Edward P. Warner and the Transformation of Aeronautics in America

 The only NACA staff member ever to serve on the Main Committee, Edward P. Warner was chief physicist at the Langley laboratory in that facility's early days before returning to the NACA as a member from 1929 to 1954.

The only NACA staff member ever to serve on the Main Committee, Edward P. Warner was chief physicist at the Langley laboratory in that facility’s early days before returning to the NACA as a member from 1929 to 1954.

I have been researching the history of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and compiling biographical information on several of the early leaders of the organization. Edward Pearson Warner (1894-1958) is one of those key people. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warner became one of the foremost American aeronautical engineers, consultants, writers, and educators of the first half of the twentieth century. Although not a famous flyer or aviation corporate executive, during the last forty years of his life few in the U.S. were more important in shaping the course of aviation.

From his position as assistant secretary of the navy for aeronautics (1926-1929); editor of Aviation (1929-1934); committee member of the NACA (1919-1920, 1929-1945); and chair of the interim council (1945-1947) and then president of the International Civil Aviation Organization (1947-1957), Warner fundamentally influenced virtually every policy decision affecting aviation.

Warner charted a path toward aeronautics in 1911 when he and a friend won a soaring competition in Boston; Warner designed a glider and his friend piloted it. Warner went on to Harvard University, receiving a B.A. in engineering with honors in 1916. He then pursued additional work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning a B.S. and then and M.A. in 1919.

After a short time as an employee of the recently created NACA in 1919-1920, Warner returned to MIT as an associate professor of aeronautical engineering. He stayed at MIT for the next six years, attaining the rank of full professor. While at MIT Warner was member of the faculty involved in teaching in Dr. Jerome C. Hunsaker’s pioneering aeronautical engineering curriculum. Known as a no-nonsense, staccato-style lecturer, his students both feared and respected him.

It should come as no surprise that few students were upset when the demanding professor left MIT in 1926 to become the assistant secretary of the navy for aeronautics, a position he held until 1929. In this position, Warner shaped the course of naval aviation, bringing to fruition plans that had been gestating for several years for the development of ship-based air power. During his tenure, the aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga entered service. Warner was tireless in his quest for additional funding for naval aviation, expanding facilities, personnel, and operations. But he also took time to continue his academic studies. In 1927 Warner published his first book, Aerostatistics, quickly followed the same year by Aeroplane Design: Aerodynamics, an important textbook for a generation of aeronautical engineers.

Warner left federal service in 1929 to become the editor of Aviation, the premier U.S. periodical dedicated to flight. He had already made a name for himself as a writer not only of technical papers, several of which he published while at MIT, but also as a thoughtful policy analyst and popular writer on aviation for such publications as the Christian Science Monitor.

Taking a leave of absence from his editorial post in 1934-1935, Warner returned to government service as vice-chair of the Federal Aviation Commission. This blue ribbon commission had been appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to review the structure of aviation in the U.S. and to make recommendations for legislation. At stake were the twin issues of air carrier regulation and airmail service. Warner, who drafted much of the final report, recommended the creation of an overarching organization to regulate air commerce, to establish and operate airways, and to set safety standards and investigate accidents. This was made a reality when the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 (Public Law 75-706) signed into law in July 1938, creating the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and the Air Safety Board.

When this work was finished, Warner did not return to Aviation, but began an engineering consulting business. Among other projects, between 1935 and 1938 Warner worked with the Douglas Aircraft Company on the first practical four-engine transport aircraft, the DC-4. He was especially perceptive in taking general descriptions of desirable flying qualities provided by pilots and converting them into the exacting specifications required by engineers. In 1936 Warner also rewrote his classic text and published it under a new title, Aeroplane Design: Performance. Most important, Warner included in this book a calculation, later known as the Warner K speed formula, which allowed designers and engineers to compute the performance of specific aircraft.

Edward P. Warner (seated) in 1939 during his time at the CAA.

Edward P. Warner (seated) in 1939 during his time at the CAA.

In 1938 Warner again reentered federal service, this time as an economic and technical advisor to the Civil Aeronautics Authority. A year later he was appointed a formal member of the authority. In 1940 some of the functions of the CAA were split, particularly those of rate setting and policy formulation for scheduled air carriers, and vested in a new entity, the Civil Aeronautics Board. Warner moved over to serve on this board and by 1941 he had been called as its vice-chairman. He held that post until the end of World War II.

