Friday, 10 October 2008

We Have Capture, Tom Stafford

Thomas Patten Stafford, a USAF pilot and flight test instructor, joined NASA in the second group of astronauts in 1962. He flew two Gemini missions, and commanded Apollo 10 and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). He is also one of the three people to have travelled at the fastest speed ever attained by a manned vehicle - during the return from the Moon, Apollo 10's trajectory resulted in a speed of 24,791 mph.

We Have Capture is Stafford's autobiography.

If a biographer has to struggle to capture his subject's personality and character, you would imagine an autobiographer would have a much easier job of it. And it's true that We Have Capture reveals Tom Stafford's nature much better than, say, One Giant Leap did of Neil Armstrong's. Of course, there's an all too natural tendency to be less than truthful when writing about yourself - unless you particularly enjoy embarrassing yourself in public. But for a Gemini and Apollo astronaut, one of only 24 men to ever fly to the Moon, there's more than enough that's worthy of admiration in Stafford's life to fill a book without including the "warts and all".

That's not to say that We Have Capture gives a reader a real idea of what he was like as a person. It's written in a personable, affable style, and Stafford is as honest about his mistakes as he is eager to recount his told-you-so moments. But it's the achievements more than the man which are the real focus of the book. However, where We Have Capture really scores over other books about astronauts I have read is that Stafford gives a very real feel for what it was like to be there, to be in the Gemini 6-A capsule, or the Apollo 10 CSM.

Obviously, Stafford was there. But it's more than that. His descriptions include many small details - which, perhaps, a conscientious biographer might have picked up - and it is those which make his prose seem more real. For example, when describing the deaths of cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov in Soyuz 11, Stafford explains:

Seeing that the front hatch was still sealed, the crew realized that the leak was probably coming from that ventilation valve, which was located under Dobrovolsky's seat. They tried to crank it shut - there was a backup master valve, but this unit, like a basic steam valve, was mounted over the crew's shoulders and took nineteen turns to close.

It's that "nineteen turns". Only someone who had spent time in a Soyuz capsule, and knew it well - as Stafford had while training for ASTP - could write something like that. It's such details which lift Stafford's book above others I've read on the subject.

Having said that, Stafford does have a tendency to drop into the language he used while at NASA. Some of it went straight over my head; such as this, while arguing with Apollo Spacecraft Program Office manager, Joe Shea:

"Inertial reference is fine for certain phases of the mission," I said, "starting in posigrade attitude with inertial attitude, When you're 180 degrees around the world, that's retrograde. It makes a hell of a difference how you apply that thrust with respect to the rotating radius vector."

After ASTP Stafford felt he was no longer needed at NASA, and returned to the Air Force. He was given command of Edwards AFB. Eighteen months later, he retired from the military, and went into consulting. He remained involved, however, with space exploration - in fact, if his take on events is to be believed, he was responsible for creating the F-117, B-2, getting the International Space Station "off the ground", saving the Space Shuttle from being cancelled after the Challenger disaster, and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. According to We Have Capture, Stafford was probably NASA's most important astronaut - or rather contributed the most to manned spaceflight - even more so than the likes of Neil Armstrong or Al Shepard. Yet, as commander of Apollo 10 and ASTP, he's little more than a footnote to Project Apollo in the history books. Perhaps in the future his contribution will be better known by the general public. Certainly, there should be more books about him. Nonetheless, this one is recommended and belongs in the collection of anyone interested in manned space exploration.

We Have Capture, Tom Stafford (2002, Smithsonian Institute Press, ISBN 1-58834-070-8, 296pp + notes and index)

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Update Coming Soon

I've been a bit too busy the last couple of months to read and review a book from my collection. While that situation hasn't really changed, I am currently reading We Have Capture by Tom Stafford. So there will be a new review going up soon.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Journey to the Moon, Eldon C Hall

There are a large number of books about the Apollo programme. There are also many books about specific aspects of the Apollo programme - the missions, the people, the hardware, the science... Eldon C Hall's Journey to the Moon, however, focuses on one very narrow element of NASA's project to put a man on the Moon: the development of the Apollo Guidance Computer.

The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) did exactly what its name suggestions - it controlled the navigation functions of the Apollo spacecraft. There was one in the Command Module, and another in the Lunar Module. Designed and built in the early 1960s, it was one of the first production computers to use integrated circuits. It was developed by MIT Instrument Laboratory, but built by Raytheon.

