Archive for December 2010

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

20 December 2010

Apollo 11 happened in my lifetime, but I’m much too young to remember it.

Andrew Smith remembers it: he was a lad of eight, and begins his brilliant book Moondust with his recollection of a warm summer day, riding his bike with a friend through their Northern California subdivision, arriving home in time to hear the last minutes of the descent, and sitting in his living room a few hours later to hear Neil Armstrong utter those famous words.

I was not quite six months old when the Eagle landed, so I remember nothing of it. My family was on a camping trip, and during the Moonwalk, the One Small Step, I was fast asleep in a big canvas tent. My parents, only vaguely aware that the world’s attentions were so acutely focused on this event, stood half-interested along with a handful of other people around a small, black-and-white portable television owned by the folks in the next campsite over. The reception was awful—and of course the images from the Moon were grey and ghostly at best—so I think their experience of the event was rather underwhelming.

One of my earliest memories of any kind is of Apollo, although in researching its specifics now I find that my recollection may be entirely flawed. In my mind, as a not-yet-four-year-old I was awakened in what seemed like the middle of the night by my grandfather and hauled blearily down to the basement to watch as Cernan and Schmitt climbed aboard the Apollo 17 Lunar Module Challenger and the last men launched from the Moon. The tricolor debris of liftoff—the red-green-blue scans of the lunar rover camera being sequential rather than simultaneous—still sticks in my mind as one of the archetypal images of the entire program.

Except that in the time zone where I was, the lunar liftoff took place around dinnertime. Perhaps the late-night rousting I recall was of the mission-commencing Saturn V launch from Florida instead, which took place well after my bedtime. If that’s the case, I have to admit to remembering it not at all.

At any rate I was young enough not to notice the hiatus, the huge gear-grinding downshift, when Apollo ended and the only things happening in American manned spaceflight for more than eight years were a trio of long(ish)-duration Earth-orbital missions aboard a converted Saturn V third stage, and the brief effort in détente known as Apollo–Soyuz. My media input was mainly from books, and in those books—among them NASA’s Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, Ruth Sonneborn’s Question and Answer Book of Space, and of course Carl Sagan’s masterpiece Cosmos—human spaceflight continued its merry ascent toward the stars, unfettered by political machinations and budget considerations.

Since then, along with biographies on Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Gene Cernan, Gene Kranz, Deke Slayton and others, I have read dozens of books on the Space Race, Apollo, the Moon landings. Some are sublime, like Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon; some are fairly routine, cut-and-dried, and uninspired; some, like Tom Kelly’s Moon Lander and Roger Bilstein’s Stages to Saturn, are rife with technical detail. Some are just going through the motions, praying to get all their facts correct (and, often as not, failing).

But few, if any, pose a question both simple to ask and complicated to ponder: What did Apollo mean? And for that matter, what does it mean today, decades later?

Andrew Smith chooses to ask those questions. By chance he found himself in proximity to Charlie Duke and his wife as they learned of the death of Duke’s fellow Moonwalker, Pete Conrad. Duke’s shattered comment to Smith: “Now there’s only nine of us.”

This sets Smith on a journey to meet all the surviving Moonwalkers and get their impressions of their time on that celestial body. But not to answer the prosaic and frequently asked “What was it like to walk on the Moon?” He delves more into the question of “What was it like to return to Earth after having walked on the Moon?” He focuses on the aftermath of each mission, the paths (some clear-cut and successful, some desultory and haphazard) each astronaut took upon splashdown.

Smith’s story of the Space Race and its aftermath is delightfully candid and uniquely personal, and is not only a fun read but also an important contribution to the history. I would even go so far as to say that, if after reading the best book on the Space Race bar none—Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon—readers find themselves wanting more, they could do far worse than to turn to this book for further perspective.

Andrew Smith comes to some interesting conclusions about what it all “meant,” but it does him no justice to attempt to condense them down to a few paragraphs. Suffice it to say that Moondust takes us on a personal voyage of discovery, clears away the veils of mythology surrounding Apollo, and brings the Moon home to all of us on Earth.

