Archive for the ‘Space exploration’ category


6 February 2007
Categories: Space exploration

Last month in my server logs I noticed that someone came to my site by searching Google for 10 most important events in space exploration and, lo and behold, my Book recommendations: Space Exploration page is ranked on Page One of Google’s results. (By the way, Google loves me… but that’s a different story.)

Of course, a list of “most important” events is highly subjective, and that searcher was unlikely to find a direct answer to their query on my page. (Sadly, they also didn’t bother to click on any of the book links, which would have given them the opportunity to learn much more about space exploration. No matter.) Nevertheless, it got me thinking: what are, in my opinion, the ten most important events in space exploration?

The following list is not exactly in declining order of significance, but comes close.

#1. Sputnik, 1957. It seems trivial now, a basketball-sized metal sphere beep-beep-beeping its way around an elliptical orbit. But given the rudimentary state of rocket technology (this was only a dozen or so years after the Soviets got their hands on a few German rockets and rocket scientists), it was a major feat of engineering. It was also Earth-shaking: around the world, untold thousands of students turned to a career in engineering, math, or science because of Sputnik. (My father, a high school senior at the time, was surely one of them.)

#2. Yuri Gagarin, 1961. Strapping yourself into a minuscule capsule perched atop a rough, converted ballistic missile, riding it solo into orbit—then bailing out of the damn thing after reentry to parachute back to the ground—that takes serious balls. Especially when no one’s done it before.

Apollo 11. Image credit: NASA.#3. Man walks on the moon, 1969. No explanation necessary: the Apollo program was simply the pinnacle of human ingenuity and engineering. Okay, maybe it’s disingenuous to place this one all the way down at third. Maybe it even plays into the conspiracy notions that we never really went to the moon. Anyone who perpetuates that bullshit idea owes it to themselves—nay, to the world at large—to read some of the books about the development of the technology that got us there, such as Stages to Saturn. Frankly, once we figured out how to build the tools to get to the moon, actually getting there was inevitable. (The real reason people keep telling lies about secret soundstages and mass hypnosis is because nowadays, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when there was enough of a consensus to back up the national will to accomplish anything.)

#4. Mir, 1986–2001. The culmination of Soviet/Russian long-duration spaceflight research, following a long line of successful Salyut projects (which in turn make the one-off Skylab look like a folly). The Russians still kick the USA’s butt when it comes to long-duration physiology and remote-control guidance and docking.

STS-61 crew installs WFPC-2. Image credit: NASA.#5. STS-61, the first Hubble servicing mission, 1993. In a marathon session of five EVAs, a team of four astronauts (led by one of my personal heroes, Story Musgrave) added the corrective optics that cleared up one of NASA’s more embarassing mistakes (a mirror ground just a shade too flat) and instantly changed Hubble’s output from nice-but-fuzzy to jaw-droppingly beautiful. This mission demonstrated with dramatic effect the viability of on-orbit repair and maintenance, and because it had people actually working in space, more than most other Shuttle missions it really had a feeling of “the future is now.”

#6. Challenger, January 28, 1986. The loss of STS-51L was one of the most memorable and momentous events of the 1980s—the day we found out that spaceflight is not routine, it’s still difficult, dangerous work. Two years and one soft-pedalling commission report later, NASA was flying again. Unfortunately, the crew of STS-107 aboard Columbia found out the hard way in 2003 that NASA’s tendency for “normalization of deviance” continues unabated.

#7. Apollo 1, January 27, 1967. We lost three great men—Grissom, White, and Chaffee—but the silver lining is that it happened on the ground, where NASA could analyze the failure in detail. The lessons learned from the fire helped to make the Apollo Block 2 spacecraft into the fine piece of hardware that ultimately did get men to the moon.

#8. Voyager, 1977–?. Voyager 1 zoomed past Jupiter and Saturn and returned the first close-up pictures of both. It discovered active vulcanism on Io and unexpected complexity in Saturn’s rings. Voyager 2 built on Voyager 1’s discoveries and then went on to pass Uranus and Neptune as well.  More than thirty years later, both spacecraft continue to return valuable data about the far reaches of the solar system.

Sojourner "sniffs" a rock. Image credit: NASA.#9. Mars Pathfinder, 1997. An innovative approach pays off: wrap the hardware in air bags, throw it at a planet, and let it bounce. It helped too that the Sojourner rover was hardy, nimble, and the cutest thing on six wheels. This was the first mission to show the power of the Internet to fuel enthusiasm for space exploration—JPL’s web servers handled a major load in the days following the landing, peaking at 48 million hits per day.

