form via this link, and follow Space Hipsters Book Prize on Twitter.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Astronaut as Hero and Anti-Hero: More Observations About First Man

NASA Dryden (now Armstrong) photo, 1960: "NASA research pilot Neil Armstrong is seen here in the cockpit of the X-15 ship #1 (56-6670) after a research flight. Armstrong, who later became the first human to land on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission, flew the X-15 twice in 1960 - both times in X-15 No. 1. The dates of his flights were 30 November and 9 December, 1960. Armstrong later flew five more times in the X-15, with his last flight occurring on 26 July 1962. This post-landing photo gives some indication of the large number of people and the amount of effort needed to secure the aircraft after a flight. The individual on the right side of the photo, facing the camera, is Bruce Peterson, who later flew the M2-F1, M2-F2, and HL-10 lifting bodies among other aircraft."
Over a week has passed since First Man was released in the United States, and it continues to be the Number #1 topic of discussion among spaceflight enthusiasts. While the movie generally has been well-received by many, some viewers – particularly some male viewers – have taken offense at the understated, sometimes melancholy portrayal of Neil Armstrong by actor Ryan Gosling. Why does this portrayal engender such strong feelings within a particular group, and is it fair to depict an iconic hero and public figure as someone who could also be characterized as an “anti-hero”? (Note: minor movie and book spoilers included.)

Sunday, October 14, 2018

First Man Gives Insight Into Armstrong’s Exquisite Grief

NASA photo, March 16, 1966: "Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, command pilot of the Gemini-8 spaceflight, sits in the Launch Complex 16 trailer during suiting up operations for the Gemini-8 mission. Suit technician Jim Garrepy assists." 

"No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear." – C. S. Lewis

Released this past Thursday, the movie First Man directed by Damien Chazelle, written by Josh Singer, and based on the 2005 James R. Hansen authorized biography of Neil Armstrong bearing the same name – is not our generation’s Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff. This is not a criticism of the movie; while the film’s action sequences are unforgettable, First Man focuses on Armstrong’s arduous life from test pilot in 1961 to first man on the Moon in 1969. It is probably not the First Man that would have been envisioned, say, by Clint Eastwood (who orginally wanted to direct the film), but those who are familiar with Armstrong’s story will understand that to address the man himself, you have to address the unique struggles he experienced from 1961 to 1969, the year he landed Eagle at the Sea of Tranquility. Note: minor movie spoilers included.

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:
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!