Archive for March, 2010

Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon, David West Reynolds

March 26, 2010

The Apollo lunar landings are, one would have thought, the perfect subject for a big copiously-illustrated coffee-table book. After all, it was a unique achievement, many people alive today still remember it vividly, and NASA documented it thoroughly – taking thousands of photographs, thousands of feet of film, and writing millions of words. Yet there are few such books available. Piers Bizony’s One Giant Leap – Apollo 11 Forty Years On is one (see here), but it was published only last year as part of the fortieth celebration of the first lunar landing. Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon by David West Reynolds is another. It was first published in 2002.

Like most books of its type, Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon opens with a couple of chapters introducing rocketry and the various pioneers of the field – Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, Goddard… But, of course, it is Wernher von Braun who comes to dominate post-war rocketry, and Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon also includes a section on his Collier’s articles from 1952 to 1954, with artwork. The book then moves swiftly through Mercury and Gemini, and onto the Apollo programme. The Soviet achievements are mentioned, but only inasmuch as they reflected on the US space programme.

Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon is especially good on Apollo 11, Apollo 15 and Apollo 17. However, the author is unusually dismissive of Apollo 14, describing the mission as the lowest point of the programme. Each mission’s section is accompanied by diagrams and photographs, including diagrams of the geology of the Moon as discovered by each mission. There are also brief sections on Advanced Apollo and Skylab, but the Shuttle is mentioned only in passing.

However, it’s in the last section of the final chapter that Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon stumbles and falls. Putting twelve men on the Moon was an astonishing achievement. It was certainly motivated by politics – although whether chiefly to boost Kennedy’s flagging popularity or beat the Russians after the embarrassments of Sputnik and Gagarin is debatable. But it was only during the fact that it may have been characterised, by some of the more jingoistic commentators, as an undertaking intended “to demonstrate the superior ability of the superior system, capitalism versus communism”. Nor did “the battle prove out the more capable system”. Now, in the twenty-first century, forty years after Apollo 11, the Russian Soyuz is still happily lofting cosmonauts into orbit, while the Space Shuttle has suffered two catastrophic accidents and is due to be retired this year. Given that Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon was published in 2002, the author must have been aware of this.

It is also disingenuous to claim that Apollo beat the Soviets to the Moon due to “free enterprise”. The Apollo programme was a government-run and -funded programme, which fed work and money to huge numbers of companies. James Webb intended it as such. The Republicans killed the Apollo programme in part because they saw it as socialist.

Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon starts well, and contains much interesting information. The photographs are well chosen, and the diagrams are excellent. But the conclusions the author draws in the final chapter are neither accurate nor useful, and that spoiled the book for me.

Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon, David West Reynolds (2002, Tehabi Books, ISBN 0-15-100964-3, 260pp + bibliography and index)

A Vision of Future Space Transportation, Tim McElyea

March 20, 2010

The space industry is unusual in that its future rarely makes it off the drawing-board. Progress is erratic, and those designs which are realised often find themselves as small islands of the past in a fluctuating history. The only truly reusable spacecraft, for example, ever to make orbit is NASA’s Space Shuttle, which is a forty-year-old design. Its replacement, Project Constellation, was cancelled earlier this year. Rival spacecraft include the SpaceX Dragon and the Excalibur Almaz TKS-derived capsule – both of which are, like Constellation’s Orion Crew Module, blunt-body capsules not dissimilar to Apollo or Soyuz.

Yet for every rocket-launched blunt-body capsule which makes it to flight-testing, a host of more adventurous and sophisticated spacecraft designs stall in development. A Vision of Future Space Transportation is by no means a comprehensive guide to these proposed spacecraft. For that, Robert Goehlich’s Spaceships would be more useful (see my review here). McElyea’s book is more of an introduction to what the future might hold for space transportation – and that’s a very big “might”.

First, A Vision of Future Space Transportation was published in 2003, so in some respects it is out-of-date. For example, Scaled Composites is mentioned, but not its SpaceShipOne. There is no mention of SpaceX or Excalibur Almaz. Nor Project Constellation, Skylon, Kliper, or Lynx. Rather, those spacecraft which are described are done so in a discussion of the many proposed strategies for Earth to Orbit transport – airbreathers air-launched, gun-launched, etc.

