Space Station Friendship, Dick Lattimer

May 17, 2013

ssfBack in 1988, a US space station on Low Earth Orbit seemed almost certain. NASA had just signed a series of ten-year contracts and the various parts would soon start to be built. This is despite the numerous redesigns and budget cuts Space Station Freedom had suffered since first being announced in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union Address. By 1993, the project was dead… and was later reborn in 1998 as the International Space Station.

This makes Dick Lattimer’s Space Station Friendship, which describes a visit to a US space station in 2007 by three postgraduates, alternate history rather than futurism. The design of Space Station Friendship follows in all respects except name that of Space Station Freedom:

I call the station Friendship after our first orbital U.S. spaceship, John Glenn’s Frienship 7. To me the name reflects what should be the ultimate goal of all our undertakings in space. (p 18)

Much of the space technology describe in Space Station Friendship has not changed: the Soyuz is still flying, the ISS is not dissimilar to designs for Space Station Freedom; and while there is no “fleet” of Space Shuttles flying missions every 30 days, in 2007 there were three Shuttle flights. In other areas, the book gets it badly wrong. Admittedly, Lattimer could not have predicted the USSR would collapse three years after his book was published, but given the book’s focus on science and technology, Lattimer’s vision of twenty-first century computing woefully off. At one point, he describes Space Station Freedom as using a DEC VAX. DEC, of course, was acquired by Compaq in 1998 and its marque immediately retired, and VAX computers were discontinued in 2000. But it’s the lack of personal computing, and the clumsy EGA CRT monitors described by Lattimer, which particularly stand out. He also makes mention of a “Dick Tracy” radio-wristwatch, whereas we have instead mobile phones. And then there’s HOTOL, a British spaceplane. The project was cancelled in 1988, but was reincarnated in the private sector the following year as Skylon.

Some of the details of the space station are also slightly wrong. Space Station Friendship is described as painted throughout in pastel colours, but the ISS has a chiefly white interior. Lattimer mentions the space station’s peculiar smell, but the ISS reportedly has no smell because air is continuously flowing throughout it. Lattimer also makes much of the psychology of extended stays – of ninety days in the book – aboard the station, but in point of fact the postgrads’ stay of thirty days in no different to a typical shift aboard an oil rig, and no such safeguards as outlined in the book are on rigs.

All these, however, are mostly forgivable. The book’s focus is the space station, and if some of Lattimer’s predictions have since been proven wrong, it matters little given that the central premise of Space Station Friendship remains mostly spot-on. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a more serious problem: it is little more than a serious of lectures aimed at a trio of remarkably ignorant doctoral candidates. Given that the postgrads are stand-ins for the reader, their ignorance is not entirely unexpected; but they would have been more plausible had they demonstrated that their training had taught them something about the space station and its purpose.

Each chapter of Space Station Friendship covers a particular area of the facility. They follow a similar pattern. The three postgrads – Mary Two Hawks, Billy Wong and Wayne Morrison – are introduced to one of the station’s crew, who then lectures them in detail about their work. And this work is not just scientific – much of it is commercial, and some of it is for the military and so classified. There is a heavily US-only focus to the space station and its work, though for a single-nation project this is no real surprise. The problem with many of the “lectures” given by the astronauts aboard Space Station Friendship is that Lattimer has made little or no effort to make them interesting. They’re dull, and the clanking prose does little to improve them.

In fact, Space Station Friendship is quite badly written. The prose level is better-suited to a children’s book, but the dialogue – of which it is mostly comprised – contains much advanced science and engineering. There is a way to make a conversation such as the following comprehensible, or at the very least readable:

“Ready, Barn,” the lunar commander replied.
“Okay. TIG 142034700 NOUN 67 5530000370 plus 0002, need A 47 in plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955, needle 465 is plus 00370, needle 546 is NA. Ignition 1 Rev late is 1440209, toug weight 10789. Over.”
“Roger. Copy 142034700 55350000370 plus 0002 plus 37364 plus 05607 plus 58642 plus 56955 plus 00370, NA 1440209, tug weight 10789. Over.”
“That’s affirmative, Kathy. P32 CSI PAD follows. NOUN 11 143015060 NOUN 37 14438 all zips NOUN 81 0492 all zips. Need A 473 is 01818, 275 is 02780, AGS DELTA Vs plus 0492 all zips plus 0010. Over.” (p 100)

Lattimer neither explains the above, nor glosses it. (For the record, the commander of an Orbital Transfer Vehicle on the lunar surface is reading off the settings from their guidance computer prior to launching and rendezvousing with an “aero-assist skirt”.)