That said, one glaring point Smith makes in conclusion hit home to me.

He discusses the real reason that Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, an outsider (if not radical) idea, was chosen over the Earth Orbit Rendezvous favoured by NASA’s top engineers: time. LOR stood a better chance of getting the job done before Kennedy’s arbitrary deadline.  But EOR’s incremental approach was the better way:

Earth Orbit Rendezvous would have taken longer, but would have bequeathed a waypoint in space, prepaid for and pointed out toward the stars. It could have been scaled up or down and adapted to a range of purposes with relatively little bother. It would have involved developing technologies and skills that would endure, so that when the political imperatives that drove Kennedy had gone and the lunar landings ceased, an orbital base camp would have been left behind. The Sixties-end deadline had necessitated a built-in obsolescence that was the quintessence of its time.

For all the Space Race history I’ve read, I cannot recall having seen this idea expressed so flatly, so concisely, if at all:

Jack’s Apollo program killed “manned” Deep-Space exploration, stone dead, for at least the next four decades and probably many more.

It’s not a popular notion, that the man we think of as having sent us to the Moon ruined spaceflight for us. Unfortunately, it’s true. For the past thirty years we’ve been launching the Shuttle back and forth to low Earth orbit—and as Smith suggests, the difference between that and a voyage to Deep Space is akin to the difference between climbing a hill and actually flying. The International Space Station, for all its size and arguable science potential, goes nowhere. While the Russians are still flying a 1960s spacecraft aboard a 1950s rocket (both substantially upgraded and modernized, of course), not one bit of our moonshot hardware carried over into the Shuttle era. Apollo really was disposable.

Most people don’t realize the cold hard fact that today, in 2010, the human race lacks the technology to return to the moon. What we did forty years ago, we can no longer do. When I tell people that, they’re almost always shocked. We’ve lived so long with that old saw—“We can put a man on the moon, so why can’t we do x?”—that it doesn’t occur to us that its premise is false. We can’t put a man on the moon.

Why? Because JFK wanted to beat the Russians at something, and somebody said we could beat them to the Moon, and so we did. But we did so at the expense of a sustainable space program.

In 2010, the year A. C. Clarke used for our second manned voyage to Jupiter, forty years after Alan Shepard played golf on the Moon, how sad it is to be twiddling our thumbs in low Earth orbit and heading into yet another gap in U.S. manned spaceflight capability. Thanks for nothing, Jack.

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

17 December 2010

Two miles south of Chicago’s Loop, just east of Chinatown, in a neighbourhood known today as the Near South Side, stand the Raymond Hilliard Homes. Built in the mid-1960s as one of the city’s last major public housing projects, the complex was designed by renowned architect Bertrand Goldberg, whose most famous Chicago work is the iconic corncob towers of Marina City. Goldberg’s intent was to create something other than the warehouses-for-the-poor that typified other public housing projects, and so he came up with a futuristic-looking quartet of high-rises that even today are striking to behold.

The Bertrand Goldberg Archive boasts that “for many years this was the only public housing complex which needed no constant police supervision.” The Archive wants to attribute this to Goldberg’s revolutionary design, and the National Register for Historic Places seems to agree: the complex was added to the Register in 1999, claiming in its nomination: “even as public housing policy turned away from high-rise developments, the Hilliard Center has seemed largely immune from the problems of other high-rise projects.” Yet even the Goldberg Archive admits, “residents were chosen from records of model citizenry in other housing projects.” This hand-picking surely contributed as much to the success of Hilliard as did Goldberg’s “neo-expressionist” stab at the new urbanism; still, by the late-1990s, the project had succumbed to the same issues that plagued most other public housing and doomed this idealistic attempt. If not for the architectural significance of the buildings, by now they might well have gone the way of most other public housing high-rises.