Another chapter discusses propulsion technologies to be used in space, such as light sails, VaSIMR, electro-dynamic tethers, nuclear pulse engines, and ion engines. Happily, it is this chapter, and the preceding Earth to Orbit chapter, which provides the bulk of the book. While not especially detailed, McElyea’s coverage is readable and informative. The remaining chapters provide an introduction to the subject, and a coda detailing “Private Initiatives” and “Current NASA Initiatives” (as of the time of publication).

As an introduction to the possible technologies for Earth to Orbit and In-Space transportation, A Vision of Future Space Transportation serves its purpose well. It is copiously-illustrated with computer-generated imagery of the spacecraft under discussion. There is an included CD-ROM which features slideshows and 3D models of them too. Nothing is described in especially great detail – this is not a technical book – nor, as previously mentioned, is it comprehensive or up-to-date. Sadly, it is, like many books on spaceflight, turning into alternate history with each passing year.

A Vision of Future Space Transportation, Tim McElyea (2003. Apogee Books, ISBN 1-896522-93-9, 179pp + appendix, includes CD-ROM)

One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On, Piers Bizony

March 15, 2010

Last year was the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. You would have thought an achievement so important would have resulted in more of a celebration than actually took place (I did my bit). Neil Armstrong was the first human being to set foot on another world. The fact that no one has been back since the last Apollo mission in 1972 – thirty-eight years ago – only makes the achievement more astonishing.

However, a number of authors and publishers were happy to celebrate Apollo 11’s anniversary. I listed the books on the subject that were published last year on this blog here. One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On by Piers Bizony is one of those books. It is a large and copiously-illustrated coffee-table book intended to be, according to Bizony’s introduction, “a celebration of Apollo 11”. It also “gathers together more images of Apollo 11 than any mass-market publication has attempted before”.

However, One Giant Leap is not simply a collection of photographs. In five chapters, Bizony comments on the Apollo programme, making some excellent points as he does so. Forty years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, airliners were carrying people all over the world. Forty years after the transistor was invented, computers were embedded in everything from hand-held games to cars; and we had the Web too. Forty years after Apollo… and astronauts and cosmonauts are still strapped to the tops of cylinders full of highly explosive fuels and blasted into space. The benefits of the Apollo programme were spread across many areas of modern life, they’re not immediately obvious. Which makes it hard to see exactly what technological progress the programme was actually responsible for.

Bizony is also keen to place much of the credit for Apollo at the feet of James Webb, NASA’s administrator from 1961 to 1968. It was Webb’s leadership of NASA, and the way he set up the entire programme, which led to its success. And, ultimately, its cancellation. Because it was not the cost of Apollo which closed the programme down. The US government was spending more money on a mismanaged and ill-considered war in Vietnam. It has been calculated that NASA’s budget during the 1960s was “less than two dollars a month from each American citizen”. Nor was it a lack of achievement – NASA had met every goal it had been set. But Webb was on old-school Democrat, and believed that the “bounty” of Apollo should spread far and wide across the US, to create jobs and bring wealth to as many different areas as possible. That’s why the launch pads were in Florida, Mission Control in Texas, the spacecraft built in California and New York, and so on. But when the Republicans got into power, they scaled back Apollo as a response to “what they perceived as the over-reaching intrusion of the government into the nation’s affairs”.

One chapter of One Giant Leap is dedicated to Project Constellation, which was cancelled earlier this year. But the chapter makes the important point that a return to the Moon would be just as difficult today as it was in 1969. Yes, there has been much progress in many areas – such as computing. But launch vehicles are not much different, and not much safer, than they were forty years ago. The problems Apollo solved to get the Moon also remain the same, and their solutions were elegant and reliable. Any solutions Constellation might have come up with were likely to resemble Apollo’s – as the Orion Crew Module resembled the Apollo Command Module.

One Giant Leap is an excellent retrospective of Apollo 11. Not only does it contains a huge number of photographs, many of which have never been seen before in a book, but it also make a series of interesting and insightful points about the programme. Highly recommended.

One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Forty Years On, Piers Bizony (2009, Aurum Press, ISBN 978-1-84513-422-8, 157pp + bibliography)