Space Station Friendship is illustrated throughout with black and white sketches by Michael Lattimer. They add little to the story. A final chapter, ‘Photo album: Friendship’s Early Days’, contains five pages of photographs and artists’ impressions of Space Station Freedom.

The final chapters of Space Station Friendship reveal a wider space programme. The US sends regular missions to the Moon, and is working on an international mission to Mars. An epilogue set in 2019 mentions a Mars conveyor and a settlement on the Sea of Tranquility.

There are more interesting and better-written books about space stations available, and while there’s some entertainment to be derived from Lattimer’s failed futurism, there’s no other real reason to bother reading Space Station Friendship. Disappointing.

Space Station Friendship, Dick Lattimer (1988, Stackpole Books, ISBN 0-8117-1683-X, 219 pp + glossary, further reading and index)


Neil Armstrong RIP

August 25, 2012

At the age of 82, after heart surgery, the first human being to set foot on another world, Neil Alden Armstrong, has died. He wasn’t specifically picked to be humanity’s first interplanetary ambassador. There are those who say NASA wanted a civilian to be the first man on the Moon, and perhaps there was some careful scheduling such that Armstrong was made commander of Apollo 11. However it happened, it was Neil Armstrong who first put booted foot to lunar regolith.

All those who worked with Armstrong had nothing but respect for Armstrong’s skills, expertise and coolness. There was even a rumour that he remained so cool because he believed a person was allotted a finite number of heartbeats per lifetime and he was making sure they lasted.

After a worldwide publicity tour for Apollo 11, Armstrong became a recluse. He stopped being an astronaut and instead turned university professor. When he felt strongly enough on space-related matters, he stepped up and spoke his mind. There are a number of books about Neil Armstrong, but perhaps the best is James Hansen’s First Man – see here.

Neil Armstrong is the fourth of the twelve Moonwalkers to die. That means eight are left. Will I see more Moonwalkers during my lifetime? I’m beginning to suspect not. I hope I’m wrong. Even so, should some astronaut, cosmonaut or taikonaut set foot on the Moon in the next twenty to thirty years, technological advances will mean their achievement can never really compare with those of the Apollo astronauts. They were at the sharp end of the one of the greatest engineering projects of the twentieth century. They travelled 250,000 miles through space to another world on less advanced technology than we now find in our pockets. The astronauts made the footprints in the regolith, but their achievement is just as much the achievement of all those who supported them – the people who designed, built, tested, maintained, managed and operated all the equipment used by the Apollo programme.

History will remember Armstrong’s name because he was first. But what they all did deserves celebration.

Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott & Alexei Leonov

June 2, 2012

It must have sounded like a neat idea when they pitched it to the publisher: a NASA astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut, both of whom were involved in the Space Race, each telling their own side of the story. Except there isn’t that much linking David Scott and Alexei Leonov. They met several times, and even became friends. But Scott was in the third group of NASA astronauts, flew once in Gemini and twice in Apollo; but Leonov was in the first group of cosmonauts, a close personal friend of Yuri Gagarin, and flew once in Voskhod and once in Soyuz/ASTP.

True, Scott made it to the Moon, and Leonov was made commander of the USSR’s failed attempt to put a man on the Moon. But Leonov also commanded the Soviet half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The US side was commanded by Thomas Stafford (see here). Scott was involved only as a liaison with the Russians – in fact, that’s how he came to know Leonov. Even then, the sections of Two Sides of the Moon recounting that first visit from either viewpoint read like two reports on two entirely different trips.

If there’s a fault to Two Sides of the Moon, it’s that: the book reads like two autobiographies published together without any real connection between the two. Which is not to say that those individual accounts are not interesting. Scott’s is perhaps lighter on technical detail than the autobiographies of some of his peers, and Leonov’s does display a tendency to repeatedly stress his importance within the Soviet cosmonaut corps. Both quickly cover the lives of their subjects prior to joining their respective space programmes. Only Leonov seems to remark on the differences between how the programmes were run, and several times remarks on his surprise at learning that the NASA astronauts were not as rigorously managed in terms of diet and exercise as the cosmonauts were. Leonov’s account also makes it clear that the Soviet space programme was much cruder than that of the US – indeed, facilities at Baikonur were initially extremely basic, and those involved spent as little time there as they possibly could.