Edward Warner addressing First ICAO Assembly held in Montreal in 1946.

Edward Warner addressing First ICAO Assembly held in Montreal in 1946.

While working on the CAA Warner had been exposed to some of the issues affecting international aeronautics, and began to take greater interest in the policy considerations than ever before. It was appropriate, therefore, that he headed the interim council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an organization answering to the United Nations, between 1945 and 1947. When the ICAO was institutionalized in 1947, Warner became its first president and served for a decade. This organization, which grew from 26 to 70 member nations during his tenure, was involved in a variety of international aviation issues from establishing procedures for diplomatic clearances for overflight and landing to establishing standards for air traffic control and the transfer of flight information around the globe.

Warner retired in 1957 and died at his home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, the next year.  His career had been significant not only because his contributions to the engineering of aircraft, but also because of his efforts to structure and executive rational aviation policy both in the United States and throughout the world.

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Apollo 11 and the World’s Reaction

The Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins, wearing sombreros and ponchos, are swarmed by thousands in Mexico City as their motorcade is slowed by the enthusiastic crowd. The GIANTSTEP-APOLLO 11 Presidential Goodwill Tour emphasized the willingness of the United States to share its space knowledge. The tour carried the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives to 24 countries and 27 cities in 45 days.

The Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins, wearing sombreros and ponchos, are swarmed by thousands in Mexico City as their motorcade is slowed by the enthusiastic crowd. The GIANTSTEP-APOLLO 11 Presidential Goodwill Tour emphasized the willingness of the United States to share its space knowledge. The tour carried the Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives to 24 countries and 27 cities in 45 days.

When the Apollo 11 spacecraft lifted off on July 16, 1969, for the Moon, it signaled a climactic instance in human history. Reaching the Moon on July 20, it’s Lunar Module—with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard—landed on the while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo command module.

Armstrong soon set foot on the surface, telling millions on Earth that it was “one small step for [a] man—one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin soon followed him out and the two planted an American flag but omitted claiming the land for the U.S. as had been routinely done during European exploration of the Americas, collected soil and rock samples, and set up scientific experiments. The next day they returned to the Apollo capsule overhead and returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24.

This flight to the Moon received great scrutiny. “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation,” President Richard M. Nixon enthused upon greeting the Apollo 11 crew when they returned from the Moon. Christopher Flournoy recalled that as a five-year-old when the mission occurred he may not have understood much of what took place but nonetheless was excited by the experience. He remembered his father saying that “he was never more proud of being an American than on the day our flag flew on the Moon.” One seven-year-old boy from San Juan, Puerto Rico, said of the first Moon landing: “I kept racing between the TV and the balcony and looking at the Moon to see if I could see them on the Moon.” These experiences were typical.

The flight of Apollo 11 met with an ecstatic reaction around the globe, as everyone shared in the success of the astronauts. The front pages of newspapers everywhere suggested how strong the enthusiasm was. NASA estimated that because of nearly worldwide radio and television coverage, more than half the population of the planet was aware of the events of Apollo 11. Although the Soviet Union tried to jam Voice of America radio broadcasts most living there and in other countries learned about the adventure and followed it carefully. Police reports noted that streets in many cities were eerily quiet during the Moon walk as residents watched television coverage in homes, bars, and other public places.

Official congratulations poured in to the U.S. president from other heads of state, even as informal ones went to NASA and the astronauts. All nations having regular diplomatic relations with the United States sent their best wishes in recognition of the success of the mission. Those without diplomatic relations with the U.S., such as the People’s Republic of China, made no formal statement on the Apollo 11 flight to the U.S., and the mission was reported only sporadically by its news media because Mao Zedong refused to publicize successes by Cold War rivals. It was not until February 1972 when Nixon flew to China and met with Mao Zedong that the United States established formal diplomatic relations with the nation.

China now desires to go to the Moon, fully recognizing the success of the Apollo program. Perhaps they will be successful. I would sure like to see humans on the Moon again!

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Science of Shakespeare”

Science of Shakespeare, TheThe Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. By Dan Falk. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’ Press, 2014.

