btripp_books (btripp_books) wrote,
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On such a timeless flight …

In internet security, there's a form of hacking called a “brute force attack”, where vast numbers of permutations of characters are thrown at a log-in, assuming that sooner or later the password will be entered. The number one take-away I had from this book reminds me of that. The author dedicates this to the “400,000 men and women” who made the Apollo program happen. That's one heck of a lot of people working towards one goal.

I found Craig Nelson's Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon up at the dollar store, and as it was a nice hardcover on a subject that I was generally interested in (tech/space), it ended up in my cart … and in my to-be-read piles for quite a while. While I do have an interest in the space program (what kid who grew up in the 60's doesn't?), it's not exactly one of my passions, and, to be honest, this is really more than I needed to know about the Apollo program. When I got around to doing this review, I had sort of anticipated having a bunch of my little bookmarks in it to point me to what I thought were specifically notable passages … unfortunately, I seem to only have dropped in four, and all of those in one section … so, I'll be doing some “tap dancing” here to pull out enough to give you at least a broad-stroke look at the book.

While Nelson dedicates the book to those involved in the whole endeavor, the book's core is the story of Apollo 11, the mission that brought the first human beings to the Moon (and safely back to Earth – something that was not necessarily a given). Structured in three parts (which are not specifically defined), the narrative is a bit meandering … while it gets where it needs to go (the Moon, eh?), it doesn't exactly take an overly linear path to get there. It starts with the Saturn V launch vehicle being moved out of the over-50-stories-tall Vehicle Assembly Building, and towards the launch pad. Needless to say, the book would be briefer than its 400 pages if the story started there and just progressed through the mission.

One gets the sense of how much research went into this in the sheer mass of detail involved in descriptions of everything – and how many hours of interviews (both archival from NASA and other sources, as well as ones done specifically for this project) provided the constant flow of insights about who was doing what, thinking what, saying what, etc. While these elements make the book a rich and vivid read, they also make it a bit hard to encapsulate here. At some points one gets the sense that all four hundred thousand people involved are going to get name-checked, and so it's also a bit challenging to sort through the key personnel. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that there may be quotes from three different figures in a single paragraph, meaning that a particularly notable turn of phrase encountered in the reading might actually be the reminiscences of multiple voices (such as in the descriptions of the sound of the ready-for-launch rocket).

Here, however, is one bit that directly addresses the complexity of the hardware, and how risky the entire venture was:

The missile had six million parts, which meant that, under NASA's rigorous target of 99.9 percent reliability, six thousand of its elements statistically might fail.
At one point “something was leaking, somewhere” in the week before the launch, and they had to figure out what, where (once located – the sub-system would have taken the better part of a week to swap out), and how it could be fixed … Nelson reports that “one tech very carefully tightened a nut to see if that would fix the problem … and it did”, enabling the pad crew to resume their 1,700-page launch control plan! There are also a large number of surprising details, such as that the early programs' capsules were capable of doing landings on land as well in the water, but they were designed for emergency escape from the Florida launch pads, and were iffy on their targeting (and NASA didn't want to be planning a landing in “White Sands and ending up in Albuquerque”).

From here the book takes a look at the predecessor programs, both of the Air Force (before NASA, an civilian agency, was formed), NASA's Mercury and Gemini programs, and von Braun's German work. There are some stories of both how the Nazi scientists got over to the American lines at the end of WW2, and how some of them were quite the characters (and several being not as politically “reformed” as NASA's public relations would have people believe at the time). Speaking of the P.R., the book notes that the very most hated activity for the Apollo 11 astronauts, Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong, were not hours spent in assorted simulators, but the press conferences that they were required to participate in. Nelson says that the agency, while nominally “transparent”, had a significant anti-press bias (despite having inked an exclusive deal with Life magazine) – but for a generally unsuspected reality: “other reasons for institutional secrecy were NASA's fears of revealing to Congress and taxpayers just how risky its missions actually were”. Some transcripts of these media events are included, and the divergence from what the press was looking for (“how do you feel about X?”) and how these engineers and test pilots responded (Armstrong answered a question about what he'd take with him if he could take anything, and he responded “more fuel”) is telling.

Again, there's massive amounts of detail here, and a flow that swerves between looking at the technology, its place in historical development, the astronauts themselves, both those on the Apollo 11 mission and those around them, over-views of their backgrounds and family lives, and a certain look at the culture of the less-than-swinging 60's. Some politics drifts through, as the project to reach the Moon was put forth by Kennedy, shepherded through by Johnson, and came to pass under Nixon.

