Archive for the ‘Apollo’ Category

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

JAXA has included a replacement for their lost Hitomi X-Ray astronomy satellite in next year’s budget.

A new documentary about the early days of NASA Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control was released last week.

Marine, astronaut, and Senator John Glenn was laid to rest at the Arlington National Cemetery last week.

In Orbit

There have been only two orbital rocket launches since my last post on March 28th:

The first launch was a much-anticipated flight from SpaceX. The launch on March 30th was a relatively routine launch of a communications satellite to geosynchronous orbit. What made it unique was the the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket had previously been flown before on a NASA cargo launch last spring. The launch was flawless, including recovery of the first stage booster on the droneship at sea, marking the first operational reuse of a rocket by a commercial company (components of the Space Shuttle system, such as the Orbiter and the SRBs, were frequently reflown).

The second launch was a Chinese Long March 3B rocket with a communications satellite aboard. This launch was mostly notable for this incredible video of the launch filmed from a dangerously close range:

Meanwhile, things have been very busy at the International Space Station. Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson conducted another spacewalk (designated US EVA 41) on March 30th. The pair of experienced spacewalkers managed to complete all planned tasks, including hooking up a new docking port at the front of the space station. However, the EVA was not without some excitement: one of four special thermal “shields” was accidentally dropped overboard and mission control teams had to come up with a plan to replace the shield in order to keep components of the ISS thermally protected.

Shortly after the spacewalk, Commander Shane Kimbrough handed the space station over the Whitson and then returned to Earth with the rest of his Soyuz crew, completing Expedition 50.

It was then announced that Peggy Whitson has agreed to stay onboard the ISS an extra 3 months and use a bonus empty seat on next week’s Soyuz mission to come home in September. Peggy will be the most experienced non-Russian astronaut in history when she comes home.

Around the Solar System

New results from the Cassini spacecraft, which orbits Saturn, have shown that the “plumes” coming from the ocean moon Enceladus’ subsurface seas contain molecular hydrogen, which could be used by microbial life to conduct methanogenesis (like the life living near Earth’s deep sea hydrothermal vents).

Measurements of elemental argon in Mars’ atmosphere by the MAVEN spacecraft have revealed that most of the planet’s atmosphere has been lost to space.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Legendary astronaut Gene Cernan has died at the age of 82. Captain Cernan had an incredible career in the Navy and then at NASA, where he flew on three important missions: Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17. Gemini 9 had Cernan’s harrowing spacewalk (the second for an American); Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal for the moon landing, in which Cernan and Stafford got to within just miles of the lunar surface before a planned abort; Apollo 17 is of course known as the final mission to the surface of the moon. If you haven’t read Cernan’s autobiography or seen the recent biography about him (both called The Last Man on the Moon) you should put them both on your list.

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden resigned last Thursday – as is tradition for most presidential appointees – the day before inauguration of president Donald J. Trump. NASA is currently being run by acting administrator Robert Lightfoot.

Andy Weir, author of The Martian, announced on social medial that he will be working with CBS on a new show set in Houston’s mission control.

In Orbit

A small Japanese rocket, which would have been the smallest ever to make orbit, failed during a launch attempt last Saturday, January 14th. The rocket was carrying a single small cubesat.

However, two rockets did make successful launches within the last week. First, SpaceX had a spectacular return to flight on Saturday, January 14th, placing 10 satellites into orbit for Iridium after a flawless launch of a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg in California. They even stuck the landing on the first stage recovery.

Lastly, on January 20th, United Launch Alliance launched an Atlas V carrying a USAF satellite, GEO 3.

Meanwhile, a failure investigation has narrowed down the loss of a Russian Soyuz rocket last month to an oxidizer pump, leading the Russian space agency to make some part replacements on both the next manned and unmanned flights. Hopefully we will see Soyuz rockets flying to the ISS again soon!

Around the Solar System

The Japanese probe in orbit of Venus, Akatsuki, has made observations of a massive standing wave in the planet’s atmosphere.

Book review – Go, Flight!

I don’t want to bury the lead here: Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992 by Rick Houston is a must read for any serious space fan, and will be enjoyed by many more casual fans as well. Anyone who actually works in Building 30 at Johnson Space Center, like me, will have their love for their work stoked anew by this book.

