Happy Gagarin Day

April 12, 2011

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s historic flight. On 12 April 1961, aboard Vostok 1, Gagarin became the first human being in space. He madeone orbit of the Earth, in one hour and forty-eight minutes. In order to claim the FAI world record, the pilot has to be in the spacecraft when it lands, but Gagarin actually ejected seven kilometres above the ground and descended by parachute. This only came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It does not not in any way invalidate Gagarin’s achievement.

Today is also the thirtieth anniverary of the launch of Columbia, the first Space Shuttle to reach orbit. Sadly, Columbia was lost on 1 February 2003 when it broke up on re-entry after sixteen days in orbit, killing all seven of its crew.

Gagarin’s flight ushered in over a decade of astonishing achievements in space, by both Soviet cosmonauts and US astronauts. The Apollo Moon landings were, of course, the pinnacle. The Space Shuttle programme – with a design resulting from a series of unwise compromises – never made travel to orbit as routine as NASA had hoped, but after two decades of political vacillation it did finally gives us the International Space Station. It could also be argued that the Shuttle has restricted humanity to Earth orbit for the foreseeable future. The rest of the Solar system, the really exciting missions, now belongs to robots. And now the Shuttle is to be retired. Only two are still flying, and both will be decommissioned later this year.

It would be a shame if the achievements of the last fifty years in crewed space travel were to prove an historical aberration. Yuri Gagarin led the way, and each year we should honour that by doing more in space, by putting into effect plans to take us beyond the Moon, out to where the future of our race truly lies.

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)

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin

March 6, 2011

“In the last few years I’ve been dazzled by NASA’s beautiful new high-resolution scans of the photographs [the Apollo astronauts] took during their missions … Seeing their explorations in unprecedented detail, I found myself wanting to hear their words, to bring these images fully to life. This was the inspiration for Voices from the Moon.”

So writes Andrew Chaikin in the introduction to this book. And from the inspiration to the finished product, Voices from the Moon is exactly what Chaikin set out to do, is exactly what he describes. It is 198 pages of photographs from the Apollo programme, accompanied by excerpts from the interviews Chaikin had with the astronauts while researching his book, A Man on the Moon. It is the Apollo astronauts in their own words.

Voices from the Moon is organised into twelve thematic chapters: Before, Preparing, Outward Bound, Another World, Landing, On the Surface, Solo, Homeward, Apollo 13, Aftermath, Remembering, and The Spirit of Apollo. The quotes Chaikin has chosen, from the hours of interviews he had collected, were picked especially to go with the accompanying images. They are the astronauts at their most honest, most awestruck, and sometimes not even their most articulate. The photographs are gorgeous, crisp and clear high-quality reproductions.

This is not a book which sheds new light on the Apollo programme, or some aspect of it. It is a book which celebrates the astronauts and their achievement, and those who assisted them. It’s a coffee-table book, but it’s a fine one to have in your collection.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin with Victoria Kohl (2009, Viking Studio, ISBN 978-0-670-02078-2, 198pp)

Reflections From Earth Orbit, Winston E Scott

March 1, 2011

Perhaps one day an astronaut’s job will be so ordinary that no one will think to write a book about what they might have done. Sadly, that day is yet some distance away and, now that the Space Shuttle is on the verge of retirement, likely to move further away. So, for the time-being, astronaut is still a remarkable career, and there is a ready market for books on the topic. As astronauts go, Winston E Scott (Captain USN, retired) is not especially noteworthy. He was not the first to fly anywhere, or set foot anywhere; nor did he perform any astonishing feat of bravery in space. He holds no records; in fact, he spent just over 24 days in orbit.

But still, he was an astronaut. He went into space.

Scott was born in Florida in 1950, went to one of the first integrated schools in the state, and studied for a degree in music at Florida State University. On graduation, he joined the US Navy and became a naval aviator, flying Kaman SH-2F Seasprite helicopters and then Grumman F-14 Tomcats. He then became a production test pilot, was awarded a masters in aeronautical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in 1980, and was selected by NASA for the astronaut corps in 1992. He flew two missions aboard the Shuttle as mission specialist: STS-72 (January 1996) and STS-87 (December 1997). The latter mission is notable as the capture of the Spartan satellite did not go as planned and Scott and Doi, the other mission specialist, had to EVA to perform it manually.

Scott’s autobiography, Reflections from Earth Orbit, is a slim book of 128 pages. It is also copiously illustrated with photographs. He opens with his first flight at the USN’s Aviation Officer Candidates School, and his fear of failing it. Of course, he passes. Scott then writes about his childhood, his years at school (where a teacher had a large positive effect on him), and the years at college. The rest of Scott’s career is interleaved with the events of his Shuttle missions – how he felt during his first launch, what it feels like in orbit, and so on. Scott’s voice is cheery and readable, and he succeeds in giving the reader a good idea of what it was actually like on those two missions. He’s also good with detail – many of which are fascinating, and all of which demonstrate he knows what he’s writing about.