#10. Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, 1975. An epilogue to the Space Race, this was little more than Americans and Soviets shaking hands in orbit and saying, in essence, “good game.” It was a pointless spectacle, but a fine effort in détente. Notable too for its inclusion of Aleksei Leonov, the world’s first spacewalker, as well as being the only flight of original Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton.

Book recommendations: Space Exploration

16 July 2005
coverA Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin

If you only ever read one book on the Space Race, this must be it, the book that was the basis for the award-winning HBO series From the Earth to the Moon. Chaikin explains the events and difficulties of the Apollo project with such detailed understanding that one might think he was himself one of the astronauts, except that no astronaut ever had such a gift for storytelling. Both the exhilirating highs and the disastrous lows will bring tears to your eyes.

coverCountdown: A History of Space Flight by T. A. Heppenheimer

Just a fantastic overview of every aspect of space history: from the early theoretical days, through the German A-4 program, and beyond to both American and Soviet sides of the Space Race, unmanned missions and satellite development, and even the CIA’s satellite programs (see Corona). It benefits greatly from newly released Russian information, and includes commentary on the future of space exploration and the human role in it.

coverStages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles by Roger E. Bilstein

Part of the NASA History series, this is an excellent technological history of the development of America’s moon rocket, the Saturn V. This gigantic booster was the tallest rocket ever built, produced over 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, and was built by hundreds of contractors from nearly all fifty states. Huge leaps in engineering, metallurgy, computers, and myriad other fields were necessary to fly the Saturn V and its smaller sibling, the Saturn I-B. This book is unapologetically technical, but sparks the imagination as well. By the time I finished it I couldn’t look at any major construction—the Sears Tower, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate bridge—without thinking, “compared to the Saturn, that was easy to build.” (Reissued in its entirety, including all photographs and diagrams, by the University Press of Florida. Order it today at

coverThe Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space by Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

A brilliant and entertaining read, the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Eugene Cernan, veteran of three space flights including two trips to the Moon, infuses his memoir with wit, humility, candor, and fascinating detail. Geno’s occasional use of blue language, a habit that got him into trouble during Apollo 10, makes it read like you’re sitting on his back porch listening to old war stories, and doesn’t seem at all out of place. (Who wouldn’t use the s-word if they thought their spacecraft was about to sink in the ocean?) And the events he lived through, such as the near-disastrous third spacewalk in history, make me wonder how he ever managed to cram his big balls into the Gemini capsule in the first place.

Unlike many in the genre that ignore the human element, the book details the strain borne by the family of an astronaut. Geno has nothing but praise for the difficult and untrainable role his gorgeous wife Barbara (now divorced) played as “Mrs. Astronaut.” It drives home the fact that Cernan’s career was, like most, really a team effort.

He doesn’t have much nice to say about Buzz “Dr. Rendezvous” Aldrin, though.

coverCarrying the Fire by Michael Collins

A refreshingly candid and insightful autobiography, and surprisingly so considering it was written in 1974, just five years after Collins’ flight aboard Apollo 11. By that time, he had severed his ties with NASA and was beholden to no one, a fact made clear by some of his frank comments regarding his former employer and some of his former fellow astronauts.

Collins affects a humble, gee-I-hope-I’m-good-enough tone through much of his book, particularly during the astronaut selection process. This is a common theme of astronaut autobiographies, and one begins to wonder if this is because there really is rampant humility in the ranks of the crème-de-la-crème of test pilots, or instead because the authors intentionally tone down their egos so as not to sound like total assholes when writing for posterity. I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. After all, these are certainly incredibly skilled, competent, intelligent men in a highly competitive line of work that must require powerful ego and strength of will to succeed; likewise, that competition, among a tightly knit group of similarly qualified individuals, would make even the most vainglorious egotist doubt his abilities.

He appears to have fared the transition from astronaut to historical figure in better form than his crewmates: Neil Armstrong actively sought a life outside the public eye and now lives quite reclusively on his farm in Ohio; Buzz Aldrin, according to Collins, tried to return to his Air Force career, found that having walked on the Moon doesn’t carry the cachet to write one’s own ticket in the service, and wound up in a state of clinical-grade depression. Collins, on the other hand, played the game with the cards dealt him, went to Washington, and joined the State department for a year as a foreign liason. He then became, appropriately enough, Director of the nascent National Air and Space Museum, which at the time of his writing had not yet opened to the public.