Scott recounts the details of his Gemini 8 mission, the one in which he and Neil Armstrong nearly came a cropper due to a faulty RCS vernier. He focuses more, understandably, on Apollo 15, the mission he commanded which landed on Mare Imbrium and explored the region around it, including Rima Hadley and the foothills of the Apennines. These are among the most interesting sections of the book.

By comparison, Leonov appeared to be involved in more failed missions than successful ones. In fact, he flew only twice – though one of his flights, admittedly, did make him the first person to walk in space. He was set to command Soyuz 11, but was pulled off after one his crew was diagnosed with suspected tuberculosis. The backup crew of Vladislav Volkov, Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsayev died on ther return from Salyut 1 when a release valve opened prematurely and evacuated the descent module’s atmosphere. Leonov was then put in command of the Zond programme to put a cosmonaut on the Moon, and blames the lack of courage of Vasiliy Mishin, Sergei Korolev‘s successor as head of the Soviet space programme, for its failure. Mishin repeatedlt insisted on unmanned tests, when a manned test could have put a Russian in lunar orbit before Apollo 8. And perhaps even put Leonov on the lunar surface before Apollo 11.

It’s clear that Two Sides of the Moon was written as the reminiscences of Scott and Leonov – their central position in their respective narratives indicates as much. But where their memories might have failed or misled them, you would have thought the ghost writer (Christine Toomey) would have fact-checked. And yet errors have slipped in. Perhaps the most egregious is Scott’s claim that Neil Armstrong’s motto was, “If you can’t be good, be colourful”. He even tells an anecdote about it. Except that motto was Pete Conrad‘s, as even a cursory search on the Internet will reveal.

If Scott and Leonov are not the obvious choices to have their stories put together, at least both tell interesting tales. The fact that those stories don’t seem to fit together particularly well seems almost incidental. Two Sides of the Moon is certainly a readable book, and a faster read than many other books on the Space Race. There are better astronaut autobiographies than Scott’s – Michael Collin’s Carrying the Fire (see here) and Thomas Stafford’s We Have Capture (see here) are two examples – but Two Sides of the Moon is also by and about Alexei Leonov, and his story lifts Two Sides of the Moon above many other such books on the Space Race.

Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott and Alexei Leonov (2004, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-7342-3162-7, 390pp + acknowledgements, glossary, bibliography and index)

Apollo Spacecraft News Reference (Lunar Module)

December 2, 2011

This is the companion volume to Apollo Spacecraft News Reference (NAA Command/Service Module) (see here). The two books were produced in the 1960s for the use of journalists and correspondents. The originals are much sought after by collectors, but in 2006 Apogee Books published facsimile editions, available only from their web site.

This book covers the Grumman Lunar Module, and details every aspect of its operation and use. It is copiously illustrated, with artists’ renderings and diagrams. There is, for example, a map of the instrument panels in the Lunar Module, with a description outlining the function of each section of the numerous instrumental panels. Different sections of the reference explain the workings of environmental controls, main propulsion, reaction control, communications, instrumentation, guidance, navigation and control, and the Portable Life Support System, among other topics. Also included is a brief history of the LM, plus a copious glossary.

Like the Apollo Spacecraft News Reference (NAA Command/Service Module), this is a highly-detailed book, far more so than I would have expected was needed by the press, even the aviation or scientific press. Having said that, it provides a fascinating insight into the spacecraft and is a valuable reference on it. Recommended.

Apollo Spacecraft News Reference (NAA Command/Service Module) (2005, Apogee Books, ISBN 1-894959-35-3, 306 pp + index)

Leap of Faith, Gordon Cooper

September 26, 2011

Only three men served in all three space programmes – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. They were Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, L Gordon Cooper and Walter M Schirra. All three flew both  Mercury and Gemini flights, but only Schirra flew in Apollo. Grissom was commander of Apollo 1 and died in the fire during its plugs-out test. Cooper was commander of the back-up crew for Apollo 10, and should have been given command of Apollo 13. But Alan B Shepard had by then returned to flight status after surgery to cure his Ménière’s Disease and, since he was in charge of crew assignments, he gave himself the mission. (His crew was later swapped with Apollo 14’s due to insufficient time for training.) Cooper did not take being passed over for command well, and resigned from NASA shortly afterwards.

