Archive for the ‘Skylab’ Category

The Space Station, Kent Alexander

April 9, 2011

One of the interesting aspects of reading books about the Space Race and space exploration is discovering past space programmes that might have been. Perhaps in some alternative universe, they do indeed exist, the decisions which scuppered the projects in our history having gone differently. The Space Station by Kent Alexander is a relatively late – historically speaking – entry into this genre as it describes the plans and intentions of the US programme during the 1980s for a manned space outpost.

At that time, of course, the Soviet Union still existed and remained the West’s implacable foe. Indeed, The Space Station does not mention Salyut at all, names Mir only in passing, and incorrectly identifies Alan Shepard as “the first man to venture into space”. But then the book does read in place like more of a propaganda piece, declaring in the final chapter that “if the United States is to be the leader in improving the general well-being of humankind on Earth and in space beyond the twentieth century…” In the twenty-three years since the book was published, the USA can hardly be said to have successfully implemented that particular policy.

When The Space Station is not celebrating the US, it is celebrating NASA and its ambitions. NASA’s achievements are passed over quickly in an introductory chapter. The second chapter opens with Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address of January 1984, and his call in it for “NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and do it within a decade” (the speech is not quoted in The Space Station), before discussing the numerous studies and reports on space stations put together by astronauts, scientists and administrators at NASA. The book is copiously illustrated – with artists’ impressions and mock-ups – of space station concepts by US aeronautical companies. One chapter is titled ‘International Participation’ and discusses the role the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan would play in the US space programme. No mention, of course, of Russia – despite the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of thirteen years earlier. Much is made of the projected costs of the proposed space station – an initial estimate of $8 billion was revised upwards to $13 billion (and to $30 billion in 1989). With each new price-tag came a diminishment in the space station’s capabilities. It was these two factors which eventually led to the demise of the project. Incidentally, though the space station described by The Space Station is Space Station Freedom (as was), it was not given the name until June 1988, after the book was written.

Ironically, the International Space Station, which grew out of Space Station Freedom, has to date cost some $100 billion.

The Space Station describes an interesting might-have-been, which means it is of debatable usefulness as a history of the US space programme or US space stations. Its failure to look outside the USA also counts against it. While the illustrations in the book are interesting, the real world has turned too much of its contents into alternative history. This gives the book little more than curiosity value. A much better book on space stations is Roger D Launius’s Space Stations: Base Camps to the Stars (see here).

The Space Station, Kent Alexander (1988, Gallery Books, ISBN 0-8317-7940-3, 134pp + ‘Further Reading’ and index)

Space Stations – Base Camps to the Stars, Roger D Launius

April 11, 2010

In less than a century in space, humankind has built only four inhabited outposts in orbit – Salyut, Skylab, Mir and the International Space Station. Since 31 October 2000, there has been a continuous human presence at the ISS, although Mir was permanently inhabited between September 1989 to August 1999. Given that the first person to leave the planet, Yuri Gagarin, did so on 12 April 1961 – nearly half a century ago – that’s a surprisingly short, and recent, period of time.

But then, not everyone has agreed that space stations are useful; and even now there are those who consider the ISS a waste of money better spent on other space-related projects. Yet a space station captures the imagination in a way that’s only been surpassed by the Apollo Moon landings. If you look up at the sky, there are people up there, some 340 kilometres above your head – that’s about the distance between London and Liverpool. As I write this, there are in fact thirteen people in orbit: six in ISS Expedition 23‘s crew and seven on STS-131 Space Shuttle Discovery.

Space Stations – Base Camps to the Stars by former NASA chief historian Roger D Launius captures the appeal of the space station. In seven copiously-illustrated chapters, Launius presents a history of space stations, focusing chiefly on the US’s Skylab and Space Station Freedom, and the ISS. The opening chapters outline the origins of the concept and NASA’s various early plans, featuring a number of illustrations of space stations from the 1930s to the 1950s. An entire chapter is devoted to the political wrangling which killed Space Station Freedom. In truth, Space Stations is chiefly a political study of its subject. It’s the reasons for their existence, rather than the technical achievements they represent, which Launius documents. Certainly I agree that space stations are a vital first step in the move off-planet. And we need to eventually move off the Earth, if only to provide room for the planet’s ever-increasing population and to find the resources necessary to maintain that population.

