Archive for February, 2010

Mission to Mars, Michael Collins

February 26, 2010

Mars has always occupied a special place in the imaginations of those interested in space exploration. It is not Earth’s nearest interplanetary neighbour – not counting the Moon, that would be Venus – but it is the planet humanity could most easily colonise. At one time, it was thought to be inhabited, and science fiction has populated the Red Planet with a variety of races since the beginnings of the genre.

A mission to Mars, however, would be an immensely difficult task. There’s the distance, of course – requiring a journey time of between six and eleven months, depending on the type of trajectory chosen: direct, Hohmann or Venus slingshot. Then there’s the fact that humans can’t survive unaided on the Martian surface – it’s too cold, there’s not enough oxygen, and there’s no protection from UV or solar radiation. But these are difficulties which technology and science can overcome.

Michael CollinsMission to Mars is a straightforward discussion of the practicalities, difficulties and possibilities of sending a crewed mission to the Red Planet. In twenty-five chapters, the book covers everything from crew-members practicing how to live on Mars by wintering in Antarctica through to the political reasons for embarking on the mission.

After Apollo reached the Moon, Mars was perhaps the next logical step. Not all of the technology existed to make a Martian mission a reality – as Collins points out in Mission to Mars. He is especially worried about the lack of knowledge in Controlled Ecological Life-Support Systems, or closed-loop life-support systems, which he sees as a vital technology for the trip. Other areas Collins discusses have been researched in the two decades since the book’s publication – long duration stays in zero-gravity, for example. And geopolitics has changed since 1990, too. The USSR no longer exists, and the Cold War is a thing of the past.

There are other areas in which Mission to Mars shows it age. Collins assumes that NASA next big project will be Space Station Freedom. Which never happened. True, we have the International Space Station – but it wasn’t built to the same timetable as Space Station Freedom would have been.

These are forgivable – Collins could not see the future, after all. Mission to Mars covers the basics of sending people to Mars, albeit not in especially great detail. The final chapters recount a fictional mission with an international crew, which launches in 2004. Collins admits that the date is too early, but not because it would be technologically impossible. The mission itself he designs according to what he calls the “Law of Least Astonishment”, which means that some aspects of it seem curiously clunky and old-fashioned – the use of computers, especially.

Collins is particularly adamant that revisiting the Moon would be a waste of time. He still feels the same. Last year at a lecture at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, alongside Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn, he called on President Obama to commit to a colony on Mars, but added that the Moon would distract the nation from reaching Mars. Perhaps Project Constellation might have eventually sent astronauts to the Red Planet. We’ll never know. It’s unlikely Obama’s “Flexible Path” will lead to anybody leaving Low Earth Orbit in the foreseeable future – despite mention of sending astronauts to visit asteroids.

As an introduction to visiting and colonising Mars, Mission to Mars is readable and informative. Sadly, the book does show its age. While Collins’ position – as an ex-astronaut involved with space policy – makes it probably one of the better books on the subject, history and technological progress have overtaken it. But if you’re interested in how a mission to the Red Planet might be achieved, Mission to Mars is a good start.

Mission to Mars, Michael Collins (1990, Grove Weidenfeld, ISBN 0-8021-1160-2, 292pp + index)

Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning

February 20, 2010

Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning is one of Apogee’s many excellent compilations of original NASA material, in this case as a “Special Web Site Limited Edition”. It’s compiled from a variety of NASA documents – I’m assuming they’re the publications given in the bibliography – dating from 1965 to 1967, but edited into the format present in Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning by Robert Godwin.

NASA had originally planned for Apollo missions up to Apollo 20, but the last three were cancelled in 1970. The Saturn V for one of these was used to launch Skylab in 1973, and Apollo 18 became the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. Which is something of a shame as NASA’s plans for lunar exploration were extremely ambitious.

These plans involved stays on the lunar surface of up to a fortnight, using a series of augmented Apollo spacecraft. These included the LM Truck, an uncrewed Lunar Module without an ascent stage which could land a payload of 10,000 lbs on the lunar surface, and the LM Shelter, also uncrewed but with an ascent stage cabin in which the astronauts could live on the lunar surface. Grumman, the builders of the LM, also intended to create a series of Augmented Lunar Modules, which could carry greater payloads to the Moon.

Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning presents in eighteen sections a series of diagrams, tabular data and explanatory text covering the spacecraft and their capabilities, operational considerations, lunar extravehicular activities, experiment modules, equipment requirements, launch vehicle characteristics, and hardware and mission costs. Section X, for example, covers “Lunar Mobility”, with line-drawings of a lunar roving vehicle, a six-wheeled lunar truck, a mobile laboratory-type vehicle, and a lunar flying unit for a single astronaut.

I have no idea how much information was used to compile Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning, although I suspect the book’s 95 pages only give a small sample of the wealth of information put together by NASA and Grumman on future extended missions to the Moon. Personally, I am fascinated by what Apollo could have been. It is, I suppose, science fiction, even now nearly forty years after the last Saturn V flew. And Project Constellation, the US plan to return to the Moon using the Orion and Altair spacecraft, has also recently become science fiction.

Twelve men walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1972, and four of them lived there for three days. That was intended to be only the start. Later missions would last two weeks, or would see astronauts roving the surface in a mobile habitat. And then, perhaps, moon bases…

The US never went back. True, there has been a continuous human presence in Low Earth Orbit on the ISS since October 2000, and prior to that from September 1989 to August 1999 on Mir. But no person has left Earth orbit since Apollo 17, and only robots have since visited the Moon. Yet during the early days of the Apollo programme, NASA dreamed of doing more than simply “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. Those dreams were treated seriously, and a great deal of work and research was put into documenting them. Some of that work is evident is Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning – charts giving the difference in time taken to perform tasks in a spacesuit in lunar gravity compared to a shirt-sleeves environment in 1G, graphs showing lbs of expendables versus lunar stay-time in days, diagrams of the Lunar Module and LM Shelter…

It is, perhaps, fitting that the final section of Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning covers “Hardware and Mission Costs” as the financial burden of Apollo was one of the reasons for its demise. According to the data in Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning, a 14-day lunar mission would have cost $464.5 million in 1960s dollars – approximately $3.25 billion in 2010 (having said that, the war in Iraq has cost the US over $700 billion to date).

To anyone interested in the future plans for Apollo, as laid out in the 1960s, Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning is an excellent resource. Recommended.

Apollo Advanced Lunar Exploration Planning, edited by Robert Godwin (2007, Apogee Books, ISBN 978-1-894959-80-3, 95pp + references and bibliography)

Project Constellation (Pocket Space Guide), Tim McElyea

February 12, 2010

I certainly could have timed a review of this book a little better, given that President Obama cancelled Project Constellation only a week or so ago. I haven’t yet decided whether Obama’s decision was good or bad. Having now read Project Constellation: Moon, Mars & Beyond, one of Apogee Books Pocket Space Guides, I must admit I liked the Project Constellation architecture. But the Ares I-X was a joke, and the new “Flexible Path” has much to recommend it.

According to the back cover blurb of this book, it “helps the reader understand how the program was formed and what it is destined to accomplish”. It does this by first quoting extracts from the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), particularly the Design Reference Missions: crew transport to and from ISS, unpressurised cargo to and from the ISS, pressurised cargo to and from the ISS, lunar sortie crew, lunar outpost cargo delivery, lunar outpost crew with cargo, and Mars exploration. (Unfortunately, the chapter describing these is mis-titled “Exploration Space Architecture Study”.) These seven missions would have been implemented using the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, and a family of spacecraft which included the Orion crew exploration vehicles and the Lunar Surface Access Module (which Project Constellation: Moon, Mars & Beyond claims was rumoured to be named Artemis, but was actually named Altair).

It’s worth noting that the Ares V launch vehicle would have been more powerful, and bigger, than the Apollo programme’s Saturn V – with a throw weight to LEO of 188,000 kg and a throw weight to TLI of 71,100 kg. The Saturn V could manage respectively 118,800 kg and 47,000 kg. The Saturn V was also 110.6 metres tall, while the Ares V would have been 116 metres. But then, the Orion capsule was approximately two and half times the size of the Apollo capsule. It would also have carried a crew of six, landed on dry land, and been re-usable up to ten times. Orion was often described as “Apollo on steroids”.