I had never before considered the scientific worldview of William Shakespeare. Like almost every other American I had read the Bard’s great tragedies in high school and college—Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet—and only gained an appreciation of his comedies and historical works later in life. One of the things I learned early on, however, if one wanted to understand the real history of Julius Caesar or King Richard II or name the historical actor of your choice don’t rely on Shakespeare for knowledge. He was a playwright focused on producing engaging, successful theater aimed at the masses, not in recording accurate historical narrative.

Although this is an interesting and enlightening book with more to offer than I initially thought about Shakespeare and science. At no point in the past have I ever thought of his plays as exemplars of understanding about the Scientific Revolution then under way when he wrote them. True, in the early 1600s Galileo was turning his telescope on Jupiter and published The Starry Messenger; somewhat before that Copernicus was developing a new model of the solar system that replaced the Ptolemaic geocentric explanation. The ferment in science was palpable. Shakespeare may not have been educated at Cambridge or Oxford, but according to author Dan Falk he certainly took in the intellectual milieu around him.

Did the Scientific Revolution find expression in the writings of Shakespeare? That is the core question posed by Falk. He answers it in the affirmative. Some of the connections are well developed, and some are so much speculation, but the reality is that if one reads his plays seeking evidence of a reflection of the scientific ferment around him it is there in abundance. The lion’s share of the book teases out these connections.

The most reflection on science in Shakespeare’s plays concerns astronomy. There are constant references to the stars and other bodies, their place in the sky, and their portents and transits. Some of these references offer quite accurate depictions of movements of individual constellations, the Moon, and the like. None of them, or so it seems, were central to the plot of any play, instead they enrich the dialogue and sometimes offer humor in the story. Falk makes the case that Shakespeare had a connection to Thomas Digges, a proponent of the Copernican view of the solar system, and reflected that understanding in his plays. This looks to be a solid observation.

Less solid, in my estimation, is the argument presented about Hamlet as an allegory for the debate over the Ptolemaic/Copernican world views, with characters standing in for the various positions and protagonists in the debate. This is not Falk’s theory, to be sure, but he spends considerable effort in relating the thesis as developed by Penn State astronomy professor emeritus Peter Usher. Like a lot of literary theories about Shakespeare, this one has very thin evidence and a lot of wishful thinking. It’s interesting and fun to consider, but ultimately not particularly convincing. Falk seems to know this as well and constantly qualifies the argument.

Beyond astronomy, Falk includes chapters on astrology, magic, medicine, religion, and the material world as presented in Shakespeare. In every case we find an individual who generally reflected the current thinking of the Scientific Revolution but also had vestiges of earlier mediaeval perspectives on the world. That is pretty much what I would expect to be the case.

The unsurprising result does not mean that The Science of Shakespeare is not worth a go. It is an easy read, and an interesting and informative book. It helps explain a bit about how the public of the era thought about the scientific world then emerging. At the same time, this is far from a scholarly work that advances the historical discourse. There are sections that are blatantly fictional, and as a work of journalism there is more about the current actors discussing these issues than there is in terms of path-breaking historical investigation. That said, it is an enjoyable, easy to follow, and moderately useful book helping to bring together the literary world of Shakespeare and the scientific world of the early modern period.

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The Cold War Origins of Space Access

This launch of the Titan IVB/Centaur launch vehicle from the Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, started the Cassini orbiter and its attached Huygens probe to Saturn. Launched on October 15, 1997, from Launch Complex 40 it would undertake a 2.2-billion mile journey that included two swingbys of Venus and one of Earth to gain additional velocity, arriving at Saturn in July 2004 where it entered orbit and soft landed Huygens on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

This launch of the Titan IVB/Centaur launch vehicle from the Cape Canaveral Air Station, Florida, started the Cassini orbiter and its attached Huygens probe to Saturn. Launched on October 15, 1997, from Launch Complex 40 it would undertake a 2.2-billion mile journey that included two swingbys of Venus and one of Earth to gain additional velocity, arriving at Saturn in July 2004 where it entered orbit and soft landed Huygens on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

It is almost a truism that the primary U.S. space launch capabilities were created only because of the challenge of an exceptionally desperate Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. Accordingly, the development and deployment of ballistic missiles, space-based intelligence-gathering capabilities, and the orbiting of scientific satellites into space were all critical to ensuring the national security of the United States.