There is very little self-aggrandisement present in Reflections from Earth Orbit, unlike in, say, the autobiography of an Apollo astronaut (Michael Collins excepted). This is hardly unexpected – the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes recruited men of a specific type. They had, as Tom Wolfe put it, the “Right Stuff”. Twenty-five years later and those qualities were less important in the astronaut corps, and might perhaps have even been considered undesirable. Astronauts such as Scott were professional engineers and pilots, they just happened to work in an unusual environment. And then, of course, there was the commute…

Reflections from Earth Orbit is a readable account of one astronaut’s career. It amply demonstrates how much the job of astronaut has changed since the heady days of Apollo.

Reflections from Earth Orbit, Winston E Scott (2005, Apogee Books, ISBN 1-894959-22-1, 128 pp)

Red Moon

February 5, 2011

Perhaps one day someone will fictionalise one of the greatest “what ifs” of the Space Race – the Soviet attempt to land a cosmonaut on the Moon. Until then, marvel at this excellent infographic from Space.com:

Source Space.com: All about our solar system, outer space and exploration

Spacesuits, Amanda Young

January 24, 2011

Space is not only a hostile environment, it is also fatal to human beings. We must recreate our own native environment in order to survive in space. For spacecraft and space stations, this is essentially straightforward. But, on occasion, mobility is a requirement, and for that an astronaut has to be able to go outside. There are an entirely different set of problems associated with creating a suit to be worn in space, a suit which will protect the astronaut from the vacuum, the radiation, the heat and cold, and any number of other hazards.

Spacesuits by Amanda Young, a museum specialist in Spacesuits and Astronaut Equipment for the Division of Space History of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, documents the museum’s collection of such garments. Not all of the spacesuits created for NASA and USAF were gifted to the NASM, but those of historical significance certainly were. These include the ones worn by the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. Also at the NASM are the Skylab and MOL spacesuits, and many early prototypes from BF Goodrich, David Clark Company and ILC.

The book gives a short history of spacesuit development, from Wiley Post through to the Space Shuttle pumpkin suits. But it is the photographs of the suits in the NASM collection, by Mark Avino, which are the book’s chief draw. These have been taken against black backgrounds, and every detail is clear and sharp. Close-ups of various details also give an excellent indication of the suit’s construction.

Spacesuits does not dig too deeply into the design of the spacesuits, nor does it dwell on the engineering in their manufacture. But some of the associated issues are covered: the need for constant volume joints, and the various solutions that have been tried; the materials used in the manufacture of spacesuits; the differences between “soft” suits and “hard” suits, for example.

Sadly, some of the spacesuits in the NASM collection have deteriorated quite badly, but the museum has embarked on a programme to restore them and improve their storage. There is, I suppose, something sadly ironic in that – garments designed for one of the harshest environments ever visited by human beings have not survived unscathed in the considerably more benign surroundings of a museum’s storeroom. In part, this is due to the materials used – for instance, the rubber bladders have proven brittle because they were intended to be used only for one mission each.

Spacesuits may not be an especially useful reference work, but it is a beautifully-designed book and the photographs in it are excellent. Perhaps it doesn’t necessarily belong in any self-respecting space enthusiast’s collection, but it’s certainly worth owning a copy.

Spacesuits, Amanda Young (2009, powerHouse Books, ISBN 978-1-57687-498-1, 128 pp)

In lieu of content

December 14, 2010

It’s been a while since I last posted anything here, although this blog is by no means dead. I have several reviews lined up and hope to have at least one up before the end of the year. Meanwhile, here are a couple of cool space-related, er, things.

First, a gallery of sketches by Paul Calle of the crew of Apollo 11 drawn during their suiting up on July 16 1969 for their historic mission. See here.

Second, here’s a cool video of what the International Space Station would look like if it were travelling at its current speed, but only 300 m above the ground.

Lunar Module Orientation Guide

August 30, 2010

The Lunar Module Orientation Guide & Compartment Familiarization is a facsimile reprint of NASA training materials for the Apollo Lunar Module packaged and published by Apogee Books. It comprises two documents.

The first is the course materials for the “Lunar Module Cockpit Simulation Trainer” course and “LM Crew Compartment Familiarization Phase 1A” subcourse, dated 1 August 1968, consisting of ten pages of text and twenty-five full-page schematics and diagrams of the various LM control panels and consoles. There is also a fold-out colour diagram of the LM control panels.

The second document is the “Orientation Study Guide Lunar Module”, dated January 1969, and comprising eight chapters of forty-three pages of diagrams and schematics. The chapters cover areas such as, for example, Descent Propulsion Schematic, Water Management Section Schematic, AC Power Distribution, LM Ascent Profile, and Lunar Surface Communications. A ninth chapter is titled “Highlights of Lunar Module Utilization – Lunar Landing Mission”, and provides a four-page profile of a typical lunar mission.