By modern standards, the AGC was crude and not at all powerful. This hardly surprising - computing was still its late infancy, and integrated circuits were so new they were both unreliable and expensive. Happily, advances in IC manufacture during the AGC's development period improved both these factors. Reliability, of course, was paramount - astronauts could not afford for the AGC to crash or malfunction while en route to the Moon.

As someone who works in information technology, I was expecting Journey to the Moon to be a technical read, perhaps similar to books such as CJ Date's Database in Depth or Andrew Tanenbaum's Operating Systems: Design and Implementation. Computing, however, was a very different field during the 1960s - Journey to the Moon is more electronics engineering than it is computing.

Hall is an engineer by trade, and it shows in his prose. The writing in Journey to the Moon is at best plain, and at worst a bizarre engineering-speak which considers subjects or verbs superfluous. Despite this, the book is still readable - although I will confess that much of the maths was over my head.

Much of Journey to the Moon describes the project management aspects of the AGC's development. The manufacture and specification of its various modules is also described in depth. I found this less interesting than I would have done of, say, its operating system. More information on programming the AGC might well have been given in the appendices, but I'll never know - while the text referred to appendices, the copy of the book I purchased had none.

If you're interested specifically in the AGC, then you'll probably find Journey to the Moon a useful addition to your library. Otherwise, it's probably too arcane for most enthusiasts of Apollo. For those interested in further reading, here are a couple of useful links: Virtual AGC Page, MIT's site on the AGC, AGC schematics.

Journey to the Moon, Eldon C Hall (1996, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, ISBN 1-56347-185-X, 226pp)

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Apollo EECOM: Journey of a Lifetime, Sy Liebergot

EECOM means Electrical, Environmental and Communication systems. The flight controller filling this role operates from the Mission Operations Control Room during manned space flights. Sy Liebergot was EECOM for Apollos 8 - 15, and EGIL (Electrical, General Instrumentation and Life support) during the Skylab missions. This book is his autobiography.

Given that Apollo EECOM was published by Apogee Books, most readers of it are going to be interested first and foremost in Liebergot's career with NASA. The book, however, opens with his childhood - and it was not a pleasant one. His father was a small-time crook, and Liebergot and his siblings spent time in foster homes. After a stint in the Army Weather Observers Corps, Liebergot went to work in the aerospace industry in California, before transferring across to NASA.

Liebergot is unflinchingly honest in Apollo EECOM - about himself, his life, his family, and his colleagues. Many of the latter come across as unpleasant individuals, although to be fair Liebergot admits he was no different. Interestingly - and this ties in with comments I made below in my review of Harrison H Schmitt's Return to the Moon - Liebergot mentions one or two people whose careers which were blighted by flight director Chris Kraft. And simply because those people had disagreed with Kraft. Much as been made of Apollo-era NASA's management systems, and how they were crucial in getting a man on the Moon. And yet, from all that I've read, they still appear to follow the "charismatic leader" model. Kraft is a case in point. His authority was absolute. NASA was not a meritocracy - it was based upon the perception of excellence by those in authority. And that perception - as seems clear from Apollo EECOM - was often based upon personality.

Liebergot himself came close to suffering the same fate but, as he appears to be fond of saying (and writes repeatedly throughout Apollo EECOM), he "dodged the bullet".

Another telling incident which demonstrates this occurred during Apollo 10 when a fellow member of Mission Operations Control threatened to violence against Liebergot because he had not been "personally briefed". Yes, different times then- but no matter how competent someone is, that sort of behaviour should be seen as unacceptable.

Apollo EECOM is very good on technical detail and personalities, and there's no doubt Liebergot followed an interesting career. He not only discusses Apollo 13 in depth, but also mentions his peripheral involvement in Ron Howard's film. Unfortunately, Liebergot's writing style leaves much to be desired. While his tone is honest and friendly, the book often seems to be written more like a memo or report - especially its strange tendency throughout to punctuate sections with italicised concluding sentences. For example,

"... What a beautiful sight it was to see the Command Module on the main chutes and then splashing down in view of the recovery carrier. We were all so relieved and so very proud.

For us flight controllers, the mission was a success."

There are no great insights in Apollo EECOM, but despite the clumsy writing it's an entertaining read. Liebergot's role in the Apollo programme means those chapters detailing his career as flight controller are the most interesting to a reader such as myself. He not only describes his job in great detail (and most especially during Apollo 13), but also relates many interesting anecdotes from his time at NASA. There's also a CD-ROM with the book, containing audio of the EECOM loop during Apollos 13 and 15, a Quicktime panorama of Mission Control, and 55-minute video presentation by Liebergot about the Apollo 13 explosion.