For the first decade of the space age, the U.S. space effort operated and evolved in response to consistently focused governmental policy of the highest national priority. During that era the focus was on test and evaluation of ICBMs and on developing these systems into space launch vehicles, primarily to support the reconnaissance mission operated from Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) on the West Coast and the robotic space flight mission operated from Cape Canaveral on the East Coast. The initial development, test, and evaluation of ballistic missiles also drove the development for extensive tracking, telemetry collection, and precise photographic capabilities.

During this earliest period of space launch development the United States began employing the principal launchers—Atlas and Delta, as well as the now retired Titan—that found use beyond the Cold War era. It is hard to believe in the year 2014, but the United States still relies on the descendants of these three ballistic missiles for the bulk of its space access requirements. Even though the three families of space boosters—each with numerous variants—have enjoyed incremental improvement since first flight, there seems no way to escape their beginnings in technology (dating back to the early 1950s) and their primary task of launching nuclear warheads.

The first-generation ICBM, the Atlas, was flight tested beginning June 11, 1955, and made operational in 1959. A second ballistic missile, the Thor, also dates from the 1950s and under the name Delta became an early workhorse in America’s fleet of launchers. The Titan ICBM quickly followed the Atlas and Thor into service with the U.S. Air Force in 1959 and remained on alert until the end of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s.

Since these space launch vehicles began existence as national defense assets, they reflected both the benefits and liabilities of those origins. For example, the national defense requirements prompted the developers to emphasize development schedule and operational reliability over launch costs. Consequently, these vehicles were exceptionally costly both to develop and operate.

Indeed, the Eisenhower administration poured enormous resources into the development of these first generation space access vehicles. As a measure of government investment, through fiscal year 1957 the government spent $11.8 billion on military space activities in 1957 dollars. “The cost of continuing these programs from FY 1957 through FY 1963,” Eisenhower was told, “would amount to approximately $36.1 billion, for a grand total of $47 billion.”

In 2014 dollars, for comparison, this would have represented an investment of more than $235 billion. An investment of even 25 percent of that amount today would make possible an enormous advance of launch vehicle technology.

Vanguard on launch pad (TV-3), Dec. 6, 1957.

Vanguard on launch pad (TV-3), Dec. 6, 1957.

The period between 1957 and 1965 might best be viewed as the height of the Cold War era and the age of the great race for space. Engaged in broad contest over the ideologies and allegiances of the non-aligned nations of the world, space exploration was one major area contested. The Soviets gained the upper hand in this competition on October 4, 1957, when they launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, as part of a larger scientific effort associated with the International Geophysical Year. The Soviets did not relinquish their apparent lead in the space race until the mid-1960s.

At the same time that the United States seemed incapable of conducting space operations effectively—notably during the failed launch of the Vanguard satellite on national television on December 6, 1957—the Soviets seemed to enjoy every success. In those first 8 years of the space age, it looked as if the Soviet Union did everything right in space flight, and the United States appeared at best a weakling without the kind of capabilities that the command economy of the “workers’ state” in the Soviet Union had been able to muster. The result was that the United States mobilized to “catch up” to the apparent might of its Cold War

About 1965 the Cold War began to wane as a powerful motivator behind space activities. From the point where America began flying the Gemini spacecraft, and especially with the flights of Apollo—1968-1972—it became obvious that the United States led the world in rocket technology. Accordingly, the space race began to wane during that era, as the nation was consumed with issues other than crises with the Soviet Union, especially it focused on the war in Vietnam.

Since the beginning of spaceflight more than fifty years ago, those who seek to travel in space have been, in essence, between a rocket and hard place. The enormous release of energy made possible through the development of chemical rocket technology, allowed the first generation of launch vehicles to free humanity and its robots from the constraints of Earth’s gravity. It allowed the still exceptionally limited exploitation of space technology for all manner of activities important on Earth—communications, weather, GPS, and a host of other remote sensing satellites—to such an extent that many individuals in the United States today cannot conceive of a world in which they did not exist.

This launch of Falcon 9 in 2012 signals a step forward in space access–especially new, non-DoD developed rockets–but the technology is only incrementally improved and still relies on basic chemical propulsion.

