Archive for September, 2011

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)