Liebergot's honesty - a book like Apollo EECOM could all too easy have become self-aggrandising - outweighs, I think, any deficiencies in his prose. You could do a lot worse if you were interested in reading about life in Mission Control during Apollo.

Apollo EECOM:Journey of a Lifetime, Sy Liebergot, with David M Harland (2003, Apogee Books, ISBN 1-896522-96-3, 199pp + appendices and CD-ROM)

Note: Liebergot has a webpage at

Friday, 30 May 2008

Return to the Moon, Harrison H Schmitt

As the only scientist to walk on the Moon, it probably comes as no surprise to discover that Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt's contribution to books about manned space exploration is a somewhat dry text-book setting forth an argument for returning to the Moon.

Schmitt's proposal in Return to the Moon is based entirely on Helium-3 mining, a substance found in relative abundance on the Moon but extremely rare on Earth. This would be used in fusion reactors, and is a cleaner and more efficient method of power generation than nuclear, coal, gas or oil. The small amounts needed to generate sufficient power for a small city for a year make Helium-3 extremely valuable - so much so that 2500 tonnes would give the energy equivalent of some $1.75 trillion of coal (at 2003 prices)!

The chapter headings of
Return to the Moon show how Schmitt argues his case - 'Apollo: the Legacy', 'Energy: the Global Future', 'Moon Rocket Economics', 'Helium-3 Power Economics', 'Lunar Helium-3 Economics', 'Helium-3 Production Economics', 'Organizational Options for a Return, 'Management: Lessons from Apollo', 'NASA: Restructuring for Deep Space', 'Investors: the Best Approach', 'Law: Space Resources' and 'Humans: Roles in Space'. As can be seen, Schmitt presents a chiefly economic argument. This makes sense - a new industry on the Moon will involve vast start-up costs.

(By comparison, the Apollo programme cost $16 billion in 1969 dollars - around $112 billion at 2005 rates. In 1968 alone, the US spent $88 billion on the Vietnam War. And to date, the war in Iraq has cost the US some $540 billion.)

Schmitt's argument is compelling - as a motive for returning to the Moon, Helium-3 fits the bill nicely. He presents an excellent financial case, and provides a number of alternative methodologies and their associated costings. His prose is clear and concise and, while somewhat impersonal overall, where appropriate his opinions are plainly presented.

Where Schmitt's argument begins to stumble for me is in the management models he proposes. In the chapter on 'Organization Options for a Return', he discusses a variety of approaches, from an all-government to an all-private initiative. He plumps squarely for all-private, but I feel he over-sells it. I suspect this is a US perspective - which doesn't travel all that well across the Atlantic. To me, the profit motive, or even revenue maximisation, is a poor control mechanism for such socially, technologically and scientifically important projects. Schmitt gives as an example power generation, and suggests that privately-funded and -run fusion reactors would be put into operation faster, and run more efficiently, than public-run ones. But this argument ignores the fact that a utility such as electricity is a social need. If a privately-run reactor proves uneconomical, then it will be shut down... even if this leaves households without vital electricity. Some form of government control is necessary to ensure vital services are provided.

Schmitt also analyses the management systems in use during the Apollo programme. He is scathing about the bureaucracy which built up in NASA after Apollo. To me, US management techniques are often over-reliant on the concept of charismatic leadership. The manager is the one with the vision, and all others must "buy in". If you have the wrong person in that role, your project is doomed. The fact that Apollo put in place management systems to reduce this risk doesn't strike me as remarkable, merely sensible. And common practice in other parts of the world. Schmitt, however, not only gives historical examples of such systems, but is also quick to praise, or condemn, NASA's upper management during Apollo, and both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. In other words, such systems are dependent on the quality of leadership, which strikes me as undermining his argument.

Another aspect of Apollo mentioned in the book is NASA's subsequent graying of its workforce. Apollo was designed, built, operated and maintained by a young workforce. For ten years, they worked 16-hour days and 7-day weeks. They were motivated to do so by the importance of the Apollo programme, by the very nature of the project -
to put a man on the Moon. The political backing Apollo received from various presidents and their Administrations only strengthened this. It's true enough that such conditions no longer exist, either in US society or anywhere else in the world. And it's equally true that they're unlikely to occur again. It's not simply the political will first presented by Kennedy, and then by his successors. But - and Schmitt makes no mention of this - those involved were mostly "baby boomers", the first generation born after the war. World War II cast a deep shadow during that time. It no longer does - in fact, the nature of war, and society's response to it, has changed drastically since then. I very much doubt the kind of sustained effort maintained by the Apollo engineers could be repeated, even by a workforce as young as that one was.