Read this book

 

I know what you are thinking: another book about the Apollo program? I hear you, but this is not your father’s space race memoir. First of all, the book covers a time period more than an event or a specific NASA program. As the subtitle suggests, Go, Flight! covers all the events in NASA’s manned spaceflight program from Gemini in 1965 through the middle of the Space Shuttle’s golden years in the 90’s, although the focus is heavily on 1965 to 1975. This choice of dates is not random but matches the dates that the third floor MOCR (or the “Apollo room”) was used for active missions. The book opens with a description of Houston’s first visit to the MOCR, described in terms that can only be summarized as a religious experience. Houston compares the MOCR to a rather short list of other famous places: Gettysburg, Westminster Abbey, Pearl Harbor, and a few more. Houston felt the power of that place and this book is partially his attempt to share that experience with his readers.

But Go, Flight! is about more than just a place. More than just a room in a building. What gives it power is that it is also a book about people. Houston set out to learn about the characters who worked in the MOCR through first person interviews. Houston’s friendship with former flight director Milt Heflin, who gets coauthor credit, helped him get access to a great list of former flight controllers. You can see by how many people showed up to a book signing last year that Houston created quite a network of contacts while writing.

Signatures from Space Center Houston book signing

Yes, Houston tells stories about familiar missions through all three programs. Obvious missions covered include Apollo 11 and Apollo 13, as well as the tragedies of Apollo 1 and Challenger. There are also insightful chapters on less famous missions, such as Gemini 4 or Apollo 14. Did you know that Apollo 14 was almost aborted when they couldn’t dock the Command Module to the Lunar Module? I didn’t. Most readers will certainly learn some new tidbit of NASA history. But the value of Go, Flight! is not in new facts added. While the Apollo 14 story was new to me (or I had forgotten it), it is certainly not new to the vast literature covering the Apollo Program. I have read at least a couple of dozen space race histories, but I am missing some key classics such as Chaikin’s A Man On The Moon. What truly makes Go, Flight! unique is that it feels like the stories are being told by the people who were there.

Flight controllers discussing the Apollo docking probe in mission control

 

In general, the American public thinks of astronauts when it thinks of NASA. There is very little thought of the important contributions of the many hundreds of engineers and technicians on the ground in various NASA field centers around the country. The blockbuster Apollo 13 in 1995 helped to adjust that point of view by showing how crucial the flight controllers in mission control were to saving the crew. However, Apollo 13 didn’t do much to dispel the notion that mission control is full of a bunch of nerds with pocket protectors and glasses (thanks Clint Howard). Houston has set the record straight in Go, Flight!

Houston starts the book out with a quick overview of each of his main characters in a chapter titled “Who Did What”. Even just this chapter on its own proves the point that mission control was home to a diverse (albeit not diverse ethnically or by gender) group of young men with strong personalities. Start with John Llewellyn, a Korean war veteran with PTSD who once rode his horse to work after getting his on-site driving privileges revoked because he parked on mission control’s front steps. Or how about Ed Fendell, who had only an associates degree in marketing, but nevertheless worked his way up to the INCO console in the front room for some of the biggest missions in NASA’s history. One of Fendell’s proudest moments was controlling the pan-able television camera to capture Apollo 17 lifting off from the lunar surface.

These guys who got us to the moon and flew the space shuttle had lives and families – some (or many) of which were damaged by their over-zealous commitment to the cause. Fendell tells a story about going on a first date on a Friday night and promptly getting out of bed in the morning to head to work. When his date asks him what she is supposed to do with him going to work on a Saturday, Fendell simply told her “I’m going to work. I write mission rules on Saturday morning.” These were not German engineers in lab coats (thanks The Right Stuff), nor were they emotionless bookworms who stated technical facts and then did as the Flight Director says. These were men of personality and passion. They argued with each other, with management, with the sim supervisors, with everyone. The job was the thing, and it was going to get done. If bridges had to be burned, so be it.