This same chemical rocket technology made possible human flight into space, albeit for an exceptionally limited number of exceptional people, and the visiting of robotic probes from this planet to our neighbors in the Solar System. These have been enormously significant, and overwhelmingly positive, developments.

The rockets that make space access possible, however, have also been enormously expensive despite sustained efforts to reduce the cost of spaceflight. Most launch vehicle efforts throughout the history of the space age, unfortunately, have been fraught with a fair measure of self-deception and wishful thinking. A large ambitious program is created, hyped, and then fails as a result of unrealistic management, especially with regard to technical risk. These typically have blurred the line, which should be bright, between revolutionary, high-risk, high-payoff R&D efforts and low-risk, marginal payoff evolutionary efforts to improve operational systems. Efforts to break the bonds of this deception may well lead in remarkable new directions in future launcher development efforts. I hope so.


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The Legacy of Apollo: 45 Years On

Apollo 11 Launch by Ralph Crane.

Apollo 11 Launch by Ralph Crane.

July 2014 marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the epochal lunar landing of Apollo 11 in the summer of 1969. Although President John F. Kennedy had made a public commitment on May 25, 1961, to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, up until this time Apollo had been all promise. Now the realization was about to begin. Project Apollo had originated as an effort to deal with an unsatisfactory situation (world perception of Soviet leadership in space and technology), and it addressed those problems very well. Even though Kennedy’s political objectives were essentially achieved with the decision to go to the Moon, Project Apollo took on a life of its own over the years and left an important legacy to both the nation and the proponents of space exploration. Its success in was enormously significant, coming at a time when American society was in crisis.

A unique confluence of political necessity, personal commitment and activism, scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible the 1961 decision to carry out an aggressive lunar landing program. It then fell to NASA, other organizations of the federal government, and the aerospace community to accomplish the task set out in a few short paragraphs by the president.

By the time that the goal was accomplished in 1969, only a few of the key figures associated with the decision were still in leadership positions in the government. Kennedy fell victim to an assassin’s bullet in 1963, and science adviser Jerome B. Wiesner returned to MIT soon afterwards. Lyndon B. Johnson, of course, succeeded Kennedy as president but left office in January 1969 just a few months before the first landing. NASA Administrator James E. Webb resolutely guided NASA through most of the 1960s, but his image was tarnished by, among other things, a 1967 Apollo accident that killed three astronauts. Consequently, he retired from office under something of a cloud in October 1968. Several other early supporters of Apollo in Congress and elsewhere died during the 1960s and never saw the program successfully completed.


Neil Armstrong during Apollo 11 mission.

The landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon took place on July 20, 1969, when the Lunar Module, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard, landed on the lunar surface while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo command module. After checkout, Armstrong set foot on the surface, telling millions who saw and heard him on Earth that it was “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin soon followed him out. They planted an American flag but omitted claiming the land for the U.S. as had been routinely done during European exploration of the Americas, collected soil and rock samples, and set up scientific experiments. The next day they launched back to the Apollo capsule orbiting overhead and began the return trip to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific on July 24.

Project Apollo in general, and the flight of Apollo 11 in particular, should be viewed as a watershed in the nation’s history. It was an endeavor that demonstrated both the technological and economic virtuosity of the United States and established national preeminence over rival nations; this was the primary goal of the program when first envisioned by the Kennedy administration in 1961. It had been an enormous undertaking, costing $25.4 billion (about $125 billion in 2014 dollars) with only the building of the Panama Canal rivaling the Apollo program’s size as the largest non-military technological endeavor ever undertaken by the United States and only the Manhattan Project being comparable in a wartime setting.

Overall view of the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center, Building 30, Manned Spacecraft Center, showing the flight controllers celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

Overall view of the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center, Building 30, Manned Spacecraft Center, showing the flight controllers celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.

The most important legacy of Project Apollo that needs to be remembered is that the program was successful in accomplishing the political goals for which it had been created. Kennedy had been dealing with a Cold War crisis in 1961 brought on by several separate factors, the Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion only two of them, that Apollo was designed to combat. At the time of the Apollo 11 landing Mission Control in Houston flashed the words of President Kennedy announcing the Apollo commitment on its big screen. Those phrases were followed with these: “TASK ACCOMPLISHED, July 1969.” No greater understatement could probably have been made. Any assessment of Apollo that does not recognize the accomplishment of landing an American on the Moon and safely returning before the end of the 1960s is incomplete and inaccurate, for that was the primary goal of the undertaking.