In essence, I agree with Schmitt's proposal. We should go back to the Moon. And if it's Helium-3 which draws us there, then so be it. Schmitt makes a strong economic argument, but I'm not so convinced on the management and operational approaches he suggests. (By contrast, his suggested reorganisation of NASA makes a great deal of sense.) Return to the Moon is an interesting and informative treatment of its subject, but I suspect its importance exists only in the minds of a small group of like-minded people. Which is a shame. Recommended, nonetheless.

Return to the Moon, Harrison H Schmitt (2006, Copernicus Books, ISBN 0-387-24285-6, 328pp)

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Apollo Spacecraft News Reference (NAA Command/Service Module)

The News Reference books (there is also one for the Lunar Module) were produced by NASA in the 1960s. They are much sought after by collectors of space memorabilia. In 2006, Apogee Books published facsimile editions, available only from their web site.

This book deals only with the Apollo CSM, and features detailed descriptions of every aspect of it - from construction through to operation. It is copiously illustrated, with artists' renderings and diagrams. There is, for example, a map of the instrument panels in the Command Module, with a description outlining the function of each switch, dial, or readout. Diagrams also explain the workings of various systems, such as the fuel cell system, the reaction control system, the oxygen system.

In fact, there is so much detail in the News Reference, you have to wonder exactly who it was written for. I wouldn't have thought the general press would use a fraction of the book's contents. For anyone interested in, or writing specifically about, the Apollo project, however, it's an invaluable reference book. Recommended.

Apollo Spacecraft News Reference (NAA Command/Service Module) (2006, Apogee Books, ISBN 1-894959-49-9, 104 pp + appendices)

Letters from Mir, Jerry M Linenger

In 1997, astronaut Jerry Linenger spent 132 days aboard the Mir space station. During that period, he wrote frequent letters to his fourteen-month-old son as a means of keeping a connection with his Earth-bound family. Those letters have now been collected in this book.

Linenger's stay aboard
Mir was not without its hazards. At one point there was a fire, which threatened to kill those aboard before being brought under control. The aging station also needed constant maintenance. But each day, Linenger would take the time to write a letter. Sometimes he discussed what had happened that day, other times he would explain something of the station's workings. Or he would describe what he could see of the Earth below; or the hopes and dreams he had - for himself or for his son.

In some respects, Letters from Mir reads a little like a diary of Linenger's stay aboard Mir. But mostly it reads exactly as what it is: a series of letters to his son. And that, for me, is what made the book so hard to finish. There are some interesting details about life on the space station, but I found all the "our great nation" and loving fatherhood stuff a little too much for me. Of course, that's what the book is, so I wasn't surprised to find it in there. There's also a sense you're reading someone's private letters, an illusion not really dispelled by the fact that it's a published book you're holding in your hands.

Letters from Mir is exactly what its title says. I suspect I would find Linenger's other book about his stay aboard the space station, Off the Planet, a much more interesting read.

Letters from Mir, Jerry M Linenger (2003, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-140009-5, 207 pp)

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Moonshot The Game

I was given Moonshot The Game as a birthday present back in the late 1990s. It cropped up in conversation recently with a friend, but I couldn't find anything on the Internet to illustrate the conversation. So I decided to put up some information myself. And it is relevant to this blog in a manner of speaking. I later discovered that the game was renamed Tranquillity Base, and is available from History in Action Game at The Galactic Attic.

I have a limited edition of the game, signed
by the its designer, Van Overbay. The box contains a board, four LM playing pieces, 28 NASA mission patches, and 180 cards of various types. The object of the game is to be the first to complete six missions - Mercury, Gemini or Apollo - and land on the Moon.

The box.

The board - plus playing pieces, some mission patches and some cards.

A few of of the 180 cards.

The designer's signature.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Light This Candle, Neal Thompson

Of all the Mercury Seven astronauts, Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr always struck me as the most interesting. And not simply because he was the first American into space. Nor because he was the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon. Shepard seemed to have the most interesting personality, switching unpredictably from the "Icy Commander" to the joker who loved mimicking Bill Dana's hapless Hispanic astronaut, José Jimenez. After being diagnosed with Ménière's Disease and subsequently grounded, he hung in there at NASA until a new surgical technique allowed him to fly again. That suggests either a foolish optimism, a frighteningly grim level of determination, or an inhumanly stubborn inability to accept failure. The truth is probably a combination of all three, although heavily weighted in favour of the last.