Leap of Faith is Cooper’s autobiography. The title is a pun on his Mercury flight – he called his spacecraft Faith 7 to “symbolize [his] faith in the launch team, [his] faith in all the hardware that had been so carefully tested, [his] faith in myself, and [his] faith in God” (p 37). Those beliefs, however, take up very little space in the book. The first half recounts his experiences during the Mercury programme, focusing chiefly on his flight. This is hardly surprising – it was a record-breaker at the time, the longest and most complex of the Mercury flights. Also, a total power failure after his twenty-first orbit resulted in Cooper having to manually pilot his spacecraft out of orbit and through re-entry, something which had not been done before.

So far so typical. The original astronauts were a breed very much aware of their achievements, and in their autobiographies they usually claim credit for almost anything that happened during the Space Race. Cooper, for example, writes that he and Pete Conrad came up with idea of having mission patches for space flights since they wanted one for their Gemini 5 flight. They successfully persuaded NASA Administrator James Webb to allow the practice – which has continued ever since and, according to Cooper, was named the “Cooper patch” in a memo by Webb.

In many respects, Cooper’s childhood differed little from those of the other Mercury astronauts – born in the late 1920s, an early introduction to aeroplanes and flying – but his family were more aviation-minded than his peers and, in fact, he knew a number of the flying pioneers of the day. Both Wiley Post and Pancho Barnes (of the Happy Bottom Riding Club) were family friends. He even met Amelia Earhart. The Cooper family owned their own plane, which he learned to fly at a young age; and they often used it to visit family or their holiday cabin:

We’d take off and follow the highways, most of them gravel in those days. When we need gas, we did what was common practice among pilots then: kept an eye open for a gas station. when one came along, we’d land on the road, taxi up to the pump, and say “Fill ‘er up”. (p 95)

The final third of Leap of Faith, however, is completely unexpected. Cooper had witnessed several UFO sightings while serving with the USAF in Germany, and during the 1970s seems to have come under the influence of con artists claiming telepathic contact with aliens. He is quick to point out that he never saw a UFO during his Mercury or Gemini flights, and the only such sighting he knows of by an astronaut in orbit was James McDivitt‘s during Gemini 4, which remains unexplained to this day. Nonetheless, Cooper was a firm believer in flying saucers, and one point became involved with a group which tried to sell technology based upon advances telepathically given them by aliens. Cooper was clearly impressed by the group’s leader, Valerie Ransone, although she does not appear especially convincing in the book. Another member of this group, Dan Fry, allegedly gained his doctorate at St Andrew’s College, London. But the only St Andrew’s College in London is a private college for overseas students which doesn’t offer doctorates, and doesn’t appear to have existed before the millennium…

Perhaps Cooper simply got the details wrong. There are other areas in Leap of Faith where he seems to have been confused. For example, when he first met Alexey Leonov at the 16th International Astronautical Congress (October 1965), he describes the cosmonaut as “the first, and up to then only, man to go EVA” (p 134). But the Congress took place after Gemini 5 (August 1965), and Ed White had gone EVA in Gemini 4 (June 1965). Yet elsewhere in the book, Cooper’s command of detail appears quite strong. His accounts of his Mercury and Gemini flights are detailed and interesting. The anecdotes he tells of his subsequent trips around the world for NASA are also entertaining.

Cooper’s memories of Wernher von Braun, however, are somewhat troubling. It’s clear he liked and admired the man, but that’s no reason to lie about the scientist’s past. Cooper claims von Braun never joined the Nazi Party (p 150), which is untrue: von Braun joined in 1937, and became an officer in the Waffen-SS in 1940. Cooper’s history of von Braun is close to the white-washed one presented to the American public – “Our Germans are better than their Germans” – during the Space Race, but by 2000, when Leap of Faith was published, there was surely no good reason to continue the fiction.

Leap of Faith, unsurprisingly, provides a good account of the flight of Faith 7, and though it does not cover Cooper’s upbringing or career in great detail, it is very readable and contains a number of entertaining anecdotes. However, it contains some surprising inaccuracies, and the final section on UFOs seems completely out-of-place. An odd book, and perhaps more for an enthusiast than for anyone with a casual interest in early manned spaceflight.