Project Constellation: Moon, Mars & Beyond is filled with diagrams and tables giving the likely dimensions and performance of the planned hardware. It crams a lot of information into its forty-eight pages. The pictorial pages at the end of the book show diagrammatically the planned use of the Project Constellation architecture to perform each of the Design Reference Missions. There are also a number of artist renderings of the spacecraft. It does pretty much what its back-cover claims. It’s just a shame that it has now become alternate history…

Pocket Space Guide – Project Constellation: Moon, Mars & Beyond, Tim McElyea (2007, Apogee Books, ISBN 978-1894959-49-0, 48pp + 47pp of diagrams and artists’ impressions)

Moon Lander, Thomas J Kelly

February 7, 2010

Thomas Kelly was the project engineer for the Apollo Lunar Module, built by Grumman Aircraft at their Bethpage, New York, “Ironworks” between 1962 and 1970. Grumman developed and built fifteen LMs, six of which landed on the Moon. The craft is unique – the only manned spacecraft designed to land on an airless satellite, and the only manned spacecraft ever to have done so.

Moon Lander opens in 1960, as Kelly describes the feasibility study for landing on the Moon which Grumman put together in an effort to get involved in building spacecraft. At that time, the company was best-known its naval aircraft, and in fact its largest customer was the US Navy. But NASA was likely to spend billions of dollars in the coming decades, and Grumman felt space engineering was an excellent future prospect.

And then in May 1961, President John F Kennedy gave his speech to Congress, declaring that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. The Apollo programme moved into high gear, and Grumman’s earlier feasibility study made them an excellent candidate for involvement. But first, of course, they had to put together a bid and win the contract. Which they did.

Designing and building the LM presented a number of problems, many of which seemed on occasion would prevent the craft from ever being completed. Chief among these was weight. As the LM programme progressed, the weight of the craft kept on climbing, and a severe weight reduction programme was required – inspired by the SWIP (Super Weight Improvement Program) performed by Grumman on the US Navy General Dynamics/Grumman F-111B (which was subsequently cancelled). The LM SWIP succeeded, although it involved a number of trade-offs: for example, the gauge of wiring used throughout the LM was reduced, which both saved weight but also made the wiring prone to breakages.

The nature of the LM’s mission meant it had to be the most reliable craft ever built. If anything in it failed, it would strand the two astronauts on the Moon. And yet the limited weight meant Grumman could not simply build in multiple back-ups or fail-over equipment. Instead Grumman chose to simplify as much of the LM’s workings as possible, and to test everything thoroughly to ensure it would never fail. This last was not always successful. When Grumman tested LM-1’s propulsion and reaction control systems for leaks, it passed. But when NASA ran their own tests at KSC, the craft failed – so much so that the NASA engineers described it as a “piece of junk that leaked like a sieve”.

Perhaps because I’ve read a number of books about the Apollo programme, and none previously specifically about the LM, but I found Moon Lander a much more interesting read than some of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog. But then I find the hardware – and the challenges it was designed to overcome – more fascinating than I do the personalities involved. Moon Lander may not be, as prose, as enjoyable a read as Michael Collins’ excellent autobiography Carrying the Fire (see here), but it had the benefit of covering a subject, with a great deal of detail, not found in other works on Apollo. Moon Lander does exactly what its subtitle claims, and it does it from the perspective of someone who was very much involved. There are perhaps no great insights into what the Apollo programme, or its achievements, meant, but the book certainly provides plenty of fascinating information on the process of designing and building the Lunar Module.

Perhaps because he was an engineer, and not an astronaut (all of whom had larger-than-life egos), Kelly does not use his book as a platform to inflate his own importance. When he gets it wrong, he’s happy to admit so. He’s equally fair when handing out praise and acknowledging the contributions of others. It’s a pleasant surprise to read a book about Apollo in which the author’s personality doesn’t threaten to overwhelm the events being described.

Moon Lander‘s prose is serviceable at best and clumsy at worst, which is not unexpected – Kelly was an engineer, not a writer. He tries to avoid writing too much like an engineer, although not entirely successfully: “The next morning the delicious tingle of anticipation hung over KSC like the morning sea haze through which the fiery orange Sun groped its ways to the ground” (pg 193).

Despite a shaky start, the Grumman LM was later acknowledged to be one of the most reliable pieces of hardware used by the Apollo programme. It was designed to meet a unique challenge, and it did so admirably. The LM is an historically important machine, and it’s good that its history has been chronicled so throughly by one of the people instrumental in its development and construction. Moon Lander belongs in the collection of anyone interested in the Apollo programme.

Moon Lander, Thomas J Kelly (2001, Smithsonian Institution Press, ISBN 1-56098-998-X, 266pp + notes and index)