These stories from a wide array of flight controllers helps to balance out what space fans have read in memoirs from men such as Kraft, Kranz, and various astronauts. For instance, a lot of people know about the legendary SCE to AUX call from EECOM John Aaron, which allegedly saved the Apollo 12 mission on ascent. But in Go, Flight! that story is expanded significantly to show how Aaron’s backroom support personnel were involved and how a critical call from the GNC flight controller was also needed to get the inertial measurement unit back online. This kind of deep dive gives the reader the best insight I have ever found into what working in a NASA mission control room is really like. Nothing gets done without teamwork – no one person fixes a problem on his own.

If there is a problem with Go, Flight! it is the rushed last few chapters. In a book of just over 300 pages, only the last 40 pages cover events after the last Apollo mission. Given that the author was trying to tell the story of the third floor MOCR, and not every mission in manned space flight, this choice is understandable but no less jarring to a reader that knows there is more history to tell. The book would feel a lot more cleanly wrapped up if it ended with the last Apollo flights flown from the room. That being said, I really appreciated the chapter on the Challenger accident.

Despite its flaws of pacing and scope, Go, Flight! easily makes its way into my list of essential books to read to understand the history of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Kraft may have invented mission control, but it was men like Llewellyn, Aaron, Fendell, Liebergot, Heflin, Garman, Briscoe, and more who took Kraft’s concept and made it the model for all modern control centers through their incredible dedication and preparation. These people and what they did should be remembered as long as our species dreams of spaceflight. Great things are done by men and women of passion, not cold calculating nerds, and Go, Flight! proves that point emphatically.

Go, Flight! can be found in hardcover or Kindle formats here on Amazon. If you want more stories from the front lines of the early space program, try Apollo EECOM by Sy Liebergot, Full Circle by David L. Cisco, and Highways Into Space by Glynn Lunney.

More “must read” books from my collection

 

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Two space shuttle astronauts, Brian Duffy and Scott Parazynski, were recently inducted into the astronaut hall of fame.

Apollo astronaut and moonwalker, Edgar Mitchell, died at the age of 85.

Former President George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) visited Johnson Space Center and talked to the ISS astronauts from the Mission Control Center.

All of the segments of the primary mirror to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have been assembled!

The Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected “gravitational waves”, which is what it was designed to do. This is a basically a new way to see the universe – like the first time an X-Ray observatory was put into space and returned data. Not only that, it validates parts of Einstein’s theories. Here are some brief articles from Phil Plait and Sean Carroll, who explain it well.

Check out this amazing zero-gravity music video by Ok Go, which doesn’t use any digital effects. Wow!

Curators at the Smithsonian recently did a 3D scan of the inside of the Apollo 11 Command ModuleColumbia, and found previously unknown handwritten notes on the walls.

Astronaut Kevin Ford has retired from NASA.

The new SpaceX “transporter erector” at pad 39A in Florida is pretty cool looking.

In Orbit

A number of rocket launches since my last post in late January: a Chinese rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (Beidou), a ULA Atlas V launched a GPS satellite, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched one of their navigation satellites (GLONASS), a ULA Delta IV launched a secret USA reconnaissance office payload, and lastly North Korea launched something.

This brings the worldwide launch cadence for the year up to 10 so far, or almost 2 per week. We are still waiting for the first SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the year, which should be before March.

Veteran cosmonauts Sergey Volkov and Yuri Malenchenko conducted a successful spacewalk on the Russian Segment of the ISS.

Around the Solar System

The European Space Agency has announced that they are no longer attempting to send commands to the lost Philae lander, which has not transmitted from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in months.

China has released some new photos of the moon from it’s Yutu rover mission (the rover died some time ago).

Weekly Links

I am back from a little “fall break”. This post should catch you up on the big things that have happened since my last post in September.

Down to Earth

George Mueller, head of NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight in the 60s, died at an age of 97. There is at least one book about his contributions to the space program available on Amazon.

Estonia is now a full member of the European Space Agency.

A watch worn by Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott on the surface of the moon recently sold at auction for over one million US dollars. This is not one of the Omega Speedmasters which were given to all the crews (all of which are now owned by the Smithsonian). Instead this was a backup Scott wore when his Speedmaster broke.

An Israeli team called SpaceIL has secured a launch contract on a Falcon 9 rocket for their entry in the Google Lunar X Prize.

Blue Origin announced that it will center its launch operations at Cape Canaveral.