Leap of Faith,  Gordon Cooper, with Bruce Henderson (2000, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-019416-2, 267pp + index)

Apollo 18

September 15, 2011

Some time last year, previously classified footage of a lunar mission was anonymously uploaded to a web site, This footage was allegedly recovered from a secret US mission to the Moon in December 1974, Apollo 18. But the astronauts never made it back to Earth, and so everything about the mission was buried even deeper. Until now.

Or, at least, so we are supposed to believe. The web site was actually viral marketing for the movie Apollo 18, which appeared in cinemas this summer. According to text at the beginning of the film, the movie is edited from the footage uploaded to the web site. In other words, everything that appears on the screen was shot by the cameras the astronauts took with them.

It’s all fictional, of course. Every one of the Saturn Vs built are accounted for – and when something costs that much money and requires that much expertise – the rockets are still claimed to be the most complex engineering projects ever undertaken – they don’t go “missing”. According to the story of the film, Apollo 18 was a secret Department of Defense mission, sent to place some early warning ICBM detectors on the lunar surface. Except it’s hard to understand how effective such devices would be on the Moon. But that doesn’t matter, because there is another secret purpose to the equipment.

The details of the mission, including a mission patch, are set up quickly,mostly through interviews with the “astronauts”: Commander Nathan Walker, CMP John Grey and LMP Benjamin Anderson. They name their CSM Freedom and LM Liberty (echoing the spacecraft of Mercury astronauts Alan B Shepard and (sort of) Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom). Everything goes according to plan until shortly after the LM has made touchdown, and the two astronauts are on their first EVA. They discover bootprints. Yet no Apollo mission has ever visited this area of the Moon. They follow the bootprints and find a Soviet LK lander. After searching the area, they discover the cosmonaut’s body in a deep crater nearby. Also in the crater are… creatures. Rocks which turn into hostile crab-like creatures…

I went to watch Apollo 18 at the cinema because I wanted to see how accurately the movie depicted an Apollo mission. I was not especially interested in the plot – and certainly not in a story of Moon creatures attacking astronauts. The presence of a LK lander was, however, an unexpected bonus. And… in terms of accuracy, Apollo 18 makes a pretty good fist of it. The hardware all appears to be correct – even the Soviet lander. The film-makers clearly had trouble emulating micro-gravity and the Moon’s one-sixth gravity, and in some places it doesn’t appear especially convincing. But they intercut footage from the real Apollo missions, which helps improve the verisimilitude – even if the cutting between black-and-white and colour footage does begin to annoy after a while.

Having said that, every foot of film in Apollo 18 is supposed to have been shot by cameras in situ. In one or two places, the film-makers slip up and frame shots that could not have come from them. And, it has to be asked, if the mission never returned to Earth, how was the footage recovered? Some of it is from television cameras, but other footage looks to have been shot on 16mm.

There was some vagueness in the tasks performed by the three astronauts during their trip to the Moon and the LM’s descent. I was waiting for LMP Anderson to begin reading out height and fuel, but he did this only briefly. And then the LM landed. But mostly the dialogue was convincing. Except… It’s unlikely an astronaut in 1974 would have known details of the abandoned Soviet lunar programme. That one had existed, perhaps; but not that the lunar lander was called the LK.

Apollo 18‘s story felt somewhat lopsided. Very little happens for the first two-thirds, as the mission approaches the Moon and then the LM makes its landing. But then the the story begins to pick up when Walker and Anderson discover the LK and the dead cosmonaut. It’s a shame it then devolve into a silly monster movie.To be fair, the moon-rock creatures are quite effective, and a real sense of paranoia develops in the LM between the two astronauts after the first attack.

I will probably buy the DVD for the collection, but the film is not really worth paying the inflated price of a cinema ticket to see.

Apollo 18, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego (2011, Dimension Films, length 86 minutes)

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach

July 15, 2011

Having heard several approving reviews of Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, subtitled “The Curious Science of Life in the Void”, I had expected to like the book. The subject matter – a look at the “less publicised” elements of space travel – also sounded as though it would appeal. Of course, I have been there before: reading a popular, and populist, book on the Space Race and finding it a poor read. That book was Moon Shot by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton – see here.