Perhaps the most interesting and intriguing idea in Collins’ book is the notion that photographing the Earth from space is a double-edged sword. Yes, pictures of Earth provided fuel for the understanding that our planet is a tiny, fragile place without the arbitrary boundary lines that we impose on it and fight over; the environmentalist movement especially was spurred by Apollo photos of what Carl Sagan called our “pale blue dot.” However, Collins contends that these pictures—of the Earth and the Moon, and humans voyaging in between—breed a sense of complacency, of having “been there, done that,” of believing that we know all there is to know about the Earth, the Moon, and travelling in space. Of course, he was writing this during a time when we were turning inward again: Apollo was over, the unused Saturn V rockets were left to rot on the ground, and the public looked at Skylab with an attitude of “ho-hum, why bother?” Collins attributes some of this lack of vision and expectation for the future to people getting the sense that they’ve been there because they’ve seen the pictures. But as Michael Collins himself states,

“Seeing the earth on an 8-by-10-inch piece of paper, or ringed by the plastic border of a television screen, is not only not the same as the real view but even worse—it is a pseudo-sight that denies the reality of the matter. To actually be 100,000 miles out, to look out four windows and find nothing but black infinity, to finally locate the blue-and-white golf ball in the fifth window, to know how fortunate we are to be able to return to it—all these things are required, in addition to merely gauging its size and color. While the proliferation of photos constantly reminds us of the earth’s dimensions, the photos deceive us as well, for they transfer the emphasis from the one earth to the multiplicity of reproduced images. There is but one earth, tiny and fragile, and one must get 100,000 miles away from it to appreciate fully one’s good fortune in living on it.”

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

A different take on Apollo: rather than ask “What was it like to walk on the Moon?”, the author asked the nine remaining Moonwalkers, “What was it like to return to Earth afterward?”—and finds that they experienced a wide range of emotions and results. In the meantime, Smith ponders what Apollo means today—to him personally, and to human society at large. His conclusions are thought-provoking and, to some extent, iconoclastic. Here’s a further review.

coverFirst Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen

A fine biography of the first man to walk on the moon. This book benefits greatly from the fact that Armstrong himself authorized its writing, granted numerous interviews, and provided unprecedented access to his personal papers, yet did not edit nor censure the final product beyond simple fact-checking. Parts of it are almost dull, though appropriately so—Armstrong was, after all, an engineer, not a risk-taker or glory-monger. Hansen gently tears open the hero-worshipping mythology that has accumulated over the past few decades to reveal the genuine human being within, putting Neil’s life in perspective and explaining how a cautious attitude toward his fame could be misconstrued as being anti-social or reclusive. He even pokes holes in the various urban legends, both humourous (the Mr. Gorsky story) and pernicious (the ludicrous notion that the moon landing never happened), that never cease to find traction among the ill-informed. Recommended.

coverFailure Is Not An Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Eugene F. Kranz

We know Gene Kranz from the Hollywood portrayals—Ed Harris in Apollo 13, Dan Butler in From The Earth To The Moon. He’s a hard-edged, crew-cut, steely-eyed missile man. With this book, we find he’s also an excellent storyteller. Kranz was instrumental and present at many of the most momentous events of Gemini and Apollo (including the Eagle‘s landing and 13’s “we have a problem” moment). With his experience, he could have freewheeled this book and filled it with off-the-cuff anecdotes, but instead took the time to research his subject deeply and conducted dozens of interviews with his fellow flight controllers. The result is a book that chronicles with terrific detail and good character development the never-routine day-to-day life of Mission Control. Gene Kranz, Sabre jet pilot in Korea, Langley test pilot, and 24-year veteran of NASA, is an American hero, yet he never aggrandizes his role in history, referring at all times to the team effort and giving credit by name whenever it’s due. Without the apparent help of a ghost writer, this aeronautical engineer has given us an historic tale with a great sense of the human element that made it all possible. His book is well worth a read.

coverDragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir by Bryan Burrough

A fascinating chronology of the Shuttle-Mir program, during which seven NASA astronauts spent extended periods aboard the Russian space station. Most importantly, this book details the behind-the-scenes politicking that led to the program. NASA Administration, concerned over the survival of the International Space Station if Russia’s space industry went bankrupt, worked out a plan to send Americans to Mir and American dollars to Moscow. Sadly, ground support for the missions was barely an afterthought, leaving several of the astronauts high and dry in space. Some, like Shannon Lucid and Michael Foale, managed to thrive. Others did not fare as well.