There also are lots of fascinating data bits, which are sort of hard to extract from context here, from the number of hours of training the various astronauts spent in readying for the flight, how those broke down between simulators and other “experiential” locations (various points in the southwest to experience working in craters, etc.), and the like. An interesting digression is into the history of simulators, which date back to the very infancy of flight, in 1910, with the first “VR” version coming in 1929 when the Link Piano and Organ Company adapted organ bellows to work as the pneumatics for simulating pitch, roll, and yaw. The same company designed the first trainer for Project Mercury.

One quote (and there are chunks of this which are reports from a half a dozen key non-astronaut figures in a row) describes the astronauts as being “over-trained”, and it goes into a good bit on how the stress played out on them and their families … this is a sample:

In time, Armstrong's, Aldrin's, and Collins' training grew unbearable. Aldrin got so overworked that, while commuting one day in a T-38 jet, he had to double-check the compass to remember whether he was on his way to Florida or Houston.
Of course, it didn't help that most people involved didn't really expect the mission to outright succeed … there were so many essential points in the process where things could go very badly wrong (as had been the history of our unmanned Moon probes previously), that there were contingencies for aborting all along the way, and, for the worse case scenario, writer William Safire famously had developed a speech for Nixon to give in the event that the astronauts were lost.

To give an example of how the telling gets convoluted, early on in the book Nelson starts plugging in mission times, with “T minus 5.25 hours” appearing with nearly 300 pages yet to go. This time stamp is from their wake-up call on the day of the launch, but the narrative goes into a listing of many of the items that were going out with them, some jokes the astronauts made about thing things they could have done (sprinkling gold dust on some of the rocks – ensuring that they'd be back to the Moon sooner than later), and then going off into a description of the intricacies of their spacesuits, and how they differed from previous versions. This then leads to the process of getting them into the capsule and ready for launch. The remainder of Part I walks the reader through the rest of the countdown and to the actual launch.

Part II is fascinating, and worth picking up Rocket Men on its own … I'm pretty sure that it's not the first time that the material's been covered, but I think it's the first time I've seen it. This set of chapters largely looks at the cold war context of the space race, and has details on how von Braun rose through the Nazi hierarchy to get to head their rocket program, how his team mainly got to the American lines at the end of the war, and how they got settled in various small towns in the U.S., which became primary hubs for NASA's development programs. What is amazing here is all the info on the Russian space program, how they picked up the remaining rocket scientists from Germany, and had them working with the existing designers in the U.S.S.R., the arc of the Soviet space program (and political issues – one of the main excuses given for the construction of the Berlin Wall was to stem the tide of high-value individuals fleeing to the west), and how many disasters and near-disasters they had (but never admitted to until after Soviet Union collapsed). One chapter is a walk-through from the launch of Mercury-Redstone 2 (with a chimpanzee, “Ham”, on January 31, 1961), on to Yuri Gagarin's successful manned flight a couple of months later, to Kennedy's somewhat panicked response, and buying into a “Manhattan Project” style program to catch up and go beyond the Russian's achievements (which was quoted as having only a 50/50 chance of success), with the disastrous Bay of Pigs as a background, a whole lot about U.S. politics around “selling” the space program including the actions of JFK, LBJ, and RFK, among many others in the Congress.

Run the clock forward to 1962, and the Cuban missile crisis, which led eventually more communications between the Kennedy administration and members of Khrushchev's hierarchy, which eventually resulted in Kennedy's address to the United Nations on September 20, 1963, in which he proposed a joint mission to the Moon with the U.S. and U.S.S.R. both bringing their expertise to the project. This was rejected by the House of Representative three weeks later (despite a note here of Khrushchev's son saying that his father had been open to the deal). Two months after the speech, Kennedy was dead, and Johnson (who was very involved in the space program, due to the main HQ for it all being in Texas) in control. Jim Webb, the head of NASA, along with Johnson, used Kennedy's death to enshrine the space race in popular culture (by October 1964, 77 percent of voters were in favor of the massive project), and to leverage congressional support. Also in October 1964, the Soviet Central Committee removed Khrushchev from power, altering the entire international dynamic of the previous few years.