I soon found myself thinking the same of Packing for Mars.

The “curious science” alluded to in the title is, basically, all those delicate subjects NASA and the like are reluctant to discuss openly: fear, sex, urination and defecation, vomiting, food, etc. Packing for Mars discusses its topics with a combination of cited documents and anecdotes (though it’s careful to label and attribute the latter). Unfortunately, some of the facts are just wrong. The first Briton in space was Helen Sharman not “Helen Sherman” (p 47). The “world’s first rocket” was not built by the Nazis (p 87) – as any half-decent book on rocketry will confirm. And as for this: “‘When technical perfection of the steam engine made the development of railways possible, scientists were afraid that the velocity of the trains would exert harmful effects upon the human passengers.’ The quote comes from an aviation medicine text published in 1943. (Locomotives at that time could not exceed fifteen miles per hour.)” (p 94). At first pass, that reads as though trains could not exceed 15 mph in 1943. Which is complete rubbish – the world speed record for steam trains, 125.88 mph, was set by Mallard in 1938. I believe Roach actually means that when railways were first built, the trains were limited to 15 mph. But even that is not true – the first successful railway line in the world was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825. In 1829, Stephenson’s Rocket set a speed record of 29 mph.

Perhaps that’s being too picky – although I see little point in a non-fiction work that gets its facts wrong. True, Roach does seem less concerned with background facts than she does in presenting amusing stories relating to the book’s topics. There are, for example, several passages quoted from astronauts’ autobiographies and the Apollo transcripts, describing incidents such as floating turds in the Apollo CM, leaking or ill-fitted urine-collection condoms during Gemini missions, or astronauts having trouble keeping down the contents of their stomachs.

None of which is to say that Packing for Mars is an entirely uninteresting read. There is perhaps a somewhat negative tone, since the book focuses chiefly on failures and embarrassments. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make the astronauts and scientists appear more human, it actually feels as if the book is trivialising their achievements. Admittedly, Packing for Mars is, as suggested by its title, chiefly concerned with the difficulties associated with a mission to Mars, and the incidents it reports are used as illustrations in support of that thesis. Unfortunately, those difficulties as presented appear unsurmountable, which only further cheapens any existing achievements in space and space-related activities.

It doesn’t help that the entire book is written in a style which attempts to make a joke of everything. It is possible to talk about toilets and faeces without giggles, though Roach seems incapable of doing so. Sadly, the humour in Packing for Mars is mostly sophomoric, especially in the footnotes. This has the side-effect of giving the prose a patronising tone, and this works against Roach’s arguments. (A tendency to explain things the reader should all ready know, also adds to the patronising tone.)

Perhaps it’s just me, perhaps I’m not the right audience for a populist science book on this topic. I find the jocular tone and the breezy style of such books annoying. It undermines their authority – and, as a reader, I want to be certain that what I am reading is factual. I want to learn something new, not something incorrect or inaccurate. I need to be confident the author is an expert in the topic under discussion – even if that expertise is only the product of research or interviews. Otherwise, it might as well be fiction.

Packing for Mars could have been so much more – a serious study of the hurdles facing a crew travelling to Mars, for example. Instead, it’s an overly flippant commentary on some of the factors affecting such a mission. Disappointing.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010, WW Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-06847-4, 318pp + acknowledgments, time line and bibliography)

The Space Age is not over

July 9, 2011

As I write this, the last Space Shuttle, Atlantis, is on her final mission to the ISS. Once she returns, she will be decommissioned and then put on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. She will be a museum piece.

To be fair, the Space Shuttles were pretty much museum pieces all ready. Their design was the result of a series of bad compromises, and the technology on which they are based is forty years old. And they proved considerably more expensive to operate than had been estimated – in 1972, NASA director James Fletcher promised a per launch cost of $50 million (around $250 million in 2011 dollars), but the actual cost was closer to $450 million per launch.

Yes, the Space Shuttle was an amazing feat of engineering, but it was a far from ideal spacecraft. We saw that with both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. It was a hideously complex machine – perhaps overly so – and never met any of the promises made of it by NASA when it was proposed.

I’ve seen numerous complaints online that “the Space Age is now over”, or that people will no longer have the opportunity to fly in space. Er, no. The Space Age wasn’t over when Apollo finished – and there was a six-year gap between ASTP and the first Shuttle launch. And people’s chances of flying in space now are much the same as they were when the Shuttle was flying – almost close to zero. Unless they happen to have a handy $35 million to buy a seat on Soyuz.

