Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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

Some new videos from Blue Origin and SpaceX of their recent rocket successes were released this past week:

The astronaut Kelly brothers, Mark and Scott, had their childhood elementary school named after them this past week.

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

The amazing Thierry Legault has done it again, this time taking a video of the ISS transiting the sun at the same time as the Mercury transit on May 9th.

An unusual parade happened in Los Angeles on May 21st when the last Space Shuttle External Tank was towed from the coast to the California Science Center.

In Orbit

The Indian Space Research Organization launched their new experimental space plane on May 23rd. The uncrewed vehicle actually didn’t make it to orbit, or even to space, reaching only a peak altitude of 65 km. Still, reaching Mach 5 on re-entry is no joke.

The only other notable rocket launch since my last post on May 9th was a Chinese low earth orbit (LEO) reconnaissance satellite launched on May 15.

Around the Solar System

Some recent experiments in a Martian atmosphere simulator have given us an update on the Recurring Slope Linae (RSL), which were announced last year as evidence of flowing liquid water on Mars. It may be that ice boiling directly to a gas may be causing the features.

NASA’s flying telescope, SOFIA, has detected atomic oxygen in the atmosphere of Mars. Atomic oxygen is highly reactive and thus can tell us a lot about what is going on at Mars, potentially even the chance for life.

Speaking of Mars, check out this new image from Hubble. Mars is at opposition this week – or the closest approach to Earth – making it a great target for Earth-based astronomers.

Out There

You probably didn’t miss this story: NASA announced the confirmation of more than 1,200 new exoplanets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This brings the total planets discovered outside our solar system to over 3,300 worlds.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Caltech has announced that Michael Watkins will replace Charles Elachi as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

New legislation in the US Senate, if passed, would put fallen astronaut Christa McAuliffe on a dollar coin for the 30th anniversary of the loss of Challenger.

Don’t miss today’s (Monday, May 9) transit of the sun by Mercury. If you don’t have the skill, equipment, or location to view it yourself, you can follow online with a live feed from various sources.

The joint European-Russian Mars rover project ExoMars has been delayed from the 2018 to 2020 launch window.

NASA’s Langley Research Center has named a new building for Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year.

In Orbit

Early on the morning of May 6, SpaceX launched a commercial communications satellite on a Geostationary Transfer Orbit. The launch was a beautiful and nominal night launch. After Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) the Falcon 9 first stage flew back to the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) for another successful landing at sea. Are you not entertained?

Speaking of SpaceX, don’t forget to tune into NASA TV on May 11 for coverage of their Dragon spacecraft departing the International Space Station.

And as usual, the ISS crew has been busy sharing their view on high with us. Here are some stunning recent posts from their Twitter accounts:

In Orbit

Cassini did some recent observations of Enceladus by watching a the moon transit in front of a star, revealing new clues about the ice world’s geology.

Out There

The TRAPPIST observatory in Chile has discovered a solar system of three small planets about 40 light years from Earth.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Buzz Aldrin has published a new book titled “No Dream is Too High.”

United Launch Alliance and Bigelow Aerospace have announced a new partnership. Bigelow will launch their enormous BA-330 expandable module on a ULA Atlas rocket.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 recovered first stage returned to port last week after landing on a droneship the week before. Check out the pictures.

An online auction for a camera lens used on the moon during Apollo 15 is now open.

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who was in the news last year for pledging millions of dollars to SETI, has announced his plan for a robotic interestellar mission called Breakthrough Starshot.

The last external tank from the Space Shuttle program left Michoud in Louisiana last week on an ocean voyage to California, where it will become a part of the display with Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Orbital ATK and Intelsat have struck a deal that may lead to the first commercial use of “robotic satellite servicing”.

In Orbit

NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope unexpected entered emergency mode last week, but has since been successfully recovered. The cause of the event is still being investigated.

The new Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was installed on the Node 3 module of ISS on Saturday. Here is a time-lapse of it being moved from the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft via the robotic arm.

It’s been a while since I have shared links to some of my favorite tweets from ISS here. The three US astronauts onboard have been furiously posting beautiful pictures of Earth pretty much every day. Here are just a few recent ones from just the past couple of days.

And here is a quick video from Jeff Williams showing us around the cupola and their cameras.

Around the Solar System

This is pretty cool. An amateur astronomer captured a video of a fireball in Jupiter’s atmosphere, as a large asteroid or some other object slammed into the planet.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former Space Shuttle astronaut and commander Don Williams passed away on February 23rd at 74. Read about his impressive career at CollectSpace.

Orbital ATK’s S.S. Deke Slayton departed the ISS on February 20 after a successful two-month mission.

NASA received a record number of applicants to the astronaut class of 2017.

Ron Garan, former NASA astronaut, has been named the chief pilot at World View, which aims to launch tourists to the edge of space in a balloon.

Virgin Galactic unveiled their latest spaceship, the second version of their SpaceShipTwo. They hope to start their flight test campaign soon, but no new target date for commercial flights was announced.

China has announced that they plan to launch their next space station later this year.