The Hilliard site, spanning a two-by-two-block area between Clark and State Streets, Cullerton Street and Cermak Road, utterly transformed this landscape, and its curving towers are, to my eye, a little stark, a lot retro, and reeking of a misguided optimism. Don’t take this the wrong way—I like these buildings, in all their mid-20th-Century weirdness, and while I’ll never miss the rectilinear high-rise barracks of Cabrini–Green as they’re gradually razed, I’m glad that this project has seen a major renovation and will stand for decades to come.

Yet for all the talk of architectural significance and progressive ideals, there is little mention of what this site was one hundred years ago, during what we now refer to as the Progressive Era of American history.

In fact, the site itself gives no hint that Dearborn Street and Federal Street (formerly named Armour Avenue after the famed meatpacker) once passed straight through the site, cruising uninterrupted south from 18th Street and well beyond 22nd Street, now Cermak Road. A hundred years ago, this entire area, from 18th to 22nd, Clark to Wabash, and some of the surrounding environs, was known as the South Side Levee. It was Chicago’s most notorious red light district—and its most famous.

In the Progressive Era, prostitution was seen as a necessary evil, and it was widely believed that segregation—a separate, self-contained vice district—was an adequate means of regulation. As a result, the Levee contained dozens, if not hundreds, of “disorderly houses”: saloons, brothels, opium dens, and the like. Many of these were extremely disreputable, kidnapping young women fresh off the train and forcing them into a life of harlotry, employing “enforcers” to beat the girls, often quite severely, if they got out of line or attempted to escape. Knockout drops in drinks were common, and “panel rooms”—chambers with hidden, sliding panels—were used to rob unaware clients. Corrupt police and aldermen received massive payouts for “protection” and kept the whole thriving under the blind—or complicit—watch of various Chicago mayors.

Into this morass of sin came two sisters from Omaha, Ada and Minna Everleigh. Originally from Virginia and born with the surname Simms, the pair had run a brothel in Omaha that was financed, or so they claimed, by a $35,000 inheritance. It seems likely, however, that they had made this money the old-fashioned way. The sisters, above all else, were masters of self-transformation.

At a time when it was possible for a madman to abduct and murder dozens (possibly hundreds) of people and cause them to vanish with nary a trace, when young women were leaving their homes in droves for the first time in history to travel to urban centers and seek employment, when a woman could be drugged and raped and made to believe that she was “ruined” and thus resign herself to a life of prostitution—becoming, quite literally, an “inmate” of a brothel—

—And as moralizing preachers and prosecutors used these realities to foment a widespread fear of the “traffic in white slavery” and abolish the trade entirely, creating the Mann Act and turning the FBI from a tiny arm of the Justice Department into the enforcement juggernaut it is today—

—Ada and Minna Everleigh sought to turn a profit in the world’s oldest profession in an ethical and high-toned manner. Their “butterflies,” as they called their working girls, were all volunteers, working of their own free will, and free to leave at any time. Their clientèle were judiciously selected and held to rules of proper conduct. A doctor was kept on staff to give the girls periodic check-ups, and drugs were strictly forbidden. The rougher element, pimps, and panders were never welcome; and lower-class holiday-makers were asked to find recourse elsewhere in the Levee, something they could do with ease (but rarely as safely, given those knockout drops and panel rooms and pickpockets at other resorts).

For a dozen years, the Everleigh Club was the premier resort, and Ada and Minna the de facto Queens of the Levee. Its rooms were elaborately appointed even by the over-the-top standards of their late-High-Victorian era. The club was, quite literally, world-famous: captains of industry; important authors, poets, and athletes; and even a European prince could be counted among its patrons. And then it all ended, as the moralizers and temperancers gained traction and politicians courted the law-and-order vote. The club shut its doors in 1911 and the sisters retired into obscurity. The double building at 2131–2133 South Dearborn Street that housed the club was razed a couple of decades later.

The fascinating and titillating story of the Everleigh sisters and their lavish business—but not that of the housing project that stands in its place—is told in the delightful book Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.