So, please, no more nonsense about the sky falling on everyone’s heads because the Shuttle will no longer be flying. The US has lost a very visible, but not especially effective, means of getting astronauts into orbit. Within a couple of years, either SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will be in operation, or NASA’s MPCV will be. Until then, astronauts will still be visiting the ISS. They will simply be doing so on Soyuz – as many all ready have been doing.

Meanwhile, NASA no longer has to spend billions keeping the Shuttle flying. Their budget has all ready been slashed, but at least now they’ll be able to redefine themselves as more than simply an organisation that supports Shuttle operations. It could even be argued that if the Shuttle had not existed, NASA might well by now have returned to the Moon, or visited a nearby asteroid, or perhaps even sent astronauts to Mars… Admittedly, the ISS would not exist in its present form. But at least we would not be have been trapped in Low Earth Orbit for the past forty years.

So no, the Space Age is not over. On the contrary, it may be about to begin properly after a thirty-year hiatus…

How Spacecraft Fly, Graham Swinerd

June 17, 2011

Subtitled “Spaceflight without Formulae”, How Spacecraft Fly does exactly what its title promises. Swinerd has worked in the space industry, and in academia, for almost thirty years, and has been extensively involved in providing training in spaceflight concepts to non-technical staff at ESA. This book comes in part from those training sessions. As a result, its audience is not intended to be have much scientific or technical knowledge – which does mean in some areas explanations are perhaps a little simplified. Nonetheless, How Spacecraft Fly covers all the relevant areas, and is useful for that respect.

The book discusses orbits, both ideal and real, getting into orbit, the environment of space, and the various subsystems involved in spacecraft design. For “spacecraft”, Swinerd writes almost exclusively about uncrewed spacecraft – probes and satellites. The final two chapters, ‘Space in the 21st Century’ and ‘Space: The Final Frontier?’, cover future crewed space missions, but only in overview.

The lack of formulae, as promised in the subtitle, does make the book an easy read, but makes it of less use to those with a deep interest in the subject. Swinerd’s example figures must be taken at face value, and there’s no opportunity to plug in figures and so determine results for alternative cases. For the sections on spacecraft design, this is less of an issue, but the orbital mechanics chapters would probably have benefitted with demonstrating the use of some formulae. Having said that, there are plenty of more advanced books on the subject available, on to which an interested reader can move. How Spacecraft Fly makes plain it intends to be an introductory text and no more.

Swinerd’s style is very readable, and he gets across information in an easily understandable manner. If his training sessions were anything like How Spacecraft Fly, I can believe his boast that they proved very popular among ESA staff. The diagrams throughout the book are clear and well laid-out, although many do look a bit too much like free clip-art.

As someone who is interested primarily in the engineering and hardware of crewed space exploration, my knowledge of the actual physics involved in sending astronauts to the Moon, or throwing them up into LEO, is no doubt somewhat deficient. I bought How Spacecraft Fly with an eye to remedying that lack. The chapters on orbital mechanics were of more use than those of satellite design, though I found the latter more interesting as the subject was newer to me. The former was perhaps pitched a little too low  – I may not be an amateur astrophysicist, but I’ve read enough books on spaceflight to pick up some of the physics involved. But, as promised, How Spacecraft Fly does very well as an introduction to the topic, and those interested in it could do much worse.

For those interested in learning more, there is a website here associated with the book.

How Spacecraft Fly, Graham Swinerd (2008, Praxis Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-0-387-76571-6, 261pp + index and 4 colour-plates)

A little self-promotion

April 21, 2011

Last week, on Yuri’s Day, I announced on my blog It Doesn’t Have To Be Right… that I would be editing a hard science fiction anthology for Mutation Press. It will be called Rocket Science and will be published in 2012. There is a website here with full details.

This week, I created a blog for the anthology – Rocket Science News. On it, I plan to write about anything relevant which takes my fancy. I’ve already posted a short piece on spaceplanes. And another on a touchstone work I’m currently reading. News about the anthology will also be posted there.

So, if you’re interested in submitting to Rocket Science – and I’m taking non-fiction as well as fiction – or would like to purchase a copy when it’s published next year, keep an eye on Rocket Science News.