coverLost Moon by James Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

I read this book before seeing Ron Howard’s movie based on it, Apollo 13. So when the actors deliver lines which are layman’s explanations of technojargon someone else just said, it sounds redundant to me because Lovell explains it all in his book: GUIDO, FIDO, TLI, Main Bus B, and so on. Howard understood that the true story of the mission had plenty of drama, yet his movie still succumbed to Hollywood aggrandisement. The book sticks to the facts, and even without an all-star cast it is gripping, frightful, and entertaining. (Reissued in mass-market paperback as Apollo 13.)

coverAngle of Attack: Harrison Storms and the Race to the Moon by Mike Gray

By the screenwriter of The China Syndrome. Harrison Storms led North American Aviation to build both the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn V rocket’s giant and innovative S-2 second stage. Beating overwhelming odds, the company was ultimately successful, but at the cost of Stormy’s health and career. Somebody should make a movie out of this inspiring but tragic tale, and have James Rebhorn reprise the role he played as Storms in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon.

coverKorolev by James J. Harford

Deke Slayton puts it well in Deke! when he says that Sergei P. Korolev was the Soviet Union’s “Wernher von Braun and Robert Gilruth and James Webb all rolled into one—not only a great engineer but a hell of a politician. He was good at zigging this way and zagging the other to get what he wanted, which was to go to the moon.” Korolev was a brilliant man who was kept a state secret until long after his death. This book is an excellent narrative of his life’s work, marred only by the author’s obsession with the fact that Korolev’s associates have grown old.

coverManaging Martians by Donna Shirley

Donna Shirley was in charge of the development team that created Sojourner Truth, the Mars rover that captured the American imagination in July of 1997. She later became head of the Mars Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the acme of a career that had been her calling since childhood. With an innovative management style she became the first woman to direct the production of a successful piece of space flight hardware, and was able to make more friends than enemies in the process. Part autobiography, part anecdotal management handbook, Ms. Shirley’s book dishes some interesting dirt about the politics involved in this sort of enterprise, and only lacks the Oklahoma twang I found so endearing on CNN.

coverDeke! (U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle) by Donald K. “Deke” Slayton with Michael Cassutt

Astronaut Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven, was Chief of the Astronaut Office throughout the ’60s and was the man primarily responsible for crew selection. This book has far more character than Moon Shot (by Alan Shepard and Slayton), and allows Deke’s no-nonsense manner and individuality to shine through. Especially fascinating are descriptions of the logistical juggling of Gemini and Apollo crew assignments caused by changing mission expectations, hardware failures, and deadly accidents. A nice touch are the “Other Voices” blurbs, which add perspective from Deke’s family and colleagues.

coverAt the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program by Milton O. Thompson

Milt Thompson piloted the experimental X-15 rocket airplane on fourteen flights from October 1963 to August 1965, making him one of only a dozen men uniquely qualified to tell the story of what continues to be the world’s fastest aircraft. Thompson, later to become chief engineer at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, is admittedly not a professional writer nor historian, and sometimes this shows through, especially in the book’s occasional repetition. (In fact, in an afterword he implies that he only wrote the book because it appeared that no one else involved with the program was bothering to do so.) However, not only does he do an excellent job of describing the systems of the plane and conveying the challenges of the endeavour, he adequately captures the pride and camaraderie of the people involved as well. He also has a deep trove of humourous tales. The X-15 program was the pinnacle of flight research and Milt Thompson pays it a much-needed tribute. Includes a complete log of all 199 flights and 32 pages of photographs.

coverChariots for Apollo: The Untold Story behind the Race to the Moon by Charles R. Pellegrino & Joshua Stoff

The tale of Apollo, told from the prespective of the people of Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation of Bethpage, New York, who built the Lunar Modules (LMs). Pellegrino is deeply immersed in LM history and thus his book is chock full of interesting and little-known facts, and worth a read on that basis alone. Unfortunately, I found the writing style annoying. It frequently makes use of repeated phrases, taken out of context and italicized, as if we’re hearing the echoes of someone’s memory. The intent seems to be to create drama, but the result is forced, reminiscent of a film treatment, and ultimately unnecessary since the events (such as the Apollo 1 fire… “problems waiting to hatch out” is such a poor play on words) have enough inherent drama as it is. I was also surprised that the authors glossed over the computer overload errors during the Apollo 11 landing, errors that brought a scramble of activity in Mission Operations and which were important events in LM development. Finally, the book is rife with typographical errors—“Wernher von Bran” and “Lenoid Brezhnev” are two of the more glaring examples—and for this reason the book makes the Shut List. Not to be confused with NASA SP-4205, Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft by Brooks et al.