NASA dropped a large archive of photos from Project Apollo to Flickr.

In Orbit

It’s been a busy month of rocket launches. Since my last post on September 26th there have been nine successful launches to orbit: one by India, three by China, one by the European Space Agency, two by Russia, and two by America. Only one of those launches was in support of International Space Station operations: an unmanned Progress resupply mission from Russia. You can see a great list of all launches at “2015 in Spaceflight” on Wikipedia.

In addition to the launches, the Japanese HTV-5 cargo vehicle was successfully undocked and deorbited from the ISS during the last week of September.

Other happenings on the ISS included a debris avoidance maneuver on September 27th, some cubesat deploys, the Progress docking, Scott Kelly breaking the record for most days in space by an American, and some great imagery of Hurricane Patricia.

Around the Solar System

Science data from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto continue to come in, including this awesome picture showing the blue glow of the planetoids thin atmosphere.

Pluto

NASA made a big announcement at the end of September about Mars research, revealing that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter had imaged evidence of water flowing (intermittently) on the surface of Mars. While previous NASA missions had confirmed that water is present and had flowed in streams and rivers in the ancient past, this is the first evidence of a modern water cycle. As usual, Emily Lakdawalla has excellent coverage.

NASA is posting daily images of the Earth from the DSCOVR satellite to an interactive website.

A rather large Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) at 500 meters across will buzz the Earth-Moon system on October 31st, but is not in danger of impacting our planet.

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Last Monday, SpaceX announced preliminary findings related to the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon cargo mission last month. Here’s the companies official statement on their investigation so far. They have found that a structural support (or “strut”) holding up a pressurant tank in the second stage failed. Elon Musk hopes a delay of only a few months to their manifest.

Tony Antonelli, who piloted two space shuttle missions, has retired from the astronaut office.

The Smithsonian Institution has started a new Kickstarter campaign called “Reboot the Suit” to raise money to restore Neil Armstrong’s moonsuit. The restoration is planned to be completed in time for a new exhibit for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in 2019. I pledged!

In Orbit

Three launches from the Earth’s three spacefaring nation’s this past week: first, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan on July 22nd, followed a few hours later by a successful docking to ISS. The crew is now back up to full strength of 6, with the addition of Oleg Kononenko, Kimiya Yui, and Kjell Lindgren. Lindgren and Yui are on Twitter, so you should follow my “people in space” Twitter list.

Second, a Delta IV rocket launched from Florida on July 23rd. The mission delivered a new military communications satellite to orbit.

China also had a successful orbital launch last week. A Long March 3B delivered two navigation satellites to orbit on July 25th.

Around the Solar System

New pictures from the New Horizons’ Pluto flyby! Check out the new views of small moons Nix and Hydra.

Also, check out this view of the dark side of Pluto, with the sun lighting up its thin nitrogen atmosphere!

via Universe Today

Not to mention they discovered nitrogen glaciers!

via Universe Today

Closer to home, at Ceres, the Dawn spacecraft has discovered evidence of a “haze” in Occator crater. This is the large crater with several “bright spots” in its center.

JAXA is accepting applications to choose a name for asteroid 1999 JU3 which will be visited by their Hayabusa-2 spacecraft.

Out There

NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-452b, a small planet around a Sun-like star about 1,400 light years distant. This is the most similar planet in size and circumstance to Earth that we have yet found, but it still has 1.6 times Earth’s diameter (mass, and thus surface gravity, unknown). However, the fact that it is so small and in the habitable zone, makes it an awesome discovery.

Book Review: Below Tranquility Base

Almost 50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, triumphantly ending America’s space race with the USSR, it is hard to find a fresh perspective on that slice of history. So much has been written about the early space program that it can be hard even to get through all of the old stuff. I have read memoirs from Collins, Cernan, Slayton, Shepard, Kranz, Kraft, Worden, and Scott, but have actually still never read The Right Stuff or A Man on the Moon (I know, I know). Despite the mountain of material out there, new books continue to be written. Not only are there new histories being written, like Dr. John Logsdon’s After Apollo?, but there are new astronaut memoirs: John Young’s Forever Young just came out a couple of years ago. But with all due respect to Captain Young, I have read a lot of test-pilot-astronaut memoirs.