Second, Project Apollo was a triumph of management in meeting the enormously difficult systems engineering and technological integration requirements. James E. Webb, the NASA Administrator at the height of the program between 1961 and 1968, always contended that Apollo was much more a management exercise than anything else, and that the technological challenge, while sophisticated and impressive, was also within grasp. More difficult was ensuring that those technological skills were properly managed and used. Webb’s contention was confirmed in spades by the success of Apollo. NASA leaders had to acquire and organize unprecedented resources to accomplish the task at hand. From both a political and technological perspective, management was critical. For seven years after Kennedy’s Apollo decision, through October 1968, James Webb politicked, coaxed, cajoled, and maneuvered for NASA in Washington. In the process he acquired for the agency sufficient resources to meet its Apollo requirements.

Third, Project Apollo forced the people of the world to view the planet Earth in a new way. Apollo 8 was critical to this sea change, for on its outward voyage, the crew focused a portable television camera on Earth and for the first time humanity saw its home from afar, a tiny, lovely, and fragile “blue marble” hanging in the blackness of space. When the Apollo 8 spacecraft arrived at the Moon on Christmas Eve of 1968 the image of Earth was even more strongly reinforced when the crew sent images of the planet back. Writer Archibald MacLeish summed up the feelings of many people when he wrote at the time of Apollo that “To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold, brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.” The modern environmental movement was galvanized in part by this new perception of the planet and the need to protect it and the life that it supports.

Finally, the Apollo program, while an enormous achievement, left a divided legacy for NASA and the aerospace community. The perceived “golden age” of Apollo created for the agency an expectation that the direction of any major space goal from the president would always bring NASA a broad consensus of support and provide it with the resources and license to dispense them as it saw fit. Something most NASA officials did not understand at the time of the Moon landing in 1969, however, was that Apollo had not been a normal situation and would not be repeated. The Apollo decision was, therefore, an anomaly in the national decision-making process. The dilemma of the “golden age” of Apollo has been difficult to overcome, but moving beyond the Apollo program to embrace future opportunities has been an important goal of the agency’s leadership in the recent past. Exploration of the Solar System and the universe remains as enticing a goal and as important an objective for humanity as it ever has been.

Project Apollo was an important early step in that ongoing process of space exploration.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Plane Queer”

16145120Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants. By Phil Tiemeyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. vii + 288 pp., illus., acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 978-0-520-27477-8. $24.95 (paperback).

Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants is an outstanding social history by Phil Tiemeyer about flight attendants and their challenges since the beginning of air transportation. He argues that these individuals were a distinct, highly-visible, uniquely-skilled work force whose actions were very much the stuff of popular culture. The male flight attendants looked to their profession as something more than a job; it was more like a calling, and it required sacrifice to carry the mission forward. Although the first stewards/flight attendants in the pre-World War II era were largely male, with the coming of war this profession became filled with women.

In the aftermath of the war stewardesses entered the popular culture as a glamorous profession for young, attractive, single women who wanted to see the world, meet wealthy and handsome men, and expand their lives beyond anything they had known in America. The “coffee, tea, or me” meme emerged in the 1960s at almost the same time that men sought to reenter the ranks of flight attendants only to find them shut out by industry policy. Lawsuits resulted and eventually the first male flight attendants began work.

Just as famously, the cultural mindset identified these men as largely gay and assigned to them gender-based, sexuality-based, and AIDS-based discrimination. Many were gay, Tiemeyer suggests, but not all. Regardless of sexual orientation they facilitated key breakthroughs in civil rights, helping to reinterpret Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protecting workers from sex discrimination as a means of breaking into the all female flight attendant corps.

They also helped—sometimes inadvertently through their professionalism on the job and sometimes through activism—to build acceptance for their community. They came out to employers and co-workers, responded to homophobic and AIDS-phobic ideas, and advocated for LGBT rights. This is social history of a high order; it is also a success in drawing an important aspect of aerospace history into a larger conversation about the culture of America in the period since the 1960s.