The last chapter in this part starts out with the Apollo 1 accident (on February 21, 1967, a fire erupted in the cabin during a test, killing all three astronauts), and the renewal of the chase between the two superpowers, with each moving ahead and then falling behind (a similar disaster happened in the Russian program four months later, when Soyuz 1 failed and crashed to Earth from orbit). It's noted that “NASA history would now be divided into two distinct periods: Before and After the Fire.”, as it “led to an across-the-board overhaul of NASA and its subcontractors”. This was, evidently, needed, as it's detailed how neither North American (the Command Module), nor Grumman (the Lunar Module) were making trouble-free deliveries. Still, NASA went ahead with the Apollo 8 mission (which was the first manned orbit of the Moon, although the Soviet Zond 5 had orbited the Moon with “a collection of bacteria, seeds, plants, flies, worms, and turtles” – all of which were incinerated when the capsule reach 23,432° F when returning to Earth), which appears to have succeeded more on luck than anything else. Oh, there are also some “special” descriptions of what vomiting in a space capsule is like, as well as the scatalogical inefficiencies of some of the other systems on board, plus how the famed “blue marble” shot almost didn't get taken.

The last part of the book starts off with time stamp “GET 00:01:00” (and I can't figure out what “GET” means, and I spent a chunk of time Googling it, but it's evidently after launch, as “T” is before launch), and walks through most of the mission, interspersed with background info and assorted digressions (such as the 20-point checklist for the procedure to urinate – which, if you're interested, gets dumped “overboard”, creating a unique type of “space junk” out there). The details of how the astronauts worked in the capsule are quite engaging. This is the section where I had my little bookmarks, but most of them seem to be pointing to “factoids” such as the fuel mix needed to fire the engines in space (where, in the absence of oxygen, they'd have to self-ignite), or that the computers (each module had a “17.5-pound Raytheon” computer) on board had a whopping (not) memory of 36K each (roughly a million times less than a low-end desktop PC at this writing). Another thing that gets tossed out there (when backgrounding stuff about the Moon) is:

Though a quarter of Earth's diameter and an eightieth of its mass, the Moon is so large – of 150 moons in the solar system, ours is the largest in relation to its host – that many believe it should be properly considered a planet, and that together we form a double-planet system.
Another thing that “I did not know” is that there was a procedure failure when moving into the Lunar Module, and instead of going to a vacuum in the connecting tunnel, there was still air in there, and when the modules separated, that “puff of air” contributed to navigation errors that led to the Moon landing being five miles off target (and having some tense time looking for a flat place to set down – they landed with less than 30 seconds left before Houston would have instituted an abort).

So, at GET 102:45:58, Neil Armstrong radios “The Eagle has landed.”, and the rest is history. Well, not for the book, of course … there's a look at what's happening back on Earth, both at NASA and with the astronauts' families, plus, of course, a detailed review of what it was like for the first two men to walk on the Moon to get through their mission. An interesting detail is: “Aldrin, meanwhile, had to remember not to lock the cabin door after exiting Eagle, since the designers had neglected including a handle on the outside.” … oops! Because of the first Moon walk being televised, there were something like six hundred million (with some estimates running up to a billion) people around the globe (something that figured into a particularly excellent Doctor Who episode) watching it live.

There were a number of risky actions still to come, a successful launch of the cabin portion of the Lunar Module (which was “considered the most perilous moment of their voyage”), a successful docking with the Command Module (involving some fancy flying by Michael Collins), a successful “Trans Earth Injection” (where the computer fires the engines at the right time and right angle to get the Command Module back to Earth, rather than randomly out into space), and successfully doing a re-entry that would let them splash down in the general area of where the Navy was waiting for them.

The final chapters of the book address the changes that the Apollo 11 mission made in science, the view of space exploration, and even international politics (and how, in the disappointing American decision to not expand exploratory missions in favor of the Earth-orbit shuttle program, other nations such as China and India have moved forward with their own projects).

Rocket Men is a lot to take in, and I've sort of skimmed the surface here, focusing on the stuff that mainly interested me (hey, it's my review), and skipping over the rest (political, social, family, etc.). It is an amazing book for the level of detail brought to the reader, and I highly recommend it to anybody with any interest in the space program, the cold war, (recent) American history, or related topics (I've enjoyed some of Nelson's previous books, so it's an easy thumbs-up).

There appears to have been a newer version than this 2009 hardcover released, but both of the hardcovers seem to be out of print, with just a paperback edition (plus e-books, etc.) currently out there … however the new/used guys on the online big boys' sites have copies of this hardcover that will only set you back five or six bucks … and I encourage you to check it out!


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