The thing is, there are thousands of stories to tell from the Apollo program. It was a massive project that cost billions upon billions of dollars, which means that thousands upon thousands of people had their hands on the spaceships, on the control centers, on the Deep Space Network communications dishes. Everyone loves hearing from the astronauts, but what about all those other people who were a part of history? Fortunately for us space fans, some of those people have written those stories down to share with us. They are out there if you search for them!

One of those stories is Below Tranquility Base by Richard Stachurski. I wouldn’t expect you to recognize his name, because he is one of those thousands of small but important players in the epic story that is the Apollo program. Stachurski served as a flight controller starting in 1965. He started in the backroom and was promoted to the “Network” position for Apollo. Network was the call sign back then for the person in charge of the ground network comm link to the spacecraft, which is now called GC (Ground Control). Stachurski is a geek through and through. He is so excited to talk about his experiences in mission control during Apollo 11 that he spends very little time on his personal history and background. The book starts out “Did you ever have a job that you would pay to do? I did.” and the book thoroughly convinced me he meant it. Stachurski looks back on his time with NASA with almost unbelieving reverence to have been a part of something so amazing.

The details of Stachurski’s work as a Network flight controller are interesting in their own right, and Stachurski is happy to explain all of it. In fact, the book is so heavy on technical details that it may be off-putting to some more casual readers who aren’t already familiar with the details of an Apollo mission timeline. In fact, most of the book is a description of the Apollo 11 mission from the Network consoles perspective, detailing things that were broken and fixed, technical conversations on “the loops”, and Stachurski’s own emotions throughout the whole mission. So what exactly was “Network” responsible for?

While the movies and histories focus on the astronauts, their spacecraft, and the people in the Flight Control Room (FCR) with the Flight Director, there were hundreds of people working around the world trying to hold on to a communications link with the spacecraft so that the Flight Director could do his job. Anyone who has seen the movie The Dish knows a little about that. Today our link to the ISS is a bit simpler, since we have the Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) in geostationary orbit. These still require ground antennae to get data back to mission control, but there are fewer stations, not to mention we have 50 years of experience coordinating that kind of worldwide network. In the 1960s, the entire concept was brand new, they had no geostationary comm satellites, and the missions were flying all the way to the moon, where the geo sats wouldn’t have helped anyway.

Stachurski paints a vivid picture of how this communications network worked (or didn’t). In some ways, there was more drama in the struggle to keep comm with the spacecraft than in what was actually going inside the Lunar Module during powered descent to the moon. Before I read Below Tranquility Base, I never would have guessed how close to the hairy edge of holding on to that link NASA was at several points during Apollo 11. As a flight controller myself, I can relate to Stachurski’s feeling of not being important or noticed until his system has a problem, and then all eyes are on him until the problem can be fixed. The speed with which they coordinated ground site swaps is impressive. Stachurski and his team from Apollo 11 truly were “steely-eyed missilemen” despite the humility in the face of history that he alludes to throughout his tale.

It is in fact this humility that makes Below Tranquility Base such an interesting read, and will probably help most readers get through the technical parts of the book. Stachurski’s academic background in fact is not technical at all. He studied history in college while in the ROTC program to help pay his tuition. After school, he went into active duty, which got him assigned to a bomber wing in Indiana. In those days, a bomber wing in the heartland meant that you looked after airplanes that stood at the ready 24/7 to take off with nuclear warheads to drop on our enemies. After Indiana, Stachurski spent some time babysitting nuclear missiles in the Dakotas. He was one of the guys with his finger on a launch key the Cuban Missile Crisis. The frank look we get from Stachurski into what these Cold War jobs were like is not something you would expect from a space program memoir, but is fascinating nonetheless.