But Launius’s books is not about the commercial or scientific development of our Solar system, and the role space stations will play in that development. As Space Stations‘ subtitle suggests, Launius is documenting further visions – missions to other stars. Those early visionaries – Tsiolkovski, Oberth, Noordung, von Braun – all looked to the stars. And space stations were a necessary component of their visions.

Although Space Stations was published in 2003, Launius foresaw the increase in space tourism following Dennis Tito‘s flight to the ISS in 2001 (there have been eight space tourists to the ISS to date), and concluded that the commercial sector would play an increasingly larger role in the development of space. While not an especially prophetic conclusion, President Obama’s recent cancellation of Project Constellation and directive for NASA to use private space companies can only mean more of the commercial sector in space. Which Launius sees as positive, especially in relation to the role of space stations in future interstellar exploration: “But this path into the future, although seemingly stalled, may already be in the process of becoming.”


Space Stations – Base Camps to the Stars, Roger D Launius (2003, Smithsonian Institution, ISBN 1-58834-120-8, 230pp + appendices, chapter notes and index)

Rocketman, Nancy Conrad

April 21, 2009

Rocketman is subtitled “Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond” and purports to be a biography of Gemini and Apollo astronaut Charles ‘Peter’ Conrad Jr. Except it doesn’t actually read like a biography. It reads more like a novel, in which Pete Conrad happens to be the main character. As a result, it offers little insight into its subject.

Perhaps this is because the book was co-written by Howard Klausner, who is better known as the screenwriter for the film Space Cowboys. While that certainly means he’s familiar with the material, writing a screenplay and writing a biography are not the same. A biography, for example, does not need a story. It doesn’t require a three-act structure. And the character-arc is a function of the subject’s life, and not something that is imposed by the biographer.

All of which explains in part why I found Rocketman such a dissatisfying book. It was certainly a fast and easy read, but its style gave it no authority. It was based upon notes left by Conrad on his death in 1999, and from which he intended to write an autobiography himself, but for all that it doesn’t seem to really capture what it was like to be a Gemini and Apollo astronaut.

For whatever reason, Nancy Conrad and Klausner chose to frame Rocketman using Conrad’s record-breaking around the world Learjet flight in 1996. Which in turn gives the chapters on Conrad’s childhood, his career at NASA, and his days afterwards at McDonnell Douglas, the feel of reminiscences. It distances his achievements. In fact, one of the few sections of the book which gives a real feel for the man is a direct quote taken from, I assume, his notes, regarding his Gemini 5 mission. He and Gordo Cooper set a new space endurance record of eight days in, as Conrad described it, “a garbage can”. In the quote in Rocketman, he mentions that his knees dried up and began to hurt. It’s details such as this which make the man and his mission come alive for the reader. It’s a shame there aren’t more in the book.

In places, Rocketman reads as though Klausner were trying to tell his own history of the space race, a story in which Conrad was an important, but not major, player. The focus of the book occasionally shifts to the world stage and describes events in which Conrad played no part – because, it feels like, Klausner has something to say about the representation of the USA in geopolitics. There’s a lot of rah-rah “our country, ’tis for thee” nonsense, which might fit the macho character of the test pilots and astronauts, but seems faintly risible to a non-American reader in the twenty-first century. Admittedly, the space race took place because of politics, and Apollo was indeed an astonishing achievement. But an Apollo astronaut’s biography is not the right place to give the US’s somewhat tarnished international reputation a buff and polish.

Rocketman hits the highlights of Conrad’s career – Gemini 5, Gemini 11, Apollo 12, Skylab and the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper. The book ends with a dramatised description of the motorcycle accident which caused his death in 1999. In many respects, Conrad was a typical astronaut. Like many of them he spent much of his youth hanging around an airfield and learned to fly in his teens. He was described as one of the best pilots among the astronauts – as most of them have also been described. Clearly he was as driven and determined as the other astronauts, although he was perhaps atypically approachable. He liked a good joke and reading between the lines his sense of humour unlike, Alan Shepard, another astronaut known for his jokes, was not cruel.