In Orbit

Earlier this week, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned safely from his 340 day mission aboard ISS. Before he left, he had a little fun with a costume his brother sent up to him:

You can see all the pictures that Scott took while onboard the ISS here (and there a lot!).

SpaceX finally had another successful launch, after several scrubs over the past week or two. On Friday, March 4th, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the SES-9 payload launched from Florida. It was their first launch since January and second of the year. The first stage attempted a landing on their Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) but had a hard landing.

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).

Book Review: Ride and Armstrong biographies

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In 2014, new biographies were published about America’s two most well-known space heroes: Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. Just like their subjects, the two books are very different. However, they share an intriguing similarity in that they were both written by close friends of Armstrong and Ride who also happen to be award-winning journalists. This style of book (if we can call it a style) lends itself to an interesting middle-ground between an outright autobiography (which Armstrong and Ride never wrote – both shying away from the spotlight) and the distance of a more traditionally researched biography. I think it is fair to expect from a biography written by a friend of the subject a certain level of insight as well as new information or stories. In the end, only one of these books really delivers on that front.

(As you read my review, keep in mind I have never read the previous Armstrong biography, First Man)

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight is by Jay Barbree, who is a well known journalist in space circles. His credentials are nothing to scoff at: NASA awarded him in 1995 as the only journalist to report on all 100 manned spaceflights.. Thus, it is not surprising that Barbree’s relationship with Armstrong goes all the way back to the early 1960s – Armstrong apparently even carried a memento to the moon for him on Apollo 11. Unfortunately, Barbree has tried to right a book for far too general an audience, and leaves out a lot of personal insights that might have been interesting to people that already have a good background on the history of NASA and the space program.

A Life of Flight opens with a thrilling telling of Armstrong’s ejection over Korea in the early 1950s and moves from there directly into his career with NACA and then later NASA. The story of Armstrong’s work before the astronaut corps – especially his time at Edwards – is very interesting and deserving of the time. However, leaving out his even earlier life leaves something to be desired as far as knowing the man. Barbree then rushes us into Armstrong’s selection as an astronaut in 1962 and from here the narrative goes downhill, in my opinion. Barbree’s choice of tone for the book from here on out is to try to give us Armstrong’s perspective and thoughts on all of the events of the space program, even those for which Armstrong as tangentially related. While I believe Barbree probably really did know Neil’s thoughts on all of these events, the choice of tense to tell the story as if we are seeing the entire space program unfold through Neil’s eyes comes off as a bit campy and although much of it may be accurate, many of the direct quotations are certainly based loosely on recollections at best.

Overall, A Life of Flight gives a good overview of the Gemini and Apollo programs and the life of Neil Armstrong for readers that may not already be well read on the history of NASA. For me, I felt myself constantly wishing Barbree would get on with it and when he would get through the things I can read in other more traditional space histories and learn what Armstrong the man was really like. Unfortunately, that book I was hoping for never materialized before the final chapter, when Barbree outlines his political views on the current state of the space program (going as far as to even mention political figures), an unfortunate choice, as it will quickly date itself after just one or two election cycles.

I was very happy to find that Sally Ride: America’s First Woman In Space by Lynn Sherr, does indeed deliver. Sherr has less experience with space reporting but covered the Space Shuttle program in depth for ABC in the 80s. Like, Barbree and Armstrong, Sherr and Ride met early in Ride’s NASA career, during Sherr’s first trip to Houston in 1981. They became fast friends after their first interview there at JSC. Despite their close friendship, Sherr did not even know the truth about some aspects of Ride’s private life until after she passed in 2012. The effect this had on her emotionally comes through in the book, as she struggles to understand a woman who was at once both so close and so distant.

If you don’t like biographies that spend time on a person’s lineage and background before they were famous, then you may actually like the Armstrong book more, as Sally Ride spends almost 100 pages on Ride’s family, youth, upbringing, and education before she is recruited at NASA as part of the first Space Shuttle class of astronauts in the late 1970s. However, Ride was an intriguing personality and a tough nut to crack, without understanding how she got there – and it was a bit of a windy road – the reader would lose much of what makes Ride such an enigma. What I love about Sherr’s biography is that she is not soft on telling us about Ride’s faults – she was often standoffish, hard to get close to, and kept to herself. This fits with what others have said about her: Mullane does not paint himself as a fan of Ride in his own memoir Riding Rockets. But with her unique position as a lifelong friend, Sherr is able to also give us a balanced view of Ride’s commitment and loyalty to friends who made it into her inner circle.

It may be unfair in some ways to compare these two books. Sally Ride was a symbol of social change, almost gaining all of her fame merely by being selected as an astronaut before she ever flew. We didn’t know it until recently, but not only did she break through gender barriers but she was breaking through barriers of sexual orientation, as well. By contrast, Neil Armstrong was just another white male test pilot in the 1950s and 1960s. While he is a true American hero in his own right, and wore his fame with a quiet dignity, his story does not have the same power as that of Sally Ride.