This all leads to Stachurski’s assignment by the Air Force to support mission control in Houston for the Apollo program, where he feels like just a “liberal arts puke” (his words) out of his element. His journey from an overwhelmed nobody in the backroom to a front room flight controller for both the Apollo 11 launch shift and the lunar ascent shift is inspirational. In addition, his own opinion of himself that he was not that important of a player during Apollo 11 affords an unfiltered perspective on life in mission control. For instance, Stachurski gives us his frank opinion that he actually didn’t care for Gene Kranz much, feeling that his leadership style was a little bit overbearing and relied too much on micromanagement. He also tells us about the dirty magazines that they had hidden away on console for boring night shifts…

Below Tranquility Base and books like it are an important but rare part of the story of the early space age. Without them, we miss out on the small dramas that were happening all the time. Small triumphs, like having a solution when a whole network switch catches on fire in Spain during a crucial Apollo 11 mission phase, put in perspective how many people were required and how many things had to go right for the Apollo program to be successful. The book also helps to chronicle the early development of the culture of flight control in Houston that survives today. I even learned the definition of an acronym* I use regularly at work from Stachurski! This is a book that should make it onto the reading list of all avid space history fans and current flight controllers at NASA, but will probably be enjoyed by most casual fans of NASA or US history. You can get it for free on Kindle Unlimited here (it is $11.31 in paperback).

*Apparently a “pad” in a procedure is actually a PAD, standing for Pre-Advisory Data.

Some other good books that give the ground level perspective on the early space program include:

Full Circle by David L. Cisco, lunar module electrical technician.

Apollo EECOM by Sy Liebergot, Apollo flight controller.

The Unbroken Chain by Guenter Wendt, Apollo launch pad closeout team leader.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ron Howard is working on a TV a miniseries based on Elon Musk and his plans to colonize Mars.

Bulgaria has joined ESA as a “cooperating state”.

Orbital ATK has been contracted by Lockheed Martin to provide the launch abort motor for Orion.

Blue Origin will reportedly resume test flights of their New Shepard rocket later this year.

Check out these very creative animations of NASA’s Apollo mission patches (via CollectSpace).

The members of the Made in Space ISS 3-D printer team received their shipment recently. In fact, you can watch them unboxing it on YouTube (via Parabolic Arc):

In Orbit

SpaceX will launch their next ISS resupply mission today, April 13, and will also be giving the barge landing another shot. The static fire test happened on Saturday, which is an important milestone before launch. I suspect they won’t stream imagery of the barge landing live (like last time) but hopefully they will have dramatic imagery of a success or failure to share afterwards! Among other cargo, food, and science that this CRS-6 mission is hauling to the ISS, there is also a cubesat known as Arkyd-3, which is a demonstration mission for the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.

The forecast for the launch window is only 60% as of last night. There is another launch window on Tuesday. Here is Spaceflight Now’s live stream with “mission status center”.

And of course I need to share a few recent tweets and pictures from the ISS:

Around the Solar System

Curiosity has been very busy in Gusev Crater on Mars ever since the team resolved the issue with the instruments on the robotic arm earlier this year. They recently did a few good drives and got some great images. You can see them and follow along with the mission at The Martian Chronicles blog. I love this picture. Curiosity should be reaching the 10 kilometer mark soon.

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft has completed 1,000 orbits of Mars.

Mission planners for ESA’s Rosetta are rethinking their future close flybys of the comet 67P due to the navigation hazard caused by dust. A flyby in March sent the spacecraft into safe mode.

And don’t forget Cassini, still orbiting Saturn taking amazing pictures and doing science!

Book Review: Altered Space Series by Gerald Brennan

When I bought myself my first e-reader last month, a small wi-fi enabled Amazon Kindle, I was looking forward to all the common advantages expounded by their advocates: portability, lower book prices, etc. I also was hoping to supplement the constant LCD screen time I find in my life these days with something more relaxing. I was a nerd growing up and used to read constantly (often at the expense of my social life or studies). These days I find myself spending hours staring at an iPhone or computer screen keeping up with my favorite blogs, and the stack of new books beside my bed growing larger. What I did not expect was that my Kindle would open up a whole new genre of fiction.

Amazon knows me very well – recommending each new space memoir as it is released (many of which are still in that unread pile beside my bed, including last year’s Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong biographies) – and as soon as I registered my new Kindle to my account, I started getting Kindle Store recommendations as well. On the first page was a short story that caught my eye immediately: Zero Phase – Apollo 13 on the moon.