Reading Rocketman, the over-riding impression is of a man who was liked by everyone who knew him. While it seems a little unlikely – the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts were, after all, highly-driven, highly-ambitious military jocks – Conrad definitely appeared to be a more likable man than many of his colleagues.

But I’d have sooner Rocketman left an impression of Conrad’s career and achievements, rather than simply the fact that he was a nice guy for an astronaut. Disappointing.

Rocketman: Pete Conrad’s Incredible Ride to the Moon and Beyond, Nancy Conrad with Howard A Klausner (2005, New American Library, ISBN 0-451-21509-5, 275pp + appendices and index)

Apollo EECOM: Journey of a Lifetime, Sy Liebergot

July 12, 2008

EECOM means Electrical, Environmental and Communication systems. The flight controller filling this role operates from the Mission Operations Control Room during manned space flights. Sy Liebergot was EECOM for Apollos 8 – 15, and EGIL (Electrical, General Instrumentation and Life support) during the Skylab missions. This book is his autobiography.

Given that Apollo EECOM was published by Apogee Books, most readers of it are going to be interested first and foremost in Liebergot’s career with NASA. The book, however, opens with his childhood – and it was not a pleasant one. His father was a small-time crook, and Liebergot and his siblings spent time in foster homes. After a stint in the Army Weather Observers Corps, Liebergot went to work in the aerospace industry in California, before transferring across to NASA.

Liebergot is unflinchingly honest in Apollo EECOM – about himself, his life, his family, and his colleagues. Many of the latter come across as unpleasant individuals, although to be fair Liebergot admits he was no different. Interestingly – and this ties in with comments I made here in my review of Harrison H Schmitt‘s Return to the Moon – Liebergot mentions one or two people whose careers which were blighted by flight director Chris Kraft. And simply because those people had disagreed with Kraft. Much as been made of Apollo-era NASA‘s management systems, and how they were crucial in getting a man on the Moon. And yet, from all that I’ve read, they still appear to follow the “charismatic leader” model. Kraft is a case in point. His authority was absolute. NASA was not a meritocracy – it was based upon the perception of excellence by those in authority. And that perception – as seems clear from Apollo EECOM – was often based upon personality.

Liebergot himself came close to suffering the same fate but, as he appears to be fond of saying (and writes repeatedly throughout Apollo EECOM), he “dodged the bullet”.

Another telling incident which demonstrates this occurred during Apollo 10 when a fellow member of Mission Operations Control threatened to violence against Liebergot because he had not been “personally briefed”. Yes, different times then- but no matter how competent someone is, that sort of behaviour should be seen as unacceptable.

Apollo EECOM is very good on technical detail and personalities, and there’s no doubt Liebergot followed an interesting career. He not only discusses Apollo 13 in depth, but also mentions his peripheral involvement in Ron Howard’s film. Unfortunately, Liebergot’s writing style leaves much to be desired. While his tone is honest and friendly, the book often seems to be written more like a memo or report – especially its strange tendency throughout to punctuate sections with italicised concluding sentences. For example,

“… What a beautiful sight it was to see the Command Module on the main chutes and then splashing down in view of the recovery carrier. We were all so relieved and so very proud.

For us flight controllers, the mission was a success.”

There are no great insights in Apollo EECOM, but despite the clumsy writing it’s an entertaining read. Liebergot’s role in the Apollo programme means those chapters detailing his career as flight controller are the most interesting to a reader such as myself. He not only describes his job in great detail (and most especially during Apollo 13), but also relates many interesting anecdotes from his time at NASA. There’s also a CD-ROM with the book, containing audio of the EECOM loop during Apollos 13 and 15, a Quicktime panorama of Mission Control, and 55-minute video presentation by Liebergot about the Apollo 13 explosion.

Liebergot’s honesty – a book like Apollo EECOM could all too easy have become self-aggrandising – outweighs, I think, any deficiencies in his prose. You could do a lot worse if you were interested in reading about life in Mission Control during Apollo.

Apollo EECOM:Journey of a Lifetime, Sy Liebergot, with David M Harland (2003, Apogee Books, ISBN 1-896522-96-3, 199pp + appendices and CD-ROM)

Note: Liebergot has a webpage at


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