Admittedly, Shepard does not fare particularly well in Philip Kaufman's film of The Right Stuff. Played by Scott Glenn, he comes across chiefly as an arrogant joker - and his jokes, his impressions of José Jimenez, seem pretty crude stuff to a modern viewer. Clearly there was more to Shepard than the movie showed. The same is true of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (Shepard is played by Ted Levine, better known as Lieutenant Stottlemeyer in Monk). Strangely, there are few books about Alan Shepard - in fact, in the prologue to Light This Candle Neal Thompson writes, "A quick Internet search told me that, except for a thin 1962 young-adult book, no biography existed on America's first astronaut". Happily, Thompson decided to rectify this oversight himself.

Light This Candle, subtitled "The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America's First Spaceman", opens with Shepard's childhood in rural New Hampshire. If there's a common factor becoming apparent in the biographies of astronauts, it's that they all exhibited an early interest in aeroplanes. An early pivotal event for most seems to have been a ride in an aircraft as a child, followed by spending time at the local aerodrome and then taking flying lessons. This is certainly what led Shepard to become a naval aviator. His career in the US Navy did not start spectacularly - he was initially an ordinary student at Annapolis, and nearly flunked. But he appeared to undergo some sort of sea-change, and from that moment on was almost fanatically driven - in sport, in his career, even in his pursuit of the woman who became his wife.

Throughout the book, Shepard is repeatedly quoted as saying that his ambition was always "to be first". It characterised his time in the Navy - mastering a skill such as landing on a carrier at night at a much younger age than his contemporaries, for example. It was his driving need to be first that led Shepard to Project Mercury and, ultimately, put him in the capsule of Freedom 7 on May 5 1961. It's not that Shepard was the best at everything, as Thompson makes clear, but that he used every weapon in his considerable armoury to make sure he got what he wanted. He was known as a charmer, a ladies' man, a back-stabber, a consummate politician, fierce in training, and definitely at the top of his profession (as all the Mercury astronauts were). If he was not the best, he certainly made sure that those who counted thought he was. That's one aspect of the man that The Right Stuff movie doesn't really get across. In the film, his choice as the first American into space seems more the result of luck than hard work and careful politicking.

Shepard's ambition is clear in every incident recounted in Light This Candle. The time, for example, when he almost had Gordon Cooper bumped from his Mercury flight, Faith 7, and the flight assigned to himself... But then Shepard was diagnosed with Ménière's Disease, a condition where fluid builds up in the inner ear, and so grounded. His astronaut career was over. His Gemini flight with Tom Stafford was given to Gus Grissom and John Young. Most people, having the career for which they had fought so hard come crashing down about their ears, would have tried to put as much distance between it and themselves. Not so Shepard. He became the Chief of the Astronaut Office, responsible for astronaut training, availability, readiness; and supplying pilot evaluations of equipment. I can't imagine what that would have been like. It might well have been the hardest thing Shepard ever did. And he did it for five years.

Happily, a new surgical technique corrected Shepard's Ménière's Disease, and he was returned to full flight status. He promptly politicked himself into command of Apollo 13. If Shepard had been unpopular before as the "Icy Commander" of the Astronaut Office, he was even less so after that. But he and his crew - Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa - needed more time to train and so were bumped to Apollo 14. Did Shepard deserve an Apollo mission? He was the oldest of the Apollo astronauts, and had not flown at all during Gemini. In fact, his only flight had been a 15-minute sub-orbital hop. Thompson doesn't really get to grips with this question, although he does recount how Cooper was furious - especially since Shepard's Apollo career happened at Cooper's expense.

Thompson is a journalist and Light This Candle is written in a journalistic style with simple, assertive prose. Thompson does give direct quotes, and even thoughts, by those who feature in his book, but each of these is referenced by an endnote. He has clearly done his homework. Light This Candle is an easy and informative read. Thompson is not afraid to describe Shepard's faults and flaws - this is no hagiography, but a book which attempts to understand its subject. And once Thompson has dealt with Shepard's childhood and his pre-NASA career, he really begins to get a grip on Shepard. But perhaps that's only a reflection of the amount of information available on those respective parts of Shepard's life.

Shepard was clearly a complex man, and probably not a very nice one. Thompson has written an honest biography of Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. And of the few astronaut biographies I have read so far, Light This Candle is easily the best. Recommended.

Light This Candle, Neal Thompson (2004, Crown Publishers, ISBN 0-609-61001-5, 399 pp)