I had heard of alternate history fiction before, like Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South series, which was always in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy aisle that I spent hours in at Borders as a teenager. But Brennan’s alternate history of “NASA’s finest hour” requires no time travel. In fact, I am not sure which category of the bookstore it should be placed. Zero Phase is a meticulously researched thought experiment based entirely in reality. The only difference between the real saga of Apollo 13 and Brennan’s story is a fateful difference in timing: what if the accident happened after reaching lunar orbit? Would they still have made it home alive?

Intriguing, right? Zero Phase, at only about 100 pages, is a fast and exciting entry into what for me was a hidden genre: alternative spaceflight history. My Kindle is now full of short story and novel titles with the same spirit: Recovering Apollo 8, Gemini 17, One False Step, STS-136, Launch On Need… most I have yet to read. Maybe most of them are poorly executed, which could explain the genre’s quiet existence? But the first two entries in the Altered Space series are an engrossing ride for any lover of space history. After finishing Zero Phase I also quickly devoured Brennan’s second story, Public Loneliness, which chronicles a solo circumlunar flight by Yuri Gagarin.

Both stories are written in the first person and don’t waste any time on exposition. Zero Phase opens with Jim Lovell and Fred Haise together in their Lunar Module (LM), already floating free of the Command Module (CM), moments from beginning their descent burn. Brennan has a knack for turning tedious technical details into a story. The prose is dense with a wealth of research into the sequence of events of a powered lunar descent and preparation for a surface EVA. But mixed in with the facts is an intriguing view into the character of an Apollo commander put into an unusual situation.

Brennan performed his research with Jim Lovell’s consent and help and it certainly would not be the thought-provoking read that it is without the fictional but believable voice of narration from Lovell. The story moves in a fast pace from descent, to EVA prep, through the accident, and then preparation for an emergency ascent from the lunar surface – each piece true to actual NASA procedure. But mixed in are periods of flashbacks or commentary from this fictional Lovell that do as good a job as Tom Hanks in the film Apollo 13 of creating a sympathetic character.

You may not get the answer you are looking for at the end of Zero Phase. The story ends as abruptly as it starts (no hints on whether it is a happy ending or not) and leaves you excited enough to read more that you will quickly go and download Public Loneliness, the slightly longer Gagarin story.

Public Loneliness is a different story from Zero Phase in many ways. For one thing, it is going to be a much less familiar setting for most readers, given that Zero Phase involves characters and events from one of the most beloved space movies of all time. The character of Gagarin himself is a bit jarring. Based on a legendary Soviet hero long dead, Brennan likely had a harder time researching for this story, including teasing the facts from fiction in the various biographies (and Gagarin’s autobiography). Brennan takes an interesting tact in his fictional tale and what seems as an honest narration from Gagarin is sprinkled with hints that he isn’t being completely honest, that you may be reading a propaganda piece with half-truths.

Gagarin’s story starts atop a Proton rocket ready to launch towards to moon, but spends as much time on flashbacks as the circumlunar flight itself. Having not read much on Gagarin previously myself, these parts were in some ways more interesting to me. The fictional mission that is the subject of the story is less interesting than in Zero Phase because it is somewhat more fanciful. The nature of his flight and the problems that arise are imagined by Brennan, while in Zero Phase, a known problem merely takes place later in the mission.

Public Loneliness is an exploration of what it must have been to be a hero in the USSR – so much in the public eye but with your true nature hidden from even those closest to you. Did he really buy into the propaganda or was he just doing his job? Despite these interesting digressions into unanswerable questions about personality, Brennan still manages to focus the story on a realistic adventure aboard a Soviet spacecraft that almost was. Like in Zero Phase, portions of the book focus on technical procedures – like doing a trajectory correction burn on the way home from the moon – that are true to Soviet design while also creating exciting tension for the reader.

Again, I highly recommend Zero Phase to all fans of spaceflight history, especially if the Apollo Program and Apollo 13 are exciting to you. Public Lonelines is not as quick a read, but is just as intriguing a “what if” story, not only because of the extensive research done in its writing, but because of the fictional voice of a long-dead hero jumping off the pages. If nothing else, Gerald Brennan’s first two entries in what will hopefully be a continuing series will get most space geeks addicted to this new genre of alternate history story. Happy reading!

You can buy Zero Phase in Kindle or paperback editions here. You can buy Public Loneliness in Kindle or paperback editions here.