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The Apollo Program and the Idea of Progress

A stunning illustration tieing American westward expansion with destiny and progress.

A stunning illustration tieing American westward expansion with destiny and progress.

It is somewhat trite to suggest that America was founded on the idea of progress and that it remains both an amorphous concept and one central to American national identity. In the 1830s an astute French interpreter of United States society, Alexis de Toqueville, observed that Americans had a “lively faith in human perfectibility,” and that as a society they believed they were “a body progressing” rather than one that either declined or remained stable.

If anything de Toqueville understated this belief, for the concept of America as a Utopia in process has permeated the national ideology since before the birth of the Republic. From Thomas Jefferson’s stirring statement in the Declaration of Independence that people must work to ensure that all receive their unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” to the refrain of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s lyrical “We can change the world, rearrange the world. It’s dying—to get better,” progress has been a major subtext of every aspect of American life.

Of course, the manner in which these ideas have evolved over time has changed in relation to the larger society, and space exploration, especially Apollo, evinced these cherished conceptions. As political scientist Taylor Dark has argued:

The idea of progress has typically advanced three claims: 1. There are no fundamental limits on the human capacity to grow, however growth is defined; 2. Advancements in science and technology foster improvements in the moral and political character of humanity; and, 3. There is an innate directionality in human society, rooted in societal, psychological, or biological mechanisms, that drives civilization toward advancement. American believers in progress quickly embraced space travel, viewing it as a vindication of the doctrine’s original claims about the near-inevitability of human improvement. With space travel understood in this fashion, the fate of the space program took on a far greater meaning than developments in other areas of technological endeavor, as it became symbolic of the entire directionality of human civilization.

Although progress had been present earlier in the works of such space advocates as the Russian Konstantin S. Tsiolkovsky, the American Robert H. Goddard, and the German Wernher von Braun, after the conclusion of Project Apollo in the 1970s space enthusiasts believed they were on the verge of a new golden age in which anything could be accomplished. Apollo raised the hopes of those dreaming of great human progress in space. Its transcendental qualities were not lost on those who believed that the human race could eventually attain this end.

Movement into space, first with exploring expeditions and later with colonies, offered an opportunity for humanity to move outward and start anew on a pristine planet. Apollo had shown it was possible. It suggested that America had both the capability and the wherewithal to accomplish truly astounding goals. All it needed was the will. As Senator Abraham Ribicoff mused in 1969, “If men can visit the Moon—and now we know they can—then there is no limit to what else we can do. Perhaps that is the real meaning of Apollo 11.”

The whole Earth disk taken during the Apollo 17 lunar mission in December 1972.

The whole Earth disk taken during the Apollo 17 lunar mission in December 1972.

Space advocates also foresaw a new era of peace and mutual understanding arising in response to Apollo.  Carl Sagan described “the unexpected final gift of Apollo” was “the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the Earth.”  He noted that “I’m struck again by the irony that spaceflight—conceived in the cauldron of nationalist rivalries and hatreds—brings with it a stunning transnational vision. You spend even a little time contemplating the Earth from orbit and the most deeply ingrained nationalisms begin to erode. They seem the squabbles of mites on a plum.” Peaceful expansion beyond Earth, they thought, would lead to a golden age of peace and prosperity on Earth as national rivalries would be replaced with collective action toward a great positive goal. Forward-looking and aimed toward human perfections, Apollo signaled great opportunities for the future.

At sum this idea rested on what Richard T. Hughes has called the myth of the United States myth of a millennial nation, forever progressing to perfection. This sense of creating a perfect society has been present in American society from the very first. It also suggests that it is incumbent on those a part of this nation to further justice, equality, and liberty both inside and outside the confines of the United States. In many instances this is a positive set of attributes, as Hughes notes in Myths Americans Live By, but it might also be used to justify efforts “to export and impose its cultural and economics values throughout the world, regardless of the impact those policies might have on poor and dispossessed people in other parts of the world.”

This sense of progress also embraces another national myth, that of the innocent nation. Completely without justification, the United States has come to believe that whatever it does is just and righteous and representative of progress. This may be seen in virtually all periods of American history but it is especially present in the great struggles of the twentieth century. World Wars I and II especially led Americans to believe they were fighting for the survival of all that was good against forces of evil. But it also may be seen in the cold war against the Soviet Union, and in the aftermath of 9/11 in the global war on terrorism. So too with Apollo as a representation of progress for most Americans.