Lunar Module Orientation Guide & Compartment Familiarization is available as part of a web site exclusive offer with the Saturn V – Apollo Lunar Orbital Rendezvous Planning Guide, and a pair of DVDs about Apollo 11. These two books are likely to appeal only to those who are interested in the technological aspects of the Apollo programme and its spacecraft. While true, they are still fascinating historical documents, and extremely useful for research. Apogee are doing an excellent job reprinting facsimiles of Apollo documents, and I’m happy they are doing so.

Lunar Module Orientation Guide & Compartment Familiarization, edited and compiled by Robert Godwin (2009, Apogee Books, ISBN 978-1-926592-11-4, 82pp approx.)

Magnificent Desolation (2005)

June 20, 2010

There seems to be a small industry involved in recycling NASA footage of the Apollo lunar landings on cheap DVDs. You’ve probably seen them in the documentary section of your local DVD shop. They all look very similar, and they seem to all use the same footage. But there are a handful of documentaries available on DVD which use original, or previously unseen, NASA footage, and attempt more than a dry retelling of the Apollo programme. Magnificent Desolation, an IMAX film, directed by Mark Cowen and released in 2005, is one such documentary. It is presented, and was co-written, by Tom Hanks, an ardent space enthusiast.

Magnificent Desolation begins with some potted science and history, and because of this feels somewhat like a television science programme from the Open University or its US equivalent. However, the film then re-enacts the Apollo 15 using computer-generated imagery and special effects. Apollo 15 landed on the plain at the foot of the lunar Apennine Mountains on the Sea of Rains, between the 15,000 feet-high Mons Hadley and 1,000 feet-deep Hadley Rille. It’s certainly more spectacular scenery than that of the other Apollo landing sites – relatively speaking, of course – which may be why the film-makers chose it.

The CGI gives a much better indication of the scale of landscape features than the photographs or footage taken by the astronauts. Perspective was apparently hard to judge on the Moon – indeed, in Apollo 15’s photos, Mons Hadley, half the size of Mount Everest, resembles a low hill. Magnificent Desolation illustrates the point by superimposing the 300 feet-high Statue of Liberty inside Hadley Rille.

Magnificent Desolation also makes a point of showing how dangerous the Apollo missions were. Considering the sheer technical difficulty of the programme – launch three men and assorted equipment into orbit, carry them 250,000 miles to the Moon, land two of them, bring them back up from the lunar surface, return to Earth and re-enter the atmosphere at speeds approaching Mach 30 – it’s astonishing that Apollo 13 was the only disaster. And even then, Lovell, Swigert and Haise made it back home in one piece. There was so much that could have gone wrong… with no way to effect a timely rescue. Magnificent Desolation imagines one such scenario – the two astronauts crash the LRV in a crater, damaging the PLSS of one, and the two must walk back several kilometres to the LM on shared air. Strangely, while the two actors are clearly re-enacting Apollo 15 (except for the LRV crash, of course), their characters are not named Dave Scott or Jim Irwin – one addresses the other as Hank.

Throughout Magnificent Desolation, the voices of the Apollo astronauts describe elements of the lunar landings. Except it isn’t the astronauts, but actors playing them. And there’s some well-known Hollywood talent reading out the astronauts’ words: Morgan Freeman, John Travolta, Scott Glenn, Matthew McConaughey, Paul Newman, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise…

Magnificent Desolation has not been released in the UK, but is readily available as a Region 1 DVD. While it may feel at times like an educational programme, it does get across how remarkable an achievement the Apollo lunar landings were. It also, of the documentaries I’ve seen, gives the best presentation of the lunar landscape, albeit using CGI. It belongs in the DVD collection of any self-respecting Apollo enthusiast.

Magnificent Desolation, directed by Mark Cowen (2005, HBO Home Video, Region 1 DVD, length 40 mins)

Superstructures in Space, Michael H Gorn

May 3, 2010

According to my dictionary, a superstructure is that part of a structure which is built on something else, or an over-lying framework. But the superstructures described in Michael Gorn’s Superstructures in Space are, well, not even really structures. They are satellites, robot explorers, space station modules and spacecraft.

This large coffee-table book is split into four sections: Human Spaceflight, Earth Observation, Exploring the Solar System, and Exploring the Universe. In those four sections are fifty-seven spacecraft, from Soyuz to the Hubble Space Telescope. There are, according to the book’s introduction, about 8,000 objects in orbit about the Earth at any one point in time. So Gorn has chosen to focus on civil space programmes, reflecting a “wide variety of countries, many sizes and shapes, a wealth of technologies, and numerous objectives”.

Superstructures in Space is informative and contains many excellent photographs. For some spacecraft, there are computer-generated artist’s impressions instead. The book is especially strong on those satellites which study the Earth, and gives a good indication of their technologies and aims. Other sections, covering the International Space Station, Soyuz and the Space Shuttle, are less detailed.

Superstructures in Space is not comprehensive enough for a reference work, but contains more than enough information for an introduction to the subject. As will no doubt seem somewhat odd several years from now, an epilogue covers Project Constellation, with several illustrations of the Orion spacecraft. A good book.

Superstructures in Space, Michael H Gorn (2008, Merrell, ISBN 978-1-8589-4417-3, 185 pp + acknowledgments and index)