Sally Ride had me riveted the entire time, while A Life of Flight had me constantly wondering when I would learn something new. If you are a space geek – and let’s face it, you are or you wouldn’t be reading this – you are going to want to read Sally Ride but you might want to skip Barbree’s offering and go pick up First Man instead, which is on my 2016 reading list.

You can get both books I have reviewed here for reasonable prices on Amazon (links below).

Neil Armstrong: A Life of Flight

Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space

Weekly Links

Down To Earth

Last week the US Senate passed a bill named the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act”.  One of the most talked about provisions in the bill allows private citizens or companies to lay claim to asteroid resources.

Virgin Galactic announced that they have hired their first female test pilot: Kelly Latimer, who has flown for the USAF and NASA.

An object known as WT1190F re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up over the Indian Ocean on November 13th. The object was thought to be a rocket stage from an Apollo mission. Astronomers onboard an airplane caught some pictures of the event.

This is pretty cool:

In Orbit

In the past week, only one rocket blasted into orbit: an ESA Ariane 5 rocket with communications satellites for India and Saudi Arabia. The next launch in support of the ISS is still a few weeks away: an Atlas V carrying a Cygnus freighter for Orbital ATK.

Around the Solar System

I love this animated mission update on the Rosetta/Philae mission from ESA.

New analysis indicates that Mars’ small moon Phobos may only have millions of years to live. Due to its low orbit, it is getting torn apart by tidal forces, which cause the strange “grooves” on its surface.

New images of large mountains on Pluto may be evidence for “ice volcanoes” (or “cryovolcanoes”).

Check out this animation which shows the different spin rates of Pluto’s 5 moons.

Astronomers have discovered a new distant solar system object which may be the most distant rocky body known. V774104 is about half the size of Pluto and orbits several times further away.

Out There

Newly discovered planet , GJ 1132b, is the closest planet of about Earth’s size yet discovered, at only 39 light years distant. Unfortunately, the planet is tidally locked and very close to its star, making it not a fun place.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin announced they will be manufacturing and launching from Cape Canaveral at Launch Complex 36.

Check out this Kickstarter for a planetary exploration based board game called Xtronaut.

A new exhibit about the early Russian space program, with some awesome artifacts, has opened at the Science Museum of London.

Check out this unique scale model of our solar system in the Nevada desert (via Universe Today).

In Orbit

There were several rocket launches to orbit in the past week, all from Russia and China carrying communications or Earth-observing spacecraft. China launched three rockets of various sizes from their Long March series, ending with a maiden flight of the new Long March 6 rocket. Russia’s single launch was a Proton rocket lofting a communications satellites.

Up on the ISS, Mikhail Kornienko and Scott Kelly reached the halfway mark of their one-year stay on the ISS. One of the ways they celebrated was by watching an advance copy of the new movie The Martian.

Some of the cast from The Martian visited the Johnson Space Center last week and got to talk to Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren aboard the ISS.

Speaking of “live from space”, there was a special event at the National Press Club last week with Mark Kelly, Terry Virts, and Scott Kelly.

Around the Solar System

You have to check out the latest batch of images of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft.

New analysis from the Cassini mission around Saturn has revealed that the liquid water under the ice on Enceladus may in fact be a global ocean, not just an isolated pocket or sea. This makes the prospect of a “life-hunting” mission to Enceladus all the more tantalizing.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

At the “grand opening” of Boeing’s new spacecraft processing facility, the new name for their space capsule was announced. Boeing CST-100 is now called Starliner. In addition, the former Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) at Kennedy Space Center will now be known as the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF). Check out the new mural on the side of the building!

via CollectSPACE

A couple of “design nerds” are running a Kickstarter campaign to reproduce the “NASA design manual” from 1976 which introduced the NASA worm logo, which the agency used until 1992. Given that I was born in 1987, I actually have such mixed memories of NASA imagery from my childhood that I didn’t realize that ” themeatball” (currently used logo) and “the worm” were mutually exclusive, and never used by NASA at the same time.

In Orbit

The big news in orbit this past week was the launch and docking of Soyuz 44, or TMA-18M, with crew of Sergey Volkov, Andreas Mogensen, and Aydyn Aimbetov. They docked this past Friday, September 4th. There will be 9 people on the ISS until Soyuz 42 (TMA-16M) undocks on September 11th. Mogensen and Aimbetov will be flying home with Gennady Padalka on the 11th.

In preparation for the crew rotation next week, Gennady Padalka handed command of the ISS over to Scott Kelly, who will command two consecutive missions, Expedition 45 and 46, until he ends his one-year mission next year.

In other launch news, a Navy communications satellite launched from Florida on an Atlas V rocket last Wednesday (actually, only a few hours after the Soyuz launch!).

Unfortunately, the big radar on NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) spacecraft (launched on a Delta II rocket earlier this year) has failed. The probe has one other science instrument so it will continue operations.

An old Soviet satellite called Kosmos 1315 re-entered the atmosphere over Hawaii on August 31st, which many locals caught on film.

Around the Solar System

The Curiosity rover spotted some really interesting wind-eroded rock formations on Mars.

I know I shared one of these before but this new Pluto flyby animation is even better than the last one.