Monday, 28 September 2009

Winged Rocketry, James C Sparks

The cover-flap blurb for Winged Rocketry states, "this fascinating book retraces the history of rocket planes fro the first crude version fired by coolies in ancient China, on to the secret German space bombers and fighters of World War II and to the great barrier-breaking rocket planes of the United States". And so it does. But not in any great depth.

If anything, Winged Rocketry reads mostly as an introduction to its subject, rather than a deep study of it. Its emphasis is on readability - a not unexpected emphasis, given that the author was for many years the Public Affairs Officer for the Mercury and Gemini programmes in the Office of Information of the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. While readability can never be a bad thing, it often results in a tendency to dramatise, which often undermines authority.

Take, for example, Sparks' description of Chuck Yeager's historic flight in the X-1 on 14 October 1947. Sparks tells us that:

"[Yeager] had awakened in the middle of many a night, in the throes of fantastic nightmares, most of which were associated with violent explosions, or the fear of being sealed inside the fiery bomb in a last plunge to earth." (p 109)

Unless Sparks is telepathic, there's no way he could know this (this book predates Yeager's autobiography by almost twenty years).

Despite such flourishes, Winged Rocketry is mostly a solid read about rocket planes. As the blurb indicates, it opens with apocryphal tales of rocket-powered flying experiments in ancient China - all of which, obviously, failed. It then follows the German experiments between the wars and during World War II, which led to the Messerschmidt Me-163 Komet and the Natter - both lethal aircraft to fly. There is a chapter devoted to each. Next is the proposed manned variants of the V-2 and the Sänger "Antipodal Bomber".

After Germany, the only experiments in rocket-powered flight of any consequence took place in the US - the X-1 programme, and the D-558 Skyrocket, both of which are covered in the book; as are the Bell X-2 and North American X-15.

Of course, research with rocket-powered aircraft did take place in other countries, most notably the UK. The Saunders Roe SR.53 was a mixed jet- and rocket-powered interceptor, which first flew in 1957, and would likely have led to the SR.177 entering service with the RAF. Duncan Sandys' infamous 1957 Defence White Paper, however, put paid to that, as it did the TSR-2 and a variety of other imaginative aviation projects. None of this is mentioned in Winged Rocketry.

It's only towards the end of Winged Rocketry that the book becomes interesting, and then for the wrong reasons. At the time it was written, there was an expectation that some of the lines of study by NASA and the armed forces would lead to real aircraft and spacecraft. Although the X-20 Dyna Soar had been cancelled in 1963, Sparks describes the future of lifting body research - i.e., their use as spacecraft - as if it were certain to happen, even going so far as to write, "The trend in futuristic space vehicles is rather firmly established at present" (p 158). Of course, no manned lifting body ever made it into orbit. And these days, they are better known from the opening credit sequence of the television programme The Six Million Dollar Man.

The final chapter of Winged Rocketry describes some of the proposed designs for space planes, both military and civil. None ever got further than the drawing-board, although in 1968 it was perhaps expected they would do so. Sparks certainly believed so. It's a shame he was wrong.

Winged Rocketry, Major James C Sparks (retd) (1968 Dodd, Mead, No ISBN, 180pp + index)

Saturday, 5 September 2009

One Small Step, PB Kerr

Given the shadow the Apollo Programme casts over the history of the twentieth century, it's surprising there isn't more fiction set in and about it. There's certainly plenty about space travel, but that's science fiction, inasmuch as it supposes technologies and sciences which do not exist, such as faster-than-light drives. But they're the subject of my other blog here.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, an I very much doubt I was alone in that. It was never a likely prospect - I'm not American, for one thing. In PB Kerr's One Small Step, thirteen-year-old Scott MacLeod wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, but he gets to be one while he's still a kid. PB Kerr is better known as Philip Kerr, the author of the excellent Bernie Gunther novels, as well as a number of others. As PB Kerr, he writes YA fiction - this novel, and the Children of the Lamp series.

One Small Step opens with Scott's parents separated, his mother in Florida, and his father a serving USAF officer in Texas. After an incident at school, Scott goes to live with his father. And every Sunday, Scott's father gives his son flying lessons at the nearby Air Force base. On a flight in a T-37 trainer jet, a bird strike shatters the canopy and knocks out Scott's father. So he lands the plane on his own.

News of this feat reaches NASA, and Dr Wernher von Braun comes to visit Scott and his father. Apparently, NASA had been so scared after the Apollo 1 fire that the Apollo missions might fail, or that the astronauts might be killed, that they were running a shadow programme, called Caliban, using chimpanzees. They were all set to send a Caliban mission to the Moon ahead of Apollo 11, but their chimp commander had suffered a mental breakdown. Von Braun wants Scott to command the mission instead.

Which, of course, he does. After four months of training, Scott is blasted into space with two chimpanzees in a smaller version of the Apollo spacecraft. The mission plans for the two apes to land on the Moon, but not EVA, while Scott remains in lunar orbit. Naturally, he disobeys, pilots the LM down himself, and goes out onto the surface. Where something strange happens to him and his chimpanzee LMP. They then return to Earth and are quarantined, but Scott can convince no one of what he experienced on the Moon.

Certainly NASA used apes early in its space programme, but it's a stretch too far to imagine an entire secret project shadowing Apollo. As a central premise, it's a little difficult to swallow. and that sort of spoils the book. Scott is an engaging narrator, and the story is very readable. Kerr is perhaps better on his ape characters than he is on Apollo details - the afterword, for example, refers to the "Apollo 7 fire". The only Apollo astronaut to feature is Pete Conrad (see my review of his biography here), and he feels mostly true to character.

But. Sending apes to the Moon. And having to use a thirteen-year-old boy to command the mission. It's too incredible. The Caliban 11 mission is launched using a Saturn V, which means there was no requirement for ape-sized Apollo spacecraft, which means in turn there was no need for a boy rather than an adult. Not to mention the level of automation required for a mission "manned" by chimpanzees. The real Apollo astronauts had thousands of tasks during their missions, and they were already quite heavily automated. I can swallow a young boy being given flying lessons, and landing a damaged jet trainer because the pilot in unconscious, but the rest....

Which doesn't mean One Small Step isn't a fun read. And I suppose it provides a very good YA introduction to Apollo. Not everyone, after all, is going to want to wade through heavy non-fiction books on the subject (which may explain why the terrible Moon Shot - see here - is so popular). I found the details in One Small Step mostly correct, the book wears its research lightly, and the period is evoked well. I already knew Kerr was a good writer, and in that regard this book doesn't disappoint. Perhaps the whole separated parents subplot is a bit of a cliché, but at least it makes for a happy ending. I'd happily pass One Small Step on to a reader of the appropriate age. I'm fairly sure they would enjoy it.

One Small Step, PB Kerr (2008, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1-84738-300-6, 305pp + Author's Note)