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Announcement: The Search for Life in the Universe

For those in Washington, D.C., on July 14, 2014, check out this opportunity to learn about the possibilities of life beyond Earth. It is available live at the NASA Headquarters and on-line from NASA TV.

Life in the Universe

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Pete Rose: An American Dilemma”

BN-BY523_bkrvro_DV_20140317150559Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. By Kostya Kennedy. New York: Sports Illustrated Books, 2014.

Pete Rose is an icon, despite all that has happened to him over the years. A player more dedicated than talented he still reigns as the best hitter there ever was. He is still the all time hits leader in MLB despite having been retired from the game for a quarter century. He was also a leader of men, providing the fiery energy needed for success on the Big Red Machine of the 1970s and the Phillies World Champion of 1980. At the same time he was a demon-haunted human being whose vices were just as overpowering as his virtues.

Kostya Kennedy tries to bring all of this into perspective in this new biography of one of baseball’s giants. We find out little new here, but it is well presented and convincingly argued. Yes, Rose had a lot of shady friends. Yes, he was an inveterate gambler, womanizer, and all around jerk. Yes, he was a driven, single-minded performer on the sports stage. Yes, he broke rules, laws, and other conventions of society. For his gambling Rose was banned from baseball for life in 1989.

He also has the all-time Major League record for career base hits (4,256), games played (3,562), and at-bats (14,053). He has three World Champion rings, 1975 and 1976 with the Cincinnati Reds and 1980 with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1973, took three batting titles (1968, 1969, and 1973), and was a 17-time all star.

In every way imaginable, Pete Rose is one of the greatest players ever, emphasis on “ever,” in Major League Baseball. Yet he is not in the Hall of Fame and has been banned from the game for life. His experience is tragic, polarizing, and evergreen. The author expends considerable effort trying to come to grips with the question of whether or not Rose should be banned from baseball and prohibited from induction in the Hall of Fame. I admit that I’m all for his inclusion in Cooperstown. Someone got all of those hits and other accolades from baseball and its fans. That person belongs in the Hall. That person is Pete Rose. He might have been less than successful at life, but he certainly was successful at baseball. If we barred entry to the Hall for all of those who failed in life but were great players I would have to throw out a bunch of Cooperstown enshrinees starting with Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby and Babe Ruth. Kennedy pretty much shares those same sentiments.

Rose’s situation is amplified by the steroid era in which many, many players nearing their time for consideration for the Hall of Fame are not banned from the process despite suspicions of their culpability in PED use. We’ll see what happens. Would you support or oppose Pete Rose’s induction into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame?

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Remembering Fred Ordway (1927-2014)

ordway2I drink a toast today to a fine gentleman, a gentle man, Frederick I. Ordway III, who passed away last week at the age of 87. Many in the space community know and counted as a good friend Fred. He was a stalwart in the arena for more than sixty years. We will all miss him.

I first met Fred when I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1990 to take over as the NASA Chief Historian. He was both inviting and helpful as I settled into my new position at NASA Headquarters after having spent several years as an historian with the U.S. Air Force. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about NASA history at the time; Fred helped with that. Fred was working at the Department of Energy at the time, and was truly helpful in bringing me up to speed on the history of the space agency. Fred also told me about his long and storied career with NASA, his work with Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and his role as the technical adviser to Stanley Kubrick for the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. His books are still the final words in several areas. His traveling exhibit, Blueprint for Space: From Science Fiction to Science Fact, and the book by the same title was a path-breaking contribution to knowledge.


Fred Ordway in tennis clothes at left with a NASA delegation that includes Deke Slayton and George Mueller, with Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick center.

There have been many tributes written to the memory of Fred in the last few days. I note that an outstanding one by Tom Crouch at the National Air and Space Museum is located here. Another, from the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, which gave Fred an award for lifetime achievement, is located here.

So here’s to Fred. We all loved your company, your enthusiasm, and your good spirit.

Fred and Elizabeth Nesbitt  speaking with visitors at the National Air and Space Museum.

Fred and Elizabeth Nesbitt speaking with visitors at the National Air and Space Museum.

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